The fifth episode of Marvel's WandaVision ended with a surprise guest appearance—and a cliffhanger. (Spoilers here; close-tab if that’s a problem.) At the emotional peak of an argument between the superpowered Wanda and her android husband, Vision, over her reality-warping totalitarian control of their sitcomish hometown, their doorbell rang. Wanda opened the door to find her brother, Pietro, who was supposed to be dead. That’s good soap opera stuff; Pietro had superhuman speed and was killed by Ultron in the second Avengers movie.
But this Pietro wasn’t that Pietro. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Aaron Taylor-Johnson played the part. At the door was the actor Evan Peters, reprising his role as Pietro from another comic book movie franchise: the X-Men one. The actor swap was entirely in keeping with the late-20th-century-sitcom signal that WandaVision emits. As the scientist Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings, herself a sitcom vet) put it on the show: “She recast Pietro?” Just like Darrin from Betwitched or Aunt Vivian on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, these things happen. Usually the characters on the show have the manners not to notice.
It’s unclear whether Wanda and Vision did, though, especially with all the mind control and metafictional games leaning up against WandaVision’s fourth wall. But swapping X-Men Pietro for Avengers Pietro has in-story significance beyond the vagaries of actor availability. It’s a hint, perhaps—I’m guessing—of a broad change to the wider shared story universe of the Marvel movies, of the apparent creation, or maybe destruction, of multiple parallel storylines and timelines. This is a multiverse, featuring the same or related characters living out different lives, but still sharing the same overall continuity. The same thing is happening to the DC Comics–based movies (Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman). Even the Star Wars universe has some multiversal tendencies and is hinting at a similar big move.
Lo! There shall arrive a herald! (Pretend I have silver skin and a cosmic surfboard, or ride a dimension-warping chair—makes work-from-home super easy.) For it is mine to observe the many pop-cultural story universes, right back to some of the most significant multiversal moments in comics history. Heed my warning: This will end in tears. Multiverses come, but they also go—usually in a cataclysmic pendulum-swing of epic violence. It is, as Thanos would’ve put it, inevitable.
The idea of an internally consistent universe spanning multiple books or TV shows dates back to at least the dime novels of the late 19th century—or the interlocking mythologies of the ancient Greeks, if you want to be that guy. The big comic book companies all have their own sprawling metastatic story lines. But the idea of a single, long arc extending across multiple tentpole movies (and TV shows, books, comics, and games) is an innovation of the last couple decades. Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe sparked the trend, and that company’s Star Wars franchise does it, too—that one even includes theme park rides. Recent iterations of the Warner Bros.–owned DC movies do likewise.
The comic-book history of story universes always leads to the same specific complication and the same eventual solution—a Ragnarok-and-roll cycle of growth, death, and rebirth. And I think the movie-centered mulitverses are going to head that way, too. In honor of that comic-book history and my second-favorite Doctor Who companion, I’m going to call this cycle a metacrisis.
Here’s what happens: Given too many contradictions in the knotty canonical stories that their fans embrace, writers and editors start to explain those tensions by saying that every contradictory version is equally “true” but “happens” in a bigger multiverse. All Batmans (your Michael Keatons, your Christian Bales) are valid Batmans. All the Spider-people in the various corners of the Spider-Verse? Yup. All those timelines from Avengers: Endgame? Also yes.
In the case of the non-overlapping Pietros, story pressures weren’t the only thing behind the recast. The rights to make movies based on Marvel comics characters used to be split up among multiple competing studios, an artifact of the days when Marvel editor and creative force Stan Lee first came to Hollywood. That was all pretty complicated, but in recent years it essentially boiled down to Sony owning Spider-Man, Fox owning the Fantastic Four and the sprawling world of the X-Men, and Disney owning the equally sprawling characters and storylines of the Avengers. Then, in 2019 Disney bought Fox—part of the ongoing collapse of our real-world multiverse of movie studios into just a handful of transnational oligopolistic generators of culture.
