Time travel in Avengers: Endgame

I'm using this essay to share some random thoughts about the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. If you prefer, you can skip straight to the time travel discussion.


Probably the thing I appreciate the most in Iron Man is the very naturalistic, almost improvisational dialogue between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow (and sometimes Jeff Bridges). It's fast and entertaining and you can see that a lot of the time Paltrow isn't actually able to keep up with him, which is of course exactly what you want in those character interactions. Sadly it's not something I ever expect to see again in the MCU, the franchise is far too tightly controlled for that.

I enjoy the lengthy scenes where Stark is slowly assembling the second Iron Man suit through trial and painful error. It's fun to watch him succeed, but RDJ also has good comic timing and it's humanising for him to screw up painfully a few times, earning the end result. And yes, the suit is sweet. At the time, the special effects were pretty advanced, but even now the moving parts look cool. The suit-up/suit-down scenes are still some of the highlights of the franchise and I wish the films dwelt on them more. I like the use of AC/DC. There are a lot of fun, memorable lines in this movie, like this amazing triple entendre:

Hi, Rhodey, it's me. ...I'm sorry, it is me. You asked— what you're asking about is me. ...It's not a piece of equipment. I'm in it. It's a suit. IT'S ME!!!

And I'm a huge fan of the closing line. It was a really smart choice and I felt so much relief that they decided to go in that direction, away from all of the laboured and angsty Three's Company-esque secret identity nonsense. If you've got a billionaire main character who's a high-technology superhero in his spare time you've got to do something to actively differentiate him from Batman, and "he enjoys fun" is just so obvious. You know what, why doesn't Batman enjoy fun? Why is he so dull? Gosh, it's almost as if joking around is Batman's antithesis. His arch-enemy, so to speak.


I can barely remember a single frame of The Incredible Hulk. I must have seen it at some point. I remember thinking it was pretty bad.


I saw Iron Man 2 once and I remember basement nucleosynthesis and not a whole lot else. I recall the main problem with the movie being an unwillingness of the then-nascent MCU franchise to allow Howard Stark to have been, in any respect, a bad person.


I remember Thor being tepid and uninteresting, except for the great scene where Thor gets drunk with Erik Selvig and then carries him home. It was such a depressing amount of time before they figured out that Chris Hemsworth is funny, wasn't it?


Captain America: The First Avenger is definitely a movie I saw.


There's a fair amount of shockingly lame, sterile, draggy dialogue in The Avengers. All the scenes involving the Chitauri leader are just unsalvageable. Loki and Thor both have pretty dire dialogue of their own. The Chitauri weapons make this cheap, ineffective, clinking noise. Agent Coulson is strangely mischaracterised as kind of a gushing fanboy, when previous flicks had set him up as a pretty stolid and competent ally. The fight in the forest when Iron Man and Thor meet for the first time is — well, customary, a superhero crossover staple, but ill-motivated and ill-lit. Loki's plan is nonsensical. Does he even know the Hulk exists prior to being captured on purpose? And what does "I'm angry all the time" even mean?

It doesn't matter. There's so much good stuff in this film which eclipses the bad. There's a lot of really simple, direct, universally translatable comedy. There's a lot of completely fine, fun dialogue. Mark Ruffalo is well-cast, unconfident and nervy. I love the detail about Banner attempting suicide. It's a terrific example of a story which works better for being told than shown, because what it shows us is that most of the people in the room, including the audience, are kind of new to Banner's whole situation, whereas he has been grappling with it alone for much longer. He looks okay at surface level, but he has a problem, and his problem is actually everybody's problem. I love that they kill Coulson off. He's a good guy, he's a fan favourite, but he's secondary, so killing him off was an open option, and it works. It surprises, it hurts. I love that both he and Fury kind of understand that this is necessary to the narrative. I love that they leave the door wide open for Coulson to turn up alive later — just the same as you would when you're writing any comic book, just to be a good citizen.

I felt like I had been waiting my whole life to see the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier done justice on the cinema screen. I don't know how to describe it. This thing had been a fixture in the comics for going on fifty years. It wasn't in the trailer!

And then the Battle of New York, my goodness. If you hadn't read the comics, what you got was a city-spanning battle the likes of which you'd never seen before. But if you had read the comics, what you got was everything you always loved about brash summer crossover events finally made real. Because on a comic panel you have a basically limitless budget. You can do anything you like. You can pull together any characters you like and have them fight a million aliens, and monsters the size of skyscrapers. Maybe the artist will curse you out, but it's really just more pages, it's been done a hundred times. But in a movie, it's hard. It needs an insane amount of money, it needs CGI which didn't exist five years earlier. And above all it needs established characters, so that instead of rushing through character development, the story can just take half a dozen characters as they already are and throw them into the event.

That's the trick. That's the hard part. That was the insane gamble. I have no experience at all of filmmaking. But the distinct impression I get, in all behind-the-scenes content of all films, is that every movie production is perpetually a hair's breadth from producing absolute trash. Every good movie is tens of thousands of good decisions aligning perfectly; and even the best movies ever made were at most three bad creative choices away from total disaster. The hardest thing in filmmaking is to "just" make a decent film. A film which is okay. A film which most people enjoy watching.

So, yeah. Anybody can make Avengers money. All you've got to do is make four or five decent movies first. In a row. Oof.


