The Past is a Where, Not a When
“…from a certain point of view.” — Obi Wan Kenobi
If you haven’t seen Avengers Endgame and you have any interest whatsoever in watching it — even a little tiny bit of interest — or, even if you have no interest, but you expect to see it eventually and you’d be annoyed to know what happens before you do, stop reading now. A lot of this won’t make much sense unless you’ve seen the movie at least once (maybe twice, if we’re being honest), but it gives away most of the plot, so stop reading. There will be lots and lots of spoilers from this point on…
>>> SPOILER WARNING <<<
So the endgame finally happened. Doctor Strange saw Fourteen Million Six Hundred Five possible realities where the Avengers fight Thanos and only one where they beat him and it happened. The question is, did he know about all that “time travel” stuff? Did he know about Scott Lang’s savior rat? Or did he just know how to get the ball rolling on the right path, and that path started with him giving up the Time Stone to save Tony?
I’m going to go with the second option there and assume that Doctor Strange could only see past his own death in one of those scenarios (because that’s the main rule of the Time Stone) and all he really knew was in the one where they win, it starts with him doing what he did at the end of Infinity War.
Then he gets dusted, gets undusted five years later, and still things would have to play out just right.
I have a feeling Doctor Strange would be just as confused by the time traveling adventures of Endgame as I was the first time I watched the movie. It doesn’t work the way the Time Stone handles time and it didn’t seem to make sense at first and they weren’t explaining it! I was annoyed.
Then the scene between Bruce Banner and the Ancient One happened and I was slightly less annoyed. Only slightly.
Part of the problem is that we generally don’t have very good vocabulary for talking about these things without resorting to terms and concepts that first require you to take a few semesters of theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, and classical logic.
So we get stuck using words like “time” a lot when that’s kind of inaccurate. I’m not saying I’ve ever taken any courses like that. I’m not claiming to be an expert on any of this. But after watching a second time, reading way too many theories, and watching a couple of helpful videos, I finally have it all sorted out and honestly, it really does all make sense! No paradoxes, no potholes! Truly!
Even better, I think I’ve figured out a couple of helpful analogies to guide anyone who is still struggling to organize it all in their mind. Ready to “time travel” some more? Cool.
Back in Time… Except Not.
The first thing to keep in mind is that thing they kept trying to explain to each other in the movie: you can’t change your own present by going to “the past”. Bruce makes a point of really hammering this home to Rhody and Scott. It ends up being played for laughs, but he’s not wrong. That’s why they couldn’t go back in time and kill baby Thanos. That’s why they didn’t even try!
In a way, there’s no such thing as the “past”. There are just alternate realities that are similar to your own, except they happen to be at relatively “earlier” points in “time”. When you “time travel” to the “past,” you’re just visiting a different Universe, identical to your own except it’s just running behind.
To help visualize that, imagine you have a bunch of VHS tapes of the same movie, but these are special VHS that are impossible to rewind. So, if you want to go back and watch an earlier part of the movie, you have to change tapes.
That’s what the Avengers are doing when they “time travel”. They are switching to tapes that are still at earlier points in their run time. Yes, this means that there are four alternate realities that they travel to. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call the “main timeline” MCU Prime and label the others based on the years they are in when the Avengers get to each one — MCU2012, MCU2013, MCU2014, and Tony and Steve briefly go to MCU1970.
If they had gone “back” and killed Thanos, that would have ended the threat for whatever tape they happened to be on, but back in MCU Prime, nothing would change. However, they found out they can cut and paste parts of those other tapes into theirs, so they go and cut out the stones. Then they jump back to their home tape, MCU Prime. That’s it. That’s the whole plan.
But! Oh no! Those other tapes are just as real and valid as the Avengers’ original VHS and by taking out the Infinity Stones, they have been ruined, right?
No. Just as Bruce says to the Ancient One, they can put back what they took away.
The Confusing Conversation with the Ancient One is Important, but not for the Reason it Seemed
In MCU2012, the Ancient One expresses worries about giving up the Time Stone and says to Bruce that yes, obviously having that stone would help him in his reality (they very specifically use that word, “reality”), but not having it in their reality would have devastating consequences. And from the Ancient One’s point of view, Bruce’s reality may as well be the alternate one. Where they are at that moment is just as real and valid as the one Bruce came from, so it would be selfish of the Avengers to sacrifice that entire Universe to save their own.
