In science fiction, the concept of the multiverse has been a very popular tool for storytelling. It can be used to tell “what if” stories, focusing on what would happen with major story lines in a franchise should they go in a different direction It can be used to provide a fun way to see alternate versions of favorite characters, such as in the mirror universe of Star Trek. It also serves to help when rebooting popular toy and video game franchises, keeping the stories fresh and hopefully selling more product. The concept of the multiverse can even be used as a cheap way to explain away continuity mistakes.
I should note that for the sake of this blog post, when I say “multiverse” I’m referring to the popular culture definition—the overall collection of infinite multiple universes, which may be completely similar with the exception of one leaf in a park in Oslo, to the laws of physics completely different and unrecognizable to us. I realize that there are other definitions of the term. For an interesting discussion on the topic, I refer you to a recent episode of Star Talk in which the concept used by scientists is defined.
Where do we draw the line for where one multiverse ends? Could it be that all of these multiple universes, even from different media companies, are all part of one great multiverse? We have seen competing comic book publishers put out crossover titles before. I have a copy of a Batman and Spider-Man crossover somewhere in my collection. The official word on this book that it took place in a different universe from the main one of each company. Each company might refer to it with their own labeling system for their respective multiverse, but the fact remains that that one universe connects all of them.
You could connect the dots between these multiple universes even further out and connect Doctor Who, The Transformers and Kevin Bacon, but I’m not playing in the “continuity corner” today. My thought is a little broader this time: given that each multiple universe can be infinitely different from the next, and there is an infinite amount of them, then a universe could exist that’s identical to one that we’ve already seen elsewhere. For example, while there’s no clear way for us to connect X-Men with The Golden Girls, there’s no reason to believe that a universe parallel to X-Men is exactly like The Golden Girls. Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that the television sitcom is that parallel universe, given the broad boundaries we’re dealing with.
Despite my desire to see Bea Arthur kick Hugh Jackman’s ass—not that I have anything against Hugh Jackman, but now that the thought’s in my head it won’t go away—where does this lead us? Is every possible universe in pop culture connected in this way? Could it possibly be that every television show, movie, comic book, novel and video game all exist in the mind of Tommy Westphall?
For the sake of storytelling, we need limits. So while the above might be true, we tend to ignore it. Not every universe can detect other ones, or if they can they can’t detect all of them. Even in real life, while we have the concept in mind, we can’t measure another universe parallel to our own. If it’s out there, we don’t know what it’s like.
One more thought: really, what we’re dealing with are concepts in the first place. A parallel universe in a Marvel comic book is a new concept of a particular creator in the first place. We have multiple universes because we want to see variation on characters we already know. But instead of looking at these stories as taking place in different universes we can just look at them as taking place in the mind of a different person working on the book.
If we were to take the position that the world is only what we perceive it to be, then the idea of different people’s minds being parallel universes makes sense. If we could somehow tap into the mind of somebody else, we could say that we just witnessed a different universe. But I’ll save that thought for another day.