I gave up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after three episodes and have never watched a Marvel show since. Partly that was sheer boredom. But it rapidly became extremely obvious that the movies would never acknowledge the shows. They were designed from the bedrock up to be unnecessary.


I distinctly remember watching the trailers for Iron Man 3 and thinking: "What exactly is the accent Ben Kingsley is doing here? Isn't this a little... hokey? Is the villain here really a theatrical, tawdry, generically Eastern boogeyman?"

The payoff was immense. I loved it, and I loved that people hated it. I loved that people had legitimately been suckered, that they had bought the ridiculous charade and that they resented being had. There's some great, witty writing in this one. Tony Stark's story is good, the kid is good. And yet... I still cannot recall how they beat Aldrich at the end. Does he get wrapped up inside a self-destructing Iron Man suit? Is it that they drop him off a huge crane? Does he self-destruct because of Extremis overdose? It's not there. Am I losing it?


Three great things about Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

  1. Cap's latest ally is a rando he made friends with while out running one day

  2. we spend almost the entire movie developing Cap's character and watching Black Widow needle him over the fact that he canonically doesn't have a life

  3. the bit during the knife fight with Winter Soldier where the sound drops out

Great action set-pieces, amazing Zola reveal, highly enjoyable flick from end to end.

What the heck is the deal with Black Widow's service record? What did she do? Oh, something really bad! But not something we'll ever mention. Just trust us, there's a whole bunch of horrific moral darkness in her KGB history. Everybody's up in arms over what she did. Just, over there. Absolutely repugnant crimes, just despicable. Over there. Just out of frame, where I'm looking.


I basically bounced off Guardians of the Galaxy. I just didn't get into them as characters. It baffled me that anybody thought Rocket or Groot were radical, daring character concepts. And Star-Lord's mom's taste in music is, uh, weak. A production necessity, I guess, because licencing a full album of actually good tracks would have been extortionate.


Avengers: Age of Ultron has some perplexing choices and is a classic example of the second system effect. You can manage fourteen or fifteen primary characters in the same movie. You can clearly establish and motivate all those people in two and a bit hours. It's just really difficult. And this movie fails to do it.


All the way through Ant-Man the only thing I could think was: This would have been a lot funnier if Edgar Wright was directing it. Comic timing, idiots! You need to get to the punchline before the audience does!

Also, in the Falcon/Ant-Man fight, is it just me, or were Paul Rudd and Anthony Mackie never actually in the same room? There's no actual face-to-face dialogue going on here, is there? It's a distinctly odd scene.


I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War is actually the weakest part of the whole movie. The film overall is too busy, though not quite to the extent of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It's absolutely fantastic that they finally found, in Tom Holland, someone able to go toe-to-toe with Robert Downey Jr. in the dialogue stakes, but being honest I felt that the MCU was doing absolutely fine by itself without Spider-Man in it, and Tony Stark's motivations for roping a literal child into his superhero war are nonsensical.

Gosh dang it, do I actually need to weigh in on the central conflict here? Fine: the Avengers are too powerful and dangerous for their activities not to be kept firmly under civilian control.

But really, the whole argument felt strangely forced. I thought it was weirdly out of character for Steve Rogers, an army captain, to side against authority, and for Tony Stark to have this sudden radical surge of restraint. Tell me this alternate angle on the issue wouldn't have been equally plausible:

We serve the people. We have to follow orders. That's what separates us from villains. Vigilantism doesn't suddenly become legal when you have ten billion dollars, Tony.

Last time I had an attack of conscience, I personally invaded a foreign country and fought part of a war on their soil. That was me trying to be responsible. I have a consistent track record of doing whatever the hell I want, and I have personally saved the world multiple times, which makes me right. I would like to see you try to shut my operation down.

I'm not saying this is necessarily the more logical angle. But I am saying that a credible case can be made that either character could fall on either side of this divide. Honestly, I think the most plausible outcome would be that both characters agree that the Avengers need to reined in.

So the conflict between them feels forced, and the airport fight feels unmotivated. And I never thought the characters disliked one another all that much in the first place, not enough for a fight to break out. And more importantly than that, I have no keen interest in seeing what happens when Iron Man fights Captain America! This makes me a crazy weird outlier, I know, but I don't particularly want to see two decent people fight, and I don't desperately need to know which of them would win. (The audience wins. Always.)

Let's talk about Zemo. This guy is one of the best villains in the franchise. He has personal beef. He is quiet, motivated, methodical, careful and effective. He is not a dark mirror image of the protagonist, any of the protagonists. His plan unfolds slowly and it is a good plan, and it works. I really enjoyed the swerve in the final act, where you think Cap and Stark are finally going to set their differences aside and join forces for an all-out widescreen brawl against Zemo's army of unfrozen Winter Soldiers... and then... no. No, this is not the climactic superfight you think we've been ramping up to. This is not the end of the argument, this is something else.


Doctor Strange has the same basic story structure as Iron Man but with a bunch of jigsaw pieces missing. He damages his hands, ruining his career as a surgeon, then he goes on an epic quest of mystical discovery to find a way to heal himself, and then... never does? Is he healed at the end? Can he do surgery again, now, or what? One way or another, why doesn't he go back to his old hospital and tie off that plot thread? What happens to Christine? And what about his prized wristwatch? Maybe the film does answer these questions, and the real problem is simply that it lost my attention by the end. Maybe I'm actually losing my mind. Is his plan for finding Kamar-Taj seriously to just fly to Nepal and then ask? Why do people keep insisting on underusing Chiwetel Ejiofor?

