Imagine you’re on your way to get groceries. In this hypothetical scenario there is no coronavirus, the sun is shining and you’re having a great time. You’ve got several choices ahead of you. You can take the long way and enjoy your walk, you can take the short way and smell some flowers, or you can catch an Uber and skip the walk entirely. These choices are the beginning of your very own multiverse.
If you choose to go the long way around, you have a nice walk and run into a casual acquaintance. They’re delighted to see you, and you end up going for coffee. Maybe you become better friends, or something more. If you choose to go the short way you don’t run into your acquaintance, but you do meet a fluffy dog on the sidewalk. It’s nice, but not life-changing. If you choose to catch an Uber, you miss out on both the dog and your acquaintance, and end up in a car accident instead.
Any choice you make will set you on a new path that could potentially change the course of your life. If you’re over the age of 30, you might liken these events to the Gwyneth Paltrow classic, Sliding Doors.
You’ll never know what would have happened if you chose differently — unless you happen to be living in the Marvel multiverse.
What is the Marvel multiverse?
Following the events of Loki (detailed below, beware of spoilers), the Marvel universe is now considered a ‘multiverse’. This is essentially a scattered timeline made up of multiple, simultaneous choices.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, aka every modern Marvel film and TV show) originally operated on a single timeline where everything that was supposed to happen did (i.e. The Avengers teamed up and kicked arse), the events of Loki mean multiple universes have now spun out of the main one because there’s no longer a ‘single’ timeline anymore.
The best way to describe this in practical terms is the grocery analogy. You have multiple choices (long way, short way, Uber). Only one of them will occur in your universe, because you can only make one choice in the real world.
Because the Marvel timeline has now been ‘broken’, any choice characters take will now lead to multiple universes where every choice is taken. This means there’ll be multiple versions or ‘variants’ of these characters occupying new, branching universes.
In the grocery analogy, it means that rather than being a single person you’re split off into three beings — the one who meets an acquaintance, the one who encounters a dog, and the one in the car accident. All will exist in newly-created universes the moment you make your choice.
In the Marvel Universe, this is best illustrated with Loki. He has multiple variants based on the choices he made — one variant is arrested and gets sent to Asgard, one escapes and is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), another is born female at birth due to chance, another kills Thor and ends up destroying the universe, and another abandons Thor and ends up old and alone.
Due to the events of Loki, there’s no one being to determine what is the ‘correct’ version of Loki’s choices, so every version exists at once and branches out further based on every single future choice made.
In that regard, the Marvel multiverse is endless.
What to watch to understand the Marvel multiverse
There’s been talk of a Marvel multiverse for years now, but the first threads of this were picked up in Avengers: Endgame as the team went back in time to restore the universe. When Bruce Banner confronted Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in the past, they explained the dire consequences of time travel and how it could create multiple ‘spin-off’ universes if time travellers weren’t careful.
And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened.
In the process of retrieving the glowing tesseract cube, the Avengers’ mission went wrong and the cube ended up in the hands of Loki, who used it to escape. This action created a ‘variant’ Loki who never followed the path of the ‘original’ Loki, and therefore didn’t end up imprisoned on Asgard or die in the hands of Thanos.
This is explained in the TV series Loki, which follows the misadventures of this version of the character who diverted from his original path.
To understand how the Marvel multiverse formed, this show is essential viewing, as is Spider-Man: No Way Home. Beware: spoilers for Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home below.
In an effort to discover the secret of what a ‘variant’ really was and how his destiny was being shaped, Loki confronted He Who Remains at the end of Loki season one.
This character acts as a God for the Marvel Universe and essentially determines what choices are ‘right’ and guides how every character exists on the ‘main’ timeline. Think of He Who Remains as a sort of ‘writer’ for what goes on in every Marvel TV show and film.
When He Who Remains is killed by a Loki variant named Sylvie, the Marvel Universe is left without a ‘writer’ to determine which choices are ‘right’ — so the Marvel universe begins splitting off into new timelines based on every choice made.
With no writer to determine which choices are ‘correct’, every choice splits characters into new universes that exist simultaneously. In the past, any ‘wrong’ timelines were cut off or destroyed by the TVA to maintain a perfect ‘sacred timeline’ which contained one universe.
Now there are multiple universes all branching out from each other. Technically, these universes shouldn’t interact with each other — but they do create major instability in the MCU, particularly for magic users like Doctor Strange.
After Loki, we got to see Spider-Man: No Way Home embrace the chaos of three different Spider-Man timelines. With Doctor Strange casting a spell gone wrong, universes collided and the three Spider-Men had to team up to take on old threats. Of course, this was a taste test for later multiverse stuff, but the events of No Way Home and the mistakes Doctor Strange made will certainly lead into the Multiverse of Madness.
Following Spider-Man: No Way Home, we’ll see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which follows the threads of Loki, Spider-Man: No Way Home and WandaVision (because WandaVision is self-contained, you don’t need to watch it to understand the multiverse — but its events will eventually play into Doctor Strange).
We know that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will delve deep into multiverse content (from the name alone) but we also know this because Patrick Stewart’s voice could be heard faintly in one of the trailers. Stewart, mind you, played Professor X in the X-Men movies, which belong to another Marvel universe.
While we wait for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you can also check out Marvel’s What If…?, a fun animated spin-off exploring some of the many variants that could have been created in the Marvel universe if different choices had been made.
All of these shows and films are currently streaming on Disney+ (except for Spider-Man: No Way Home).
Is the multiverse in Marvel’s comics?
Technically, yes — the multiverse plays a massive role in Marvel’s comics — but it operates quite differently compared to its cinematic counterpart.
Modern Marvel comic stories exist in a universe with the number designation ‘616’. This universe exists on the ‘main’ Marvel Comics timeline and features the versions of characters that comics audiences will be most familiar with.
But there are also ‘variant’ versions of these characters which inhabit various spin-off comics that take place in different universes. These include a spin-off comic set in 1602 where characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man were born in the past, a spin-off where zombies overtake the Marvel Universe, and a massive Ultimate universe where comics characters were reborn in the ‘modern’ era.
One of the most iconic examples of Marvel’s comics multiverse is actually Miles Morales, the star of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This film will eventually be getting a sequel.
He originally came from the Ultimate universe, a more modern timeline where Peter Parker had died and the world needed a new Spider-Man. Morales stepped up to the plate in the second volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, but proved so popular he eventually crossed over into the main ‘616’ Marvel timeline.
Not every ‘multiverse’ comic takes place on the ‘616’ Marvel Comics timeline but many have crossed over into this universe, and they all remain important to the overall story.
There’s no particular comic that dives deep into the MCU version of the multiverse, but rest assured the Marvel multiverse has a long and incredibly deep history in the comics. Luckily, you won’t need to understand it all to enjoy the next phase of the MCU.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is set to release on May 5, 2022 in Australia. While you wait, why not check out all the other sci-fi, horror and fantasy films coming our way next year.
This post has been updated since it was first published and we’ll continue to make changes as we learn more.