In-story, though—diegetically, let’s say—the walls between the universes are porous. Team-ups turn into crossovers. Crossovers turn into epic series. The crossovers began as soon as the spymaster Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, walked into the post-credits scene of Iron Man. Between companies, the Disney-Avengers character Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., had a major role in the most recent Sony Spider-Man movies—the third reboot of that character in 15 years.
Disney’s Marvel boss, Kevin Feige, has a deserved reputation for being able to cross movie characters over; he was the driving force behind using Fury to sweep Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk into a long run-up to The Avengers. People like team-ups. And last December, during a presentation for Disney investors, Feige alluded to larger plans to absorb the Fox Marvel universe into the Disney mainline continuity. There’d be a new Fantastic Four movie—the third reboot of that team in the last 15 years. And somehow the X-verse would get integrated, too.
Here’s where Wanda and Pietro get important. (To the extent any of this is important. I get it. But if you’re still with me, well, prepare for burn; here comes the Juice.) Some characters in the Marvel comics world, it’s pretty clear which platter they get served on. Captain America’s in the Avengers bucket. Wolverine’s from the X-Men. (Deadpool is also technically part of the X-Men franchise, but really he belongs in his own world where heroes have energetic sex and Wade Wilson is also Green Lantern. Don't get me started.) Beyond that, things are dicier. Pietro (or Quicksilver) and Wanda (the Scarlet Witch) have feet in both. Depending on which books you read, they’re the children of X-Men villain Magneto, but they’ve also both been members of the Avengers. So an X-Men movie got to use Quicksilver, and so did an Avengers movie. Different actors, different executions, same character.
Marvel movies have teased the existence of divergent timelines for a while. Endgame laid out rules for time travel that allowed for alternate universes—like one where Captain America lived a life with Peggy Carter before returning to the mainline as an old man. And then there’s the upcoming Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Not exactly hiding a card under the levitation cloak there, Doc. The trailer for the upcoming Disney+ series Loki hints at missions in different timelines, and Loki’s Loki seems not to be the Loki who got killed in the mainline continuity. (Same actor, though.) Spider-Man: Far From Home, the second made thanks to a coproduction arrangement between Marvel and Sony, featured, briefly, the actor J.K. Simmons as Spidey nemesis J. Jonah Jameson—a character Simmons played in the early 2000s movies where Tobey Maguire played the hero. The next Spider-Man movie has cast bad guys from the other pre-Disney iterations, so that’s another hint at more universes getting crossed over. (Charlie Cox, who played Daredevil in one of the Marvel series on Netflix, is reportedly playing a role in the new Spider-Man, but the Netflix shows actually did take place in their own quiet corner of the MCU mainline. So did the TV shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, at least initially.)
OK, that’s Marvel. Over at DC, things are even more complex. Next year, Robert Pattinson puts on the ears as Batman—the sixth actor to do so in a major movie since 1989. He’ll be in a different universe than Ben Affleck’s Batman, who knows Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and is in whatever universe Justice League takes place in, as well as the other other universe where the Zack Snyder-recut movie takes place. The Suicide Squad and Harley Quinn movies happen in one of those, too—but not the very funny Harley Quinn cartoon, nor any of the other zillions of direct-to-video DC superhero cartoons. And those are in multiple separate realities from TV shows like Titans and Doom Patrol … which also share a multiverse with the dozen DC-based shows on the CW, most of which are produced by the prolific Greg Berlanti.
Under normal circumstances all these different iterations of the characters would be just what they seemed—different people’s creative approaches to intellectual property tightly controlled and carefully doled out by those transnational media oligopolies I mentioned. Except in late 2019 and early 2020, all the Berlanti shows crossed over with each other in a miniseries called Crisis on Infinite Earths. That’s a fraught title, because it comes straight from the comics. In 1985, DC comics creators decided that their multiverse had gotten so unwieldy that they had to do something drastic. They blew it all up, killing decades-old characters and streamlining the story universe in a cosmic reboot. The Berlanti shows in the “Arrowverse”—named after the TV series, Arrow, that was its Big Bang—did the same thing, crossing characters into each other’s worlds and eventually collapsing the whole thing into one. In the process, actors from long-ago and faraway DC-based shows reprised their roles, even Burt Ward, who played Robin in the 1960s Batman. The Arrowverse Flash met the DCEU Flash. The streaming shows said hi. Which meant all those shows were (retroactively and by fiat) the same canon. That’s a metacrisis at work, expanding to unwieldiness and then deflating—from supernova to black hole.
