Spider-Men… Spider-Men: The Tangled Web of the Multiverse

Craig McKenzie discusses the concept of the ‘Multiverse’ in comic book entertainment and how it might develop in the near future…

Multiverses are swiftly becoming all the rage in genre film and TV.

For those who aren’t immediately clear on what constitutes a multiverse, it can best be summed up as when a property holds multiple continuities that aren’t connected. A good recent high profile example of this is the Star Trek franchise. The 2009 J.J. Abrams movie started a continuity that splintered off from the main one with stories happening in both that don’t connect to one another.

This isn’t a new idea as alternate realities have been a mainstay of science fiction for a long time. Star Trek famously popularised this with the landmark episode Mirror, Mirror where an alternate universe was introduced in which most of the characters were evil. Doctor Who would later put its own spin on alternate realities. Over the years many TV shows and movies would use this concept to explore “what if?” scenarios that place the characters in alternate situations that they wouldn’t normally face.

Writers enjoy these stories as it means they can do whatever they want without impacting the core continuity of the property they are playing with.

The multiverse concept received a lot of recent attention through the rumours that the next Spider-Man movie may include the previous two live action cinematic Peter Parker actors, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, reprising their roles to swing into action alongside current incumbent of the spider suit, Tom Holland. Nothing has been explicitly confirmed yet but there is a conspicuous lack of denial on Sony’s part. Without a doubt this is a response to the immense success of the 2018 animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which saw different iterations of the character teaming up. It was sharply written, beautifully animated and caught on in a really big way, so it makes complete sense that Sony would want to capitalise on this success as much as possible.

In my view this is a great idea at least on paper as I really like the previous two iterations of Spider-Man so the prospect of seeing them share the screen is something I find personally exciting. Andrew Garfield is my favourite live action Peter Parker, even if the films he appeared in have significant flaws, though as always whether it proves worthwhile depends on the execution. The film will also feature Doctor Stephen Strange, who likely acts as the vehicle to bring these three versions of the character together, so hopefully the writing will be sharp enough to unite these alt-universe Spider-Men in a meaningful way and deliver an immensely fun viewing experience.

One of the questions around this is whether general cinema audiences are ready to accept the multiverse concept, and whether they will find it easy enough to follow.

The answer to that is complicated but it’s worth noting that audiences have been primed for this for quite some time. In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the word “multiverse” was first mentioned in Doctor Strange in 2016, though at that point it was only in the context of it being a power source rather than something that could be explored and introduce alternate versions of the characters. Avengers: Endgame in 2019 would go onto tell what amounted to a multiverse story without actually using the term, with characters visiting past events in the MCU and creating alternate realities as they went. In essence their arrival would create a reality disconnected from the one they were trying to save, suggesting that what they did in the past wouldn’t impact the present. It was a bit of a cheat but audiences got along with it just fine.

An upcoming MCU film is called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness so that strongly suggests the idea will be further developed in that film to further prime audiences for the third Tom Holland Spider-Man movie. Of course Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was popular and went to great lengths to ensure that viewers understood what was happening and why it was significant. Based solely on the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’m confident in my assumption that audiences will easily accept this.

Other properties have been using the multiverse for quite some time. Season 2 of The Flash introduced the multiverse and slowly developed the concept over the course of the season until it became a fundamental part of the show as well as the shared universe that it inhabits before culminating in the TV crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this case the producers of The Flash were introducing a concept that had been a big part of the comics for decades and using it as a way to have fun with different possibilities. Crisis on Infinite Earths featured cameos from both current and previous DC live action properties such as Burt Ward from the ’60s Batman series, Tom Welling’s Clark Kent from Smallville and Brandon Routh’s Superman last seen in Superman Returns. Current cameos included Ezra Miller’s version of Barry Allen aka The Flash seen in the recent DC movies.

Speaking of the DC movies, the massive DC fan event, Fandome, provided some long awaited information on the upcoming Flash movie, Flashpoint.

It had been confirmed prior to this event that Michael Keaton would be returning as his version of Batman and shortly after the event it was confirmed that Ben Affleck would be doing the same as his take on the Caped Crusader. These developments, combined with Robert Pattinson’s upcoming version of the character in The Batman, means that there are three active cinematic versions of Batman existing at once. Much of the Flashpoint panel along with a separate multiverse one was discussing the mindset of the current creative team working on DC film and TV properties.

In the past, restrictions were placed on projects because they didn’t want multiple versions of the same character existing in case fans got confused. Arrow was told to stop using Deadshot because Will Smith was taking on the role, for instance, and there are some hilarious details around how certain characters were forbidden from appearing on Smallville which meant the writers found creative ways to include them that fit within those restrictions.

The present mindset is that multiple versions of the same character allows for greater storytelling potential and the audience is now trusted to understand that different versions can co-exist without being connected. To me this shows an awareness of what is happening in other properties and a respect for the audience. It also leaves the production teams untethered by what has come before while providing them with a near infinite sandbox to create their own continuity.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that nearly everyone watching the next Spider-Man film is fine with accepting the idea of multiple universes and goes along with the trinity of Spider-Men working together to face down a common threat. There still exists the question of why those types of stories are being told and whether they are just a gimmick. Bringing together different versions of the same character is inherently gimmicky but that isn’t always a bad thing. I find comfort in the knowledge that a reboot doesn’t mean the end of the road for a version of a character I like. Henry Cavill’s Superman doesn’t negate the Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh version of the character. Michael Keaton’s celebrated Batman will be seen again in a few years and might take on new life through a modern lens.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was as much about what unites the different interpretations of the character as it was what makes them different which worked brilliantly as part of the origin for that version of Miles Morales as he settled into being Spider-Man. Most adaptations of a particular character share common ground so having them interact to explore the fundamentals of that character and how they can be tweaked to create a new version of them is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s certainly something the Arrowverse has proven time and time again can make for fascinating storytelling so there’s no reason to not apply variations of this model to other comic book properties.

The upcoming Spider-Man movie runs the risk of following the same thematic beats the animated movie did, and there is always a risk of it becoming a crutch for storytellers to ignore continuity by simply dismissing anything that didn’t work as belonging to a different universe, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks as far as I’m concerned.

After all, who among us hasn’t wondered how things would have turned out if different choices had been made in our own lives? I know I have.

Implausibly prolific blogger and podcaster: https://kneelbeforeblog.co.uk/ | Twitter: @Nemesis4909 @KneelBeforeBlog | Waits for the day that Starfleet Academy is a real career choice.

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