There’s a not-so-strange thing that happens when you build a shared movie universe based on the much-marketed claim that “it’s all connected.” In short, people start placing each movie or TV show into one chronology, and as the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands a film at a time, the most devoted fans work to assemble each installment into one massive story. Iron Man kicked things off, then came Avengers – after each hero was given an origin story of their own. Next came the Age of Ultron, and more solo stories before the massive Infinity War team-up it’s all been building to.
Unfortunately, the release of Doctor Strange may have thrown a wrench into the relatively smoothly cruising timeline of the MCU. And as controversies over Captain Marvel easter eggs, references to other pivotal moments in the Civil War battles, and the actual amount of time it takes to forge a Sorcerer Supreme, we’re breaking down the actual dates and time offered in the movie itself.
If the numbers and dialogue are what they seem, then Doctor Strange is set well into the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… and may have broken some continuity to the point that fans may need to give up on a concrete calendar.
The First Clue
Before we get into the theories or conjecture, let’s stick with what we know. Mainly, that Stephen Strange’s journey from a brilliant surgeon to a sorcerer is a long one – as such, the actual time which passes in Doctor Strange can be tough to pin down. But we do know where it starts… or rather, where it doesn’t. After the film’s opening surgery scenes, a wide establishing shot shows the setting sun bringing an end to Dr. Strange’s work day – as well as a visual reminder that the action takes place in the same universe– same city as The Avengers.
The visual cue comes in the form of the Avengers Tower, emblazoned with its impossible-to-miss glowing blue ‘A.’ That cements Doctor Strange as beginning somewhere around the time of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, when the tower has been refashioned into a base of operations for Tony Stark and his superpowered friends. Just as importantly, this cue alone confirms that Doctor Strange does NOT begin prior to The Avengers, as some have claimed due to a later easter egg/MCU reference.
The movie may take several years from beginning to end, but none of those years are set any earlier than the Avengers’ first team-up to save New York City from the Chitauri invasion.
The Civil War Reference?
Never before has such a pointed, unambiguous comment been taken to have opposing meanings by so many. As Dr. Strange is making his way to a “Neurological Society Dinner,” he takes a call from the previously-glimpsed ‘Nurse Billy’ to decide what exciting and groundbreaking surgical ventures he might tackle next. Among the three cases is one which is clearly worded to conjure up a single image in the minds of any – and we mean any – Marvel movie fan: “a 35 year-old Air Force colonel [who] crushed his lower spine in some kind of experimental armor… mid thoracic burst fracture.”
Since Marvel’s most well-known Air Force Colonel, James “Rhodey” Rhodes just suffered a crushed spine while wearing his Iron Patriot armor in Civil War, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to choose this case, of all possible, unless viewers are being invited to make the connection. Frankly, describing an injury famously sustained in another Marvel film and suggesting it WASN’T meant to be a reference to said injury seems… well, strange.
There are two things to take away from this line of dialogue. First, that a “burst fracture” is the kind of devastating injury sustained when falling from a great height, crushing a vertebrae in all directions, jeopardizing the spine and making paralysis more likely (supporting Rhodey’s injury in Civil War). And secondly, that the age of the patient is not a match for actor Don Cheadle… and also, the description of the injury as “lower spine” and “mid thoracic” would be redundant… if it wasn’t also a contradiction.
A patient who “crushed his lower spine” is a perfect description of Rhodey’s injury – said by Tony Stark to have impacted his spine “from L4 to S1” vertebrae in Civil War. However, “mid thoracic” refers to much higher up the spine, somewhere between the shoulder blades (a much less often injured section of the spine).
So take it all for what it is: a convincing bit of medical jargon that begins by perfectly stating the injury sustained by a key player in Marvel’s Civil War, before taking an erroneous step into some conflicting words that definitely still sound intelligent. Since we would like to believe that Marvel filmmakers can still make playful nods to other films without a need to get every detail right, we’re more than happy to let the reference slide as a possible hint at the timeline.
But whether or not Doctor Strange begins alongside those same events, the fact that the film starts after The Avengers, means the claims that this line is referring to the test runs of Hammer armor in Iron Man 2 isn’t supported by any explicit evidence. Especially not while Rhodey is wearing his Iron Patriot armor for overseas missions. But fear not, the date-hungry: an actual blip on the timeline is coming…
The Actual Evidence
It isn’t until Dr. Strange has been healed, undergone additional surgeries, and is struggling through rehabilitation that he finally stumbles across the cure to his problems. Where science has failed him, he’s forced to consider a rumor. Specifically, a rumor from his physiotherapist about a man who actually managed to return to normal after a similarly devastating injury.
The audience doesn’t yet know his name, but the story of a man who overcame massive nerve damage in secret is intriguing:
One guy, yeah. Factory accident, broke his back, paralyzed. His leg wasted away, he had pain in his shoulder from the wheelchair. He came in three times a week. Then one day he stopped coming, I thought he was dead.
