The MCU’s multiverse is no longer the purview of a handful of characters and a few movies. Avengers: Endgame‘s Time Heist might have saved the universe, but it also set the MCU on a much more complex path. Infinite paths actually, to infinite dimensions and parallel worlds. These branching timelines and other realities are changing the face of the entire franchise for every Marvel Cinematic Universe hero and villain. And that’s true for both new and (very) old characters alike.
Marvel’s multiverse can be a lot to keep track of, even for those creating it. But while all those roads can be confusing, they are important. Especially after Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Fortunately, we’re here to help break down the multiverse’s most important figures, storylines, and many divergent paths. From Doctor Strange‘s dimensions, the Quantum Realm, Loki‘s Variants, and more, here’s everything you need to know about the MCU’s multiverse.
What Is the MCU’s Multiverse?
As laid out by the Ancient One in Doctor Strange and confirmed by He Who Remains on Loki, the MCU exists in a world “without end,” because the MCU’s multiverse is infinite. Vastly different parallel worlds, along with vastly different dimensions, all exist. Anything and everything can happen within them. And they can cause utter destruction to one another. There are differences between other dimensions and parallel worlds, though.
Another dimension is an entirely different plane of existence. It’s possible to be in one plane while still observing another. However, if you travel the multiverse and go into a parallel world, you will only perceive the world you currently reside in. If that’s confusing, here are a couple of analogies.
According to the MCU’s multiverse theory, being in another dimension is akin to being a ghost. If you become a ghost, you exist in a different plane of reality, but you can still see the world you left behind.
Meanwhile, visiting a parallel world is more like walking through a portal into a new destination. Imagine if you walked into a world identical to our world, except the sky is purple instead of blue. In the purple world, you would no longer see the blue sky of home. Also, your actions in the purple world would impact everyone there instead.
In the MCU, other dimensions sometimes have no ability to impact each other. Even when one can be perceived within another. But both parallel worlds and other dimensions sometimes pose existential threats to other planes in the multiverse.
Marvel’s Multiverse Explained By Dimension, Realm, and Property
Countless dimensions and realities (a.k.a. parallel worlds) also mean countless sinister dimensions and threats too. The Ancient One explained that chilling fact to Stephen Strange when he first arrived at Kamar-Taj during the events of Doctor Strange.
“This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds without end. Some benevolent and life giving. Others filled with malice and hunger. Dark places where powers older than time lie ravenous…and waiting.”
The “infinite dangers” the former Sorcerer Supreme warned of have already been seen in many dimensions and parallel worlds within the MCU. But so have other less nefarious places. These are the most important ones—good, evil, and in-between—to appear in the MCU so far. (Please note, this article deals only with the MCU, not Marvel Comics.)
The Many Dimensions of the First Doctor Strange Movie
Stephen Strange first saw the true scope of existence when his soul traveled through many dimensions in his first film. Some were beautiful, others nightmarish. His journey took him through wonderfully named planes like the Mandelibus, Actiniaria, Flowering Incense, and Grass Jelly Dimensions. He then got a glimpse of the diversity of parallel worlds during his unplanned “jump” with America Chavez in Multiverse of Madness. The pair dived through planes of existence made of paint, cubism, animation, and more.
These briefly seen places are all visual marvels worth exploring for any sorcerer-in-training. But thus far, these dimensions have been unimportant in the MCU. The first Doctor Strange film did introduce three vital dimensions to the franchise, though.
The Astral Dimension, sometimes called the Astral Plane, is “a place where the soul exists apart from the body.” Masters of the Mystic Arts can leave their physical bodies behind and enter the Astral Dimension. Within the Astral Plane they exist as pure energy. They still look like ghostly versions of themselves, though. Sorcerers can also push other souls into this plane. The Ancient One did just that to Stephen Strange. She also pushed Bruce Banner’s soul out of Professor Hulk in Avengers: Endgame. Strange himself did this to Spider-Man in No Way Home.
Marvel’s Astral Plane exists around and next to the physical Earth Realm. Souls in the Astral Dimension float through the physical world, but the two are not the same place. They are different and independent planes of existence. What happens in the Astral Dimension does not affect the physical world. An astral projection can reveal itself to a physical being, though, as Stephen Strange did to Dr. Christine Palmer.
Time also works differently within the Astral Dimension. A single moment can be stretched out so that a dying Sorcerer Supreme can have a long conversation with the next one. In Doctor Strange, we see a discussion start and end before a bolt of lightning hits the ground.
