Villains are often the characters with the most agency in science fiction stories, using their genius to figure out how to take over the world or remake it in their image. But those schemes don’t have much value in a multiverse setting, where they can only exert influence on one of an infinite number of possible worlds. Confronted with the limitations of their actions, villains in multiverse-focused shows and movies keep hitting the same wall: They realize their limitations, succumb to nihilism, then desperately seek out a goal that will actually matter.
Long before Marvel Studios announced its Multiverse Saga, DC dug into comics’ rich multiversal history with the 2010 animated film Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. In many ways, the film is a classic Star Trek mirror-universe story, where the members of the Justice League confront evil versions of themselves and meet good versions of their most dastardly villains. But the real star is Batman’s wicked doppelganger, Owlman. Upon discovering the existence of the multiverse, he immediately deduces that the only meaningful action he can take is to destroy all of reality.
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It’s a dramatic escalation of the threat of an evil Justice League. Many stories assume the biggest danger in a morality-flipped DC universe would be an unchecked evil Superman, but Crisis on Two Earths instead finds a bigger threat in imagining Batman’s singular will and intellect bent toward destruction. Once Owlman embraces nihilism, he’s remarkably consistent, even greeting his defeat and death with a detached “It doesn’t matter.” Crisis on Two Earths is one of the rare DC animated films to have a direct sequel, leading into Justice League: Doom, where Batman devises ways to take down all of his teammates in case they ever come across rogue dimensional travelers again and says he expects the Justice League to stop him if he falls to darkness.
Multiverse stories are often about characters confronting visions of their own worst impulses. Loki’s version of Kang (Jonathan Majors) sums up that theme. Kang’s interactions with other multiversal versions of himself started out akin to the multiversal Council of Wells on The Flash, as a way for scientists to share technology and inspiration. But it quickly devolved into a war of conquest. The version of Kang seen in Loki, an exile dubbed He Who Remains, effectively won by collapsing reality into a single, relentlessly pruned universe. But he readily acknowledges the futility of even his herculean efforts.
Kang in Loki is a particularly zen-minded archvillain. He tries to tempt Loki with power, but he also makes it clear how little everything he ever wanted actually matters. Like Owlman, Kang doesn’t mourn his own death. In this case, he knows that allowing the multiverse to bloom once again will only unleash terrible new versions of himself upon the world. We’ll see how future iterations of Kang — next seen in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — warp his trajectory.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Jobu Tupaki aka Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu) comes to the same conclusion as Owlman, though it takes her a little longer to move to the endgame. Subjected to experiments that splintered her consciousness across the multiverse, Jobu begins by seeking vengeance on every version of her mother, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), before eventually coming up with the efficiency of collapsing the world into the “everything bagel.” The construct Jobu creates is literally a black hole of despair, with everyone who looks upon it embracing her all-consuming nihilism. That lets her build a fanatical cult and even push Evelyn to engage in self-destructive behavior as an escape from her family problems.
Yet writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert offer a beautiful repudiation of nihilism, arguing that the multiverse offers infinite potential not just for pain and despair, but for hope and love. Evelyn’s husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) has always used compassion to navigate an often hostile world, and he serves as a lifeline to his wife and daughter, inspiring Evelyn to effectively use kindness kung fu and reach into the multiverse to find exactly what will make each of her opponents happy.
Evelyn is able to heal her relationship with her daughter by declaring a love and devotion to her that spans all of reality, bringing Jobu and the world back from the brink by accepting Joy and herself.
One of the most nuanced explorations of nihilism in the face of the multiverse continues to unfold in Rick and Morty. In 2014, the show shifted from a zany Back to the Future parody to one of the sharpest adult animated series on TV with its sixth episode, “Rick Potion #9,” in which super-scientist Rick and his grandson Morty destroy an entire version of Earth, and Rick blithely opens a portal to a different reality where they can replace recently deceased versions of themselves.
Rick constantly spouts nihilist rhetoric to justify his callousness and outright atrocities. Over the course of the series, he’s been revealed to be similar to Kang, ripping apart the universe through his own self-destructive behavior. He encourages his daughter, Beth, to embrace the same ethos, pointing out, “When you know nothing matters, the universe is yours.”
Over the course of six seasons, Rick’s status as antihero or outright villain has vacillated based on how much he appears to actually believe in that nihilism. He has literally replaced his own family multiple times, yet he can’t help but develop some love for the versions he currently lives with, something he’ll only begrudgingly admit.
The nihilism plays out in Rick and Morty at a meta level, tied into the question of whether the show itself means anything. The multiverse has provided infinite ways for Rick and his family to escape their problems and cheat death, even if that sometimes means having to flee from Nazi shrimp. But with portal travel shut down at the end of season 5, Rick has been pushed into deeper character growth, and the writers have dug more into the world’s lore than ever before.
When the technology was repaired, Rick’s maniacal glee at a return to “classic Rick and Morty” is coupled with the casual cruelty to Morty that also defined those earlier episodes. The show’s writers seem to argue that Rick can only become a better person if he’s forced to live with his actions, rather than just rushing carefree into the next universe and the next silly adventure.
Nihilism is usually a reaction to feeling helpless in the face of an uncaring world, and the nihilism of understanding the entire multiverse compounds that helplessness by presenting a reality so vast that any individual can’t possibly impact it. Fantasies about endless universes and endless possibilities can provide fascinating villains on a scale no other type of story can match — villains whose will is so great that they can exert it across entire universes. It takes a special kind of hero to combat despair and aggression on that scale, and a special kind of optimism. What’s more heroic than someone who can face the darkest doubts the entire multiverse has to offer, and still come away with a sense of hope and purpose?