Making sense of the Avengers: Endgame timeline

***Major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, so if you haven't watched it yet, for the love of God, look away now.***

This is going to be a long one and incredibly geeky, so just hold on tight and try and stay with me here.

Overall, I really enjoyed Avengers: Endgame except for a few problematic points - one of which I though the 5 Years Later bit, although ballsy, didn't take it far enough. There wasn't enough discussion about how much society would have degraded with half the population turned to ash - I mean, we saw some of it, with empty suburbs and a shanty town-like structure around the Statue of Liberty, but if you're going to do a setup as massive as this, it seems a bit wasted not to spend some time on it. If you're pressed for time, then try something else. Even a lesser time jump would have been nice.

Because ultimately, the UnSnap means that all these 3.5 billion people just wink back into existence, and you have to try to integrate them back into society, not to mention reconstruct the infrastructure, which would take at least 5 more years, if not decades. I suspect that we won't see anything about this in Spider-Man: Far From Home, which will undoubtedly stick in my craw like a parasite in an oyster shell, until I form a gleaming white pearl of annoyance around it.

But I digress.

Aside from that, I enjoyed the play, thank you very much Mrs Lincoln. Emotionally, it was a satisfying fín to 11 years of the MCU. The arcs all pulled together and landed for the most part, there were tons of callbacks and references to the last 21 movies to service the most jaded fan, and there were at least three punch-the-air moments for me. And that goddamned "Avengers Assemble" was well and truly earned. This was our moral dessert for sticking with the MCU for as long as we did, and it was delicious.

But that's not what I'm talking about today.

Today I'm talking about my own personal sickness: I'm a continuity obsessive. I have spent decades putting timelines and chronologies together for various fandoms like Star Trek. Every time I watch a show, I'm constantly on the alert for references to how much time has passed and events and am filing that away in a corner of my head and trying to reconcile everything on the fly. I literally cannot turn it off. Couple that with my jones for time travel logic and you can see how figuring out Endgame's timeline would be my nerd heroin.

At first, I was all eyebrows raised at key moments like Nebula killing her past self, or Thanos gaining knowledge of the future, or worse still, being dusted in 2023 before he gets a chance to do what he does in Infinity War. I winced when Cap vanished into history and returned with a shield... I mean, huh? What the Hell was going on here?

Then I started to think about it. So here's my rationalization as to what's going on with the time travel, based on what we see and hear in the show and some remarks from the Russos about Cap's final mission.

There are essentially two models I've come up with. Both models explicitly reject the idea that you can change history. Tony says before they start planning the heist that if you try, you just split off an alternate timeline. So in a sense both models hew to Everett's Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where every quantum event splits off into multiple timelines with different outcomes.

The basic difference between the models is based on what you think of the discussion between Bruce and the Ancient One of 2012. To recap, the Ancient One says that if Bruce takes the Time Stone, a branch will split off where the Time Stone is absent and leads to an apocalyptic future (likely because Dr. Strange won't be able to use it to bargain with Dormammu). Bruce counters by saying that if they return the Stone to its proper place in the universe, the alternate timeline will be erased and history go back to the correct path.

Ancient One: The Infinity Stones create what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one Stone and that flow splits. Now, this may benefit your reality but my new one… not so much. In this new branched Reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world will be overrun. Millions will suffer. So tell me, Doctor, can your science prevent all that?

Bruce: No, but we can erase it. Because once we are done with the Stones, we can return each one to its own timeline at the moment it was taken. So, chronologically, in that reality, they never left.

So the divergence point, where the new timeline is created, is when the Stone(s) are physically removed from that universe. Until then, whatever differences we see from Endgame that are apparently inconsistent with what we've seen previously are not because history has been changed but because this is the way it actually happened - we just didn't know (or see) it then.

Thus, in the original timeline, Loki did manage to get away with the Space Stone but both were recaptured in time for the final scene of the first Avengers movie, Cap did fight himself and the Time and Mind Stones were MIA for a time. Similarly, Frigga did talk with a future version of her son during The Dark Age, and Thanos did witness what he probably assumed was a glitch in Nebula's memory - we just didn't see it happen previously.

Keeping these rules in mind, the question becomes whether or not Bruce is correct when he says the alternative can be erased.

The first model I came up with, I call the Branching Multiverse Timeline.

This assumes that Bruce is wrong - returning the Stone(s) will not restore the timeline, just branch off another timeline where the Stone was returned. The alternate created when the Stone was taken will continue, leading to a Stone-less future.

