The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has undergone a massive expansion in the last year, with several new properties diving into the multiverse to tell their stories.
Loki, What If…?, Spider-Man: No Way Home and now Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have told tales that are truly out of this universe. Sony has also dabbled in this realm, with the fantastic Spider-Man: Into The SpiderVerse, and the post-credits scenes in Morbius. However, despite Marvel usually earning gold medals for their consistency, their representation of the multiverse comes across as random, or even chaotic. The multiverse is a complicated topic on its own, and Marvel’s approach to it just adds to these complications.
Loki features the first ‘true’ MCU incarnation of the multiverse. However, the show is ultimately confused by this, and confusing the languages of time travel and multiverses. In a cutesy animated explainer, the show details how the different timelines in the multiverse fought each other for supremacy, and that the timekeepers reorganised these universes into the Sacred timeline to prevent obliteration on a cross-universal scale. In order to police this singular universe, the Time Variance Authority (TVA) was created. Although part of this is later revealed to be false, this narrative as a whole is not challenged. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The show wants to explore both concepts at the same time by implying they’re the same, but this isn’t true. This sets up a multiverse in the MCU where the two concepts are one and the same, instead of opting for a simpler approach. It’s no surprise then that Marvel has seemingly ignore this going forward, rinstead opting for the simpler multiverse concept that they should have from the start (how the second season of Loki will adopt this remains to be seen).
Unlike Loki, the multiverse in What If…? sticks to an incredibly basic interpretation. Instead of infusing time travel elements into its explanation, the beginning of each episode states that different universes exist, and these universes have different events to what happens in the MCU. This simple explanation means that the audience isn’t eternally confused about what the rules governing the situation are, and instead allows them to focus on what is happening in the universes themselves. Marvel should have gone with this explanation from the beginning, as it is an efficient explanation that still allows for ample exploration of the concept. Time travel does not need to be bolted on as an extravagant afterthought.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is the first film to deal with the consequences of Loki, though only in a roundabout way. The main selling point of the film was the prior villains coming into the MCU universe, which the film supplements by adding the two past incarnations of Spider-Man. However, it is not Loki or Sylvie that causes the multiverse to break; it’s Doctor Strange. He casts a spell that the MCU’s Peter Parker causes to go wrong. Before this, it appears that the multiverse is operating at its normal strength, with no outside forces intervening, even after Loki.
Kevin Feige has come out and said that the events of Loki meant Doctor Strange’s spell could go awry, but then that begs the question about what would happen if he cast it when the TVA were operating. No Way Home seems to operate under similar rules to What If…? and explores what happens when a multiversal rift occurs.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness provides yet another incarnation of the multiverse. The first hint that it does this is by throwing away the events of No Way Home in a quick scene, and not exploring the damage that film did to the multiverse. The events of No Way Home showed the multiverse going through a cataclysmic event, and that it would take more than one film to rectify this. The marketing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness leans into this idea, and so the quick throwaway reference to the events of No Way Home is disappointing. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness did not want to explore the multiversal madness that happened in the prior MCU film.
The spell of forgetting Doctor Strange casts seems to extend to Feige and everyone else at Disney. This isn’t the only issue however. The film also introduces new multiverse terminology, such as dreamwalking, but the most important one is the idea of an incursion. This is the idea that a being in the wrong universe can cause the collapse of both their universe and others around it.
As the MCU is a cohesive project, these terms should apply across all titles, but there have been numerous cases of apparently incursion-provoking incidents and not so much as a hint of anybody’s universe ending. Kang conquering the multiverse in Loki doesn’t cause multiversal collapse. Ultron invading the multiverse in What If…? and the Watcher’s efforts to save it didn’t result in an incursion, despite its scale, and although Doctor Strange does manage to wipe out his own universe, it is not referred to as an incursion. The Watcher even left Black Widow in a different part of the multiverse to where she had come from, despite him being the main person who would know about incursions. The consequences of Peter failing to stop everyone who knows the true identity of Spider-Man do (or should) live up to an incursion, as it would cause the collapse of the universe.
Overall, it is clear that these incarnations of the multiverse across the MCU are very inconsistent with one another, and adds to the feeling that the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has got off to something of a rocky start. Loki is a confusing first act, followed up by the simpler premises in What If…? and No Way Home, before Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness completely upsets the concept. This type of inconsistency is unprecedented in the MCU, with a clearer approach normally being favoured. Marvel’s current way of tackling the multiverse concept in the MCU however will lead to a multiverse of chaos if they do not tell more consistent stories.
Words by Kieran Burt
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