Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame

A still from Oren Bell’s brilliant interactive timeline for Endgame as a multiverse movie. He disagrees with both writers and directors on the ending – check it out on his site here

With the new time travel-centric Marvel TV series Loki about to debut, I thought it was time (ha) for another dabble in the genre with a look at 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. (SPOILERS for those who somehow have yet to see it). To no-one’s surprise, the writers of Endgame opted to wrap up both a 20+ film long story arc and a cliffhanger involving the death of half the universe by recourse to that old chestnut of time travel (an old chestnut I love though!). It did so in a superficially clever way, comparing itself to and distancing itself from (quote) “bullshit” stories like ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘The Terminator’. The more I’ve thought and read about it though, the more I realise that it’s no more scientific in its approach than those movies. “No shit” I hear you say, but there are plenty of people out there who are convinced that this is superior time travel storytelling, and possibly even ‘makes perfect sense’. In reality, although it ends up mostly making sense, this is perhaps more by luck than judgement. I still loved the film, by the way, I’m just interested in how we all ended up convinced that it was ‘good’ (by which I mean consistent and logical) time travel, because it isn’t!

tl;dr – Endgame wasn’t written as a multiverse time travel story – although it can be made to work as one.

Many, myself included, understood Endgame to differ from most time travel stories by working on the basis of ‘multiverse’ theory, in which making some change in the past (possibly even the act of time travel itself) causes the universe to branch. This is a fictional reflection of the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the universe is constantly branching into parallel realities. As no branching per se was shown on camera, I assumed that it was the act of time travel itself that branched reality, landing the characters in a fresh, indeterminate future in which anything is possible. My belief was reinforced by an interview with physicist Sean Carroll, a champion of this interpretation and a scientific advisor on the movie. I was actually really pleased; multiverse time travel is incredibly rare (the only filmed attempt I’m aware of was Corridor Digital’s short-lived ‘Lifeline’ series on YouTube Premium). I’m not really sure why this is but regardless, the idea certainly works for Endgame as time travel is really just a means to an end i.e. getting hold of the Infinity Stones. I wasn’t the only one to assume something along these lines, which is why many were confused as to how the hell Captain America ended up on that bench at the end of the movie. If, as it seemed to, the film worked on branching realities, how could he have been there the whole time? If he wasn’t there the whole time and did in fact come from a branch reality that he’s been living in, how did he get back? Bewildered journalists asked both the writers and the directors (there are two of each) about this and got two different answers. The writers insisted that this was our Cap having lived in our timeline all along, although they later admitted that the directors’ view might also (i.e. instead) be valid, i.e. that he must have lived in a branch reality caused by changes made in the past. W, T, and indeed, F?

There is a good reason for this. The directors’ view is actually a retcon of the movie as written and filmed. Endgame is actually a self-consistent universe that you can’t alter and in which, therefore, time-duplicate Cap was always there. There is a multiverse element, but as we’ll see, this is bolted onto that core mechanic, and not very well, either. Let’s look at the evidence. The writers explain their take in this interview:

“It’s crucial to your film that in your formulation of time travel, changes to the past don’t alter our present. How did you decide this?

MARKUS We looked at a lot of time-travel stories and went, it doesn’t work that way.

McFEELY It was by necessity. If you have six MacGuffins and every time you go back it changes something, you’ve got Biff’s casino, exponentially. So we just couldn’t do that. We had physicists come in — more than one — who said, basically, “Back to the Future” is .

MARKUS Basically said what the Hulk says in that scene, which is, if you go to the past, then the present becomes your past and the past becomes your future. So there’s absolutely no reason it would change.”

What these physicists were trying to tell them is that IF time travel to the past were possible, either a) whatever you do, you have already done, so nothing can change or b) your time travel and/or your actions create a branch reality, so you’re changing this, and not your past. Unfortunately the writers misunderstood what they meant by this and came up with a really weird hybrid approach, which is made clear in a couple of key scenes involving Hulk where the two parallel sets of time-travel rules are explained. As originally written and filmed these formed a single scene, with all the key dialogue delivered by the Ancient One. First, the original version of those famous Hulk lines that they allude to above (for the sake of time/space I won’t bother to repeat those here): 

ANCIENT ONE

Of course, there will be consequences.

