Part 1: There was an idea…
Quote: Nick Fury, The Avengers (2012)
On the 2nd of May, 2008, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was released, kickstarting what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. In November of that same year, the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe A to Z Vol 1. #5 was released, which assigned the MCU the reality designation of Earth-199999, as opposed to the designation given to the Prime Marvel Universe in which the Marvel comics are set in, Earth-616. This not only firmly established the MCU as part of Marvel’s greater Multiverse, but it also provided a way of categorising it into the larger library of titles produced by Marvel. This was what fans and Marvel referred to the universe as for a while until a certain film came along and changed that, but we’ll get onto that later. Despite this, however, the MCU didn’t seem too concerned with delving deep into the idea of alternate universes, largely focused on telling the story of the Avengers in Phase 1. In Phase 2, however, things began to change, they began to…expand.
This article contains spoilers from here on out for (in release order):
- Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #21 (2005)
- The Avengers (2012)
- Young Avengers Vol. 2 #8 (2013)
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
- Doctor Strange (2016)
- Avengers: Endgame (2019)
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)
- Loki (Season 1)
- 1×01 “Glorious Purpose” (2021)
- 1×02 “The Variant” (2021)
- 1×03 “Lamentis” (2021)
- 1×04 “The Nexus Event” (2021)
- 1×05 “Journey Into Mystery” (2021)
- 1×06 “For All Time. Always.” (2021)
- What If…? (Season 1)
- 1×01 “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (2021)
- 1×08 “What If… Ultron Won?” (2021)
- 1×09 “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?” (2021)
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
- Eternals (2021)
- Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
- Ms Marvel
- 1×04 “Seeing Red” (2022)
- 1×05 “Time and Again” (2022)
Part 2: This universe is only one of an infinite number…
Quote: Ancient One to Stephen Strange, Doctor Strange (2016)
In 2016’s Doctor Strange, the concept of the “Multiverse” was introduced, a term that long-time comics readers would be familiar with, but not necessarily fans of the MCU. In film, the idea was of course explored in Fox’s X-Men franchise, with X-Men: Days of Future Past showing us what happens when you not only cross different eras of a franchise, which paved the way for Marvel to do so in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it also showed us how going back in time and changing a pivotal event, the point of divergence, can create a branch timeline, a feature which the MCU will make use of very frequently in the future.
Interlude: The Curious Case of Earth-616
As we mentioned in Part 1, the MCU was firmly established on Earth-199999 for many years, until the release of Loki, which turned everything we knew about the MCU upside down. In July 2013, Young Avengers Vol. 2 #8 was released, in which Ikol from Earth-616 has a passport containing multiple stamps from alternate realities he visited, including Earth-2149, the Zombiverse first seen in Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol 1. #21 and, of course, Earth-199999 on the date June 16th, 2013. Previously, there had been references to the 616 designation, such as in Thor: The Dark World in which the words “616 universe” can be seen underlined in the centre of Erik Selvig’s chalkboard in a psychiatric hospital. In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Quentin Beck/Mysterio claims that he is from “Earth-833“, the home reality of Spider-UK in the comics and that the MCU’s reality is “Earth, dimension 616”. As it’s later revealed that Beck is not from another universe and that he is simply a disgruntled ex-Stark Industries employee, it can be assumed that he is lying, which Kevin Feige confirmed is, in fact, the case, saying that he was “full of s**t”. In November 2021, Vice President of Production & Development at Marvel Studios Nate Moore mentioned “the MCU 616 Universe” in reference to the untimely passing of Chadwick Boseman and the denied possibility of T’Challa being recast. In the series premiere, 1×01 “Glorious Purpose”, we can see on the rolling tape showing 199999’s life, including moments from The Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War, that the events we have been shown took place on “ETH-616”. And finally, the worst offender of all, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In the film, Doctor Strange 199999 and America Chavez arrive in an alternate, futuristic New York City. They are then captured and are introduced to a Variant Christine Palmer who states that her universe is “Earth-838”, and that she has designated his “Earth-616”. Now, I emphasise the fact that Palmer 838 designated her and Stephen 199999’s universe since in the world of the Marvel Multiverse, the Captain Britain Corps decide which reality is called what. This argument has been made evermore famous by Kamala Khan actress Iman Vellani who notably disagrees with Kevin Feige on the MCU’s designation, firmly establishing herself as Team 199999 on numerous, such as in an interview with DEADLINE Hollywood at the Ms Marvel Special Launch Event, an Elite Daily interview, on the DEADLINE Hollywood Hero Nation podcast, during a Reddit AMA and finally in an interview with New Rockstars’ Erik Voss.
