A Multiplicity of Multiverses

How we arrived at our current inter-dimensional film and TV reality

The multiverse is everywhere. According to breathless reports, Robert Pattinson’s upcoming incarnation of the Batman is reportedly from “Earth-2”. That’s not ours. Meanwhile, the new Flash movie set in “our” universe features both our world’s square-jawed Ben Affleck Batman and Michael Keaton’s earlier inexplicably apt version of the Caped Crusader, who DC’s world builders now deem to be from yet another alternate universe. (That explains those Prince videos.) Meanwhile, rumors have Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, in his upcoming ‘No Way Home’ adventure,  running into what will be presented as Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s parallel universe versions of everyone’s favorite webslinger.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, The Flash, WandaVision, Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse, The Batman, Loki, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, The Arrowverse, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Earth 616 etc…For those following or trying to follow current developments in the Marvel and DC cinematic and TV universes, the concept of the multiverse is everywhere.

How did we get here?

What hath quantum mechanics wrought?

Alternate worlds and dimensions have existed in literature since people first began spinning tales. But you can trace the birth of the peculiarly science-backed version of the multiverse so central to Marvel and DC narratives  back to a late-night cheap sherry-infused post-scientific colloquium gabfest that took place at Princeton–the Hogwarts of quantum mechanics in its day–back in 1954. It was at that gathering physics prodigy Hugh Everett, who exchanged letters with Einstein when he was 12 years old, first put forward his then novel solution to one of the relatively new field of quantum mechanics most daunting puzzles.

There the begowned, somewhat refreshed 23-year-old, little imagining its future impact on Disney and Warner Brothers bottom lines, posited his thesis that infinite constantly generating parallel universes was the only solution to quantum mechanics’ revelation that subatomic particles didn’t follow the rules of “classic” Newtonian physics.

The alcohol-emboldened Everett tweaked Niel Bohr’s nose by positing that if subatomic particles could indeed be “everywhere at once” then–logic demanded–so could we. Each movement made, each choice chosen, all spun merrily off creating their own alternate realities. Within an ever-multiplying infinite amount of universes, anything that could happen did. That unfortunate feline, Schrodinger’s cat, thus was simultaneously both definitely dead and astoundingly alive.

Sadly for Everett, the science establishment of the time almost universally rejected his radical proposal for parallel universes. However, the mind-blowing concept, which would find greater acceptance decades later, soon worked its way into the science-fiction literature of the era. With parallel universes in the air it was not surprising that by the early 1960s a series of seminal parallel universe stories burst on to the comic book scene.

A Flash of genius

First among these was the immortal Flash #123. Published in 1961, it told the tale of how the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, accidentally through his ability to vibrate himself right down to his molecules at super speed discovers a parallel universe wherein the Golden Age Flash of the 1940s, and embodiment of the FTD logo, Jay Garrett resides. (How does that hat stay on his head?)

The popularity of this story led to a 1963 Justice League of America story where DC’s previously mothballed most popular Golden Age characters, including alternate versions of existing Silver Age icons, were reintroduced in JLA #21 “Crisis on Earth-One” followed by JLA #22 “Crisis on Earth-Two”. The reception was rapturous.