The Internet Gave Rise to the Modern Multiverse Movie
Like that verse-jumping device that Evelyn uses to tap into her other selves, the internet is its own kind of scrying glass. In the lives of others, so magnified, minute, and measured, we see paths not taken, experiences unlived. But the internet is more than a depressing video feed of other people’s parties. With curiosity and the blessing of anonymity, alt accounts or just the complete lack of norms, the internet is also a place to embrace all kinds of potentialities, to mold yourself beyond your current, physical circumstances—a lesson Evelyn learns as she taps into the skills of her other selves to fight off bad guys with butt plugs and Benihana knife skills.
But those are just the upsides of exploring one’s identity online. All that anonymity can also turn heroes into monsters. Peter Parker learns this in the first four minutes of Spider-Man: No Way Home when he’s framed for murder in a misleading video that gets publicized by a pundit with a huge platform. (Unsurprisingly, he turns out to just be some guy with a ring light and a greenscreen.) Peter is canceled, a fate worse than death because now he and his friends can’t get into college. Though his girlfriend, MJ, says she has no regrets, Peter is “trying to live two different lives,” as his aunt explains it, and he can’t handle it. The disconnect between the real Peter and the guy the internet knows is too taxing.
When the line between public and private is blurred, or outright destroyed, there is a demand to relinquish the private and the public self, to take hold of a personality that can traverse many different spheres while holding up to scrutiny. It’s daunting. Like Evelyn in Everything, there is a deep longing to “return to the way things were.” For Peter that means a time when he had a private self; for Evelyn, the simpler times of her youth. Instead, both characters are splitting at the seams while encountering an onslaught of enemies: vicious foes ruled by motives foreign to our protagonists’ worlds. Isn’t that the nightmare of the internet, that we say private things in a weird semi-public space and are judged by strangers who don’t know our context or intentions?
The multiverse narrative that’s playing out in these films is one that ultimately strives toward wholeness. Though fragmentation has to first be acknowledged and even celebrated, jumping between worlds and selves isn’t a sustainable state. Peter and Evelyn both find this elusive wholeness, which Everything likens to enlightenment, in not just embracing a range of selfhood but by embracing their enemies. In a moment that makes whole theaters burst into tears, Evelyn’s husband pleads with her. “I know you’re a fighter,” he says, but asks her to relinquish her defensive stance. “The only thing I know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” Both Evelyn and Peter realize that defending themselves and the people they love means treating enemies with empathy. That’s all well and good when watching superheroes and fantastical villains fight on screen, quite another when you’re facing dehumanizing attacks online.
Evelyn and Peter have powers. Their care for their enemies literally transforms the enemies into other people, people who no longer threaten them. It is disheartening and even patronizing to be told that the reason that ideologues like transphobes, anti-abortion activists, and garden variety trolls haven’t relinquished their agendas is because they haven’t been treated with enough empathy, that people who fear for their rights are just too mean.
To shed one’s defensiveness in real life can be life-threatening, to shed it online is to feel that because you are no longer protecting your identity, you must think it is not worth protecting. To feel safe and empathetic online will require that we take advantage of the internet’s unique characteristics of experimentation, community organizing, access to boundless knowledge, and an abiding compulsion to share, to form new ways of celebrating and supporting our diversity. It is in that spirit that we might be able to take seriously the lesson in the multiverse-as-internet movies. We’re all traveling from different worlds, all aliens to one another, and we might as well say upon meeting: I come in peace.