And the basic premise just bugs me. Stephen Strange is an insanely skilled neurosurgeon and then he loses the ability to do that. So he becomes the world's greatest sorceror instead. Wow! Amazing! He failed upwards! There is a training montage, but there is no sensation at all of serious time elapsing or of Strange earning his power. He states that his surgical skills come from years of study and practice, and yet his magical training seemingly takes only days. He starts his training years behind a bunch of other trainees, and overtakes them in minutes of screen time.

(I do not plan to write up "Time travel in Doctor Strange".)


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's main point of weirdness for me is when Ego just straight-up says he killed Star-Lord's mother. There's a long middle act of this movie where it's slowly becoming clear that Ego is not what he seems, and there is some kind of dark secret behind him. And then Ego just says it. To Star-Lord's face. For no reason. Just as he's about to get Star-Lord on board with the (evil) plan. And then they use Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" twice and they don't use the good bit either time! What the heck!


I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was decent.


Thor: Ragnarok is a boatload of extremely quotable fun but could have benefited from going even further into the neon and synthwave. Jeff Goldblum remains one of the top characters in this whole franchise and "It's a tie" one of the absolute best lines.


A lot of Black Panther was amazing, notably Chadwick Boseman. A lot of it felt disappointingly cheaply produced considering how massively important it was and how long it had been coming. Some of that was rushed CGI, some of that was the script. Remember when they set up the maglev trains by having someone point at a maglev train and go "Oh look, maglev trains"? Or how about when they cunningly established that Ross can fly a plane by having Shuri just say to Ross himself, unprompted, "You're a former pilot"? Or the part where they need a big fight at the end, so the country of Wakanda spontaneously erupts into total civil war after centuries of enlightened peace?

I'm not going to assert that Killmonger, whose name is "Killmonger", was right, but I think "violence isn't the answer" is a difficult sell in a motion picture franchise which everybody watches for the superfights.


By all medical logic, Avengers: Infinity War should have been incoherent chaos. This film has twice as many major characters as Avengers: Age of Ultron. And yet, assuming you have a rudimentary idea of who all these people are before the film begins, the film itself is staggeringly comprehensible, and the chain of events is incredibly easy to follow. At all times, you know where everybody is, what they're motivated by, what they're doing — and the momentum keeps building. This sounds like it's pretty easy to do if all the movie needs to do is move various characters into place for the Snap, but the logistics and planning on show here are extremely impressive.

And there's also a surprising amount of actual story going on here. The main throughline is obviously Thanos (and Gamorra) (and Star-Lord)'s story, but there's also Tony Stark's persistent inability to take care of kids, and Thor's emotional shipwreck. Probably the best single scene in the movie is the one where Thor is acting all gung-ho about going after Thanos, when he's clearly terrified out of his mind and not able to admit it. The best scene outside of the fights, that is. There's top-of-the-line superfight choreography here, gorgeous CGI, endlessly inventive use of the various heroes' powers. That said, it often seems like Thanos and his minions are just huge tanks who can soak up arbitrary amounts of blunt force trauma, while the heroes keep trying more and more different, equally ineffective blunt attacks. It's like hitting a pillow, and any given fight only seems to end because a bell rings and it's time for the fight to end, not because anybody actually wore anybody else down, or changed the game by doing something clever, or found the upper hand.

Thanos is an insane monster whose plan makes no sense, and that's the point. Of course he could simply double the amount of food in the universe. Nobody who preaches unimaginable genocide gets to that mindset because they've rationally considered and tearfully been forced to eliminate all of the infinitely many less unimaginably genocidal alternatives. They get there by being a genocidal monster from the ground up, and the rest is backfill. The film's climax is an absolutely amazing, shocking choice. It one hundred percent lands.


Ant-Man and the Wasp is one of only two MCU films I still haven't seen. To this day the physics of the Ant-Man movies remain absolutely stupid even by comic book movie standards. DOES HE STILL HAVE HIS INERTIAL MASS OR NOT. HOW CAN HE PUNCH WITH THE FULL FORCE OF A HUMAN WHILE STILL BEING LIGHT ENOUGH TO RIDE AN ANT. IT DOESN'T COMPUTE.


I didn't see Captain Marvel until long after Avengers: Endgame. The impression I got was that they were trying to cultivate an engaging mystery about Danvers' murky backstory — Who is she really? Where is she from? What history has she lost and how did she get to be who she is now? — but the film just... fails to engage us in that mystery. Maybe a part of this was that thing a lot of American films do, which is to assume that if someone is in the American armed forces then we automatically care about them.


The prologue of Avengers: Endgame is pretty much perfect. It so thoroughly concludes the events of the prior movie that I was just left with wheels spinning and no clue at all about where this could go next.

After that, the film has... several problems. I'm going to call out two of them. One is tone.

