The Flash and the Multiverse of Mehness


Every "Dreamworld" thriller introduces an arbitrary rule to establish stakes. If you die in the dream, you die in reality (e.g., Dreamscape, Nightmare on Elmstreet, The Matrix, Inception). I've died in many dreams. I've even hit bottom in a fall off a building dream. I've died in many video games. I've even played the Dark Souls series. Neither of these dreamworlds have killed me, however, we can all see why the rule is in effect. A universe without death is a universe without stakes.

The stories we tell are already at a disadvantage. They're all lies. And so there are never any real stakes in our world. However, add to this that there are no stakes in their world, and this appears to be too much. Sorry, there have to be consequences for people in your world or we don't care.

Stakes, however, imply limits (e.g., if you kill off a character, they stay dead). The bane of having stakes and raising them to heighten interest is that it is very easy to paint yourself into a corner. For realistic writing, this is a challenge. For "easy listening" film and TV this is an opportunity for the Deus Ex Machina to be wheeled in ("How will the Duke boys get out of this one?").

Writing in film and TV and film is very bad now. It's hard to tell a good story, but you've gotta eat. Storytellers, in effect, are all in the position of Scheherazade. And a drowning person will do anything. Sequels are a first cheat. Do it again! But bigger? Prequels offered real estate for diminishing markets in which land going west was largely bought up. Sidequels offered the chance to snag adjacent property that wasn't snatched up yet. And then came the reboots. But I was not the Hulk, so I did not protest when they rebooted the Hulk. Reboots have left us with a pile of terrible first drafts and character sketches. They screw it up and just start again and again and again (not unlike the titular character in this film).

And then came the multiverses.

Borrowing from the speculative physics of our world (someone should do a survey to see how many everyday people think physicists have "proved" that there is a multiverse to see how deep the embarrassment runs), our storytellers have found the ultimate cheat code, the multiverse. A maelstrom of mediocrity so malevolent that two of the last truth-tellers in our 'verse (Matt Stone and Trey Parker) have parodied the situation for what it is, pandering. The multiverse lets you play with all your toys. And if you screw up writing the universe you're in, there is always another universe. And it is a great way to bait and switch fans (e.g., "Hey, we're not fundamental changing the original story of Star Trek. The original series still happens. It's just, uh, in another timeline, so it's still Star Trek, but we're not really changing Star Trek, although we're totally changing it.").

The Flash movie, which I watched out of boredom on a streaming service (I paid for it, I guess) confronts the problem of the multiverse by reasserting the #1 rule of dream time: There must be consequences. If you haven't seen the film, unmarked spoilers below so f*** off if you're not ready to know. The climax of the film offers a museum of tacky Madame Tussauds CGI figurines peering into the strangest universe of all (i.e., the one in which Ezra Miller is still getting work). Everything is crashing and colliding. Everything is true, so nothing is true. Universes are dying (Yawn and stretch, we've seen this one before). Ultimately, The Flash must relent from the premise of the film (the quest for mom), to keep everything from crashing in on itself. The fastest man alive can't go back in time to fix things, because doing so puts the whole universe into crisis (read, "We promise only to do this every now and then -- it's realish, we promise. There are stakes or what look like stakes here. Trust us, sort of."). This is basically the same problem and solution offered in the comic books, I think (The Flashpoint crisis).

The ultimate paradox raised by this film (and dozens of contemporary films just like it) is this--a universe of infinite possibilities in which everything is changing and nothing sticks is actually... ...boring. Even our stupid sportsball contests realize that there must be stakes and so no matter how brutish or idiotic the contest, scores will be kept and winners declared. The escape from the multiverse, sidequelverse, sequelverse, prequelverse, rebootverse is simple (although simple does not necessary imply easy). Tell a story about "a" world and tell that story well. Put away the Red Apple cigarettes.

The stories we tell are already at a disadvantage. They're all lies. And so there are never any real stakes in our world. However, add to this that there are no stakes in their world, and this appears to be too much. Sorry, there have to be consequences for people in your world or we don't care.
This sums up what has long been my contention with the concept of multiverses (or alternate yet concurrent, counter-continuity versions of what were once one-of-a-kind characters).

In publication history, the intention behind creating multiverses (long before anyone ever heard that term or those surrounding "string theory") was a good one... but we've all heard about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

In comics' history, the coming of the Silver Age introduced almost-forgotten names to a new generation in the form of completely revised characters that may have taken on familiar-sounding names, but were completely different people. But instead of these new superheroes only lasting a decade like their predecessors, they took off.

The introduction of "multiverses" was a way to re-introduce the forgotten Golden Age (WWII era) heroes to the current generation at that time, but instead of having a continuity littered with characters bearing the same exact names, DC Comics decided to place the older, Golden Age characters on a separate Earth within their own continuity (thus the first, long-standing, mutliversal continuity in comics was born).

Since then many comic book companies' continuities have become multiversal, multi-layered and too complicated to navigate, thus they've been consolidated into single continuities that attempt to fit characters into a single history within a single continuity (an admirable effort in my opinion). But then those very consolidations & reorganizations have been ripped apart to introduce the concept of multiverses (and their bevy of almost infinite alternate versions of once-unique characters) in modern times.