I promised Star Wars, too. The lazy version here has to do with all the stories from books, TV shows, comic books, and games that predate Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm. What had been the Star Wars Expanded Universe—stretching, in our universe, all the way back to novels that came out in the late 1970s—got retroactively erased out of the continuity, or retconned. But that story universe was so beloved and popular that it lives as “Star Wars Legends.” And some of the most vivid characters have actually jumped into mainline Disney Star Wars continuity as well, in part, I suspect, because some of the same people worked on both.
That’s all business-side multiversing, but I think some of the in-story kind is on its way, too. I have nothing but my own speculation here. Disney’s Star Wars arm has promised a krayt dragon–sized bolus of content over the next few years, mostly on the strength of The Mandalorian, Disney+’s ace series. Shows with characters like Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Lando Calrissian have all been announced, and a new movie, too—Rogue Squadron. (That movie will be helmed by Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. Just like Spider-Man Version One director Sam Raimi taking the director reins of the next Dr. Strange movie, crossovers happen in our universe, too.) This is typical metacrisis-inducing stuff. The universe gets more complicated, and it starts to undergo mitosis.
But I’m kvelling most about Ahsoka, set to star Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano, who first appeared on the animated Clone Wars. Before Dawson played her on Mandalorian, the last time Ahsoka showed up was on the cartoon Star Wars Rebels, and part of her story involved a magic time-traveling, multiverse-spanning nexus called the “world between worlds.” If you look closely at the official logo for the new show, that faint ring around her name looks to me like the WBW. So, I’m not saying; I’m just saying.
Buy whyyyy, you are pleading. Why complicate a perfectly fun bunch of sequels with the strictures of continuity and apocrypha? Nobody tries to explain why James Bond gets a new face every few years (though to be fair they spend quite a lot of time [and relative dimensions in space] explaining why the same thing happens on Doctor Who).
Crossovers and by extension multiverses solve storytelling problems specific to big shared stories. People like when their favorite characters meet. It’s the narrative version of making your dolls kiss. (“Action figures” are dolls. Deal with it.) This history goes back to the birth of comic books at least—the first crossover, according to the invaluable Evolution of the Costumed Avenger by Jess Nevins, was when the Wizard teamed up with the Midshipman and the Shield in March of 1940. The next month, the two best-selling stars of early Marvel Comics met—the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch (not the Fantastic Four one, but an android whose body, in canon, ultimately became the present-day Vision).
Seven months later was the biggie, though. That’s when DC introduced the Justice Society of America, which included Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and basically every other superhero you’re going to be seeing in the next decade of DC movies.
Now, today we might think of these as mere team-ups. But back then, it wasn’t clear that all these heroes lived in the same city, could fly past each other on missions, mistake each other for enemies, fight, then join forces to fight the real villain. Batman’s Gotham City and Superman’s Metropolis weren’t a train ride away from each other. How could they be? They were both New York, basically. You couldn’t get there from there—until you could, because the writers said so, and what was a multiverse collapsed into a single shared universe.
The idea of a curated, shared universe didn’t really get crystalized as a concept until the 1960s, when Stan Lee was running Marvel. It’s controversial how much of a writer Lee actually was, but even his detractors agree that he was doing concept work on multiple books and characters, all interrelated. And at DC, the Justice Society of comics’ so-called golden age, and its rebooted iteration a couple decades later as the Justice League, were team-ups to end all team-ups until the golden-age heroes started meeting their rebooted selves, when the modern-day Flash of 1961 met the Flash of the 1940s—still alive, but living in a (here we go) parallel universe. That started a tradition of crossovers that DC called “crises.” Because when universes bump into each other, it’s always a crisis. Worlds are threatened! Megalomaniacal aliens are trying to remake reality! All time and space are in jeopardy! Excelsior!
