On urban futures and the multiverse
by Linda Kopitz
Tokyo in Godzilla. New York in Independence Day. London in Flood. Popular (and large-budget) science fiction films have frequently played with the theme of a city threatened, a city destroyed, a city saved, and a city – eventually, hopefully – rebuilt from the ruins. In doing so, these films are not just a way of ‘working through’ contemporary fears and anxieties, but also a (collective) exercise in experimenting, playing with, alternative versions of the past, the present and the future of urban environments. In the past years, this imaginative potential of science fiction films has arguably been pushed even further with an increasing interest in representations of the multiverse.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi, 2022), the second installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe focusing on the titular Doctor Strange – a surgeon turned sorcerer tasked with protecting the world against threats from other dimensions – takes this to the extreme. While the film is not the first in the cinematic universe to introduce the concept of the multiverse, it is the first to suggest the possibility to consciously open (and step through) portals between these parallel universes. In one of the key scenes introducing the spatial connection in/of the multiverse, Doctor Strange falls through multiple realities – marked as the same urban street block in New York that simultaneously is, has been, will be different. The buildings submerged, the buildings destroyed, the buildings overgrown. The buildings as drawings, the buildings as computational circuits, the buildings as fragments. Prehistoric, futuristic, referential – in the continuous movement of the fall, the urban background changes in an increasingly fast succession, presenting a palimpsest of urban visions. The multiversal ‘fall’ of Doctor Strange is broken in the soft grass on the lush rooftop of one of the alternate New York’s alternate skyscrapers, between a greenhouse and the overgrown yet recognisable structures of chimneys and ventilation shafts. In the multiverse, this parallel version of the city is marked as both similar and different.
Turning around Susan Sontag’s famous claim in The Imagination of Disaster – that science fiction films are “concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess” – I am interested in the aesthetics of the world(s) built in narratives of parallel realities as both limited and excessive forms of imagination. The emphasis on ‘building’ has a dual meaning here: beyond the metaphorical worldbuilding of fictional media, the built environment takes on a particular function in the multiverse. More than just situating the film in a specific cultural setting, the visual backdrop of the city becomes a shortcut to convey the similarities and differences between parallel universes, parallel temporalities and parallel realities. The cityscape of Doctor Strange’s alternative landing point – on Earth-838 – is immediately recognisable as New York, referencing the look, sound and feel of the city that functioned as the literal background to earlier scenes in the film (as well as other installations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). This green(er) version of New York does not seem as strange, not as unfamiliar, not as unimaginable as other alternatives might have been.
Whereas science fiction films have, of course, also previously focused on imagining an alternative world, an alternative planet, or an alternative reality, films set in the multiverse present parallel versions of the world unfolding at the same time. The city threatened, the city destroyed, the city (re)built. The city as we know it and the city as a greener space – all at the same time. In the emphasis on parallelity, visions of time and space become fractured. In the context of the thematic focus of this special issue on sustainability, the extended exploration of what the multiverse means in a specifically more green, more sustainable version of the city becomes striking.
Featuring scenic sidewalks referencing a temporally suspended rural idyll under a rainbow colored sky, the film nonetheless highlights that the streets of New York are still, inescapable, made for car traffic. Put more drastically: the alternative urban versions of New York imagined in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness are not particularly imaginative as it comes to sustainability. “Imagination is key to processes of creating visions, which in turn directly informs those which we support in processes of becoming and the delivery of futures,” Nick Dunn writes in the Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries (2018). More provocatively formulated: if we cannot imagine it, we cannot build it. Science fiction films are, and have been, marked by their speculative potential, their experimental imagination of a different past, a different present and – maybe most importantly – a different future. And yet, even in the seeming limitlessness of a film like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (with an estimated production budget of around $294.5 million), our collective imagination of alternative urban visions as more green, more sustainable, more caring, appears to be limited to grassy rooftops and greened façades.
Here, returning to the emphasis on the multiverse, of parallel universes unfolding across time and space, brings us to the excessiveness of this imagination. In the multiverse, different versions of the same space exist independently from each other – and continue to exist even if one of the versions is destroyed. There is always another. The larger threat, then, appears to lie not in the destruction of the city, but in the end of its multiplicity – the differently looking, differently structured, and yet eerily similar versions collapsing onto each other. Different from the highly visible and visualised threat of destruction in earlier science fiction films – giant monsters lurching towards the city, suspicious storms gathering on the horizon, technological systems loudly registering dangerous anomalies – this threat remains largely invisible in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The human and more-than-human inhabitants of these different realities continue with life as they, in turn, know it.
In the multiverse of urban visions, unfolding and folding back into each other, I suggest to read a new passivity beyond what Susan Sontag calls early science fiction films’ “strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction”. The parallel continuation of reality in the multiverse mirrors the seeming inevitability of climate change as it unfolds elsewhere. If this city is destroyed, there will always be another. In doing so, the multiverse presents an excess of futures – on a limited planet.
Linda Kopitz connects her professional experience as a creative director with her interdisciplinary academic work – situated between media studies and urban studies – to research the intersection between technology and imaginations of the everyday.