Unfortunately, assigning the same reality designation to multiple universes isn’t unique to Marvel Comics, as probably the worst offender is DC Comics, who have called multiple universes “Earth-1”, or some variation of that such as “Earth-One”, which makes it incredibly confusing in conversation to refer to different universes and for the other person to have no idea what you’re talking about. There are plenty of unused reality designations to go around, since new ones are created very regularly, even as recently as August 7th, 2022.
Part 3: You think you know how the world works?
Quote: Ancient One to Stephen Strange, Doctor Strange (2016)
In the epilogue of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, Steve Rogers must go back in time to various points and return the Infinity Stones the Avengers stole during their Time Heist, as well as Mjölnir which Thor stole from 2013. Steve returns later than Professor Hulk expected, as the camera pans over to an old man sitting on a bench, later revealed to be Steve himself. The final scene of the film shows us that Steve didn’t just patch up the Avengers’ timeline leaks, but he also grew old with Peggy, having their dance he promised her at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. This scene is the subject of much contention between people who worked on the film, as the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, believe he went back in time to an earlier point (they specify “about ‘48″) in the main timeline, rejecting the “Steve is in an alternate reality” theory, one which is championed by the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo. They believe that “Cap would have had to have travelled back to the main timeline”, implying the point of divergence is him simply appearing. This debate is unfortunately made evermore confusing by the release of 2021’s Loki, which establishes the Time Variance Authority, or the TVA, an organisation which oversees the “Sacred Timeline” (Earth-199999) and ensures that any Variants, an alternate reality version of one’s self, created by a point of divergence, are pruned, as are the realities they hale from. We see this very clearly with the Variants of, go figure, Loki that we meet, including the protagonist, Variant L1130, who escaped from New York City into the Gobi Desert in 2012 after the Battle of New York. His point of divergence was being able to steal the Tesseract thanks to the misbehaviours of Tony Stark and Ant-Man. Now, if we follow the logic of the Russo Brothers, then Steve and Peggy’s relationship timeline must’ve been pruned by the TVA, including the Variant Peggy Carter. The answer to this is also, not very clear, as Loki executive producer and director Kate Herron doesn’t want to “definitively say”, but assumes “probably”.
Markus and McFeely’s explanation of time travel in the MCU, what’s known as the predestination paradox in physics and fiction, comes back in Ms Marvel 1×04 “Seeing Red” and 1×05 “Time and Again”, where we see Kamala go back in time to 1947 during the Partition of India and helps her grandmother Sana Ali find her way back to her father Hasan, a memory she later recalls as “being guided by a trail of stars”. According to Loki writer and Ms Marvel writer and executive producer Bisha K. Ali, Kamala’s time travel wouldn’t have caused a Nexus event because of the “inevitability of it”, saying that it was a “closed loop”. To be fair, Iman Vellani did say that we will find out how this all works in 2023’s The Marvels, which will see Vellani, Saagar Shaikh, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur and Brie Larson all reprise their respective roles from Ms Marvel as Kamala, her older brother Aamir, her mother Muneeba, her father Yusuf and her idol Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. But I think generally this doesn’t create too much of a problem since Kamala wouldn’t need pruning as she doesn’t leave any loose ends from what we were shown.