HULK

yes…If we take the stones we alter time, and we’ll totally screw up our present-day even worse than it already is.

ANCIENT ONE

If you travel to the past from your present, then that past becomes your future, and your former present becomes your past. Therefore it cannot be altered by your new future. 

This is deliberately, comedically obfuscatory, but is really simple if you break it down. All they’re saying is that you may be travelling into the past, but it’s your subjective future. If you could change the past, you’d disallow for your own presence there, because you’d have no reason to travel. In other words, you just can’t change the past, and paradoxes (or Bill & Ted-style games of one-upmanship) are impossible. On the face of it this dictates an immutable timeline; you were always there in the past, doing whatever you did, as in the films ‘Timecrimes’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, or ‘Predestination’. In keeping with this, the writers also claim that Captain America’s travel to the past to be with Peggy is also part of this. How? We’re coming to that. Most definitely not in keeping however is, well, most of the movie. We see the Avengers making overt changes to the past that we’ve already seen in prior movies, notably Captain America attacking his past self. How is this possible given the above rule? If it is possible despite this, how does 2012 Cap magically forget that this happened? The answers to both questions are contained in the next bit of dialogue: 

HULK

Then all of this is for nothing.

ANCIENT ONE

No – no no, not exactly. If someone dies, they will always die. Death is.. Irreversible, but Thanos is not. Those you’ve lost have not died, they’ve been willed out of existence. Which means they can be willed back. But it doesn’t come cheap. 

ANCIENT ONE

The Infinity Stones bind the universe together, creating what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one of these stones, this flow splits. Your timeline might benefit, but my new one would definitely not. For every stone that you remove, you create new very vulnerable timelines; millions will suffer. 

In other words, because the Stones are critical to the flow of time and because later on a Stone is taken, the changes to the past of Steve’s own reality are effectively ‘fixed’, creating a new branch reality where he does remember fighting himself and the future pans out differently without changing his own past. We can try to speculate on what would have happened if the time travellers had made changes to the past and then a Stone hadn’t been taken, but this is unknowable since every change to what we know happened does get branched. Either the writers are lying to us, they don’t understand their own script, or – somehow – the taking of the Stones is effectively predestined, forming another aspect of the self-consistent universe of the movie. Logically of course, this is, to use the technical quantum mechanical term, bollocks. Events happening out of chronological order in time travel is fine; cause and effect are preserved, just not in the order to which we’re accustomed. However, you don’t get to change the past, then branch reality, then imply that the earlier change is not only retrospectively included in that branch, but is also predestined! This is a case of the cart before the horse; the whole point of branched realities is to allow for change to the past – it should not be possible to make any change prior to this point. The very concept is self-contradictory. If you can’t change the past, you can’t get to the point of taking a Stone to allow for a change to the past. The only way this works is if we accept that you can make changes, but as per the nonsense Ancient One/Hulk line, your present… “…cannot be altered by your new future.” Unfortunately, the writers have established rules and then immediately broken them in an attempt to avoid falling into the time travel cliche of pulling a Deadpool and stopping the villain in the past and yet retain the past-changing japes of those exact same conventional time travel movies. Recognising that the new branched realities would be left without important artefacts, they then explain how these ‘dark timelines’ are avoided:

HULK

Then we can’t take the stones.

ANCIENT ONE

Yet your world depends on it.

HULK

OK, what if… what if once we’re done we come back and return the stones?

ANCIENT ONE

[Then] the branch will be clipped, and the timeline restored.

Note that this is further evidence of the writer’s vision; if reality branches all the time, there’s no way to actually ‘save’ these timelines – only to create additional better ones. If reality only branches when a Stone is removed, putting it back ‘clips’ that branch as they explain. Still, on balance this interpretation is seriously flawed and convoluted. Luckily the version of this same scene from the final draft of the script (i.e., what we saw play out) helps us make sense of this mess (albeit not the dark timelines; they are still boned, I’m afraid!):

ANCIENT ONE

At what cost?

The Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time. Remove one of the stones, and the flow splits.

Now, your timeline might benefit.

My new one…would definitely not.

In this new branch reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world would be overrun…

For each stone you remove, you’ll create a new, vulnerable timeline. Millions will suffer.

(beat)

Now tell me, Doctor. Can your science prevent all that?

ASTRAL BANNER

No. But it can erase it.

Astral Banner reaches in and grabs THE VIRTUAL TIME STONE.

ASTRAL BANNER (CONT’D)

Because once we’re done with the stones, we can return each one to its own timeline. At the moment it was taken. So chronologically, in that reality, the stone never left.

These changes have two significant effects (other than removing the potentially confusing attempt to differentiate being willed out of existence from ‘death’):

1) To move the time travel exposition earlier in the movie to avoid viewers wondering why they can’t just go back and change things. 

To achieve this they added the obvious Hitler comparison (it may not be a comparison that this was a minor plot point in Deadpool 2!), along with pop culture touchstones to help the audience understand that this isn’t your grandfather’s (ha) time travel and you can’t simply go back and change your own past to fix your present. This works fine and doesn’t affect our interpretation of the movie’s time travel.

2) To de-emphasise the arbitrary nature of the Stones somehow being central to preventing a ‘dark’ timeline by pointing out that they’re essentially a means of defence against evil. 

This is more critical. We go from ‘the Infinity Stones create the experience you know as the flow of time’ to ‘creating what you experience as the flow of time’, which I read as moving from them creating time itself, to simply the timeline that we know (i.e. where the universe has the Stones to defend itself). This provides more room for the interpretation that removing a Stone is simply a major change to the timeline, like any other, that would otherwise disallow for the future we know, and so results in reality branching to a new and parallel alternate future. Still, I really don’t think that improving time travel logic was the main aim here, or even necessarily an aim at all. The wording about how the Stones ‘bind the universe together’ may have been dropped as simply redundant, or possibly to soften the plothole that not only the ‘flow of time’ but also the ‘universe’ are just fine when the Stones all get destroyed in the present-day (2023) of the prime reality. If the filmmakers truly cared about their inconsistent rules, they had the perfect opportunity here to switch to a simple multiverse approach and record a single line of dialogue that would explain it without the need to change anything else. Here’s the equivalent line from Lifeline:

“Look, your fate is certain. Okay? It can’t be undone. Your every action taken is already part of a predetermined timeline and that is why I built the jump box. It doesn’t just jump an agent forward in time, it jumps them to a brand new timeline. Where new outcomes are possible.”

Anyway, back to that head-scratcher of an ending and the writer’s claim that Cap was always there as a time duplicate in his own past. They say this is the case because it’s not associated with the taking of a Stone. I have checked this, and they’re right; it’s the only change to the past that can’t be blamed on a Stone. There’s also no mention in the script (nor the alternate scene below) of alternate universes being created prior to the taking of a Stone. So, per the writers’ rules, Cap (and not some duplicate from another reality) is indeed living in his own past and not that of a branch reality. This was the intent “from the very first outline” of the movie, notwithstanding the later difference of opinion between writing and directing teams. To be clear, everyone involved does agree that he didn’t just go back (or back and sideways if you believe the directors) for his dance raincheck – he stayed there, got married and had Peggy’s two children. Which inevitably means that Steve somehow had to live a secret life with a secret marriage (maybe he did a ‘Vision’ and used his timesuit as a disguise?) and kissed his own great niece in Civil War (much like Marty McFly and his mum). 

You can still choose to interpret Steve’s ‘retirement’ to his own past as a rewriting of the original timeline that alters Peggy’s future (i.e. who she married, who fathered her kids etc). Alternatively, you can believe the directors that Cap lived his life with the Peggy of a branch reality and returned (off camera!) to the prime reality to hand over the shield. But neither of these fits with the original vision for the movie that you can’t change your own past and it doesn’t branch unless a Stone is removed. There’s another problem with the writer’s logic here. Cap only gets to the past by having created and then ‘clipped’ all the branching realities. This means that the creation and destruction of these branches also always happened and is also part of an overarching self-consistent universe. Except that they can’t possibly be for the reason I’ve already given above; we’ve seen the original timelines before they become branch realities, so we know something has in fact changed, and there can’t be an original timeline for Cap to have ended up in his own past!

