'Everything Everywhere All at Once' and the Monoculture of the Multiverse
This year’s Oscar juggernaut rode the awards wave as an alternative to the Marvelization of Hollywood, but all that originality distracts from its lack of substance.
Amid the haze of leftovers and holiday decor the week after Thanksgiving, film critics began the careful crafting of the year’s Top Tens. But last fall, what usually marks the beginning of a curated list of movies to catch up on during the holidays became a more-curious-than-usual Twitter bloodsport. The leading film critics at The New York Times– Manohla Dargis and the now-retired A.O. Scott–both left the spring of 2022’s sleeper hit Everything Everywhere All at Once off of their lists, and the movie’s fans just couldn’t handle it (apparently ignorant of or willfully ignoring Scott’s praise for the sci-fi dramedy in his initial review).
Perhaps the film about a laundromat owner (Michelle Yeoh) learning she is the chosen one tasked to save multiple universes while a crazed IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) audits her really did connect that deeply with viewers in ways an indie film hasn’t since the mid-90s. After all, it did manage a $76 million domestic box-office haul. But the level of vitriol became so toxic that one of the film’s directors, Daniel Kwan, pleaded with fans to stop in an open letter on Twitter. The direct address may have worked, leading to what ended up a fairly genteel post-Weinstein awards season. It may also have been a covert campaign that primed the film for accolades by reminding all the journalists who covered it and the insiders who read about the exchange that it was both a popular and commercially successful art film unlike everything else in the running.
But nearly three weeks after the Oscars, two takeaways about the state of the movies are clear: 1) No other film stood a chance and 2) Anything that deviates from Everything Everywhere’s playbook may never win again.
By now, even the most casual of pop-culture consumers know that Everything Everywhere swept the Oscars by winning seven statues, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Editing as well as trophies for Yeoh and supporting players Curtis and Ke Huy Quan. If the film had also featured a leading male performance, it would have become the first in history to win all four acting awards as well as the top prizes. In another multiverse, Everything Everywhere could have been the most honored film in the Academy’s 95 years by winning just one more statue. The definitive example of the American cinema would no longer feature a sled called Rosebud or a sinking ocean liner, but a scene where two minor characters shove IRS “Auditor of the Month” trophies shaped like buttplugs up their rectums and have a manic kung fu fight.
In the year since its release, I’ve put off writing about Everything Everywhere. It came nowhere close to holding a spot on my own Top Ten of 2022 or joining the accompanying list of notable films I enjoyed that didn’t quite make the cut. I liked the film enough to buy a 4K Blu-ray when it became a $9 doorbuster at WalMart’s Black Friday sale, but I would never have considered it an essential addition to my movie library.
Unless adopting a contrarian posture or just writing clickbait, a trained film critic can’t deny that Yeoh, Quan, and Curtis turn in some impressive, even award-worthy work. Nor could they claim that Daniels–the collective professional moniker of Kwan and his creative partner Daniel Scheinert–aren’t unique visual stylists with a distinct comic sensibility that bridges surrealism and gross-out comedy to varying degrees of success (witness the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe in their 2016 feature debut Swiss Army Man).
My primary issue was that an honest assessment of a movie like Everything Everywhere has no place in the current discourse. A critic dismissing the latest Marvel movie or horror film just reifies the profession’s reputation as elite and far-moved from popular taste. But to maintain any sort of legitimacy in the eyes of the new establishment, a critic has to take Everything Everywhere seriously–not required to give it a rave, but, at least, to frame its flaws within constructive language. That the film has a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score and the only legacy critic to give it a pan is the notoriously cantankerous Richard Brody of The New Yorker makes clear that culture writers on the wrong side of the movie place themselves in a vulnerable professional position.
When Kwan tweeted out his gentle harangue to Everything Everywhere fans, he clearly knew such was the case. “Next time you see something about our film that makes you angry, take a step back, remind yourself why you fell in love with our movie,” Kwan said. “Those feelings are infinitely more important to you than any list from some critic who has a completely different lived experience from you.” As Kwan subtly suggests, the only reason a critic would disagree with the movie’s passionate fanbase is that their “lived experience” prevents them from properly engaging with it.
Discussions of narrative and thematic coherence, performance, and artistry are not up for debate. As Jasmine Hu-Hollingshead cautioned in her essay on the film and Pixar’s Asian-American teen tale Turning Red, art is not therapy; conflicts and messiness are the whole darn point. Nevertheless, Everything Everywhere ended up a sacred object with the power to cleanse personal traumas and, like the loudmouth atheist armed with historical inaccuracies in the Bible, its detractors may as well be soulless–guilty of all the pejorative isms in all the universes.
Though Kwan ridiculed the notion of pitting films against each other while mandating decorum and critical consensus, he had nothing to say last summer when Jamie Lee Curtis went on a weeks-long social media diatribe against Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness after its $185M opening weekend. Inexplicably, Curtis seemed fixated on mocking the work of the movie’s visual effects team. The difference between the films, according to Curtis, is that Everything Everywhere “has a deep BEATING heart and BRILLIANT visual treats, EXTRAORDINARY performances and FANTASTIC BEASTLY FIGHT SCENES...... AND it COST LESS than the ENTIRE craft service budget on Doctor Strange and/or any other Marvel movie.”
By the time Curtis’s rogue PR blitz began, there seemed little point. Everything Everywhere got its reviews, made an impressive amount of money for its production company, A24, and was shuffling out of theaters as the summer movie season began eating up screens. The beef seemed to stem from the plot similarities between the two films–both of which take place in multiversal narrative worlds.