Points of divergence also do not make sense if there are clear differences in a universe chronologically before the point of divergence after the universe has been created. For example, in the upcoming animated series Spider-Man: Freshman Year and its sequel series Spider-Man: Sophomore Year, we will see the origins of Peter Parker in the MCU, up until his famous meeting with Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War where he arrives home, only this time he meets Norman Osborn. It was confirmed by Marvel Studios’ Head of Streaming Brad Winderbaum that this is indeed the case and that it takes place in another universe. This would be all fine and dandy if it wasn’t for Spider-Man: No Way Home establishing that the home Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin lives in is occupied by someone else and that Oscorp “doesn’t exist”, implying that Norman Osborn never existed before the point of divergence, which contradicts Freshman Year’s premise. A similar problem is noticeable in What If…? 1×01 “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (designated Earth-82111), where the point of divergence is when Peggy Carter decides to in the room in which the Super Soldier Serum experiment is taking place instead of watching it from a safe distance. It’s revealed later on in the episode that Red Skull has been trying to use the Tesseract (holding the Space Stone) to summon the “Champion of HYDRA”, an otherworldly tentacle monster who’s the basis of tales of old. It can also be argued that the reason that Earth-82111 wasn’t pruned was that the TVA recognised that she would be instrumental in the Battle for the Multiverse alongside the Guardians of the Multiverse against Infinity Ultron, the same logic they used for the Avengers, but her timeline’s existence beyond it isn’t justified at the time of writing ahead of her appearances in What If…? Seasons 2 & 3. Earth-89521 (first seen in 1×05 “What If… Zombies?!”) also should not exist for as long as it has, certainly not long enough to get its own spin-off series, Marvel Zombies) since only a branch timeline of that reality was used in the Battle for the Multiverse prior to many of the events seen in the episode.
Another issue set up by the show is that of the Infinity Stones’ power in other timelines. In Loki 1×01 “Glorious Purpose”, we visit the desk of Casey, who opens his drawer and tells L1130 that he uses Infinity Stones as paperweights, explaining that Infinity Stones do not work in a timeline other than their native one. This is contradicted by What If…? 1×09 “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?” in which Doctor Strange Supreme from Earth-91233 uses the Time Stone to help defeat Infinity Ultron in the latter’s home reality of Earth-29929. Head writer and executive producer A.C. Bradley noticed the discourse around this issue and stated on Twitter that “Ultron is using the Infinity Stones to power himself (same universe being)” (in reference to the fight between him and Uatu the Watcher in 1×08 “What If… Ultron Won?”). Unfortunately, it isn’t exactly clear how this is a valid exception.
PS: Loki (Season 1)
Loki (Season 1) is fun, but it strongly contradicts a lot of what we know about the MCU. For example, it’s established by Judge Revonna Renslayer that the actions the Avengers took during their Time Heist were supposed to happen, as it prevented a Variant 2014 Thanos from conquering the universe, and that the actions taken by L1130, i.e. stealing the Tesseract and escaping to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, weren’t. This doesn’t make sense, however, as the reason the Time Heist played out how it did was because of L1130 stealing the Tesseract, as that forced Tony Stark and Steve Rogers to travel back in time to 1970 at Camp Lehigh to steal not only the Tesseract but also spare Pym Particles to travel back to 2023. If this is also “all supposed to happen”, then surely the TVA would know that Loki, given his lack of character growth at this point in the timeline, would clearly steal the Tesseract and escape the Avengers’ custody, making it odd why they wouldn’t just capture him before he interfered any further. There’s also the issue of Nexus Events, the term used to describe the creation of branch timelines and Variants (the “point of divergence”). If the Nexus Event is any divergence from the Sacred Timeline, then why wasn’t Classic Loki pruned when he escaped Thanos during the Attack on the Statesman during the latter’s Infinity War, rather than his offence being that of ending his exile and trying to reunite with Thor. Is it because he wasn’t harming anyone? Well, that would make sense if it wasn’t for the pruning of L1190, or Sylvie Laufeydottir’s, timeline as she was taken into custody by the TVA when she was simply playing with her toys. The reason for her timeline being pruned is even brung up by her in 1×04 “The Nexus Event”, to which Renslayer coldly replies with “I don’t remember” and doesn’t seem to have a solid answer according to Kate Herron.