This implies that until interfered with, the only difference between any of these realities is when in time they are. Otherwise, they’re all simultaneously playing out identically.
This is the most important reveal of this conversation. It’s why the “time travel” they are doing in the movie, which is not time travel at all, is even possible. If every reality was different, they wouldn’t be able to just pick a year and go. They’d also have to be sure they were traveling to a reality that was reasonably similar to their own. It’s also important in regard to what happens with Steve at the end.
This does mean some of the Ancient One’s explanation about what could happen to their reality without the Time Stone is flawed. They oversimplified it to provide that neat orange line visual, but all they really meant is that their timeline is identical to Bruce’s and will continue to follow the same path of events unless something is changed, like removing the Time Stone from it, which would make that reality very dark in comparison. For example, Dormammu would eat all of existence if Doctor Strange doesn’t have the Time Stone to stop it.
Calling the alternate realities branches was probably inaccurate, but if we accept every reality is identical until some temporal interloper disrupts it as a basic premise of the MCU concept of “time”, it’s a useful way of describing it, both for Bruce in that moment and for an audience who isn’t interested in a crash course on quantum mechanics.
Each alternate reality already existed. We also know this is true, because of what’s happening with Ghost in Ant Man and the Wasp. Laurence Fishburne explains it during the scene when he, as Bill Foster, is lecturing to a class. He explains how it is possible to fall “out of phase” with a reality, existing in multiple realities simultaneously. That’s what’s happening with Ghost.
So, whether the Avengers had traveled there or not, each one of those alternate realities were already happening all on their own. The presence of MCU2014 Nebula in the MCU Prime and the fact that killing her doesn’t create any paradoxes proves that.
Meanwhile, each reality is changed a little just by having visitors from other realities. The goal is to change them as little as possible. Just being there probably won’t affect the unfolding of events in that Universe. Taking away an Infinity Stone on the other hand (or telling Steve that Bucky is alive before the events of Winter Soldier, or letting Loki escape captivity with the Space Stone) is a big change that could have very serious consequences for that reality and maybe many others.
Some have still asked, why? Why not just take the stones from those realities and keep them? Then Thanos wouldn’t be able to do the snap in any of them! Well, sure, maybe. But let’s say that if the options are to stick with what you know or risk infinite unknowns, many of which could lead to the destruction of life, the Universe, and everything, it’s probably better to stick with what you know.
At least by putting the stones back, the Avengers know events will basically happen just like they did for themselves in MCU Prime. (One out of Fourteen million, remember? Anything changes and Thanos eventually wins.)
So once The Avengers are done using the cut/paste stones, Cap hops back over to the other tapes and pastes them all back, so he doesn’t ruin those copies. Except he decided to go to the one still at 1940 or something and live out the tape with Peggy.
Which raises the question… how did old Steve Rogers get on that bench at the end of the movie? Based on everything we just talked about, he can’t have “rewound” his own tape and then waited for it to play back to the point that he left. Not possible. It’s not Back to the Future, it’s not a single timeline / reality.
The way the scene was presented, they do seem to imply that’s what Cap did, but I think they just didn’t want to bog down the scene with exposition.
That means, at some point, he did one of two things. A. He traveled back across realities to be there — which is not at all impossible. Cap shouldn’t age like regular human beings, so who knows how far in the “future” he lived in whatever timeline he was on. Maybe he lived on to 2100 and met new genius Avengers who made a new machine and sent him back to his home reality with a new shield and it would ruin the scene (and the fun of potentially having Chris Evans someday make a comeback in the role to play all that out) if they explained that there. Okay. That’s reasonable enough to quiet most annoyances about any potholes his presence on that bench created.
But I think option B. is more likely. That’s not the same Steve Rogers we’ve just watched for the whole movie and that last 10 years or so. That’s a different Captain America from yet another different “tape” (AKA reality). And if so, that implies that there are infinitely branching timelines where Cap does that same thing over and over and over. But why does he seem the same?
He might be Steve Rogers from MCU Prime 2 or MCU Beta or whatever name you want to slap on it, but this is why the conversation with the Ancient One is important. Every reality is playing out exactly the same, all at once, unless interfered with. That could be any one of infinite Steves, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. He has the same DNA and memories as the Steve who just left.
Time is a Train Track
In at least one video and some fan theories online, it’s put out there that not only should Steve not be able to go back to previously visited realities, the next Steve Rogers to make that jump and stay with Peggy should arrive to find a young version of himself already there.