This plane of existence also lets those who access it multitask. A body can sleep or enjoy a mug of tea in the physical realm while the soul reads a book in the Astral Dimension. Doctor Strange made use of the Astral Realm while studying the Mystic Arts. And in WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff used this aspect of the multiverse to study the Darkhold. Finally, it was also within the Astral Plane where Wanda heard the voices of her sons, Billy and Tommy. (Though what dimension her kids—not their Variants—currently exist, if they do, is still unknown.)
Non-sorcerers can access the Astral Plane and have done so at other points in the franchise. However, depending on the MCU property, this dimension goes by other names and appears differently. The Astral dimension’s presence in Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Moon Knight, as well as its overall importance to the MCU’s multiverse, are discussed later in the article.
Sorcerers also frequently access the Mirror Dimension. This dimension is an exact copy of the physical world it parallels. “Ever present but undetected,” the Ancient One said. “The real world isn’t affected by what happens here.” It’s why Masters of the Mystic Arts use it “to train, surveil, and sometimes to contain threats.”
A sorcerer working to save the physical world can lock an enemy within the Mirror world. Nearly every person gets stuck in there if they don’t have a Sling Ring, which sorcerers use to access the realm. Without a sling ring hey have no way to get out. That’s how Peter Parker managed to tie up Doctor Strange inside the Mirror Dimension in No Way Home. Only the supremely powerful Wanda Maximoff found a way out of a mirror dimension prison. She escaped by moving through reflections in the real world.
A Mystic Arts master might also learn new skills in the Mirror Dimension that they can then use against an unsuspecting and unprepared enemy. It’s the ultimate secret training ground.
The Mirror Dimension is not invulnerable, though. Doctor Strange attempted to use it in his fight with Thanos on Titan in Infinity War. But Thanos used the Power Stone to shatter the Mirror Dimension and turn it against Strange. And while it can be used for good, the Mirror Dimension can also be used for sinister purposes. Those who practice darker magic can also hide within it, train, and jail foes within it. Their willingness to access another dimension’s terrible power also gives them additional strength within the Mirror world.
You don’t get a name like the Dark Dimension because you’re full of sunshine and rainbows. You get that moniker because you belong to the Cosmic Conqueror, Dormammu, Doctor Strange‘s interdimensional monster. The Dark Dimension is also known by the equally unpleasant moniker the Hell Dimension. (If that name is not an exaggeration it might also house the much-awaited Mephisto.) What it definitely contains, though, are all of the worlds consumed by Dormammu.
This fate awaited Earth, but Doctor Strange struck a bargain with the MCU’s Eater of Worlds.
Earth almost became part of the unnatural Dark Dimension because a former Master of the Mystic Arts, Kaecilius, and his followers fell prey to its promise. The Dark Dimension is “a world beyond time” and therefore a world beyond death. It’s so strong it’s possible to draw power from it to extend your life in other dimensions. Sorcerers who do harness this dark energy, known as the Dark Force, become more powerful inside the Mirror Dimension.
But it’s not just misguided magic users who sometimes draw from the Dark Dimension. The Earth-born Ancient One used the Dark Dimension to live for hundreds of years, violating the natural order. Messing with Dark Force is a dangerous game for everyone and every dimension.
That was equally true for anyone learning the secrets of the Darkhold. That sinister book of dangerous magic was made by Chthon from the dark energy of the Dark Dimension. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness showed just how much “the book of the damned” corrupted its users, even those with good intentions. But that wasn’t the only major contribution the film made to the ever-expanding multiverse of the MCU.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the Connections Between Worlds
We knew about the existence of the MCU’s parallel worlds before Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. We also knew about Variants. But what we didn’t know was just how connected they can be. The film introduced new concepts that completely change the possibilities for everyone in every universe.
Incursions and the Destruction of Entire Universes
An incursion is when two MCU universes collide with one another. When that happens either one or both of them are completely destroyed. That’s why the Illuminati killed the facial hair-free Supreme Strange of Earth-838. His use of the Darkhold caused an incursion that destroyed an entire universe, killing trillions.
A type of incursion can also happen when someone toys with the fabric of reality itself. Two Doctor Strange Variants did this, bringing about the destruction of their own universe. The first happened on What If…? The other happened in Multiverse of Madness with Sinister Strange.
The introduction of incursions to the MCU could mean the franchise is now building to its next big event, Secret Wars.
Waypoints and the Gap Junction
The Book of Vishanti, the antithesis of the Darkhold, rested in a nexus dimension between worlds of the MCU’s multiverse. That dimension is known as the Gap Junction. Doctor Strange 2 didn’t invest much time explaining why it looks the way it does, but we did see Variants from multiple universes access it. That included Defender Strange and main Stephen Strange, who went from Earth-838 via a secret portal called a Waypoint. If a door exists in one world to the Gap Junction, theoretically you can travel to parallel dimensions via the Gap Junction. Or you can rely on a singular nexus being who has the ability to hop between worlds.
