Like that fresh-jumping device Evelyn uses to tap into her other self, the Internet is its own kind of mirror glass. In the lives of others, so magnified, minute, and measured, we see paths not taken, experiences not lived. But the Internet is more than a depressing video feed of other people’s parties. With curiosity and the blessing of anonymity, alt accounts, or just the complete lack of standards, the internet is also a place to embrace all sorts of opportunities, to mold yourself above your current, physical circumstances – a lesson Evelyn learns as she uses her other self’s abilities to defeat bad guys with butt plugs and Benihana knife skills.
But those are just the benefits of exploring one’s identity online. All that anonymity can also turn heroes into monsters. Peter Parker learns this in the first four minutes of Spider-Man: No Way Home when he is accused of murder in a deceptive video published by an expert with a huge platform. (Unsurprisingly, he turns out to be just a man with a ring light and a green screen.) Peter is cancelled, a fate worse than death because he and his friends can’t go to college now. Although his girlfriend, MJ, says she doesn’t regret it, Peter is “trying to live two different lives,” as his aunt explains, and he can’t handle it. The separation between the real Peter and the man who knows the internet is too onerous.
When the line between public and private is blurred, or downright destroyed, there is a demand to relinquish the private and public selves, to get hold of a personality that can traverse many different spheres and become critical at the same time. Viewed. It’s discouraging. Like Evelyn in Everything, there is a deep desire to ‘return to the way it was’. For Peter that means a time when he had a self of his own; for Evelyn, the simpler times of her youth. Instead, both characters burst at the seams as they face an onslaught of enemies: vicious enemies ruled by motives alien to the world of our protagonists. Isn’t that the nightmare of the internet, saying things in private in a weird semi-public space and being judged by strangers who don’t know our context or intentions?
The multiverse story set in these films is one that ultimately strives for wholeness. While fragmentation must first be acknowledged and even celebrated, jumping between worlds and selves is not a sustainable state. Peter and Evelyn both find this elusive wholeness, which Everything similar to enlightenment, by not only embracing a range of personality, but also by embracing their enemies. At a time when entire theaters burst into tears, Evelyn’s husband begs her. “I know you’re a fighter,” he says, but asks her to let go of her defensiveness. “All I know is that we have to be nice. Please be nice, especially if we don’t know what’s going on.” Both Evelyn and Peter realize that defending themselves and the people they love means treating enemies with empathy. That’s all well and good when you see superheroes and fantastic villains fighting on screen, something completely different when you have to deal with dehumanizing attacks online.
Evelyn and Peter have powers. Their concern for their enemies literally turns the enemies into other people, people who no longer threaten them. It’s disheartening and even condescending to learn that the reason ideologues like transphobes, anti-abortion activists, and garden variety trolls haven’t given up on their agendas is because they haven’t been treated with enough empathy that people who fear for their rights are just too mean.
Losing your defensiveness in real life can be life-threatening, throwing it off online is feeling that because you no longer protect your identity, you have to think it’s not worth protecting. To feel safe and empathetic online, we need to take advantage of the unique features of the Internet: experimentation, community organizing, access to limitless knowledge and an abiding urge to share, to find new ways to celebrate our diversity and to support. It’s in that vein that maybe we can take the lesson in the multiverse-as-internet movies seriously. We all travel from different worlds, all aliens to each other, and we might as well say when we meet: I come in peace.