In the immediate aftermath of the Snap, the world is a desolate, grieving wasteland. We spend a lot of time watching the characters try to come to terms with the new universe. But then a glimmer of hope appears. Slowly, a plan is assembled. By the time the heist is kicking off, enough screen time has passed that the atmosphere has returned to one of cautious optimism. The commencement of the heist serves as a break point, tying off the negativity of act one, and setting us up for some earnestly enjoyable shenanigans. It's a long, slow upswing from pure dismal hopelessness to cautious optimism. For everybody.

Except... for the randomly interjected bits of comedy...? Like, there's a totally misplaced sequence of experimental hijinks where Paul Rudd gets turned into a baby and then an old man and then wets himself? And there's a new, inexplicably cheerful smart Hulk? And fat Thor. Skip to the next section if you've gotta. Fat people aren't intrinsically funny. Thor, specifically, getting fat is potentially mildly funny because he's a mountain of muscle in all prior appearances, which makes it surprising and out-of-character. Ish. But. Thor getting fat because he's sunk into an alcoholic depression, Thor becoming a miserable recluse because nobody in the primary cast is able to give him the emotional support he needs to function, Thor being reduced from his jovial, watchable self to a miserable husk because everybody he loves has left him or died — and that was before he failed, more utterly and finally than anybody else, to save the universe from Thanos — is awful, it's legitimately sad. And the film does not know how to take what it's done to him seriously, and laughs at him instead.

Which is unfortunate. And it's a significant tonal problem. It's something I feel Chris Hemsworth worked hard to balance and overcome in his performance. You can feel the arc he wants to express coming out. I admire his effort, but the film itself is working against him.

Now for the second problem.

Time travel in Avengers: Endgame

This discussion turned out to be more substantial than I initially thought. If you want to skip it, non-time-travel-related discussion of the MCU in general concludes below.


It is awfully brave of a fictional movie with fictitious time travel physics which it doesn't explain very well or use consistently to call Back To The Future, an equally fictional, better movie with equally fictitious but significantly better-explained time travel physics "bullshit".

Time travel is a tricky concept to play with in cinema because it poses challenges of exposition. Time travel isn't like, say, driving. It isn't real, and no audience member has direct experience of it or knows how it works. So you've got to explain your rules clearly, so that the audience understands what's possible, what's impossible and what's happening right now. Back To The Future is a fantastic example of how this can be done well, dedicating large amounts of screen time to educating the audience while simultaneously pushing the story forward in an exciting way.

Time travel in Avengers: Endgame does, in fact, make absolutely perfect sense. However, the film is almost admirable in how much time it dedicates to trying to explain how time travel works and failing. This is going to be a little difficult to analyse, because there's no single viewer experience here, no singular derail. Various scenes confuse the issue in various ways.

It starts well. Scott Lang emerges from the quantum realm five years after the snap, but only five hours have passed for him. He gathers the Avengers and theorises that time in the quantum realm does not work in the same way as it does in macroscopic reality. He hypothesises that it would be possible enter the quantum realm from one point in spacetime and exit from another point, potentially earlier than you entered. Because you need to shrink to enter the quantum realm, you need Pym particles, which are in very short supply, which strictly limits how much time travel is possible. Makes perfect sense so far.

The Avengers approach Tony Stark for help with constructing a time machine. He explains that their main problem is going to be navigation. Without the ability to navigate, they will be lost and unable to return home, possibly unable to exit the quantum realm at all. (Lang finding his way back to reality is handwaved as a billion-to-one fluke, which is narratively dissatisfying, but whatever.) This point about navigation is actually really easy to miss, because the conversation is kind of a muddle and meanders across a bunch of other topics.

The conversation also establishes that Scott Lang's conception of how time travel works is based on Back To The Future. Stark tells him that time travel does not work like this, but no alternate theory is put forward at this point, so this is not terribly enlightening and still leaves us with a lot of big questions. But that's fine. We assume that the explanation is coming soon.

Stark refuses to help. After the Avengers have left, he changes his mind. He works on the navigation problem in private and solves it using a Möbius strip. (??) He returns to the Avengers compound and presents them with a working "timespace GPS".

Meanwhile the Avengers have recruited Bruce Banner instead. There's a test run where they mess about with Lang's age, but, as well as being tonally misplaced, this scene uses time travel physics which are completely unrelated to what's shown in the rest of the movie, and it's a comedy sequence which never factors into the plot. So, I guess I'm ignoring it.


After this we have the time travel exposition scene. This scene is the one we've been waiting for, clearly placed here so that it can explain the rules of time travel to the audience.

Rhodes suggests something along the lines of going back in time and killing Thanos as a baby. Scott Lang and Clint Barton agree with him that this is how time travel works: you can just change history. Rhodes cites a variety of works of time travel fiction to support his point, but, bafflingly, many of them do not have malleable history models. Most notably, his final pick, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, very definitely and memorably has a fixed history model. I found this so confusing the first time I watched the movie that I actually lost track of which perspective Rhodes was trying to defend.

In any case, Banner states the opposing view, that changing the past does not change the future. But he, also, makes his point in an (intentionally?) extremely confusing and ambiguous way, saying:

If you travel to the past, that past becomes your future and your former present becomes the past, which can't now be changed by your new future!

And Lang concludes, "So Back To The Future's a bunch of bullshit?"

So at this point, we're fairly confused about what each of the characters believes. Even if we aren't, we still have no evidence at all of who is actually right. And even if we take Banner and Lang, who have the final word, to be right, the only firm fact we have is still that the model is "not Back To The Future".