The One and Only America Chavez
America Chavez has no Variants. She also has an incredible power. America can move freely between the realms of the MCU’s multiverse, an ability she finally learned to control by the end of Doctor Strange 2. A powerful being can absorb her power, but if anyone succeeds she will die during the transfer. Though others, even the most powerful beings in Marvel’s multiverse, can’t do that, they do have a way to make their presence felt in other universes.
Dreams and Dreamwalking in the MCU
When someone in the MCU has a dream they aren’t seeing a creation of their subconscious. What they are seeing is the real life of one of their Variants from the MCU’s multiverse. Main Strange didn’t imagine Defender Strange and America running from a demon in the Gap Junction. He saw what really happened to them. Anytime someone in the MCU has a dream (not necessarily a vision) they are introducing new Variants to the franchise.
While dreams are passive connections between Variants, dreamwalking is an active connection. Not to mention an evil one. The Darkhold allowed its users to remotely control one of their Variant’s bodies across dimensions. Wanda did this from Earth-616, turning Wanda Mom of Earth-838 into a “meat puppet.” Doctor Strange also did this with his Variant’s corpse. Dreamwalking is the darkest of magic (using a dead body is especially forbidden), and whether or not anyone can do it now that Wanda destroyed the Darkhold in every universe is unknown.
Black Panther‘s Ancestral Plane
The Astral Plane is a dimension living souls can access, but not one we’ve ever seen a dead person’s soul in. Meanwhile, the connected Ancestral Plane of Black Panther is a realm where a soul goes after its body dies. It’s not limited to just the dead, though. T’Challa and Killmonger both traveled there while still alive and spoke to their deceased fathers.
Marvel Studios’ T’Challa and Killmonger each journeyed to the Ancestral Plane after they consumed the Heart-Shaped Herb before being buried in order to journey there. This ethereal world appeared differently to each of them. T’Challa went to lands similar to his country, but it was a world of un-Earthly bio fluorescence and beauty. And Killmonger went to the home he grew up in with his father in Oakland. When each man woke, far less time had passed on Earth than he had experienced in the Ancestral Plane because time moves much slower there.
The Astral Plane and the Ancestral Plane share many of the same traits and are clearly connected. As is another realm of the dead in the MCU.
Moon Knight and the Duat
Marc Spector and Steven Grant went to the Duat following their death on Moon Knight. There they encountered the Ancient Egyptian hippo goddess Taweret. She told them they were not in “the” afterlife, but merely “an” afterlife. According to her, “many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.” That particular realm of the dead, the one Ancient Egyptians believed in, leads to a soul either becoming forever frozen in the sands of the Duat or living for eternity in the paradise known as the Field of Reeds.
But Taweret still knew about the “gorgeous” Ancestral Plane of Black Panther. Supernatural beings who live in one realm of dead souls home still know, and can seemingly visit, other realms of the dead. Unlike the Ancestral Plane, though, there is a way for souls in the Duat to return to the land of the living. Osiris must allow them passage through his gates. If it’s possible to move between “intersectional planes of untethered consciousness” it’s possible for anyone to return from the dead.
Those who die in the MCU appear to arrive in afterlife connected to what they believed in while alive. As for the Field of Reeds, it’s unclear if all those intermediary planes of the dead lead to one single paradise for all souls. But what does seem clear is that each and every realm of the dead belongs to a dimension that contains all souls and their subsequent realms.
Infinity War‘s Soul Stone and Soulworld
When someone uses the Soul Stone, they enter a separate dimension inside the magic space rock. Thanos went there after his Snap in Infinity War. In the Soulworld, he met his daughter Gamora as a small child. Professor Hulk visited that plane too, though we didn’t see what he encountered there. And Tony Stark, before he died, saw his young daughter as a grown woman in an Endgame deleted scene.
The Soulworld is not only where people go when they use the Soul Stone. It’s where souls go when they die. The Soul World may hold the Ancestral Plane and the Duat. In the MCU, a world beyond life exists. It has many names and takes many forms, and it can be accessed in many ways. But it’s all one place, hidden in Marvel’s multiverse.
