Three things happen over the course of an afternoon. I receive an invitation to a technical test of WB’s new title MultiVersus, a Super Smash Brothers-style fighting game in which all of the company’s various intellectual properties across film and television battle it out. Later, I am informed by my work Slack that the Street Fighter characters will soon be appearing in the card game Magic: The Gathering. Finally, I learn that Tom Holland as Nathan Drake in the Uncharted movie is now a playable character in Fortnite. More and more, popular culture feels like a toybox full of interchangeable action figures being mashed together to sell consumers on an endless world of interconnected services and products.
Call it the Disney Effect — as more and more stories and characters come under the ownership of fewer and fewer corporations, the boundaries between them become blurred. Characters become less fictional people within narrative structures and more images that can be reproduced and modified as necessary while retaining their brand recognition. This isn’t new — cartoons have been selling kids toys for decades — but it feels different lately, perhaps because the dynamic has increasingly expanded to adult-oriented media.
There’s an obvious financial motivator here that’s been lurking behind crossover stories since the earliest days of superhero comics — putting a beloved character in another story or series makes it more likely that fans will pick up that one. Of course, this isn’t a wholly supply-side issue. It’s fun for authors and readers to see their favorite characters interact, as fanfiction testifies. But there’s a difference between fan-driven stories and officially-endorsed ones, and between subtle, unsanctioned pop culture references and overt crossovers, as Carmilla Morrell points out in her essay on The Simpsons.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like having the Joker fight Keanu Reeves in Fortnite is sullying the dignity of the Batman or John Wick franchises. But the appetite for these kinds of crossovers, to me, speaks to a willingness to see popular culture as an indistinguishable slurry of content. It’s the Ready Player One dream of endless virtual worlds populated by recognizable characters, the NFT true believer’s vision of seamless integration of virtual property across countless different games.
Ultimately, it’s the drive towards a replacement world of fantasy, one in which media and art aren’t temporary activities inviting us to reflect on our lives, but endless entertainments promising consistent dopamine hits, familiar faces, and comfortable loops. And why shouldn’t people want those things? Life can be painful and frustrating, work is often meaningless and unfulfilling, and both traditional news and social media routinely reinforce our feelings of fear and powerlessness.
So why should it matter if someone wants to lose themselves in a fantasy world of superheroes, cartoons, and action movies? Some might even say that in becoming larger-than-life figures who interact with one another, pop culture characters have become a modern equivalent of, say, the Ancient Greek pantheon of gods. I wouldn’t say that, though, because that would be a stupid thing to say. Cynicism towards organized religion aside, stories about gods aren’t typically owned by major corporations. They also exist for purposes other than making money — to explain natural phenomena, or to teach lessons about the world, for example.
Conversely, the goal of the corporate-driven concept of the “multiverse” (or “metaverse”) is to keep you invested in it. Keep playing, keep watching, keep scrolling — just don’t look away. It’s an amorphous notion, more investor buzzword than anything concrete so far, but it’s maybe best considered as the culmination of the media consolidation of the last several decades, both in terms of the internet and intellectual properties. We used to have forums, IRC channels, and bulletin boards. Now we have a half a dozen sites we all use, each of which — like the biggest video games — are scientifically calibrated to ensure that we are drawn to them as frequently as possible by the dangling possibility of a reward.
It’s hard to blame anyone for being entranced by these systems, but it’s important to recognize that what they offer is hollow engagement rather than lasting fulfillment. This isn’t just about “technology bad, people good,” it’s about figuring out how you want to live and how much of your life you want Meta or Twitter or Disney to run. Take it from me, a chronically-online person — the answer is probably “less.”