So this whole scene has achieved nothing! There's still a critically important question here: If they go back in time and try to radically modify history, say by stealing an Infinity Stone, what happens? Is it impossible, because history is fixed? Or is it possible, but it doesn't affect the present, and if so, what does it affect? But, annoyingly, the film behaves as if the scene has neatly resolved all of our questions, and then just moves on.


Next comes a brief test run with Barton. This kind of scene is another fixture in time travel fiction, a quick run around the block to demonstrate the basic principles in a controlled way, without the plot factoring into it. Barton is sent back in time a few years to his farm. He steals a baseball glove from the past and brings it back to the present. This demonstrates the basic principle of time theft to be sound. And this does, indeed, alter established history, because Barton's son was seen playing with the baseball glove in the opening scene of the film and now, due to this theft in the past, cannot be there.

At least, it does if you actually realise that this is what happened. But it's incredibly easy to miss either or both of these details. First, very little attention was called to the baseball glove in that opening scene.

Second, if you blink, you might not even notice that Barton brought it back to the present with him. This is because of the way the tail end of the sequence is shot.

At the moment Barton leaves the past, he's obstructed behind a door and we can't see that he's still carrying the glove. Then, arriving back in the present, he's shot from above, with the glove beneath one hand, a small insignificant dark shape easily missed or mistaken for a shadow. As he gets up, the shot frames him and Romanoff, leaving the glove at the bottom of the frame, almost trying to cut it off. As he shows the glove to Romanoff, the camera pulls back so that Stark becomes visible in the foreground, distracting our eye. Finally, he throws the glove to Stark, with the glove somehow never actually entering the frame as it is thrown and then caught.

It's so strange. There isn't a single shot after returning to the present which actually focuses on the glove itself. It's almost as if the film is intentionally trying to cut around the glove, to make it so that we don't notice it.

But let's assume we understood the entire glove story first time. We know it doesn't work like Back To The Future. And now we know it also isn't a fixed history. So, what?


At this point, we're probably hesitantly coming to the conclusion that each jump back in time is just creating a whole new timeline. And the characters are using this timespace GPS thingum to return through the quantum realm to their original present instead of a new, modified future. This is the best explanation for what we've seen so far. It's a perfectly sound model of fictional time travel. And this is in fact precisely what's happening.

The reason we're still confused, and not completely certain that we have the right answer, is that for some reason none of the characters will actually come out and say that this is what they're doing. And none of them seem to care about these random new timelines they're creating. If that's really what's happening, surely they would care?

Then, Loki steals the Tesseract and escapes, right after the Battle of New York. And now we're really confused. Loki is definitely (probably) dead in the prime timeline. So, this is obviously something the writers are doing to set it up so that Loki can come back. But how could that work? This is a new timeline now. How can this Loki reappear in the prime timeline? Where did he escape to? What is happening?

Then, Banner meets the Ancient One, who explains that removing one Infinity Stone from the timeline causes the timelines to diverge. Which is now very, very confusing, because the implication here is that only stealing an Infinity Stone causes this divergence and anything else is... fine? For some degree of "fine"?

The truth of the matter is that all time travel causes these divergences. It's just that stealing an Infinity Stone kind of dooms the divergent timeline, because it needs all six. This actually makes sense. But it's so weird that Banner and the Ancient One and all the characters in the movie continually fail to acknowledge all of those other timelines. It's such a glaring omission that we still think we're missing something.

Banner promises to bring the Infinity Stones back to the moment they were stolen, which will cause the divergences to heal themselves. A bunch of other things happen, and then Steve Rogers does exactly this, albeit off-camera. Finally, still off-camera, Rogers declines to return to the prime timeline, but stays in the past, marries Peggy Carter, creates a new totally divergent fork of his own, a happy ending timeline.

And then, seventy years later, he shows up back in the prime reality anyway. What the heck!

And we glare at our notes for a while and we grudgingly hypothesise that maybe Rogers, in his twilight years, after Peggy died, decided to come back through the quantum realm to the prime timeline and say his goodbyes. That makes sense.

Like the forking timelines, it all happened completely off-camera, and the movie never explained or acknowledged it. But it makes sense.


This is... honestly, a really great model of time travel. I like it a lot. It's versatile and it gives rise to limitless entertaining possibilities. In particular, it opens up the whole "What If...?" concept which has been a staple of Marvel comics for decades. There are what, six new alternate timelines to play with now? This model also has suitable constraints. It does not immediately break the universe.

And... though it would be difficult to explain time travel more poorly, the fact of the matter is that writing time travel is hard, because all writing is hard. Writing Infinity War and Endgame must have been exceptionally hard, and must have happened under unprecedented pressure. Serial fiction, with unbelievable numbers of moving parts and unbelievable stakes. Was this the most expensive time travel story ever filmed? It was certainly the most lucrative.

Ignoring the actual mechanics, the time travel shenanigans are undeniably a lot of fun. It's a cute change of pace, and it revisits some genuinely fond memories from the MCU's past.

There's one other issue, which is independent of the model of time travel used. It's a problem we can summarise in one line. This is Thanos, speaking to Scarlet Witch:

I don't even know who you are.