When I presented this on my Facebook feed, people thought this was confusing and wasn't consistent with what Bruce said about the effect returning the Stone would have. After all, the Ancient One did not disabuse Bruce of his notion, and this was pretty much the Russos telling us what the rules of their time travel were.

My best friend then asked me if it could fit within a single universe model. After much thinking, I decided the answer was "No, but I can create less universes." So I assumed for the second model that Bruce was correct, and returning the Stone would erase the Timeline. This was my Single Universe Timeline (although I really should have called it my Less Universes Created Timeline).

Both models avoid paradoxes. Both models also follow the rule that if something from an alternate timeline interacts with another timeline, that interaction does not go away even if in one model the alternate timeline is subsequently erased. In other words, no takebacks, no retroactive effects are allowed. To repeat, history cannot be changed, just branched - the past remains the past.

The most significant revelation from my analysis is that Nebula-2023 killing Nebula-2014 doesn't affect the prime timeline because Nebula-2014 is actually Nebula-2014a, from an alternate timeline where the Power and Soul Stones were stolen. Similarly, Thanos-2014a and his Army's dusting doesn't change history because Thanos-2014 of the prime timeline is still around and will go on to obtain the Stones which were never stolen from the prime timeline, leading to the events of Infinity War.

One question I had was what timeline Steve decided to settle in. Originally I posited it was an alternate c. 1950 he landed in where he married Peggy, but someone pointed out Steve, when he "returned", didn't pop in on the time platform but came home the long way around, by living through history. So I revised my model to say that Steve landed in the prime timeline and fulfilled history as part of a predestination paradox, becoming Peggy's Hitherto Unseen Husband.

However, the Russos put on the record that Steve lived out his life in an alternate timeline so I had to revise my models to reflect that. How Steve jumps timelines back to the prime 2023, or how the alternate was created in the first place is not explained, however.

The other up-in-the-air detail is what happens to Loki of 2012a? He has the Space Stone - does he survive and live to star in his own Disney+ show? I leave it as unknown, but if my Single Universe Timeline is correct, he has to get out of 2012a somehow before it gets erased by Steve returning the Stones to it. If the Branching Multiverse model is correct, then his fate is anyone's guess.

Which model do I prefer?  I have a fondness for the Branching Multiverse Timeline as it was the first I came up with, but the Single Universe Timeline is easier to follow, is consistent with Bruce and the Ancient One being correct, and in the end, lets Bruce morally off the hook as the timeline he took the Stone from won't be doomed but reset/erased.

I now open the floor up to questions.

(Edit: 5/13/19 - Now the screenwriters have said that Steve didn't go to an alternate timeline but stayed in the prime timeline after all, so... new flowcharts! I prefer the idea that Steve lived out his life in the Prime Timeline because it:
  • Doesn't really contradict what we know about the history of the Prime Timeline and anything that old Peggy says could be chalked out to dementia or her trying to preserve the timeline. The fact that it's part of a predestination paradox is why Steve's actions do not split off an alternate timeline. He was Peggy's unseen husband all along. 
  • It creates less alternate universes, which is always a plus in terms of comprehensibility and it makes sense that the multiverse would naturally seek the lowest energy state possible.  
  • It solves the problem of how Steve crossed back from the alleged alternate timeline he lived in back to the Prime 2023.
What it doesn't solve is where the shield Steve gave to Sam came from. There are a couple of possibilities - one, that the shield Tony gave to Steve in the first half of Endgame isn't the original shield, i.e. the original, unbroken shield was retrieved by Steve somehow. Two, Steve made a new shield and gave it to Sam (Sam says it isn't his shield and Steve says, yeah it is... that could be a clue that it's not Steve's, it's always meant to be Sam's). Three, more time travel shenanigans.

I understand the objection that some have about how could Steve stand by while stuff like JFK, Watergate, HYDRA, etc. was going on, but I think Steve would understand the meaning of a Temporal Prime Directive and know that despite the pain, it works out in the end. I expect there would have been a heated discussion between him and Peggy early on, maybe a botched attempt at changing history, and then a decision. Sometimes it's braver to sit by and watch the movie play out again.

So once again, the flowcharts - one for a single universe model, one for branching. Now in colour (for a dime).)

Making sense of the Avengers: Endgame timeline Making sense of the Avengers: Endgame timeline Reviewed by Terence Chua on Tuesday, May 07, 2019 Rating: 5
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