Ant-Man‘s Quantum Realm
The Quantum Realm is so important to the MCU we wrote an extensive primer on it before Avengers: Endgame. Then Scott Lang realized it could be used as a portal through time. You’ll definitely want to read that breakdown too. It explains why the Quantum Realm is not merely a smaller-scale version of Earth’s realm. It is actually an entirely different dimension. If you shrink your physical form down enough, you leave your own plane of existence and cross over into another one. As the MCU’s Quantum Realm is a unique dimension, just as the Astral or Mirror dimensions are. But it’s seemingly more important than both combined.
The Quantum Realm already reshaped the MCU by undoing the Snap. But its potential to totally upend the MCU going forward might very well extend beyond time travel. Especially if the Quantum Realm exists beyond the end of time itself, a place as we saw in Loki‘s finale.
The castle, known as the Citadel, of He Who Remains exists in a dimension outside and independent of time itself. Where that Citadel is located exactly is still unknown. But its surreal, swirling environment full of color looked a lot like the Quantum Realm. Considering the Quantum Realm can be used to hop in and out of a timeline, it’s the best candidate for where the Citadel exists. If that’s true, He Who Remains and the staff of the TVA are essentially time travelers.
Doctor Strange and Spider-Man quickly also entered an identical-looking plane when Strange’s spell broke apart in Spider-Man: No Way Home. That very well might have been the Quantum Realm too, and not just because of how it looked. Strange’s spell pulled in other Peter Parkers and his enemies from multiple dimensions. But they each come out of different points in time, even those who came from the same parallel world. That spell didn’t just open the multiverse, it opened up portals through time.
Loki‘s Variants and Parallel Worlds
Loki’s six-episode run on Disney+ took everything we knew about the MCU and flipped it on its head. Then it twisted and spun the entire franchise and its history all around, so we have no idea which way is up. Because as soon as He Who Remains gave us answers to monumental questions, Sylvie created even bigger ones when she killed him. (The show also left some important topics open to interpretation rather than explicitly addressing them.) Some valuable lessons Loki taught us about the MCU’s multiverse remain true, though.
The dimension where the Avengers live, now labeled Earth-616, has an infinite number of parallel universes “stacked” on top of it. Many of those parallel worlds look very similar to each other. Doctor Strange 2 confirmed that fact, first introduced on Loki, where Variants and the many versions of He Who Remains fought a Multiversal War. Some Variants look like exact copies of each other, and their worlds have similar histories. But even those can have significant differences. Loki can, for instance, lose the Battle of the New York in one part of Marvel’s multiverse but win in another.
The existence of infinite parallel worlds has major ramifications beyond even what we’ve seen in the MCU so far. For example, Tony Stark is dead in the universe we know. But an infinite number of Tony Starks must still live in parallel worlds. In some, he could be evil. In others, he didn’t defeat Thanos with the Snap. Another Avenger did. Other Variant Tonys never even became Iron Man. Instead, they died in that cave. Or lived the easy life of a genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist. The same holds true for every character, living or dead, in the main timeline.
Marvel’s What If…? series introduced some of these alternate realities. On What If…?, Peggy Carter stays in a room instead of leaving it. Because of that one decision she ends up a Super Soldier instead of Steve Rogers, thus changing history forever. Those alternate realities/parallel worlds can co-exist in peace. It’s even possible to travel between them and share knowledge and technology. So long as multidimensional travelers avoid three potentially catastrophic pitfalls. 1) don’t fight with each other, 2) don’t cause branches to the Sacred Timeline that keeps every parallel world contained, 3) don’t cause an incursion.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also showed how major figures never before seen in Earth-616’s reality exist in the multiverse. Professor X and the rest of the Illuminati showed just how similar and different worlds can be at the same time. The group included other versions of characters we know from the main timeline alongside important characters that don’t have Earth-616 counterparts. Yet.
Multiversal War and the Sacred Timeline
He Who Remains won a Multiversal War against his own Variants. (Possibly/likely not the first such war, and definitely not the last.) Once he and his Variants learned inter-dimensional travel between parallel worlds, some versions of He Who Remains sought to conquer the others. That battle threatened to destroy all of reality. It was nearly the end “of everything and everyone” in every universe and dimension. (The ultimate incursion.) To prevent a potential multiverse apocalypse from happening again, He Who Remains organized all of those parallel worlds into one Sacred Timeline. Thus, Variants and alternate realities co-exist on top of and next to one another in a single loop of time. He Who Remains created the TVA to make sure it stayed that way.
If a Variant causes a Nexus Event, which results in a branch from the Sacred Timeline, they are ripped from their reality and sent to the Void at the end of time. Those branches must be pruned lest they result in another all-out war between dimensions.