I disagree on both points. That only makes sense if you believe “going back in time” creates an alternate reality based on the one you’ve just left from. I don’t see any reason to think that logically must happen. In fact, we’ve already seen hints that those realities are already there, happening, whether they are visited or not.
Explaining why no Steve will ever run into a young version of himself also helps to understand why the Avengers can move back and forth through “time”, visiting alternate realities, going home to their own, and then even going back to previously visited realities again, so I’ll address both at once.
As far as returning to already visited realities, first we have to understand how they even got “back in time” — I mean, to other realities in the first place.
How do they know which reality to target, to hit it at just the right time that they want to be in? They don’t! But it doesn’t matter, because they don’t have to.
They know when they want to be, so the where doesn’t matter. If you think of time as stationary and realities as the thing passing through it, then you just pick a point in time and hit that mark and you will of course necessarily will hitch on to the right reality (the right “where”) when you arrive.
I don’t know why, but this reminds me of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In Quantum Mechanics, you can know roughly where something is or how fast it is moving, but you can’t know both at once.
It would be like jumping on to a moving train. Reality is the train. The track is time. If for some reason you know you need to get on at mile marker 25, but it doesn’t matter which train car you land on, why go through all the trouble to figure out the train’s schedule? Just go to mile 25 and hop on.
Now that you’re on this car, how do you get back home? And how do you get back to the same car after you’ve left to return the infinity stone you borrowed to its place? You can’t just hop off and walk back to mile 25 — it’s going to be an entirely different car.
This was the real problem and Tony solved it. Tony figures out how to get back to the right reality again. Because knowing when isn’t useful anymore. You need to know where to get back, and that’s harder. Hence the “Time GPS”. After all, a GPS helps you find where you are and where you are going, not when you are (that would be a watch).
We aren’t given as clear an idea of how (inverted Möbius Strip?), but I think he’s basically reversed the thinking again. Now time is back to being treated as the thing that moves and reality is stationary. It’s all relative anyway. The tapes analogy is back to being useful!
What Tony essentially does is put a beacon on his home reality (he marks which VHS tape they need to get on again) so when they go quantum, they can move through the quantum realm, the thing that ties all these infinite realities together, and come back.
It’s not clear how much time has passed at home, but it doesn’t matter — you logically have to come back after you left and time “works differently” in the quantum realm, so any amount of time makes as much sense as any other.
This is where Scott Lang got the whole idea in the first place. What if it wasn’t random? What if you could choose where /when to get out?
Anyway, because it’s possible to get back home, it’s logically also possible to return to previously visited realities. We can assume they’ve pinned the locations with their GPS as they were there so they can find them again. And as long as they arrive after they last left (and again, according to the rules of time, Reality, and everything, they literally must), then no paradoxes could possibly happen. Those tapes can’t be rewound, remember? They just marked all the tapes they’re watching and just switched them out as needed.
So is there a New Gamora?
She didn’t disappear once Tony’s snap happened. At least I don’t think so, unless Tony didn’t realize he shouldn’t snap her away. And she also didn’t get erased from existence once Steve returned all the stones to their respective realities (although how he did that is legitimately hard to explain — how do you put back the Soul Stone?).
If it were possible to erase her that way, then Tony’s sacrifice was for nothing. He didn’t need to snap Thanos out of existence, he just needed to use the Time Stone to undo the damage to the van, hop in the quantum tunnel, and send it back.
Of course, that would create a paradox where MCU2014 Thanos never crossed over to MCU Prime and so Tony would never have to put it back… see why this falls apart fast?
So, I think Gamora is out there. She’s alone in a new reality, ten years in the future relative to where she was, and everyone she’s ever known is gone, except Nebula, who is very different from the Nebula she knew. She’s probably freaked out and looking for something to hold on to. Guardians of the Galaxy 3 will probably have something to do with finding and helping her.
Why didn’t putting the stone back erase her? The easiest way to explain that is to point out, again, that you can always visit a given reality again further ahead “in time” from where you last visited, but never further back — my tape analogy helps here.
Like when Tony and Cap mess up in MCU2012 go “further back” to 1970, they’re not going back so much as they’re switching to yet another tape set to an earlier point — one where they know they can find Pym particles and the Space stone in close proximity.
So what’s happened in MCU2014 Gamora’s timeline is done. The ink is dry. It can’t be changed. Someone visiting that reality would only be able to enter it at whatever point it’s currently at, which would have to be after Gamora left.