In Everything Everywhere, Yeoh’s Evelyn encounters an alt-reality version of her husband, Waymond (Quan), who tells her that only she can defeat a villainous iteration of her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), threatening to consume the whole universe via an apocalyptic bagel with literally everything in existence on it. A wild telepathic ride through the multiverse ensues featuring versions of the characters immersed in the culinary world, made of rocks, and equipped with hotdog fingers.
In Doctor Strange, teen superhero America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) encounters an alt-reality version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s surgeon-turned-sorcerer who tells her they must defeat a multiverse-traveling and mentally unhinged Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) hellbent on resuming life with the children she lost in Marvel’s Disney+ series WandaVision and willing to sacrifice all worlds to do so.
By creating a dichotomy between her film and the latest Marvel installment, Curtis intended to distinguish her self-proclaimed groundbreaking and visionary indie work from the cinematic pap that Hollywood’s superhero obsession begat. Yet, what she really did was make irrevocable parallels between the projects that highlight the prefabricated and ubiquitous franchise potential of her film. The lazy criticism of Everything Everywhere is that it’s just a Marvel movie with arthouse flourishes and–as Curtis boasts–a much smaller budget.
Evelyn is the flawed raw material for a superhero on the verge of divorce and financial ruin who has failed to achieve her dreams, living out a listless existence before she embarks on her journey–a working-class, gender-swapped, and diversified version of Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, or Dr. Stephen Strange. The Daniels orchestrate set-piece fight sequences during the film’s Marvelesque 139-minute run time that, while inventive and often hilarious in their crassness and postmodern allusion, don’t differ much from those in Marvel’s better movies entrusted to name filmmakers like Multiverse director and horror legend Sam Raimi or initial Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon in his precancellation days.
While A24 had earned its iconoclastic reputation before it won most of this year’s top Oscars with Everything Everywhere and the rest for Brendan Fraser and his fatsuit in The Whale, it’s a company as calculated as Marvel in its merchandising and revenue streams (witness its $48 artisanal candles that supposedly smell like movie genres). Evelyn didn’t appear on any Happy Meal boxes. Still, A24 tried to launch a partnership for the film with Oscar Mayer before the movie’s release to capitalize on those hotdog fingers. Not to mention, fans can still buy the googly eyes Waymond sticks on everything from its official online store for double the price of the same craft supplies at Hobby Lobby.
The film’s core flaw is that despite its world-building, whiz-bang effects, and dedicated performances, Everything Everywhere is ultimately a movie of platitudes. After all the narrative wormholes and dildo fights, the film simply hinges on Evelyn’s need to accept Joy as a lesbian and then focus on her own self-care so–as interdimensional Waymond tells her in the first act– she is no longer living her worst life. It’s a film with a climax in which Waymond inspires Evelyn by claiming, “The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind,” after nearly two hours of fight scenes that display a wanton disregard for life rivaling any 80s Chuck Norris action vehicle as innocent passerby, security guards, and bystanders become cannon fodder. It makes sense that fans of a movie in which an underachieving millennial’s cries of rage ignite multiple Armageddons would eviscerate any critic not wise enough to place it atop their annual accolades list. It makes more sense that Daniels would ignore that the real threat to Evelyn’s individual autonomy is the IRS and other soul-crushing bureaucracies in its mode.
Though she likely doesn’t realize it, Curtis’ venom aimed at Doctor Strange merely extends Everything Everywhere’s central point into the real world: victimhood reigns. In truth, Daniels’ film lacks a hero. Evelyn remains the sci-fi equivalent of TikTok ne'er-do-wells who start a fitness or reading challenge channel and abandon it five posts in. Rather than come to terms with her failures and those of her daughter, the film prefers Evelyn to immerse herself in wish fulfillment as she traverses the multiverse and realizes she can do anything and be anyone if she just sets her mind to it in worlds that owe a great debt to a host of better films like Ratatouille, In the Mood for Love, and The Matrix.
To their credit, Daniels’ cultivated formidable careers in the music video world thanks to their gifts for pastiche and absurdity before their work on DJ Snake and Lil John’s viral “Turn Down for What” allowed them to graduate to feature filmmaking. But unlike fellow MTV alums like Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are, Her) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep), they have yet to figure out how to attach multidimensionality and moral weight to their characters within the zaniness—erroneously thinking that making a film focused on underrepresented minorities would do the work in and of itself while ginning up a press hyperfocused on such issues. Evelyn’s hero’s journey ends up as little more than witty self-delusion.
Its megabudget and mass appeal aside, the latest Doctor Strange understands that one cannot be a hero without sacrifice. Evelyn may have been a failure all her life, but Strange chose to be a failure an Avengers movie or two ago to restore all of humanity to its pre-Thanos glory. Multiverse follows a Strange still reeling from that choice. During his voluntary five-year absence, he lost his position as Earth’s head wizard plus the love of his life—sacrifices Raimi deftly reveals as Strange attends the wedding of his one and only.
Like the Scarlet Witch, he, too, could harness the power of the multiverse to restore his former world. In fact, he discovers other versions of himself have done exactly that. But he won’t because he knows someone has to be responsible. Like Peter Parker in Marvel’s first multiverse caper, Spider-Man: No Way Home (or It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, Casablanca’s Rick Blaine, Do the Right Thing’s Mookie, and other countless heroes in classic films less brimming with Oscar glory than Everything Everywhere), he knows he has to live with the fact that the right choice can’t leave him fully intact. It’s a lesson Evelyn would do well to learn.