As a crucial plot point in both Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the multiverse theory is essential to the continued success of superhero franchises.
This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
Last year, Oscar-winning animated superhero film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced audiences to the multiverse theory. Welcoming Miles Morales and following his journey to becoming the next Spider-Man, Into the Spider-Verse leaned heavily into meta-territory. Introducing audiences to Spider-Gwen, Spider-Pig, and even a new Peter Parker from an entirely different universe, the movie smartly challenged the identity of Spider-Man by exploring the character’s many different identities and iterations.
This exploration into the multiverse felt like a breath of fresh air, challenging not just the traditional narrative structure of superhero movies, but also the identity and legacy of the Spider-Man character itself. Into the Spider-Verse succeeded in tearing down the exclusivity of superhero identities by positing the empowering, albeit intimidating, concept that the universe is full of infinite versions of ourselves.
But Into the Spider-Verse isn’t the only superhero movie to explore the multiverse theory. Enter Avengers: Endgame.
Two short months after Into the Spider-Verse took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Avengers: Endgame rocketed into theaters, grossing a whopping $1.2 billion in its first weekend alone. Only a few weeks later, the film’s box office gross now totals over $2.5 billion. I don’t mention these numbers to boast (plenty of people have done that already), but rather to underscore the sheer volume of people who saw this movie and its very specific use of the multiverse.
After Thanos snapped away 50% of all life on Earth, the Avengers entered five long years of grief and regret. I admit to being shocked (and based on the gasps in my theater, I’m not alone…) to see the movie stick to its guns and force the Avengers to really grapple with the consequences of their failure. The fairly measured approach to depicting our superheroes’ ongoing emotional turmoil was a welcomed change from a franchise that frequently steamrolls over consequences in lieu of big fight scenes.
The Avengers’ inexorable guilt over their failure ultimately leads them to pursue an outlandish, desperate, and dangerous plan to right the universe once again. Their plan? To travel through time to collect the Infinity Stones so they can perform the ceremonial snap and bring everyone back.
It’s not hard to see why Marvel would want Endgame to explore the multiverse. Aside from being one of the highest grossing movies of all time, the film is a landmark for the franchise’s decade-long exercise in world-building; the use of the multiverse gives the movie the opportunity to be satisfyingly self-reflexive, paving the way for the future by allowing the Avengers to travel into their past.
If Endgame is meant to celebrate Marvel’s achievement in the decade-long experiment into a never-before-seen amalgam of world-building and serialized storytelling, it also functions as an introduction of the franchise’s newest expansion — infinite universes, multiple dimensions, endless possibilities.
In this way, “Avengers: Pandora’s Box” may have been a more apt title for the movie. The implications of Avengers traipsing through time and space are so significant that not even a three-hour movie could cover it all. This isn’t about unanswered questions, but rather new and uncharted possibilities.
After Endgame, the MCU is bigger than ever; whatever limitations may have previously governed the rules of the universe have been tossed out the window. For all intents and purposes, by setting things right again, the Avengers also pressed the reset button.
Of course, the more you think about it, the more the multiverse feels like an inevitability. After all, where else could the franchise have gone after Thanos’ snap? By pressing the reset button, Marvel actually pulled off an impressive feat; freeing itself from the baggage of the past decade, unburdening its heroes of their past traumas, closing out the arcs for its longest running players, and passing the baton onto a new guard.
By introducing a universe full of infinite realities, the MCU has positioned itself to grow more than it ever has before. Rather than adding a new character or planet, they went ahead and added an entirely new layer of narrative potential that could (and should) give way to less formulaic, much weirder, and more adventurous storytelling.
The question now, of course, is that a leap of faith Marvel is willing to take? Will they dare to give audiences something new? Will we live to see the full potential of this new universe? Can Marvel continue to grow its cinematic universe as successfully as it has over the last decade?
These are questions that can only be answered by sticking with the franchise as it moves into its new post-Endgame phase. However, after 22 movies (coincidentally the number of what used to be the traditional episode count for TV shows), there’s a fatigue at the heart of these films. That fatigue has never been more obvious than in Endgame; it wasn’t just baked into the characters themselves, but also the rather laborious, clunky approach to the story.
There may be plenty to love about Endgame, but it’s hardly a crowning jewel for the franchise. Aside from its length, the movie adheres to the overly formal structure that the MCU has used as a template over and over again.
The commitment to the multiverse provides the opportunity for things to change and start anew. Whether Marvel and audiences alike are wiling to take that risk and travel down the rabbit hole together remains to be seen, but if it’s ever going to happen, now is the time.