Conclusions

So, Endgame as written and even as filmed (according to the writers) is really not the multiverse time travel movie that most of us thought. It’s a weird hybrid approach that you can sort of mash together into a convoluted fixed timeline involving multiple realities but not really. It actually makes less sense than the films that it (jokingly) criticises and handwaves all consequences for time travel. Luckily, it can be salvaged if we overlook the resulting plothole of Captain America’s mysterious off-camera return and follow the interpretation of the directors. That is, that there’s no predestination, the Avengers are making changes, but every significant change, (i.e. one that would otherwise change the future, like living a new life in the past with your sweetheart) creates a branch reality. Not just messing with Stones. This isn’t perfect; how could it be? It’s effectively a retcon. But it’s easily the better choice overall in my view. Why wouldn’t this be the case? It’s only logical. The only serious discrepancy is the remaining emphasis placed upon the significance of the Stones, which I think can be explained by the Ancient One’s overly mystical view of reality. She focuses on the earth-shattering consequences for messing with the Stones simply because she knows the gravity of those consequences. She doesn’t explicitly rule out other causes of branches. It likely doesn’t matter that they’re destroyed in the subjective present of the prime universe, because the ultimate threat she identifies is Thanos, and he’s been defeated, along with the previous threats that the Stones had a hand in, including of course ‘Variant’ Thanos from the 2014 branch (meaning that branch doesn’t have to contend with him and gets its Soul and Power Stones back). Of course, this interpretation has some dark implications: If significant changes create branches, then when Cap travels back to each existing branch to return each stone, reality must be branched again. The Avengers have still created multiple new universes of potential suffering and death without one or more Stones, they’ve just karmically balanced things somewhat by creating a new set of positive branches that have all their Stones. Except for, again, the new Loki branch. 

For me, the directors’ approach, whilst imperfect, is the best compromise between logic and narrative. It’s not clear whether they somehow thought this was the case all along, or whether they only recognised the inconsistencies in post-production or even following the movie’s release. The fact that the writing and directing teams weren’t already on the same page when they were interviewed tells me that, simply, not enough thought went into this aspect of the film. Why should we believe them? Well, the director’s role in the filmmaking process traditionally supersedes that of the writer, shaping both the final product and the audience’s view of it. Perhaps the most famous example is Ridley Scott’s influence on Deckard’s status as a replicant. You can still choose to believe that he is human based on the theatrical cut and ignoring Scott’s own intent, but this is contradicted by his later comments and director’s cuts. There’s also the fact that subsequent MCU entries suggest that the Russos’ multiverse model is indeed the right one. Unless Loki is going to be stealing multiple more iterations of Infinity Stones, the universe is going to get branched simply by him time travelling. If so, this will establish (albeit retroactively) that the Ancient One really was just being specific about the Stones because of the particularly Earth-shattering consequences of messing with their past (and the need to keep things simple for a general audience). It would also pretty much establish the Russos’ scenario for Captain America; that he really did live out his life in a branch reality before somehow returning to the prime reality to hand over his mysterious newly made shield (another plothole!) to Sam. Where he went after that, we may never know, but I hear he’s on the moon

2 thoughts on “Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame

  1. Problem is that a Cap who secretly lived through all that time w/o acting is a Cap who allowed McCarthyism, the Viet Nam war, the assassinations of the Kennedy s & MLK, Watergate and other preventable horrors to happen – and that just isn’t what Cap would do.

    BTW, if the Avengers & JLA teamed up w/o any interaction betwixt Disney/Marvel and Time/Warner/DC THAT would prove the multiverse exists.

    1. Absolutely agree. Just another reason I go with the directors’ take. It’s all a fudge, unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s