meta analysis

2021 Was the Year of Too Much Metaverse

Photo: ABC; Lucasfiilm; Marvel

At the end of 2021, it is time to look back over the year and acknowledge the elephant in the room: Everything is a metaverse now, and it’s a total nightmare.

The current Bachelorette season just aired its finale, the second in two Bachelorette seasons where contestants from previous installments in the franchise returned to helm their own run, and next week The Bachelor will return with its titular role filled by a contestant from that just-wrapped season. The Bravo reality shows are less focused on inter-franchise crossovers, but there are now so many Below Decks and Real Housewives that at almost no point during the year do you need to be without a brand-new episode from some corner of those Bravoverses. (The same is true for Drag Race, a reality series once treasured for its relative scarcity that has now ballooned into a perpetual state of shantay-it’s-staying.) This month, The Book of Boba Fett will pick up one thread of where The Mandalorian left off in the Star Wars universe, and 1883 has arrived as a new branch of the nascent Yellowstone narrative world. Selling Sunset has added Selling Tampa, and it seems all but inevitable that we’ll get Selling Austin or something similar before too long. On Disney+’s Hawkeye, a previously unannounced actor entered the series, suggesting not just that a previously known character is now a part of this Hawkeye story but also that the Disney+ Marvel shows exist in the same universe as the Netflix Marvel shows as well as the current Marvel movies. Hooray/mind-blown emoji/uuughhhhhh.

Marvel is the most obvious, early, and egregious offender of the Too Much Metaverse problem. The first issue is that within the Marvel onscreen stories (and the original comics they’re adapting), there’s already a multiverse, a proliferation of eternal possibilities. Especially as we’ve gotten into Marvel’s TV titles over the last year, the fictional explanation is that there are infinite timelines and universes. There’s not just one Loki, and there’s not just one version of events. Lots of story is happening all the time, and there’s no need to think of any particular turn as definitive or final, because a character who dies in one place could still be alive somewhere else.

But Marvel is also, more obnoxiously, a metaverse. Beginning with its penchant for post-credits sequences way back in the Iron Man days, Marvel has been persistent and clear in laying the groundwork of how its metaverse should work. Here are the general principles: there are multiple titles in the metaverse, and each can have a distinctive style. But it’s a little like the multiverse idea. Every title has the potential of being connected to every other title — any character from one place can show up somewhere else, any event in one roughly self-contained narrative can potentially bust its way into a different one. It’s not limited to format, either. Film characters show up on the Marvel TV shows and vice versa. Everything is always a part of everything else, and nothing ever ends. It’s the obvious structural implication of that cheeky post-credits sequence — you thought it was done, but the ending is always undone! — but it’s also the broader ideology and marketing strategy of even having a fictional metaverse. Once the audience comes onboard, you never give them an off ramp.

While Marvel is what I would describe as an advanced-stage metaverse (extensive and irreversible endless sprawling metastasis), there are similar models at various stages of development all over pop culture. The many Disney+ Star Wars titles are building out the same general idea with characters like Boba Fett, Fennec Shand, and Ashoka Tano showing up in The Mandalorian and then being ported over to their own various series. The Bachelor reality franchise has actually been in this place for a while, starting around 2011, when it shifted to a model where the series leads are tested out as contestants in earlier seasons rather than freshly cast for each new franchise. It’s created additional series, too, like Bachelor in Paradise and Bachelor Winter Games, where fan favorites can come back to TV and revive their old story lines.

Until recently, the Bravoverses have not been as reliant on inter-title crossovers: Real Housewives of Salt Lake City don’t look up in shock and dismay as a Real Housewife of New York comes striding into the room. It’s more about constancy, the promise that the Bravo audience never needs to leave the world of a Real Housewives experience for long — New York, Orange County, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Dallas, Potomac. But Bravo treats them like a metaverse, marketing them with shared tropes and styles and furnishing them with the Watch What Happens Live after-show, where everyone from any corner of the Bravoverse can mix and start drama with anyone else. Plus 2021 saw the introduction of Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip, a Bachelor in Paradise–style spinoff for the favorites and villains from across the franchise.

All of this has been in the works for a while, but thanks to the advent of the Marvel TV shows, the proliferation of Real Housewives titles, the announcement of so many more Star Wars shows, and, of course, Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta” with its investment in the future of its social-media metaverse, 2021 is the year it’s really become unbearable. (Applebee’s has a new Metaverse Meal!) It’s related to the sequels and franchises sickness that’s been plaguing us for a few years now, that sense that anything that once ended could return at any moment. But there’s something even more exhausting and even more suggestive about the scale and the appeal of these enormous metaverses. It’s not just the potential that something could continue; it’s the promise that something will continue, that you need never be left alone in the cold hard finitude of an ending.

It has a frustrating impact on storytelling, because the arrival of some new but never actually new character is treated as meaningful in and of itself. The narrative pleasure is rarely a result of something particular to the character — I’m sure there was some subset of the fandom waiting desperately for Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin to reenter the Marvel metaverse, but it’s more about the appeal of recognition and familiarity. The pleasure is meant to come from the knowledge of the connection, from the comfort of even more evidence that everything is tied together with everything else. It’s a model that trades the high-reward but high-risk craft of fictional invention for the safety of fictional familiarity. Metaverses are like nothing as much as thumbing through a stack of collectible cards (baseball or Pokémon, take your pick), smiling in recognition as each face comes up once again.

Look, I’m just gonna say it: When there’s a metaverse, you never have to worry about death. Or not really, not in the same way. Its cruelty is blunted, and even tragedies like Carrie Fisher’s death are softened, transmuted into a poignant CGI farewell. (It remains to be seen what Marvel will do with Black Panther, but the only absolute surety is there will be more Black Panther in some form.) Characters die, but the stories do not. They continue in perpetuity, maybe even in several timelines at once, which means that creators and audiences do not have to grapple with what it might mean to reach an endpoint. It’s possible to take these fictional implications seriously, to really wrestle with what they might mean — Matrix Resurrection does this with a twisting, self-aware consciousness of what it means when characters are pulled back by popular demand. But Matrix’s wariness of that idea is unusual, as is its explicit teasing about the underlying corporate-profit goals.

It’s a bit different for reality television, where the in-narrative metaverse lies so much closer to the surface of actual life: Death retains more of its sting. Beyond that one hard line, though, reality television’s metaverse logic retains all of the same potential as its more fictional counterpart: Happy endings are conditional, and characters who get left behind can always return, popping up in new franchises or fading away and coming back again. The metaverse is not just an alternate reality; it’s an improved version of reality where endings are provisional and all your favorite characters are friends (or mortal enemies — just as fun) and you never have to leave. The corporate-marketing advantage of this is painfully simple. People want to escape, and if they’ll pay to stay in the unending metaverse, then great, rack up the money!

But it’s hard not to be reminded about all those trite truisms about absence making the heart grow fonder, about valuing life because it is short, about how transience forces us to appreciate what we have while it’s here. The too-muchness of the metaverse makes everything seem cheaper. The stakes are lower, the surprises thinner, and the inescapability starts to feel less like a promise and more like a threat. If 2021 was the year of the metaverse, how long before we get to the year when everyone says, “Enough!”?

2021 Was the Year of Too Much Metaverse