Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Spiderverse and Multiversality

Whenever I encounter a film that's gotten nearly universally great reviews, well, I inherently don't trust it.  I've been burned too many times, walking into a theater with great expectations and leaving disappointed.

So when, after much family discussion, we went to see the recent Spiderman/Spiderverse flick?   I'd prepared myself to be disappointed, to find it tedious and by the numbers, talking it down in my mind until, well, I had low expectations.

This proved to be completely unnecessary.  It was an utterly entertaining film, a live action graphic novel of the best sort.   Wonderful art style, excellent primary character voice acting, and a decent plot?  It was a delight.

I particularly enjoyed it because it toyed about with what is now a deeply familiar theme in comic book movies and postmodern narratives generally:  the multiverse.   The parallel universes concept isn't just a convenient conceit for storytellers: it's got cosmological legs.

Which brings me to one of the minor non-spoilery weakness in the film:  character development.  As the various iterations of Spiderman are introduced, there's really only character development for three of them.  The other three are by necessity supporting cast members.  The viewer only gets loose character sketches of them in the movie, and most of their development is as broad-swath comic relief.

If it's a weakness, it's a necessary one.

In a film where a functionally infinite number of Spider-people can exist, we can only focus on so many of them before we'd get overwhelmed.   We have to choose which narratives to engage, because if we don't, we'd be lost.  There'd be nothing to ground us, nothing to give a sense of continuity, just churn and chaos as we lose ourselves in a fractal vortex of variant, dissonant plotlines.

As one of the few Jesus folk who've bothered to take the actual multiverse we inhabit seriously, this is one of the core moral and ethical problems in our reality.   We face a functionally infinite array of moral demands and possible ends.  Every choice leads us down a variant path, each of which is just as real and valid as any other.  If we make the mistake of thinking too much about it, it's dizzying to the point of madness.  It cannot be integrated by human-scale intelligence, nor can the tensions between the infinitely variant paths be resolved.

Even within the timeline of our single universe, we struggle with this.  To cohere as integrated beings, we must choose in ways that create a viable self-narrative.  We have to orient ourselves towards something that gives us purpose, that defines us...or we fall into anxious dissonance.