What’s better than a Marvel Cinematic Universe? A Marvel Cinematic Multiverse. Once limited to theoretical physics and comic-book plot conveniences, the notion of a multiverse has been an essential tool for Hollywood. Whether it’s a role that’s been cast and recast, a franchise character that gets a spin-off when the larger story ends, or simply a reboot telling a new story without upending its origins, the answer to any big movie problem is often: multiverse.
Despite being filmmaking’s crutch du jour, the idea of a multiverse is also at the center of one of the most heartfelt and ambitious movies of the year. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a runaway critical and commercial hit, but its success doesn’t stem from how it dials up the reality-bending. It comes from how it manages to use the trope to tell a much sillier and much simpler story.
The film follows a Chinese American family making their way through mundane, messy problems. Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh) runs a struggling laundromat and faces an IRS audit. Her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), is sweet, if a bit distracted, but he’s unhappy in their marriage. And their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is growing distant as her parents fail to include her girlfriend in their lives.
But what begins as family drama rapidly becomes absurdist action comedy. Using an alternate reality’s “verse jumping” technology, the family members find themselves fighting with fanny-pack nunchucks, encountering Ratatouille-style raccoon chefs, and playing the piano with their feet (because they have hot-dog fingers, of course). The essential magic of the movie is that the ridiculous multiverse plot is in service of the everyday story.
Every choice, big or small, is an alternate reality unto itself. Everything Everywhere All at Once succeeds by spinning those choices out to the furthest logical extremes. What comes back is a surprisingly affecting metaphor, one that’s discussed in depth on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review.
Listen to Shirley Li, David Sims, and Spencer Kornhaber in conversation about the film here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Shirley Li: This film arrives in an era of the multiverse-as-plot-framework with all the Marvel films and shows. After Endgame wrapped in 2019, multiverses abound in shows like Loki and WandaVision, and movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
So we’re used to the multiverse as fan-service franchise building, but what EEAO does that these superhero movies don’t is that it uses the multiverse as metaphor. For the immigrant experience, for the chaotic what-ifs of our lives.
Spencer Kornhaber: How much of a multiverse boom are we actually in? Because the word multiverse feels very current, but the idea of there being multiple realities goes far back to works like The Twilight Zone. I personally wrote a piece five years ago about how multiverses were common across pop culture at the time, with Westworld, The OA, and Stranger Things.
David Sims: Yeah, the multiverse is how you explain that both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck play Batman, right? Comic books publish for decades. Things change, new writers come in, and things get revamped. It’s how you explain everything.
But as this multiverse concept has gone on long enough, it becomes acceptable to sell to audiences that Tobey Maguire is going to get to shake Tom Holland’s hand in a movie. If you told me 10 or 20 years ago that that was going to happen, I would have considered it too nerdy or inscrutable for a mainstream film, but families go to see it and it makes sense to them.
What I like about how Everything Everywhere All at Once treats the multiverse is that it’s the road-not-taken idea. They obviously had a lot of fun creating these windows into silly worlds with the hot-dog-fingers stuff and whatnot, but the thematic purpose is really effective. It’s that feeling anyone’s had of: “What if I hadn’t married this guy?” Or “What if I hadn’t taken that job?” If you could jump right into that body and find out, that’s an appealing and scary and dangerous and dramatically weighted concept.
Kornhaber: The remarkable thing about the structure of this movie is that, however wild its channel-flipping, it’s essentially working you through a logic problem about the point of life. The characters’ lives feel like a problem to them. And it gives you different hypotheses for how the universe works. You have the villain, the fabulously outfitted Jobu Tupaki, who’s also Evelyn’s daughter in other universes. She represents nihilism. She thinks that she’s seen every single possible thing that happens in the universe. And so nothing matters; why not just suck us all into a vortex and get it over with?
And then it swings around to something more hopeful and redemptive. It’s almost crude how it works, circling around these essential emotional questions, but nonetheless it feels comprehensive and convincing. And when you arrive at that synthesis moment—which comes in the form of Michelle Yeoh throwing googly eyes at all her enemies and hugging them—that’s when the dam broke for me. Life is about fighting with silliness and just having a good time or whatever. It does seem trite for the answer to be love, but the movie makes the most sweeping case for it. It’s just astonishing to me.
Li: It’s a film that has something profound to say, but it doesn’t say it in a pretentious way. I think that’s what caught us all off guard. David, what did you take away from this movie?
Sims: I was very charmed by it. I had liked Swiss Army Man, the first film by this directing team called Daniels, made up of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. My biggest takeaway here, though, was what strong affection I had for the leads, and how bowled over I was by those two performances, especially Quan. He’s a performer everyone knows, but obviously not someone we’ve thought about in a while. He hasn’t really acted for many years, and I was so stunned to see him give this incredibly heartfelt and expansive and clever and funny performance. And then, obviously, Michelle Yeoh is a wonderful movie star who I adore.
As I got further from the movie, I also appreciated it as sort of a good fleshing-out of how a lot of people feel right now, like we all have attention-deficit disorder after being locked up for so long. That’s maybe trite or facile to say, but I do understand that feeling of being unable to concentrate or feel settled these days. And it was sort of amazing how this movie captured it.
Li: The benefit of making a film with these insane visuals is that you can go a little corny. You’re hedging that point by saying that it’s facile, but the movie’s only able to make that work because it’s using raccoons and hot-dog hands and butt plugs. (Laughs.) Spencer, I’m really curious what you thought of the movie.
Kornhaber: Well, I didn’t like it. Because it made me cry. And I don’t like feeling that way. [Laughs.] No, I loved it. It provoked a strong emotional reaction in me, but it took me a little while to get into it. It starts on a really small scale. It feels like a dramedy about this family running a laundromat and the generational disconnect between the parents and their daughter, Joy, who is queer.