Interestingly it seems as if, in spite of the famed complexities of time travel, most people who watched the movie understood the problem here, and how it subtracts from the primary conflict. This is a different Thanos. It's not the guy who did it. It's not the same fight. It's not the rematch, it's not act two. It's act one with poorer lighting.

Time travel essay ends, general MCU discussion resumes

Avengers: Endgame doesn't quite land. Time travel is my gimmick, which is why I've dedicated a lot of words to the analysis here, but there are far more important elements at work in this movie.

Endgame succeeds and fails in many of the same ways that nonsensically huge comic book crossovers do. For better or worse, it captures the experience fairly accurately. Much of the film is only explained in ancillary/tie-in material, which you miss if you only follow the core story. The core of the event is a straightforward, massive fight, one which is verging on incoherent because of the density and the number of characters involved. Some of the characters behave somewhat out of character, because they're not being written by their usual writers. The event derails existing stories in progress, and inadvertently undoes significant character development. There are what seem like sincere attempts at permanent character death... but we have difficulty taking them seriously.

I know. RDJ's contract is over. But a proper, for-real, earnestly-intended-to-be-final comic book death and funeral, followed by a gratuitous resurrection which completely undercuts it, is one of the last major comic tropes this continuity hasn't done yet. (Bucky doesn't count, that was planned from the beginning.) I don't expect to see Downey in another Marvel film for seven or eight years. But the man himself is still alive. They'll find the right number eventually.


And that's it.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is the only other MCU film I've not bothered with. I may never bother with it. I may be done. Why? Because the last element the MCU has perfectly captured from the comics is post-crossover exhaustion. This juggernaut has the potential to continue for decades, but Endgame gave me about as much closure as any of these films is ever likely to give. It's an ideal jumping-off point. And I should really catch up on some reading.

Discussion (19)

2020-08-07 00:41:45 by qntm:


2020-08-07 01:06:52 by Omegatron:

Agents of Shield gets really good halfway through the first series when it crosses over with The Winter Soldier. It's still never acknowledged by the films though and likely never will be.

2020-08-07 01:21:45 by Matthew:

My reading of Old Captain America being there at the end of Endgame was that the MCU we've been watching isn't the "Prime" timeline after all. The Prime Captain America left his timeline and never reappeared, instead travelling into the MCU we have been watching since 2008 which is identical to the unseen "Prime" timeline except for the presence of Captain America on that bench. Your explanation works equally well though (possibly better since it doesn't involve Peggy Carter keeping her new husband secret from the entire world for 70 years)

2020-08-07 01:51:35 by MrCheeze:

About Loki returning. You may be aware of this and just writing this from the perspective of a viewer who doesn't, but the reason they're setting him up to come back is that there's a spin-off series coming on Disney+ starring this alternate universe Loki. @Matthew I had a similar interpretation, which was that there's one "Prime" timeline where Old Cap isn't present, and a large or infinite chain of timelines that branch off from there where he does - very similar to qntm.org/responsibility. I find a cleaner idea than him returning off-camera, although it's probably not what the movie makers intended.

2020-08-07 04:56:27 by ChrysAlice:

My understanding was that when the time travelers go to the past, they are essentially causing a branch in the timeline that collapses into nonexistence when they depart, unless an Infinity Stone travels with them. The universe being destroyed isn't "real" to the characters so they don't care. Of course this means that you can just travel to right before someone dies and pull them into the present with "no" consequences, so you're still breaking the universe. I'm not convinced my interpretation is right, but it at least gives some explanation why ostensibly moral characters are fine screwing up someone else's history.

2020-08-07 09:49:11 by jalapeno_dude:

The best joke in this essay is the Thor 2 section. (Also I will never stop trying -j for the challenge text)

2020-08-09 10:57:41 by Joe Bryant:

I feel that Spider-Man: Homecoming deserves more comment. It has several praiseworthy things: Spider-Man is played by someone who could plausibly be a teenager. We are not subjected to yet another version of the origin story. Flash is re-invented as an "alpha nerd" instead of a jock. The villain is plausible and down-to-earth - his motivations are clear and relatable, and he's not trying to end the universe. The comedy stuff is good. There's an honest-to-god "twist". The action stuff is good. Bad stuff - the love interest is pretty bland. Overall I'd guess it's the best live-action Spider-Man movie ever (because Into the Spider-Verse is obviously the best ever Spider-Man movie). However I haven't seen the Garfield movies so maybe they are surprisingly brilliant.

2020-08-10 13:46:33 by Tomato:

@Matthew Peggy wouldn't have needed to keep Steve a secret, they didn't find frozen Steve until much later. He just needs to show up at any Army base and during the debrief say the last thing he remembers after nosing the plane down is reaching for the tesseract on the floor, then there was a blue flash of light and he woke up *wherever*. It's unfalsifiable until they find frozen steve (and they'll call of the search) and he has decades to plan for that reveal, if it's even necessary ("Amazing, the Tesseract must have *duplicated* you when you teleported!"). I think the fix to Old Steve appearing on the bench would be to let the time travellers pick when they return (after Hawkeye complains about not having enough time during his trial run, of course). Then you can have Old Steve appear on the platform, with the camera behind him to slow the reveal. Have some dialogue from Professor Hulk like "Did what happened to Lang happen again?" and then Old Steve says "No. I just... waited." Hulk asks "For what?" And Steve says "The funeral. It was a week ago, in 2015."