The TVA is the MCU’s most Machiavellian creation. It sacrifices the lives of some to protect the lives of everyone. It’s neither inherently good nor bad, and even similar Variants disagree on its merits. Loki ultimately decided the TVA was a necessary evil, a form of control that kept the worst outcomes at bay. Sylvie did not. She believed the universe and its infinite dimensions want to break free from control. Results be damned.
How one world can be so different, to the point Variants can be entirely different species (looking at you—from a safe distance—Alligator Loki), yet not constantly cause branches to the Sacred Timeline is hard to fathom. But that’s how powerful a Nexus Event is.
Is Shang-Chi’s Ta Lo a Part of the MCU’s Multiverse?
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ Ta Lo is a pocket dimension that exists parallel to Earth, making it a part of the MCU’s multiverse. The residents of Ta Lo, who put magical dragon scales on their weapons, protect Earth and its people. But getting to this beautiful realm of peace is almost impossible. A shifting, moving maze of trees and earth keeps its Earthly portal hidden. Access is only possible once a year. However, a resident—either human or one of Ta Lo’s magical creatures—can direct an outsider through the otherwise impenetrable maze any time of the year.
The Ta Lo village seen in Shang-Chi is just a small part of this multiverse dimension. But it long stood guard against a creature that threatened both Ta Lo and Earth. The extra-dimensional beast the Dweller-in-Darkness, leader of the Soul Eaters, waged war against Ta Lo thousands of years ago. Thanks to the Great Defender dragon, the people of Ta Lo locked the Dweller-in-Darkness behind the Dark Gate. It stayed there until it lured Xu Wenwu, with the false promise of seeing his wife again, to free it with the Ten Rings. Shang-Chi ultimately killed the massive leviathan, keeping both Ta Lo and Earth from becoming victims of the massive eater of souls.
Non-MCU Marvel Movies and the Multiverse
The parallel worlds of the MCU are no longer limited to only the universes and dimensions created within the MCU and its parent company. Spider-Man: No Way Home made non-Disney Marvel movies a part of the MCU’s multiverse too. Then Multiverse of Madness made it so entirely new actors could play roles still only seen in non-Disney Marvel movies thus far. Reed Richards appeared on the big screen before, but never before by John Krasinski.
And these crossovers are just the start. Kevin Feige has already promised Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool will join the MCU. And Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage added another wrinkle to the franchise crossover fun.
That opens the (parallel worlds) door to any and all Marvel movies ever made now being canonically folded into the MCU. (Especially when magic—intentionally or not—can bring in anyone from anywhere at any time.) It’s why Chris Evans could return to the MCU not as Steve Rogers or even one of his Variants, but as Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four. As could another former Johnny Storm, Black Panther‘s Killmonger himself, Michael B. Jordan.
The (former) Netflix Marvel shows and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which no longer seemingly exist in the same universe as the MCU, are already making their way into the franchise proper. Daredevil‘s Matt Murdock and Kingpin are now a part of the MCU. And someone like Wesley Snipes’ Blade could one day help Mahershala Ali’s upcoming MCU version of the character fight vampires from across the multiverse.
And, of course, any and all members of Fox’s X-Men franchise could join Disney’s franchise at any point. Evan Peters’s Quicksilver on WandaVision stands as a bit of stunt casting. But we could soon learn Ralph Bohner’s resemblance to the X-Men character was not a mere coincidence. Ralph might be a Variant of the cinematic X-Men‘s Quicksilver. Now that a Variant of Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier is formally a part of the MCU, more of his former X-Men cohorts will likely follow.
Thanks to the multiverse, it’s now possible to consider anyone who has ever played a Marvel character in film and TV for any studio to be part of the MCU. (Technically Black Bolt already was a part of the MCU, but Anson Mount’s appearance in Doctor Strange 2 was still a major moment.)
The Future of the MCU’s Multiverse
Doctor Strange‘s movies have shown us what the multiverse has to offer, both good and bad. The Ant-Man movies showed us how another dimension could upend the world as we know it. Avengers: Endgame made good on that promise by manipulating time and reality to save the universe. And WandaVision, Loki, and Spider-Man: No Way Home have expanded the multiverse in ways that have fundamentally changed the MCU forever. And we don’t even fully appreciate or know how deep those changes are.
Marvel’s multiverse will only bring more chaos and villains to every version of Earth’s mightiest heroes as the MCU goes forward. From Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Loki season two, the MCU is diving headfirst into infinite possibilities. And with each step the franchise takes down that road, the more complex the many paths gets. But knowing where they are all coming from will help keep the road clear moving forward.
…We think. It’s not always easy to keep track of infinite dimensions and worlds. Even He Who Remains needed the TVA to do that.
This post originally published August 30, 2021.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.