If you wanted to go back to that same moment again, you’d have to visit yet another reality that happens to be at that moment when you arrive.
Remember the train cars and mile marker 25? If you keep hopping off and going back to mile 25, you’d just be getting on completely different train cars each time… even if they look and seem identical, whatever you do in that train car won’t affect anything happening in any other car.
You can’t return to a time that has already passed in a given reality. So, if you want to visit the same reality again, you have to meet it whenever it is.
Infinite Captain Americas
So what about Cap? Is he just infinitely jumping sideways or should the first one be able to do it and then the next one run into himself, already there?
Well they’ve already basically hinted that time is happing all at once, everywhere. It’s not a single stream, it’s a fabric that infinite realities pass through. So “going back” isn’t really “going back” anyway. It’s moving over.
Think of the train again! If Cap hops off and walks back to mile marker 25 and gets in another car, how could he already be there? Even when the next next Cap gets unfrozen, lives his life through Endgame, then gets off and walks back to mile 25, it should still be the same thing all over again. It’s a weird infinite loop of Captain Americas, but there’s zero reason to believe he’d walk back to find himself already there.
If some Cap arrived to find himself already there, that would make no sense logically, because there has to be a start to that cycle and in that case there can’t be — a circle has no beginning.
So, it only makes sense, based on what the rest of the movie implies, that each time Cap “goes back” and stays with Peggy, he’s moving to a new reality where he hasn’t gone back yet… because in that reality, of course he hasn’t! It hasn’t happened yet, and when it does, he’ll just be moving over to yet another different reality anyway!
Remember, he’s not creating these realities, they were all already happening. Time is a train track and each reality is a car on an infinite train that never stops moving.
Did Steve Rogers Ruin Peggy’s Life?
What about that husband Peggy supposedly had all those years, that man she said Steve Rogers saved? Did Steve selfishly ignore that happy life to have what he wanted with her, ruining those possibilities?
No, I don’t think he ruined Peggy’s life. One possibility is, he may have always been the husband she referenced. Why, if she was married to someone else by the 1970s, would she still have a picture of Steve as a young man on her desk?
She’s a spy and a very good one. It’s not too hard to bend that truth and say Steve is actually someone else, someone that her reality’s Steve Rogers saved.
Is it believable that no one would recognize him? Not really, but at least it’s logically possible. Anyway, it would be a huge risk to her safety and his to reveal who he really was, so keeping it secret would keep them both safe while potentially allowing him to help out, if and when needed, anonymously. It makes sense that she might lie about who her husband is.
Or even if we believe that husband was a different man, if Steve travels to a reality and doesn’t let that life happen, it still could have happened in another reality. The fact Steve went and had a life with her doesn’t mean it’s been erased, it just doesn’t happen in MCU1940 where Steve jumped to.
On the other hand, maybe he didn’t stay with her. Maybe he just came back for the dance and then went off and lived his life doing other things with other people.
After all, a large theme of this movie is learning to let go, move on, and live life. Even how the Avengers resolve the fight with Thanos parallels this idea in its own way. They don’t return things to how they were the instant after the snap. They don’t undo it. They just bring all the dusted life forms back, to continue living.
Ah okay, but there are still other questions — did Steve sit back and do nothing for like 80 years while bad things happened in the world?
It’s messed up, but maybe. Again, what this whole movie also reveals about the MCU is that every alternate reality is identical except for what point in time it’s at and will unfold identically until an outside force (“time travelers” some other inter-dimensional something) interrupts it.
In other words, it’s literally all the same. Although I believe there are infinite realities happening simultaneously, there is MCU Prime and there are five known variants now, and they are the five “times” visited in this movie. MCU1970, MCU2012, MCU2013, MCU2014, and once Steve goes to and stays, MCU1940 (ish).
Just visiting these realities, even if little was changed, could have massive ripple effects.
So it’s possible that Steve chose to let world history happen, affecting it as little as possible, out of fear that If he changed anything, that particular reality he was living in would not be able to achieve the one scenario out of 14 million that would result in the eventual defeat of Thanos and the undoing of the snap.
That’s a painful and tortured existence to live. Part of me doesn’t believe Steve Rogers: Captain America would be able to do that.
So who knows? Maybe he tried his best to stop things like war, assassination, violence, Bucky murdering Tony’s parents, etc. only to find out that just his mere presence and his attempts to “change” things in that reality created ripple effects that meant his memory of history from his reality wasn’t reliable anymore in that one. That would be an interesting (if painful) movie to watch, wouldn’t it?
