The multiverse is an alluring concept, both to storytellers and the characters they dream up. Writers may find the tool liberating; the multiverse, essentially an infinite collection of parallel universes, presents a choose-your-own-adventure exercise in which they get to choose them all. For the characters, the appeal is simple: Haven’t they ever wondered how their lives might have turned out had they made one different decision along the way?
But as popular works have taught us, discovering the multiverse can also become dangerous. Writers risk relying on plot intricacies as a crutch. Their characters risk destroying the sanctity of universes beyond their own.
It’s a remarkably tricky premise to land. But the new film “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” released Friday in theaters nationwide, does so smoothly — albeit after a rocky journey for its protagonist, laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh). Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as the Daniels, recognize that resonant depictions of the multiverse are more interested in human emotion than they are the mechanics involved. This isn’t really about Evelyn saving the world as much as it is her discovering what it means to be part of it.
“Everything Everywhere” starts with Evelyn preparing to meet with a tax auditor while getting ready for a Lunar New Year party she and her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), plan to host at the laundromat. There is a lot weighing on Evelyn: She and Waymond share a comfortable but unhappy marriage, which he is on the verge of disassembling; Joy (Stephanie Hsu), their rather joyless daughter, wants to bring her girlfriend to the party, but Evelyn is already stressed about pleasing her conservative father (James Hong), who is visiting.
Things go topsy-turvy at the IRS office building when Evelyn encounters another version of Waymond who tells her he is from the Alpha verse, a universe threatened by an evil being named Jobu Tupaki, who threatens to annihilate life throughout the multiverse. In the Alpha verse, humans have learned how to “verse jump,” or travel between worlds. It’s an exhausting endeavor, but Evelyn learns how as a way to help Alpha Waymond fight back. She winds up in a universe where she became a movie star, and another where she works alongside a “Ratatouille”-style chef (who is instead controlled by a raccoon). In a particularly bizarre realm, Evelyn has hot dogs for fingers.
To fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Everything Everywhere” may recall the multiverse from “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the highest-grossing film of last year. In the superhero movie, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to change part of the past to make his own life easier, but they tear a hole in the multiverse when it goes awry. Peter fights alongside Spider-Mans from two other universes (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, reprising their non-MCU roles) to defeat a slew of villains and maintain order.
Though a small, selfish act serves as the catalyst for its plot, “No Way Home” stretches to a gargantuan scope; the multiverse figures into other Marvel properties as well, including the television series “Loki” and the MCU’s upcoming “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Marvel prides itself on constructing these extravagant, interconnected plots, which, while impressive, tend to dominate any other takeaways from the films.
Poor Peter, in many ways defined by the fact that he is just a random kid from Queens, is forced to dismiss his own life’s desires in service of a complicated greater good. He didn’t ask for any of this — and shares that quality with Evelyn, another regular person tasked with a previously unfathomable mission. The difference in execution is where each film ends up: While “No Way Home” keeps its gaze on the grand superheroism of it all, “Everything Everywhere” uses the multiverse as a tool through which to return to examining our small, everyday lives.
Alpha Waymond tells Evelyn he recruited her because he sensed her extraordinary verse-jumping capabilities from afar. But from a storytelling perspective, Evelyn’s averageness is what makes her the perfect candidate for the job. Aside from the immediate danger at hand, the “what ifs” she explores in the multiverse have not to do with supervillains or superpowers but with the normal decisions so many of us face: deciding whom to marry; becoming a parent; even just choosing to carry yourself a little differently, perhaps with a bit more confidence.
Part of the strain on Evelyn’s marriage comes from outward disapproval of it — she married Waymond against her father’s wishes and accompanied him from China to Southern California, where they started running the laundromat. In another universe, Evelyn stayed in China and trained in martial arts, eventually becoming a movie star. Did she make the right decision, leaving it all behind for love? The multiverse could function as a metaphor for immigration, a person yanked out of familiar territory in pursuit of the possibilities of an unknown land.
Evelyn and Joy’s relationship fractured over the years, burdened by the generational differences driving Evelyn’s expectations for her daughter. Joy responds by further distancing herself from her mother out of shame and indignation, which becomes a central conflict. (Note: Slight spoiler ahead.) Jobu Tupaki’s physical form resembles Joy in other universes, including one in which the evil being reveals that nihilism propels her destructive plans. The multiverse proposes that every decision we make carries weight. But if every little thing matters, does anything, in the end?
By narrowing in on these common yet undeniably meaningful moments in life, the Daniels carefully execute a multiverse plot that leaves viewers reeling — not because of the complexity of everything involved but because of the implications it has for our own perspectives on the world. What does it mean, really, to be alive? Some may lean toward the nihilist explanation, while others leave the film with a greater sense of intentionality.
Either way, we find solace in watching Evelyn, one of us, figuring it out for herself. She’s everyone, everywhere.