2020-08-11 14:38:41 by Drew:

I think the only problem I have with this essay is the Civil War fight. I personally think it lines up perfectly with their underlying tones by RPG morality rules. Captain America is the traditional Neutral/Chaotic Good. The rules are good, fighting the bad guys are good, but he definitely breaks the rules when they no longer suit him. Example 1: tries to join the army multiple times, including lying (i also have definitely seen Captain America 1). Example 2: During the same movie, he decides that being flaunted off as a role model is much less good than fighting Nazis, so he does the most good by running away. Example 3 is basically the plot of Winter Soldier. He knows Hydra is evil, but the LG thing to do would be to report it to the highest authority possible (Pearce), to get them to solve it. He directly disobeys several orders from Pearce to do so, and then escapes. Queue a fantastic, easily top 5, movie. While i agree that Tony's sudden hit of Moralism is a bit strange, because his prior morals sum to "fuck you I'm rich and cool", I don't think Rogers would ever concede to an agreement which limits his ability to do good. Tony Stark, having essentially caused the entire second Avengers movie, is the best way i can think of for the writers to create some moral conflict for Rogers. After all, this is a Captain America movie. This just defines his status as a Neutal/Chaotic Good character, as opposed to a Lawful Good character. Side note: I would delineate between the Neutral and Chaotic Good decision, but im not confident enough in my personal definition of Chaotic versus Neutral to make a firm decision. I'd err on Chaotic, though, because it fits with his blatant disregard for rules the best.

2020-08-12 18:13:39 by Sorites:

Tony's primary driving motivation is, and has always been (at least since Iron Man 1), guilt. Guilt drives him to cease weapons production and go into the world-peace business. Pre-emptive guilt about failing to save the Avengers leads directly to Ultron. Pre-emptive guilt about what might happen to Peter drives his whole relationship with Spider-Man. And guilt about losing the kid drives him to invent the time-space GPS. I totally buy that his decision in Civil War is guilt-driven - specifically, by the desire to lay down his responsibility and let someone else be in charge.

2020-08-12 19:12:11 by qntm:

I absolutely agree. Tony Stark is guilted into taking the position he does in Civil War. But it would have been very easy to write a scene which guilted him into taking the opposite position.

2020-08-15 20:28:32 by u63r:

Old Steve had decades to meet and work with Hank Pym, and prevent his split with SHIELD. The shield he gives Sam is also subtly different. Which implies he made contact with Wakanda, or got his old shield remade, or both. It's like all those self-insert fanfics where someone who knows the setting ends up in the beginning of it and starts changing things. I've also seen some very convincing Youtube videos that said Tony's arc was going from rebel to accountable, while Steve's was Good Soldier to someone who distrusts authority. "I saw Iron Man 2 once and I remember basement nucleosynthesis and not a whole lot else. I recall the main problem with the movie being an unwillingness of the then-nascent MCU franchise to allow Howard Stark to have been, in any respect, a bad person." Huh? He got drunk recording an important publicity video for his company's big day, and screwed his partner out of credit for their discoveries. He was also not a very good father, to the point that Tony doubted Howard even liked him. I think the biggest problem with the movie was how much it wanted to start setting up the Avengers. "And yet... I still cannot recall how they beat Aldrich at the end. Does he get wrapped up inside a self-destructing Iron Man suit? Is it that they drop him off a huge crane? Does he self-destruct because of Extremis overdose? It's not there. Am I losing it?" The first two of the three, actually. Plus a beam - and then a missile - to the face while he was still struggling to regrow. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's main point of weirdness for me is when Ego just straight-up says he killed Star-Lord's mother. There's a long middle act of this movie where it's slowly becoming clear that Ego is not what he seems, and there is some kind of dark secret behind him. And then Ego just says it. To Star-Lord's face. For no reason. Just as he's about to get Star-Lord on board with the (evil) plan. " Remember, Ego doesn't really get humans. Or even himself. He had Peter mind-whammied, and thought it would stick. When that didn't work, he does the cosmic equivalent of trying to send Peter to his room. " That said, it often seems like Thanos and his minions are just huge tanks who can soak up arbitrary amounts of blunt force trauma, while the heroes keep trying more and more different, equally ineffective blunt attacks. It's like hitting a pillow, and any given fight only seems to end because a bell rings and it's time for the fight to end, not because anybody actually wore anybody else down, or changed the game by doing something clever, or found the upper hand." Team Stark beat Squidward by outwitting him, and I'm pretty sure he never got hit once. Scarlet Witch had to split her attention between fighting the couple and protecting Vision, and the only times she gets hurt in that entire fight are surprise attacks. Bruce outwits the big guy (just like Thanos outwitted the Hulk, geddit?), and the lady gets smashed by a big machine the size of Rhode island. Which, ironically, turns out to be the wrong play, because it meant Wanda couldn't cover Vision any more. And glaive guy sneaks into Wakanda. And then he dies to his own glaive, which is clearly signposted as being super special because it can hurt Vision. There's a strong recurring theme of irony in the deaths and near-deaths of Team Thanos, including Nebula and Gamora. "Meanwhile the Avengers have recruited Bruce Banner instead. There's a test run where they mess about with Lang's age, but, as well as being tonally misplaced, this scene uses time travel physics which are completely unrelated to what's shown in the rest of the movie, and it's a comedy sequence which never factors into the plot. So, I guess I'm ignoring it." I thought the point was to show they needed Tony and didn't have a handle on Time Travel by themselves. So Tony could come back at the opportune moment and make up with Cap.