There is also the issue with Apocalyptic Events, events which cause great destruction and violent change. In 1×02 “The Variant”, L1130 theorises that the reason L1190 is hiding out at Apocalyptic Events is that since the event will cause a large amount of destruction, anything that isn’t supposed to be there doesn’t change the course of the apocalypse, thus never creating a Nexus Event and thus never raising the suspicion of the TVA. The main example L1130 uses is the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, where he causes a ruckus in front of the citizens of Pompeii without ever creating a Nexus Event. This doesn’t make any sense, however, as if one were to push or knock over one of the said citizens, then that would change how they’re positioned when the ruins of the city were discovered in 1748, which would surely cause a Nexus Event. Mobius M. Mobius also says that for L1130’s theory to work, the disasters have to be “naturally-occurring, sudden, no warning, no survivors”, but this can’t be possible seeing as when they arrive in Pompeii L1130 exclaims in Latin (a language Tom Hiddleston knows very well) “You’re all about to die. That volcano is about to erupt!”, a clear warning which defies the rules Mobius set out prior in the episode. This information is even contradicted by the events of 1×03 “Lamentis”, whereby L1130 and L1190’s handholding at the cusp of the titular moon of Lamentis-1 crashing down on its neighbouring planet where the Lokis rest in 2077 creates a Nexus Event which quickly reaches an acclivity, leading the TVA to arrest them both once again.
Of course, the most simple, and laziest, explanation for Loki (Season 1) not making much sense is because it’s all down to the divine planning of Nathaniel Richards AKA He Who Remains (as described in 1×06 “For All Time. Always.”), which is, unfortunately, the only answer we have.
Interlude 2: The Tragedy of the Tortured Timeline
Another severe problem Marvel Studios has is that of their timeline, which itself feels like an understatement, and could have an entire article on its flaws alone. The MCU Timeline is that which confuses itself with every new title released and has never fully been ironed out. There have been two major codifying attempts, however, with varying degrees of success.
First, the “Marvel Movies Timeline” published in Marvel Studios: The First Ten Years (November 20th, 2018) on pages 12 – 13, which contains every MCU film up until Avengers: Infinity War. There are two issues with this: one, it is incredibly outdated, such as not containing The Incredible Hulk or Ant-Man and the Wasp (which were both released at the point of publishing), since it was published in a fixed medium, and two, it no longer exists…? See, the original pages 12 – 13 contained the timeline as we mentioned earlier, but then the book was re-printed and the timeline is nowhere to be seen (except in the original printing, of course).
Second, the not-so-much-better “Marvel Cinematic Universe in Timeline Order” section on Disney+. This, unfortunately also contains a few errors. For example, it’s region-specific, as it depends on the countries in which certain MCU titles are available, e.g. Disney+ US did not have The Incredible Hulk on July 30th, 2022, whereas Disney+ Japan did. This also means that there are just titles that aren’t on there at all, such as Spider-Man: No Way Home and Thor: Love and Thunder. The other big issue, which is quite substantial, is that the timeline is just so, so wrong. The most recent, and arguably most controversial update is from August 10th, 2022, which was updated to include I Am Groot (Season 1), placing it before and after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which features a similarly-aged Baby Groot, a show whose canonicity is up for debate.
The MCU Timeline, in any form, is always going to be contradicted by the individual creatives working on each project until stronger communication in the company is established. I’ll quickly go over various Phase 4 titles and their various timeline inconsistencies.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
In August 2021, director Destin Daniel Cretton claimed the film takes in the “present day” in the MCU Timeline, which is placed in early April 2024 since the Qingming Jie (清明节) mentioned in the film takes place in that month, but is placed after The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on the Disney+ timeline, which is presumably set in late April/early June 2024, which is impossible.