Whatever theory you favor there is equally as valid as the next, I think.
The Bell Cannot be Unrung
Changes are coming. Endgame will fundamentally change the MCU and from an outside perspective, it’s a brilliant business move by Marvel Studios and Disney if they want to incorporate all their recently re-acquired characters, reset some stories, and correct their own wonky timeline without having to reboot the last eleven years of the MCU… while also forever leaving the door open for any dead character to make a return.
First of all, everyone who died in Infinity War, Endgame, or any movie in the MCU is alive somewhere. Or sometime. Whatever.
For example, we already know MCU2014 has had Thanos and his armies defeated before the snap could happen there. So there, all the Avengers are all alive, well, and roughly the characters as we knew them around the beginning of Age of Ultron. Those events will play out the same, as well as Civil War, Black Panther, and everything else leading up to Infinity War, but Thanos never happens to them. No Snap. No dusting. No Time Heist.
In that reality, Tony could still discover inter-dimensional travel and who knows what characters could cross over from there to MCU Prime. Maybe some other unforeseen but equally catastrophic event happens in that reality and with no other options, the survivors jump to MCU Prime to warn their counterparts and help fight the coming evil. We have already been shown this is a path to a revived Gamora… sure would be a convenient way to revive some characters who we previously thought were gone forever.
Last we saw, in that MCU2014 alternate reality, Tony is alive and well. Loki is alive and will eventually become friendly with Thor. Black Widow is alive and has no reason to sacrifice herself for the Soul Stone. Vision and Wanda are both alive and last we visited MCU2014, Quicksilver would be too. Heimdall won’t be killed by Thanos.
And even though Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans have said they’re retired from their roles, after a few years when sentimentality starts creeping in and the money is too good to turn down, maybe Marvel even brings back Cap and a very much alive Tony Stark — even if it’s just for a cameo.
Those aren’t the only possibilities, though.
What if in MCU1970, Tony’s one conversation with his dad produces a much kinder, gentler Howard Stark? Maybe Tony’s parents never die. Does Tony still become Iron Man there? Who knows!
In MCU2012, Loki has escaped capture. Did he return to Thanos? Did he realize something was off and start exploring how to jump into other realities? The upcoming Disney+ series seems to indicate that yes, this might be the case.
In MCU2013, Thor almost told his mother about her own death. She seemed to know it was coming. Did she avoid it there? How does that change things for Thor, that Loki, Odin, and everyone else when Hela arrives?
Maybe each one of these little changes creates little ripples that turn into massive waves of change in those realities. Maybe someone — let’s assume Loki or some of those MCU2014 Avengers who never have to deal with Thanos — messes with reality jumping, gets a little too careless, and oops! Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker is retconned into the MCU as an alternate reality. Oops! Now there’s a reality where none of the MCU Prime heroes ever existed, but all the X-Men from all those FOX movies do. Oops! That means Deadpool is there too and he’d be painfully aware of all of this, even if he doesn’t fully understand the quantum mechanics behind it. He and Cable would have some explaining to do about the time travel in his movie though.
Hello / Goodbye
Much like the parallel metanarrative of the first Avengers movie, the narrative of this one was, “can we have our cake and eat it too?” And the answer yes.
In the first Avengers, the story was about whether or not all those heroes could work together and the metanarrative was about whether or not all those characters could work in the same movie together. The answer to the question of the story was always going to be yes, but the answer to the question of the metanarrative wasn’t as clear. Turned out, the answer was a very big yes.
In Endgame, the question of the story is “can we avenge the world without ending the world as we know it” (which is why we get a Tony who is so concerned about preserving what happened in the last five years to protect his daughter) and the metanarrative is, “can we end our eleven year story and wrap up all these character arcs without ending the whole MCU?”
And again, the answer is yes. They said goodbye without saying “goodbye forever.” They ended things with a new beginning. It’s hard trick to do.
That’s why this kind of “time travel” is the only possible way this movie works and any other ideas or theories don’t make much sense, not just from the point of view of the internal narrative, but from the outside as well.
Anything else would figuratively undo all the work Marvel has put in for the last decade plus and might literally undo all the goodwill and fandom they’ve built up in that time.
Just like Tony Stark and the Avengers, they ended the story by opening up infinite new possibilities, and they did it without erasing the past.