Here Comes the Marvel Multiverse!

This post contains SPOILERS for Spider-Man: No Way Home and Hawkeye through episode 5. While watching WandaVision, I started getting excited about the possibility of the Marvel Multiverse that crossed production companies. Now we’re even closer. Let’s see what the latest Spider-Man movie gave us, and where it could go.

Was Spider-Man: No Way Home an exercise in fan service meant to extract cheers from an already-devoted fan base, or a legitimate story building on the previous events in the franchise to take the franchise in a surprising-yet-inevitable new direction? Yes.

Yes, No Way Home was fan service. Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer who catches the brick thrown into the apartment window, is fan-insider stuff. (When he suggested Happy get legal counsel too, I expected to see Happy talking to Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer Walters.) There were so many inside jokes among the Spider-Men, Spider-Friends, and Spider-Villains. If you’d seen all the movies, read the comics, and been part of the online discourse, your head spun with the references. And it was joyful.

But the multiversal reunion was also a reaffirmation of the core ethos of Spider-Man. “With great power comes great responsibility.” An outgrowth from that is that Spider-Man does not kill. He doesn’t even let villains die by not saving them (Batman’s infamous moral compromise in Batman Begins). He finds another way. Spider-Man: No Way Home was a not-so-veiled criticism of the other Spider-Men’s stories. Several of these villains were pulled from their universes before they died in a confrontation with their world’s Spider-Man. The MCU’s Spidey not only redeemed his multiversal variants, but distinguished himself from more “senior” MCU heroes like Doctor Strange. Spider-Man has always seemed, even more than Captain America, to have the strongest moral compass in the Marvel Comics universe. In this film, he steps up to the same role in the cinematic multiverse. He’s the hero willing to make the sacrifices and the hard choices because it’s the right thing to do.

(An interesting aside: I think most of us assumed that Uncle Ben’s death played out in the MCU along the same lines of the story we knew. In this film, we discover that Ben didn’t have much of a role in shaping Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. His moral catchphrase came from Aunt May.)

So now the mainstream Marvel Cinematic Universe knows about the multiverse, and the way it happened was… disappointing. Yes, Doctor Strange is arrogant, and yes, on the technicality of the blip, he is no longer the Sorcerer Supreme. But the previews weren’t misleading–Strange acts with complete incompetence, blaming Peter Parker for his own recklessness. It’s almost as if Doctor Strange were set up to stand in contrast to Spider-Man: great power, little responsibility, and a cavalier attitude toward human life. All of this sets up the mechanism for Peter Parker’s personal desires to create a problem that can only be solved by Peter Parker’s self-sacrifice, of course. But it damages Doctor Strange in the larger franchise; a big step backward from his growth during Infinity War.

The worst part of this treatment of Doctor Strange is that it didn’t have to happen this way. The Multiverse had been teased (as a fake-out) in Spider-Man: Far From Home, teased even more (as a truly disappointing fake-out) in WandaVision, finally unlocked in Loki’s season finale, and explored in the episodes of What If? One throwaway line from Doctor Strange, that the spell was intersecting with something broken in the universe, would have connected the multiversal shenanigans with the larger movements in the MCU and given the Sorcerer Supreme a reason for being so dangerously wrong. I’m expecting some of this exposition at the beginning of next year’s Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, but it feels like an omission here, especially in a movie that reveled in making references to other movies.

Where does the Marvel Multiverse go from here? No Way Home kept multiversal chaos contained by linking incursions with people’s knowledge of Spider-Man’s identity. (There are echoes of the Marvel Comics character The Sentry here.) The end-credits scene from Venom: Let There Be Carnage aligned with the summoning of those who knew Peter Parker’s secret, and the end-credits of No Way Home dismissed Eddie Brock back to the Sony-verse, along with the other multiversal Spider-folk. Minus a piece of the Venom symbiote, whose exploits I’ll be eagerly watching for. (The comics link the symbiote with the Necrosword, used by the villain of the upcoming Thor movie.)

I think there are elements of a business deal here as well. Sony has invested in creating an ecosystem of Spider-Man adjacent films (Venom 1 & 2, Morbius, and rumors of Kraven), and No Way Home will boost interest in Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. Now that they’ve established that there are Spider-Men active in different universes, it will be easier to sell fans (who, honestly, don’t require much selling) on the idea of two different cinematic Spider-continuities.

We know that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be dedicated to exploring the multiverse, and it seems that at least two villains from the animated What If? series will appear in that movie as well. Kang, the enemy Loki’s TVA was trying to keep out of the universe, will appear in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and there will be a season 2 of Loki set in Kang’s TVA. Ultimately, I can only see Fantastic Four making its debut against a multiverse for its titular family to explore.
In the meanwhile, on the business end of things, Marvel is consolidating its other properties. No Way Home has folded Charlie Cox’s Daredevil into the MCU, and Hawkeye just revealed his foe, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin will join him. These aren’t crossovers from the Netflix Marvel Universe (as far as we know), but MCU versions. It remains to be seen whether other Defenders characters will join in the consolidation. And someday, SOMEDAY, we’ll have X-Men. The future looks fun.

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