Ah, the multiverse. Over the years the concept of parallel realities has flourished in science fiction, especially in the worlds of superheroes. DC and Marvel have their own multiverse, though DC sometimes tries to destroy theirs, then try to work around that with something that might as well be a multiverse. Now it seems like the idea of these alternate timelines are the subject of abuse and I’m here to do something about it.
“But that’s not what happens in the source material.”
“It’s an alternate universe; you can do whatever.”
No, you really can’t. An alternate universe doesn’t exist to promote namesakes or just to tell alternate stories you can’t in the main universe and don’t have the guts to make an original story. There’s a right way and a wrong way to use elseworlds, what ifs, and mirror universes. It however requires a solid foundation to build off of, and that may be the problem for modern writers.
What is a multiverse? The Encyclopedia Britannica website gives this definition:
multiverse, a hypothetical collection of potentially diverse observable universes, each of which would comprise everything that is experimentally accessible by a connected community of observers. The observable known universe, which is accessible to telescopes, is about 90 billion light-years across. However, this universe would constitute just a small or even infinitesimal subset of the multiverse. The multiverse idea has arisen in many versions, primarily in cosmology, quantum mechanics, and philosophy, and often asserts the actual physical existence of different potential configurations or histories of the known observable universe. The term multiverse was coined by American philosopher William James in 1895 to refer to the confusing moral meaning of natural phenomena and not to other possible universes.
I’m not going to dig into the scientific theories behind the idea of the multiverse. We deal in fictional realities, not real or theorized ones here. (Unless it’s fictional theorizing.) The Marvel Database fandom wiki has a better definition for our concerns:
The Multiverse is the collection of alternate universes which share a universal hierarchy; it is a subsection of the larger Omniverse, the collection of all alternate universes. A large variety of these universes were originated as forms of divergence from other realities, where an event with different possible outcomes gives rise to different universes, one for each outcome. Some can seem to be taking place in the past or future due to differences in how time passes in each universe.
The “Omniverse” is basically all universes. How I describe it in stories in my head is that each franchise represents one chain of universes. For example, the Marvel Universe is one chain, the DC universe another, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers each have their own chain, and so on. Each chain, by the Marvel Database definition above, is its own multiverse. All the What If stories, the TV shows, their tie-in comics (which at times have branched off from continuity to form their own continuity), imprints, media outside of comics, media outside the United States, and if we follow this definition you can make a case for every fancomic, fanfic, kids playing adventures with their toys, and even role-playing counts as different universes but all part of the chain of Marvel universes, with the Omniverse housing all these different multiversal chains, including our own reality and the various parallel stories that make up our whole history of storytelling.
I could take this in a metaphysically meta direction that would make Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman jealous but let’s move on.
There are different reasons for a writer or writing team to have a multiverse. The wrong way is to get away with everything you want. When characters are horribly changed, events are screwed up, and tones and themes are ignored (all of this what I refer to as “multiversal continuity”) you’re doing it wrong. I would personally also throw in “an excuse to kill all the heroes off” in there because now you just want a body count. I am never impressed with stories that just kills all the characters off as some kind of warning or just for shock value. I’m not saying you can’t kill off one or two alternate versions but it has to be for the sake of the story, not the “pleasure” of killing off Captain Goodygood because you don’t like him. Besides, he still owes Herodude $5.
So how does one go about creating a multiverse? Well, hold on there speedy (or Speedy). It’s rarely that easy. First off your multiverse needs a starting point to build off of. There are exceptions. My failed sprite comic, had I gotten to the lore part of the story before it stopped being fun defending myself more than actually telling the story, would have played with the multiverse but even then I had one core reality as a sort of “home base”, the “Spriteverse”. Chris Pearson’s “Multiverse Tales” videos over at PopCross Studios may just be an excuse to add to his speeddraw videos but it’s based on a series of books he wrote and at least has a foundation tying the various universes together. The characters come from vastly different sci-fi or fantasy realities that are just an excuse for Pearson to turn fictional character into dragons or suits of armor but there is an anchor he is building from, reintroducing the characters from those books, though with enough differences and new characters they may well be alternate versions of each other.
Each of us were starting from a mild base. Spritetopia may have been where my namesake lived but each universe would be based on a different fictional property or even some of the other sprite comics created by the Bob & George fandom. In a sense that comic was our anchor, though mine would have played more with the multiverse, playing with the tropes as a meta narrative. “Authors”, the creators of the comic that made a fan-insert out of themselves, would now be part an ancient race of godlike beings called “Authorians”, whose creations ended up in a civil war of sorts between traditional hand-drawn comics and sprite comics. Spritetopia was just where my hero lived but the multiverse would be the focus of the story. In a similar and better handled vein the “Sharp Squad”, a name used by one member–guess what his name is, comes from different realities but the multiverse itself is the core of his story. In both cases however that’s because there is no set universe. My namesake and his friends and allies, as well as the Tales protagonists just chose one place as “home”.
