In the new animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, audiences are introduced to a different Spider-Man than the one most people are familiar with, and we don’t mean Miles Morales. We mean the down-and-out, single, broke Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) who gets whisked away from his reality and into another one with a slice of pepperoni pizza in his mouth.
Unlike the other half dozen Spider-Man movies in existence, with spunky, strapping young men spinning webs across midtown, Spider-Verse introduces a moody, near middle age Peter who has run out of his “Parker Luck.” And believe it or not, this “schlub” of a superhero is illustrative of a theory, a widely disputed one, about human behavior and the multiverse.
For background, the multiverse is the hypothesis that there is not just one reality (the one you’re in and suddenly aware of, right now) but multiple that exist in parallel. It’s a point of speculation in physics and other sciences, but it’s also a popular concept seen in thousands of films, TV, and yes, comic books.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is, to date, the biggest mainstream property since The Flash that explores the multiverse. Here is a Hollywood that will sell all the toys, t-shirts, posters, PJs, cereals, and sneakers, and yet its very premise comes from a disputed theory in cosmology whose supporters include Micho Kaku and Stephen Hawking.
Some, such as Sam Kriss in a 2016 article for The Atlantic, believe the multiverse encompasses all the decisions you didn’t make, and the paths you didn’t travel. If you’re poor in one reality, you may be filthy rich in another. If you’re a stressed journalist on Earth-1, you may have gone to medical school like your mother wanted on Earth-2.
Spider-Verse illustrates this perfectly. In the universe where the film’s main protagonist, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is from, Spider-Man is a popular, well-liked superhero in his prime. He has a Christmas album and everything.
But the Spider-Man who crosses over to mentor Miles is the opposite: He’s jaded, defeated, and depressed. He’s divorced from Mary Jane, and his surrogate mother Aunt May is dead. His body is pretty broken after an additional decade of crime fighting. He’s sorta let himself go.
A universe where Peter’s life went south instead of north is certainly an emotional, artistic approach to illustrating the function of the multiverse. But Kriss, who in his Atlantic article says he’s not interested in the science “so much as its impact on the way we think about ourselves,” bizarrely argued the multiverse was “rotting culture” due to the abstract idea that a better life in another reality means we don’t have to do jack in this one.
That’s… a really weird take, and also kind of misses a major point about the multiverse: We’re made up of particles, and particles are impartial to messy things such as ethics or emotions. As Neel V. Patel argued in a counter essay for Inverse, thinking the mutliverse is the reason for decaying moral fiber “is to fundamentally misunderstand or ignore or perhaps even willfully distort the science behind the multiverse.”
“Physicists don’t prop up and promote multiverse theory because it supports an idea that at least something good is happening somewhere — they discuss it because it fits into the theoretical models of how the world works, which the entire community has contributed to (be it through providing supporting or contradictory evidence).”
Moral malaise also isn’t how Spider-Man, any of them, thought of the multiverse. Peter didn’t laze around his apartment watching Planet Earth because he knew there was a better, cooler Spider-Man in a parallel Earth. He did it because he was sad.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is in theaters now.
This December, Inverse is counting down the 20 best science moments in science fiction this year. This has been #8.
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