2020-08-21 13:24:48 by Crash Snowdon:

"At this point, we're probably hesitantly coming to the conclusion that each jump back in time is just creating a whole new timeline. And the characters are using this timespace GPS thingum to return through the quantum realm to their original present instead of a new, modified future. This is the best explanation for what we've seen so far. It's a perfectly sound model of fictional time travel. And this is in fact precisely what's happening. The reason we're still confused, and not completely certain that we have the right answer, is that for some reason none of the characters will actually come out and say that this is what they're doing. And none of them seem to care about these random new timelines they're creating. If that's really what's happening, surely they would care?" Ironically, (spoilers for the end of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in rot13): Gur svany frnfba (rfcrpvnyyl gur svanyr) unf cerpvfryl guvf zbqry, unf n punenpgre rkcynva vg va n pyrne, pbafvfr, naq qverpg znaare, naq unf gur punenpgref pner nobhg gur enaqbz arj gvzryvar gurl perngrq va n zrnavashy naq eryrinag jnl. I actually stopped watching AoS after the tenth episode cos it didn't really grab my interest enough to remember to keep watching when it went on a midseason break. Then a year later I picked it up out of mild curiousity, binged two half-seasons, and was hooked for life. Yes the movies will never really acknowledge it but I'm past caring as the characters it builds stand just fine on their own. (well, not on their own. as a family when is portrayed and felt, not just spoken of existing) Also in Infinity War you speak of "Tony Stark's persistent inability to take care of kids" but I would suggest that this throughline starts in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and FFH sort of wraps up Spidey's side of that arc.

2020-08-24 11:33:35 by Voidhawk:

The important thing about Endgame Time Travel is this: no-one in the film understands what they're doing. - Rhodes and Lang try to make arguments from fiction, and then manage to mangle and misinterpret that fiction into incoherence. - Banner thinks he knows what he's doing, but screws up the trial run and puts Lang through the wringer. - Tony manages to invent the Spacetime-PS, but neglects to consider effects on anyone other than the traveller (very in character). Only two people in the film have any actual experience with Time: Dr Strange and The Ancient One. Strange is almost entirely absent, and by her own admission The Ancient One spent a very long while pointedly *not* messing with time, because it has a slight tendency to doom reality if you mess it up. As with most magic tricks, the most important part is the bit you don't get shown: how did Cap return the stones anyway? I have two theories: 1) He went back to each location 1 min before the heist!Avengers turn up, and hands them over. That way they don't need to steal them in the first place. or, 2) he meets the Ancient One and she fixes it with magic. 1 accidentally generates an infinite number of nearly identical timelines, whereas 2 is a little narratively unsatisfying.

2020-10-09 13:38:08 by Troff:

Apologies if you're already aware of this (I haven't been to this site in years). Thanos's plan is utterly ridiculous for precisely the reason you mention; but it's the only part of the original comic plot the movie could inherit. In the movie, the reasoning was "conserving resources". In the comics, he wanted to kill off half the universe as a (failed) tribute / devotion to / attempt to win the love of his life, Lady Death (yes, the personification of Death). This is the same comic universe that says Deadpool can't die, not because he inherited Weapon X gene therapy etc. etc., but because he doesn't want Lady Death being in love with, being with Deadpool; so Thanos curses Deadpool to never die. Make of that what you will.

2020-12-29 07:46:21 by Sydney:

The one time-travel thing I thought was missing from this is the role of Dr. Strange in Infinity War and Endgame, stealing information from millions of possible futures to basically orchestrate all of Endgame (including Lang's one-in-a-billion escape from the Quantum Realm). Maybe it's because I'm a time-travel nerd, but I'd read an entire novel about just that three-second shot of him scanning through those futures and discarding each one as unacceptable for some reason or another.

2021-06-05 19:38:51 by Tektotherriggen:

I was briefly very excited that Endgame was going to use a single immutable timeline. The idea of going to the past to *borrow* from it, not change it, seemed weirdly like fresh logical air in a series that had always run on Rule of Cool. Of course, the time heists rapidly went off the rails in ways that would massively impact their timestreams. I don't quite like the idea that they created new branches of the Universe, because in each of those (except the one that loses its Thanos), half the population is going to die. Condemning half a universe, to restore half of a different one, is exactly the kind of "trading lives" that Cap says they don't do.

2022-06-20 20:09:17 by W1nner4444:

As for Antman's physics being completely wrong, I choose to believe that it's much more "magical" than Hank Pym told Scott Lang. We only hear the "shrinking distance between atoms" from Hank once, when he definitely doesn't trust Scott yet. I think Hank just outright lied to Scott about how it works, since it does appear to act more or less consistently.

2023-10-03 11:21:35 by cauema:

thanks for exposing those terrible flicks for all the good reasons! i used to consider films with time travel as "one of a kind" as i could always enjoy them. endgame became the first one to ruin that rule for me. and suddenly many time travel movies after it also turn out bad. i guess it inspired people to stop caring about science, ironically.

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