This is the exception however. A proper multiverse isn’t just an excuse to redo the characters any way you like. Classic and new Battlestar Galactica are so different they’re practically separate properties outside of sharing some names. The Transformers multiverse, only really explored in a series of convention stories, hasn’t had a core for years but now is starting to look to the original toyline for it’s anchor, sometimes a bit too much as it stifles creating new characters. Remakes should look to the original as their core but more often in Hollywood that’s not the case. However, I’m getting off-topic. Okay, Ninja Turtles. At least two of their stories have involved visiting their own alternate universe but also boast connections to the Usagi Yojimbo universe. This is not counting crossovers where characters have always co-existed and I’m about to do it again. Moving on.
Crossovers are one thing, but to have a good multiverse story you need a core to build off of. Going back to the Turtles, in the “Turtles Forever” crossover between the original and 2003 cartoon (my favorite version of the franchise though not the one I grew up with) the Eastman and Laird comics from Mirage Studios is “Turtle Prime” the universe from which all other TMNT realities come from, the first link in our proverbial multiverse chain. In DC the core continuity is whatever the DC universe currently is in the comics, while Marvel is listed as 616 in their multiverse charts but still technically the core continuity of the Marvel multiverse…in theory. Hollywood, not caring about comics, have been ignoring the comics as far back as the old movie serials (look up the Captain America serials for example). The closer something is to the core continuity the better off it tends to be. This is why the Richard Donner Superman movie is held in high regard and the Zack Snyder films are only praised by Snyder’s personal fanbase but ignored by classic DC fans.
A good multiversal story…the What If/Elseworld stories or the mirror universes…work when they actually complement the core reality. For one-shot multiverse stories like the Star Trek Mirror Universe tales they work because they tie in to the original continuity. “What If” was a good name for Marvel’s version of this because an alternate universe should be a what if. What if a superhero got his or her powers today. What if some event changed the course of history. (That was one thing that was done right in Abrams’ first Star Trek. Maybe the only thing of any major importance outside of letting Leonard Nimoy pass the torch to Zachary Quinto…or would have been had Quinto been given a better Spock to portray.) It’s not a case of “another comic we publish but not set in our universe” because then it’s just a crossover using the multiverse to explain how it happens. I’m not against that mind you. There have been some fun crossovers between properties and some that made no sense but that was in the creative process, not the story. What I’m saying is you need something to build off of, but still need to be true to the essence, the multiversal continuity of those characters so this does feel like an alternate version rather than trashing or ignoring the original in favor of the story you wanted to make but should have been original.
Saying that a version is different because “it’s an alternate universe so it doesn’t affect the version you like” is kind of foolish. It’s the version we that made it popular enough for the name to matter so when you only use the name it’s not an “alternate universe”, it’s a namesake that keeps a proper adaptation from being made. The Shaft movies are an alternate universe from the James Bond franchise. That doesn’t make it part of the same multiverse and nobody would confuse John Shaft for James Bond even if they did make a black Bond instead of a black secret agent in the Bond mold. (Though Bond doesn’t follow the Bond mold in movies lately.) Technically the Doctor Strange in the movies is the same as the one in that failed Doctor Strange TV pilot from the 1970s who wore something resembling his traditional outfit for five minutes when he was being seduced to evil. (Watch that sometime too. It’s hilariously bad.) It’s so of the mark however that writing it off as a multiverse is a flimsy excuse to not care about accuracy in depiction. The hell with the fans, all we care about is the name without bothering to learn why it’s popular enough for our lazy marketing.
Like or hate the quality or tone, the Ultimate Universe was actually a decent use of the multiverse conceptually. In practice it had issues because some of the writers used it to make the heroes into real jerks or kill off a character because he or she wasn’t the canon version and thus could be bumped off and replaced. (The origin of Miles Morales really.) DC at least created “Earth 2” in order to pay tribute to the Golden and Silver Ages while still letting the then-current Bronze Age have more modern day adventures, and this was the reason for the return in the New 52. Yes, I can praise stuff I hate when they get something right among everything they get wrong. It’s how my review format works after all. In both cases it was building off of a core idea, the main Marvel or DC universe at the time before DC got all reboot happy rather than tossing it all away.
I’ve seen a few writers and story enthusiasts put down the multiverse as a bad idea, and on the surface I don’t agree. There are fun or interesting uses to be had with the multiverse, but you can’t do it at the expense of your core reality or those aspects that make characters who they are. They inform the main continuity, show what makes or doesn’t make a hero. Superman: Red Son, which I haven’t read, is sometimes given as an example. At the end it does have Kal-El’s inner goodness show through. It’s why the Injustice franchise only works if Superman eventually overcomes his despotic ways or another Superman defeat his with the good that Superman should be known for. (I still say Superman’s sanity isn’t tied to Lois or his powers and it’s insulting to the character to do either.) Given a good chance a multiverse works, but only if it pays tribute or builds off of the original instead of trying to replace it. It’s one of the reasons the New 52 failed, the Ultimate universe eventually failed, and why the MCU and DCEU are failing for forgetting this rule.