And at first, it seems like a somewhat familiar generational-clash indie movie—tolerance, acceptance, immigration, etc. And then the wheels start coming off. More and more psychedelic things start happening, and there comes a point where you’re just like: Wait, this movie is doing something similar to a lot of things I’ve seen, but I’ve also never seen anything like this before.
It goes to places of absurdity and extremity, but also sweetness and sentimentality and darkness. It’s this vortex that draws you in, swirls you around, and spits you out at the end to say: “That was fucking awesome.”
Li: Has Everything Everywhere All at Once expanded what multiverses can do in a film?
Kornhaber: It’s the kind of movie that no one else would dare to make, because it’s sort of a basic exploration of the idea: It’s not set with the backdrop of a dystopian world like The Matrix. It’s not about some superhero meta story or whatever. There’s not even the rom-com twist like in Sliding Doors, the Gwyneth Paltrow classic. This movie takes it in every direction, but still manages to tie it in a bow.
Sims: As a comic-book fan, I’m so used to the notion of parallel universes. But I’ve always been dismissive about them for that reason, because it’s often a way to justify resurrecting someone or having some kind of cute adventure. Sure. Jean Grey died, but we’ll just get the Jean Grey out of this universe! And this movie is a little more thoughtful in how it’s reckoning with all that. And so I appreciate that.
Li: David, you mentioned the Daniels’ previous film, Swiss Army Man, which was one of the strangest films to come out in recent memory. What can you tell us about the directors?
Sims: They’re originally music-video guys. They’ve directed a lot of music videos, including the incredible “Turn Down for What” video, which Daniel Kwan also stars in. But Swiss Army Man was a Sundance movie that everyone at the festival was like: “Did you know there’s like a farting-corpse movie at Sundance this year?” It stars Paul Dano as a guy who washes up on an island. He finds a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe and starts communicating with it and using it like a Swiss Army knife to survive and escape the island.
When you describe it, it sounds patently ludicrous, but if that actually translates on-screen and works visually, you can see how that would be compelling. But it’s tough to go this high-concept and then figure out what to do next. And what they did with Everything Everywhere All at Once was double down on everything people like about them. It’s heavy on world building. And much like Swiss Army Man, it’s trying to arrive at this intimate, emotional conclusion. Everything that I’m describing is not easy to do, but if you do it well, you’re going to become the kind of cult sensation that this movie has.
Li: I think my favorite joke is indicative of why this film works. I love the universe with “racca-cooney,” the one built off of Evelyn misremembering the movie title for Ratatouille and then pushing it so far that there is in fact a universe that exists where a raccoon manipulates a chef like the rat in Ratatouille.
Kornhaber: It is such a perfect example of what is genius about this movie. There’s that throwaway joke midway through that you enjoy, but then they do a callback to it as an actual universe. Because that’s at the root of the movie: Every single thing you think of that could happen is happening. You think it’s just a funny callback, but as the movie progresses, you see an actual story line in that world and, by the end, you are cheering and shouting for the way it resolves. It’s a beautiful moment. This little tangential thought could spiral out for a whole movie if it wanted to. It’s ridiculous, but the Daniels manage to make it work through personality and visual panache.
Li: The core conflict in this film is Evelyn not being able to cross the generational barrier and accept her daughter Joy as queer, or, to borrow Jerrod Carmichael’s language, to love without that “despite.”
Sims: It’s her relationship with Joy and her own regrets for the choices she made in her own life. That’s what’s being reflected in her story: She’s being tantalized with this idea of what if you had done X or Y. Emigrating from China. Starting a business. Having a kid.
Li: Thinking about why it resonates so much with me, there’s so much detail in this film that is very specific to the Asian immigrant experience. In one scene, the grandfather played by James Hong suddenly speaks perfect English. (And he’s the one Evelyn is afraid of revealing the fact that Joy is gay to.) In that moment, it underlined something for me about the film that I don’t know if viewers necessarily pick up on, which is the idea of the multiverse as a metaphor for code-switching. And not just code-switching, but the different worlds that you and your family exist in.
The more I think about this movie, the more I think about the space that my grandparents exist in right now. They’re locked down in Shanghai, and I can’t communicate with them the way that I want to.
When we talked about Turning Red last week, we made a point that there are a number of films about Chinese immigrant families in North America right now. And I made a joke that there are too many, because that’s naturally where we, as Asian immigrants go: We’re making too much noise. Don’t notice us. But it’s wonderful having a lot of these stories. It pushes against a bruise you’re perhaps vaguely aware of. And in moments like these, you wish there really was a universe where I spoke perfect Mandarin and my grandparents spoke perfect English.
The movie is also wish fulfillment, right? Right? The Alpha Waymond is a martial-arts master. He also brings it back to the pandemic for me. You can’t just label variants other Greek terms. You have to move on to terms that sound like Elon Musk’s children’s names, a Universe BA.2 maybe?
Kornhaber: (Laughs.) You’re making me think about the booms in dimension-switching multiverse movies and shows. There was a crop of them that came up around the 2016 election, and the common thing to say about them was: “Oh, we all feel like we’re living in a simulation now.” Something happened in the world. Reality is broken.
But the interesting thing about this movie is: It’s less about something happening in the world that shoved us all into a different dimension. It’s more about how personal choices create these different dimensions. And the immigrant experience in this case is a perfect vessel for exploring that idea because it really honors the choice to create a better life. That’s the bet being made when someone uproots their life and moves somewhere else. You’re entering a different world, but there’s always uncertainty about the life you left behind.