The politics of the multiverse: simultaneity and trauma in Everything Everywhere All at Once

The concept of the multiverse is used by contemporary films of all shapes and sizes—from recent MCU entries Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) to Marvel product Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), from small budget sci-fi works Another Earth (2011) and Coherence (2013) to commercial successes Coraline (2009) and Source Code (2011).

The cinematic multiverse is often played for entertainment, but is frequently the apparatus for genre films’ ambitious conceits, or their complex disruptions of narrative linearity. As IndieWire critic Eric Kohn says, the multiverse has become such an institution that characters can now self-reflexively acknowledge their position within one, can even offer another character ‘a primer’ as that second character ‘shrugs it off.’

But the multiverse can have deeper implications when the interests in self-conscious play and knotty conception are probed for a more consequential social commentary. While neither a flawless execution of the cinematic multiverse nor an exhaustive exploration of identity and inequality, the recent film release (and global critical and commercial success) from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert Everything Everywhere All at Once is a productive example of this balance. The film embodies a split priority of mining the multiverse for its superficial fun/narrative intricacies and having something to say about the world and our place within it. The offer of alternative worlds and new lives can be crystallised into an attempt to improve the univocal, shared, real reality on our side of the cinema screen rather than inside it. Everything Everywhere ultimately transcends the entertainment premise of the multiverse and actively uses it to have an urgent conversation about racialised generational trauma.

In 2014, cultural theorist Mark Fisher famously discussed his idea of ‘lost futures’ in his book Ghosts of My Life. Elaborating on what he means by lost futures, Fisher states how ‘cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.’ The sophomore feature film from the Daniels takes Fisher’s idea to narrative extremes. The filmmaking duo’s follow-up to Swiss Army Man (2016) puts a Chinese American laundromat (played by Michelle Yeoh) in the middle of a reality-bending romp underpinned by the disconnect between a mother beaten down by working class struggle (and a lifetime of racial prejudice) and her only daughter. In the film’s primary universe, Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang (the mother) falls out with her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) after stubbornly refusing to accept her sexual identity and welcome her girlfriend into the family.

The multiverse’s simultaneity offers an escape for Joy but also a correction course for her mother. As Jobu Topacki—the evil version of her that can ‘verse-jump’ (which her mother in the primary universe learns to do) from the ‘Alphaverse’ (where shit has hit the fan) —Joy wreaks havoc and inflicts misery on each Evelyn. Fundamentally, Joy is only doing this to reconnect with her mother, however. Joy hopes to do so through her mother’s realisation that she must accept and love her daughter, no matter what kind of woman she is growing up to be. Her mother knows that must stop recycling the pain she has felt her whole life (in each universe) because of the way she has been treated due to the colour of her skin. As Jobu, Joy tells Evelyn that ‘I wasn’t looking for you so I could kill you. I was just looking for someone who could see what I see, feel what I feel.’

Fisher’s notion of simultaneity is applicable to Everything Everywhere not only because it can be traced in the film’s title, conceit and narrative framework, but also because Fisher attributes a cultural collapse of temporal distinctions between the past, present, and future with the passing on and perpetuation of trauma. The Daniels’ film centralises a contemporary Chinese American family, whose trauma can be understood as a by-product of their generational history of mistreatment due to their race. This mistreatment provokes Evelyn’s denial of her daughter’s sexual truth, which causes a rupture in the family and triggers a journey across the multiverse from an alternative version of this embittered, vengeful daughter.

As Jobu, Joy creates a black hole that could destroy the entire multiverse. Her pain has been internalised and personalised, but it is second-hand trauma inherited from her mother. In the primary universe, Evelyn’s laundromat is being audited by the IRS, which affects her marriage. As the IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells Evelyn, her husband, and her demanding father: ‘Now, you may only see a pile of receipts, but I see a story. I can see where this story is going. And it does not look good.’ Deirdre is the archetype in the Wang family’s horror film; she is white, in a position of relative power, and uninterested in the plight of this small, struggling family business. The struggle, of course, has been determined and shaped by the difficult access a family of Chinese descent have to capital in contemporary America.

The world is stacked against the Wang family, which is why the possibilities of the multiverse are essential to them. Simultaneous alternative worlds and lives may run the risk of duplications or even escalations of/to their battle against late capitalist America; but they also offer a semblance of hope that there might be a better version of their situation with better odds of survival. This is Everything Everywhere’s prevailing optimism. This is the key to its multiverse.

Joy races across the different realities to ultimately try and save her mother by imbuing her with this same hope. Hope starts at home, so Evelyn must first learn to accept her daughter’s identity if she is to accept that her family must fight together for their place in any universe. This impulsive mode of survival has been passed down from her father and in turn to her daughter’s generation. Historically, it is imperative that the generations work together to ensure that better futures are not lost.

Hope is the antonym of the collective social ‘depression’ Fisher presents as a product of late capitalism in Ghosts of My Life. As he also says, though: the ‘refusal to give up on the desire for the future’ is what breaks the spell of simultaneity and allows the individual to see a way out of the pain of the present tense—or in the case of Everything Everywhere and the concept of the multiverse generally, a proliferation of present tenses. Fisher hopes that ‘this refusal gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism.’

Evelyn Wang and her daughter Joy obliterate ‘closed horizons’ and embrace a complete contradiction of realism. They and the film they are part of draw on the multiverse’s antirealist promise, necessarily politicising a concept that is so often cinematically entertaining or narratively daring but which is not always used to say something important about the real world. The Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once is not perfect, but it unapologetically, urgently, vitally takes on this task.

George Kowalik

George Kowalik is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at King's College London, a short fiction writer, and a freelance culture writer. He is also Assistant Editor at Coastal Shelf. His recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press, Offscreen and Vague Visages, and in 2020 he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.

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