A few years later he walked past me on the street.
Now let’s do a little rough analysis of the terms and time being referred to by the therapist. Let’s assume that “a few years later” means three – going by the minimum of a “few” in the interest of keeping the timeline compact. Once Strange learns the man’s name is Jonathan Pangborn, he seeks him out, learning how he came to regain the use of his legs and hands.
The story Pangborn tells is one of giving up healing his body, and traveling the world to visit holy men and women to expand his mind and spirit. The three-year number from the time he gave up on his body and rehab fits that story – but neither Pangborn, Mordo, nor the Ancient One describe his education at Kamar-Taj as a particularly recent event. Again, in an effort to keep things as compact as possible, we’ll only add another two years: two years from the time Pangborn left Kamar-Taj a healed man and returned to his previous life, to the time Dr. Strange actually meets him face to face (if he had been seen walking in the past year, then the physiotherapist’s choice of words is incredibly odd).
A five year span from the time Pangborn suffered his spinal injury, gave up on rehabilitation, traveled the world, discovered the powers of extra-dimensional energy, returned to his previous life and passed the trail on to Dr. Strange is, admittedly, a small amount of time. But it already raises some tantalizing questions for Strange fans placing the film in the timeline of the MCU.
Particularly when the aforementioned physiotherapist comes through on his word, having dug up the patient’s records from the hospital’s archives to prove Dr. Strange wrong. The date that Jonathan Pangborn’s x-rays were taken? December 9, 2014.
That date means it would be the year 2015 before Pangborn’s leg wasted away, or he would have healed well enough to begin physiotherapy, let alone develop the chronic pain from a wheelchair or give up on rehab of any kind. Still, remaining generous, we’ll say that Pangborn’s story began in 2015. That means he and Stephen Strange never even met for their court side conversation until the year 2020. That’s a full five years after Age of Ultron, not to mention at least four years ahead of when the movie actually hit theaters.
Lest we forget, that’s still not taking into account the amount of time it actually took Dr. Strange to complete his training. Since the seasons never actually seem to change in the film, that either means that a) Strange completes his training in a matter of months, if not weeks, or b) the film takes around one year, with the pivotal beginning and concluding scenes set twelve months apart.
Christine’s reaction to Stephen’s sudden arrival at his old hospital stomping grounds keeps a year plausible, meaning the movie’s final battle, or the final scene could actually be set in the year 2021, spanning five years in total from Pangborn’s injury to Strange’s placement at the New York Sanctum… and Strange’s actual training in magic not beginning until the year 2020.
The Marvel Timeline… Broken?
The problems should be obvious enough, since a half-decade leap in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not expected thus far. Sure, it’s possible that Thor: Ragnarok will explain how Thor hasn’t noticed Odin is an imposter for five years (Loki’s playing a really long con), or that nothing newsworthy or visible to the world happened to the Avengers for five or six years after Age of Ultron. But the more likely answer seems to be that the strict adherence to a single Marvel timeline… may not be so strict any more – or still susceptible to small, but signifcant mistakes behind the scenes.
No matter which way you try to explain it, if the other Marvel films are going to be roughly set in the same year as their release, as per usual, there’s a problem coming. It all begins with the fact that nowhere near enough time has passed since Pangborn’s injury to the events of the film (a 2016 setting would mean Pangborn hasn’t had time to heal, let alone be seen “years later” by any of his doctors or therapists).
So, for those keeping track, the big problems are obvious:
- The years-old X-rays (and an award in Strange’s apartment) set the movie’s starting point as a slighty-future ‘present day,’ not the conclusion.
- When The Winter Soldier was namedropping Strange as a person of interest, Pangborn had yet to be injured.
- If the surgery candidate was meant to set the film around Iron Man 2, the Avengers Tower contradicts it.
Unfortunately, the mid credits sequence of Doctor Strange seems to set the internal inconsistencies in stone. The scene depicts Strange and Thor in conversation, set even farther into the future when Strange has fully accepted his role as guardian of New York’s Sanctum Sanctorum.
So a scene set somewhere around the year 2022, perhaps… pulled out of Thor: Ragnarok, set to release in theaters in 2017. You don’t have to look far to see the shattered timelines; although, we suppose it’s fitting that a movie submerged in the magic of time itself should condense the better part of a decade into two or three years…
So there you have it, our closer look at the passage of time in Doctor Strange‘s story, and how it impacts the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline – or reveals it to only be a rough outline, adhered to where and when directors or the studio choose to. It’s hard to believe entire props and backstories were written without much consideration, but who knows – maybe Thor: Ragnarok will be the first of several Marvel films to leap years into the future.
We have our doubts. For now, we can only offer up the evidence, and suggest Marvel fans do the same thing we have: put away your calendars. Marvel Studios seems to be doing the same.