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This kind of thing feels especially inimical to the comic book form, where time and space are so malleable. As writers like Scott McCloud have pointed out, a story might on a cliffhanger in one issue and then picks up in the next instant in the next—a month later in real time. The gutter between two comic panels can indicate a jump to the same moment in the same spot, or a million light years away. A single comic panel can happen in an instant or a millennium. A good writer—it’s usually a writer named Grant Morrison, to be honest—can have all sorts of fun with this uncertainty. When Morrison writes multiverse stories, as in his Infinite Crisis, sometimes the characters become aware that someone from another, distant universe is watching their every move through a kind of window that looks down from a higher dimension. That’s you. You are the someone. The implication of any fictional (?) multiverse is that our universe, this one, where you’re reading this article, is one of the parallels. A world where no one has superpowers and aliens aren’t real! Can you imagine?
If you’re militant about “canon” and “continuity”—you shouldn’t be, it’s fine, but whatever—then all these stories might give you a frowny-face. Which one is real? Which ones really happened? The answer, of course, is that none of them are real. These are comic books. But how would a new reader—a new customer—pick up the expensive monthly habit you’re selling if the stories are freaking incomprehensible? It’s already hard enough to explain what happened in last week’s WandaVision.
So if you’re the editor, the showrunner, the executive producer, what do you do? Eventually you burn it all in cosmic fire—the metacrisis, where a destructive act destroys a super-shared multiverse, clears away the debris, and readies the narrative field for planting again. I’m telling you, this happens all the time. Miles Morales, the younger Spider-Man from Into the Spider-Verse? He was Spider-Man in an alternate, rebooted Marvel universe, the one that many of the early MCU films draw heavily from. But in the comics, that universe didn’t work out. Marvel had a metacrisis called “Secret Wars,” and Miles Morales joined the mainline Marvel continuity. I think everyone else died for a while.
This isn’t my warning. My warning is: These elliptical apocalypses always end with ellipses. They don’t stick. Inevitably some clever writer has someone “remember” the multiverse from before. Or some character rediscovers time travel. A one-off “it was all a dream” issue gets too popular and turns into an ongoing series. Multiply-numbered Earths turn into a million possible places where, like, Batman is a pirate and Superman is a dictator, or zombies eat everyone, or the multiverse turns out to have a dark, evil multiverse on the other side of the poster, and that turns into something called “hypertime” or “ultraspace” or whatever. Things get complicated again.
And then everything that happened before happens again. Multiverses are a flat circle. It’s a pendulum, from universe to universes to multiverse, when the cycle starts anew. That’s the heart of the metacrisis, a pulsing, elastic, exponential sine wave from Big Bang peak to Big Crunch trough.
One last thing. Back in the days when comic book IP wasn’t the dilithium at the heart of every movie studio’s warp drive—when the stakes were lower—even multiverses would sometimes touch. Marvel and DC used to do occasional (non-canon) crossovers. Superman met Spider-Man. The Avengers met the Justice League. The X-Men met the Teen Titans! One time, they even merged into crossover characters. Nobody likes to talk about that anymore, because it was gross.
My point being, I sense that someone is going to pitch this. You can feel the rumbling. Someone is going to suggest, quietly, in a meeting in Hollywood, that maybe it could work. If the kids down in legal can get the contract right, if the numbers for streaming and distribution work … somebody is going to find a doorway between the DCEU and the MCU. Wonder Woman should meet Captain Marvel. Would Batman beat Captain America in a fight? Make them kiss. This’ll all happen. But it’ll cause a problem. The writers will have to figure out a way to erase the universe-shattering consequences of act three, because otherwise no other movies will make a lick of sense afterward. The movie will only exist so it can destroy itself, or it’ll destroy all the others. This is the transuniversal metametacrisis that X-Pietro brought to Wanda’s door. I’m telling you: We’re not ready.