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With the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Marvel Studios returns to the parallel world setting teased by last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Much of the studio’s output following (and including) 2019’s Avengers: Endgame has been concerned with establishing just what the Multiverse actually is, and just how it works. So before diving into Multiverse of Madness, here’s everything you need to know about the current state of reality, Marvel style.
The question “What is the Multiverse when it comes to Marvel’s movies?” is perhaps best answered by cosmic entity the Watcher, who does it at the start of every episode of Disney+’s 2021 animated series What If…?: “Space. Reality. It’s a prism of endless possibility, where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities, creating alternate worlds from the ones you know.”
In practical terms, what that means exactly is evidenced by the approach Marvel mythology takes with time travel. As Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) puts it in Avengers: Endgame, before the heroes travel back in time to grab the Infinity Stones, “Changing the past doesn’t change the future. … Think about it. If you travel to the past, that past becomes your future and your former present becomes the past, which can’t now be changed by your new future.”
Instead, Endgame argues, going back in time creates a parallel timeline. That’s been Marvel lore for decades in the comics; as far back as 1979’s Marvel Two-in-One No. 50, the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards was making it clear for both readers and his fellow superheroes, saying, “Any change you make in the past results in another reality — a new one caused by your presence.”
Endgame follows up the Hulk’s suggestion with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) altering his own timeline by disappearing with the Space Stone as soon as he has the opportunity. That leads into the 2021 Disney+ spinoff series Loki, which added an unexpected wrinkle in the form of the Time Variance Authority — an organization set up by mysterious cosmic beings called the Time Keepers to delete and destroy alternate timelines, in effect closing down the Multiverse and reducing it to what they describe as the “Sacred Timeline.”
By the end of Loki’s first season, the titular antihero — and a parallel timeline version of himself, who called herself Sophie (Sophia Di Martino) — had uncovered that the Time Keepers were a lie, and that the TVA had actually been created by a mysterious figure known as He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors). Confronted by the two Lokis, he revealed the story behind the Sacred Timeline: that, instead of it being the sole remaining timeline — made from reconstructed elements of the Multiverse-as-was after a Multiversal War between realities — it was instead one timeline sealed off from the rest of the Multiverse.
He Who Remains explains in the Disney+ series that he discovered the existence of the Multiverse in the 31st century, at roughly the same time as other versions of himself in other realities. The various realities eventually went to war before He Who Remains weaponized the discovery of one of his counterparts — a living creature that could eat space and time, created by rifts in reality brought about by realities crossing over — and, in his words, “isolated [the] timeline,” creating the TVA to prevent any further branches from fracturing the timeline further.
In the finale of the first season of What If…?, the Watcher’s home in the so-called “Nexus of All Realities” — a space seemingly outside of all regular realities, but with the ability to see into all of them — is overrun by a version of Ultron who has the Infinity Stones embedded in his body. From there, that version of Ultron is able to invade different realities throughout the Multiverse easily, necessitating the creation of a team of superheroes from across the Multiverse to stop him.
Among those superheroes is a version of none other than Doctor Strange who had, in an attempt to resurrect his dead girlfriend, become corrupted by dark magic. If the alternate version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that appears in the trailer for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is indeed the What If…? version of the character, it’s an unexpected connection between a series that seemingly existed entirely separate from the central MCU and the timeline that features the Avengers (and others) that audiences have come to love.
So, what happened to the isolation of the core timeline put in place by He Who Remains? The end of the Loki series has the answer. Sophie exiles Loki back to a version of the TVA before killing He Who Remains, and allowing the timeline to branch again.
It’s the removal of the maintenance of the once-sacred timeline that changes everything for the MCU moving forward. Without He Who Remains and the TVA to isolate the timeline, multiple Spider-Men can show up in last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home; with no-one pruning alternate timelines or crossovers between realities again, it’s that much easier for Venom and the Vulture to jump between the Disney and Sony controlled versions of their respective superhero universes, as well.
The Multiverse-hopping seen in No Way Home was the result of Doctor Strange’s interrupted spell to make everyone forget Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was Spider-Man. While He Who Remains claimed to have discovered the existence of the Multiverse in the 31st century, the MCU has fallen headfirst into things a millennium early thanks to magic — which might also explain just how the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) conjured two sons, seemingly from nowhere, in last year’s WandaVision series on Disney+. After all, if Wanda really is one of the strongest magic users in the MCU, it’s not impossible to imagine that she ended up accidentally borrowing two children from alternate timelines as part of her Westview-centric trauma.
Many questions remain about the Multiverse as it relates to Marvel: How easily can characters outside of the core MCU — timelines that haven’t been isolated until now — cross between universes? If the earlier Sony Spider-Man films that starred Tobey Maguire are now part of the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse, does that hold true for Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four movies, too? And, of course, just what did Doctor Strange do now to mess everything up so bad?
No matter what, the Multiverse is not going away, even after Doctor Strange’s next onscreen outing. Marvel has promised a second season of Loki, which will still involve the Time Variance Authority. Then there’s next year’s Ant-Man: Quantumania, which will introduce Kang, another version of He Who Remains, also played by Majors.
In other words, even after audiences depart the Multiverse of Madness, they should bear in mind that the story’s just beginning.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be released in theaters May 6.
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