In January 2020, Vice President of Production & Development at Marvel Studios Nate Moore stated that the film “could be concurrent to Spider-Man: Far From Home”, implying the film takes place in June/July 2024, which contradicts the clear Winter/Autumn weather, foliage and clothing seen in the former film. He later reiterated this claim in October 2021. In November 2021, screenwriters Kaz and Ryan Firpo stated that the film is happening “more or less concurrently with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, meaning it takes place in April/June 2024, which once again contradicts the clear production design of the film. The Disney+ timeline places the film after Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which is placed incorrectly months after TFatWS, which does not fit with what both Nate Moore and the Firpos said.
In June 2022, executive producer and cameo star Sana Amanat stated that the show is “one to two years” after Avengers: Endgame, implying a 2024/2025 date, and since it takes place after Hawkeye (December 2024) on the Disney+ timeline, it’s safe to say it takes place in 2025. When exactly, however, is a bit more of a mystery, as there are numerous pieces of evidence hinting that the series takes place in Summer or Autumn 2025, with both being in their own rights equally valid. There’s a shot early on in 1×06 “No Normal” in which the Liberty Enlightening the World (Statue of Liberty) can be seen in its green patina colour caused by the oxidation of the copper skin which started shortly after 1900, similar to its look in the 2023 events of Avengers: Endgame, as opposed to its original dull copper colour seen in Spider-Man: No Way Home less than a year earlier chronologically, due to a restoration project to remove the oxidization and to rebrand the statue as the “Liberty Avenger”, including the addition of Captain America’s shield. This can all be chopped up to a minor VFX mistake, or even a reversal of the project as in No Way Home it’s established by a public poll that 33% supported the renovation, while 67% opposed it, and as a result of the Battle of Liberty Island, the Captain America shield collapses.
The best timeline I’ve seen so far is from my buddy Dakota over at Geekritique. It’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive and is updated very soon after a new project is released. He too understands the issues with the MCU Timeline and recognises the importance of keeping it tidy.
Epilogue: Why does it matter?
Well, does it? Do we need definitive rules about time travel or should the logic used by individual creators simply serve the purpose of the story they’re trying to tell? Well for starters, it makes things a lot easier to understand. The MCU is a universe which is constantly evolving and expanding and part of its charm is that people can just jump in and get started whenever they want. You do not have to watch every MCU film and show to keep up with the universe since, for the most part, the stories are standalone. However, there is a good chunk of the fandom that consumes every minute of the MCU’s extensive runtime and by having rules constantly contradicted or a timeline which makes it hard to map out a character’s journey, such as Wong (the most prolific character in the franchise right now, #WCUForLife). I don’t think the MCU’s Phase 4 is bad, per se, but I do think the writing needs to be clarified and there needs to be greater communication within the company, and maybe even with other aspects of Marvel Entertainment, LLC to ensure that the MCU doesn’t act like it’s the only universe, but rather simply a very popular one – it shouldn’t make the rules which define the Multiverse, such as the destruction of all Darkholds in the Multiverse in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. So, dear Marvel Studios, please hire a person, or a group of people, to ensure that this Marvel Cinematic Universe truly feels like it’s all connected.
And for god’s sake treat the VFX artists and studios with more dignity and respect! They do wonders for all the content you release and when they are forced to rush their work and are forced to work under poor labour conditions it shows.
Afterword: What do the people think?
From 22:22 on July 28th to 22:31 on August 3rd, 2022, I ran 4 Twitter polls asking people various questions about the state of the MCU and its logical inconsistency. Those questions, the choices available and the results are all available below, and all come to mostly similar conclusions that I came to in this essay.
- Poll 1: Should the rules and logic vary depending on which piece of MCU content you’re consuming to fit the needs of the story being told? (63 votes)
Yes, it should vary 31.7%
No, consistency is key 68.3%
- Poll 2: Does the lack of consistency bother you in either way, i.e. ruins your enjoyment or makes you less sure about how the MCU works? (63 votes)
- Poll 3: Is a lack of consistency a worrying indication of a lack of communication within Marvel Studios, or is it simply a by-product of working with the Multiverse? (59 votes)
Yes, a troubling sign 57.6%
No, everything’s fine 42.4%