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Everything Everywhere All at Once, Rick and Morty, and the Happy Nihilism of the Multiverse
Believing "nothing matters" can be depressing or freeing. It's a choice.
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Multiverse stories are having a moment. The idea that there are other universes, with other versions of ourselves, offers an opportunity for almost boundless creativity—for example, see variations on Spider-Man in 2018’s “Into the Spider-Verse”—and an entertaining way to ponder the nature of existence. How do experiences shape who we become, and how different would we be if some decision or chance went the other way?
In particular, the infinite multiverse of the recently released film “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and hit TV show “Rick and Morty” explore a big existential question amidst sci-fi gadgets, actions scenes, and absurdist humor: When it comes to living, what’s the point? If every decision or chance outcome branches off a new universe, if everything that can happen happens somewhere, does any of it matter?
Both offer a similar answer, one some find depressing, but I think is beautiful.
SPOILERS FOR “EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE” AND “RICK AND MORTY” SEASON 1 BELOW
In “Rick and Morty,” Rick is genius scientist who invents a method of traveling between universes. This turns him into “the Infinite Rick,” capable of just about anything, as various versions of Rick and his teenage grandson Morty fly through space or jump to other universes, often leaving wreckage in their wake (which usually doesn’t bother them, not least because whatever they killed or destroyed is fine elsewhere). All this knowledge and power makes Rick nihilistic, and sometimes depressed, as he lives for little besides momentary amusement—in particular by demonstrating his superiority—and drinks heavily.
But Morty has a different take.
In the first season episode “Rick Potion #9,” Rick and Morty accidentally destroy humanity (they do that from time to time) and then, to Morty’s horror, Rick shrugs and opens a portal. They enter a new universe, one where Rick and Morty just died in an experiment gone wrong, and assume their identities. To Rick, it’s nothing, but Morty’s disturbed. The corpse he buried looks just like him—in a way, it is him—and the family he now lives with isn’t his family, even if they look and sound the same.
But two episodes later, he’s made his peace with it. In “Rixty Minutes,” Rick creates goggles that allow people to see themselves in other universes. Morty’s parents are openly jealous of the single and childfree versions of themselves, and it throws his older sister Summer into a funk. Then Morty comforts her with this:
Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's gonna die. Come watch TV.
It’s one of my favorite statements of existentialist philosophy. Morty acknowledges the pointlessness of human existence, and decides not to mind. If we don’t have some higher purpose, if we weren’t created for something special, we can still create meaning, even in mundane things like enjoying a show with family.
Similarly, in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) gets contacted by someone from another universe, who warns of a powerful entity called Jobu Tobaki threatening all existence. That villain turns out to be a version of Evelyn’s daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who gained a Rick-like ability to travel anywhere and do just about anything. Limitless and depressed, she creates a sort of multidimensional black hole and stares into it. As Nietzsche warned, the abyss gazes back into her, and she gets deeply nihilistic. Nothing matters, and the only worthwhile thing she can do is destroy existence, or at least destroy herself.
Evelyn gains similar abilities, and when Jobu Tobaki shows her the multidimensional black hole, she, too, realizes the fundamental pointlessness of life. She grows nihilistic and angry, and the people trying to save the multiverse worry they have another villain on their hands.
But in Evelyn’s original universe, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) surprises her by getting her out of a jam with the IRS, and a different version of him uses his dying words to implore her to “be kind.” Realizing it’s a choice gives Evelyn what she needs to defeat Jobu Tobaki’s minions; not with superior fighting skills, but by seeing universes where they’re happy and loved, and using that knowledge to show them a better life is possible.
And then Evelyn does something she couldn’t bring herself to do at the start of the movie, something that doesn’t require sci fi wizardry or supernatural powers. She accepts that Joy—her Joy, the non-multiversal version—has a girlfriend, and tells her culturally traditional father (James Hong), even though she fears he’ll disapprove. Meanwhile, Evelyn tells Jobu Tobaki that she wants a life with her, even if it’s mundane, difficult, and short.
Can we really do that, asks Joy, can we really just live and try to make it work? Evelyn responds by quoting something Jobu Tobaki told her, inverting it by using a positive tone:
Nothing matters. We can do whatever we want.
Like Morty reassuring Summer, Evelyn tells Joy they’ll make their own meaning as they tackle life’s challenges together. It’s beautiful.
Seeing “Everything Everywhere” got me thinking about God, in particular the religious argument that without God there’s no morality. It’s internally coherent, but I’ve never liked it. At one level, it’s almost a confession, where people say they’d like to do terrible things, but don’t, not because they think it’s wrong, but because they fear punishment. At a higher level, it’s still an argument from fear, claiming people need an authority figure to tell them right from wrong, like they don’t think they’re up to the challenge of doing it themselves.
Some religious people live moral lives, some don’t. Some non-religious people live immorally, some don’t. Empirically, religious faith is one of multiple paths to moral behavior, and hardly a guarantee of it.
Morality can come from God, but it doesn’t have to. It can come from human thought, that weird combination of reason and emotion. As in Plato’s conception of “forms,” we can hold the abstract idea that everything has a perfect version, from the perfect table to the perfect society, and while we can never truly know perfection, we can strive and get closer.
We are, as Hegel explained, creatures of will. And that means we can, through centuries, conclude that avoidable suffering is bad and love is good, and build systems of morality that make living together better. The Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is golden even if your soul won’t burn for violations.
None of this is an exact guide to every situation. Even confined to one universe, there are infinite possibilities. It’s impossible to fully know the forms.
But as Evelyn and Morty both realized, human connection is enough. Not necessarily for happiness, at least not all the time, but enough to make life worth it. Sure, nothing matters, but we can see that as freeing, and answer Albert Camus’ famous existential question—suicide?—with no, I choose to live.
Maybe there really is no meaning outside of what we make. So let’s make some.