Blame it on the multiverse.
The idea that multiple, parallel universes exist simultaneously isn’t new to comics, but it’s now creeping over superhero films and TV shows like kudzu.
The latest is Marvel Studios’ “Loki.” The Disney+ series, streaming Wednesday, finds a parallel-universe version of the trickster (Tom Hiddleston) traveling across time to fix reality, which he broke when he stole the Tesseract in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.”
This winter’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is also rumored to dabble in the multiverse, reportedly mashing up actors from previous, unrelated Spidey movies, including Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Alfred Molina, into one movie.
Next year’s multiverse-centered epic “The Flash” will reportedly include past Batmans Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck. The upcoming Doctor Strange sequel just cuts to the chase and calls itself “In the Multiverse of Madness.”
When done well, as with 2018’s extraordinary “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” the parallel universe concept can work.
But more and more, it seems less like a story choice and more like a business one. The multiverse feels like a cheat — a way for studios to have their shawarma and eat it, too.
Who is the real-life chaos agent behind this dizzying concept?
It was all a guy named Carmine Infantino’s fault.
Back in the 1960s, DC Comics had an unusual way of creating comic books.
Instead of writing the story first, then creating a cover to match, the staff would sometimes gin up the most provocative or outlandish cover they could think of, then write the issue’s story around it.
And so it was with 1961’s “The Flash” #123.
Infantino, the title’s illustrator, had been growing frustrated because whatever cover he threw out, editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox were always able to come up with a decent story to match.
Infantino, looking to stump his collaborators once and for all, drew a cover showing the current Flash, Barry Allen, racing to help a fallen man, alongside another Flash named Jay Garrick.
Garrick had been the Flash in the 1940s but had been written out of existence after his title was canceled in 1951.
But Schwartz ultimately solved the dilemma by deploying the idea of parallel Earths — one Flash lived on Earth-One, the other on Earth-Two.
And thus the multiverse was born — one of the most influential concepts in all of superhero fiction, the product of a childish competition between comic book pros.
But all the coming abuse of the idea may leave you wishing you lived on a parallel universe without streaming services.
The multiverse could act like Hollywood’s “get out of jail free” card. Why settle on a single direction, when you can have an infinite number? If something doesn’t work, just shunt it off to the multiverse and move on.
The multiverse could also serve as a way to artificially extend the life of superhero universes.
Part of Marvel’s strength, and to a lesser extent DC’s, is that its cinematic universes tell one long, continuous story. “Avengers: Infinity War” gives way to “Endgame,” which leads into “WandaVision,” which sets up “Doctor Strange 2,” and on and on.
But what happens when your actors retire or characters are killed off? The multiverse could be a way to offer new versions of heroes without nullifying what went before and potentially losing viewers who might abandon ship when the single-narrative spell is broken.
Multiverses also seem like a good way to indulge in what is increasingly becoming Hollywood’s main mission objective: wringing every last, stale dollar out of existing IP. No show or actor need ever be forgotten again, when they can be brought back in the multiverse for one more curtain call.
The multiverse concept also runs the risk of lowering the stakes. If every possibility exists, then nothing matters.
In “Avengers: Endgame,” the semi-villainous Loki sacrificed himself to save Thor at the hands of Thanos — a tidy redemption story.
But now in “Loki,” the character is back — albeit not the same Loki who was killed, but a variant one from a different time stream.
If that makes your head hurt, you’re probably not alone.
For what it’s worth, the multiverse concept didn’t end well for DC Comics. The storyline got so convoluted that by 1985, the publisher was forced to blow it up and start over.