Many people think that time travel stories are limited to science fiction. For instance, everyone remembers the time-hopping adventures of the characters on Star Trek or in Edge of Tomorrow, but few people remember the time that Iron Man just hung around Camelot and had adventures with King Arthur. Comic books and superheroes have been playing with the idea of time travel since the very beginning, and it has produced some of the most memorable tales ever created.
Of course, it has also produced some of the absolutely craziest tales ever written. In fact, sometimes the Venn Diagram of “craziest” and “most memorable” time travel comic is more or less a circle. These tales stretch credulity to the breaking point, even for stories about characters flying around in capes, beating the mentally ill, and getting called “heroes.” However, they are most definitely worth reading or watching, if only so you can appreciate how down to Earth most modern superhero storytelling truly is.
If you would like to know about what happens when aliens of the future play with Hal Jordan’s body or learn the finer points of why spinning really fast can’t save your dead girlfriend, check out this guide to 15 Superhero Time Travel Stories That Make Absolutely No Sense!
While the “Flashpoint” storyline of the Flash TV show was a short-lived disappointment, the Flashpoint comic had major, long-lasting repercussions. It kicks off when Barry Allen decides to travel to the past and prevent the murder of his own mother. Suddenly, the future is drastically altered: Bruce Wayne is dead, Thomas Wayne is Batman, Wonder Woman and the Amazons are an invading force, and so on. Flash eventually tries to change the past again to set things right, creating the New 52 continuity.
First of all, these changes make little sense. Fans can scream “butterfly effect” and “Speed Force” all they want, but there seemed to be no direct connection between Barry’s mother living and the future’s drastic changes (something that Star Trek did a better job half a century ago with “City on the Edge of Forever”). Similarly, once Flash restores reality, there is little explanation as to some of the big reality changes (Batgirl walks again, Lobo was completely different, everyone was younger, etc.). The most damning admission that this was a confusing move is how DC has used its Rebirth storyline to fix the worst of these changes.
14. Return of Bruce Wayne
The Return of Bruce Wayne story was confusing from beginning to end. It started when Batman “died” after being zapped by Darkseid’s laser eyes in Final Crisis. It turned out Darkseid had not killed him, but sent him on a weird journey where he had amnesia and jumped around time. Darkseid’s master plan involved relying on Batman to return to the correct timeline, but with a body so filled with Omega Energy that he would destroy all of reality upon his return.
As much as we love writer Grant Morrison, this plot is a real head-scratcher. First, it relies on Batman surviving this experience, despite being sent to increasingly dangerous periods of time where he faces cavemen, tentacle monsters, pirates… he even gets shot by Jonah Hex. Thus, there was a chance that Batman would die before he had enough energy built up.
Also, Darkseid counts on Batman returning to the present, but doesn’t count on him figuring out how to save all of reality. Of course, Batman does just that. Even if you can buy all of the plot contrivances here, the weirdest part is that Darkseid is simultaneously betting on Batman always succeeding and betting on Batman to fail!
13. Days of Future Past
Some of the entries on this list are pretty transparent attempts to use time travel as a way to introduce a particular set of retcons. That was the case with the Flashpoint comics, and it is definitely the case with the X-Men: Days of Future Past movie. The plot involved putting future Logan’s brain in ’70s Logan’s body to prevent Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask and sealing mutants’ and humans’ collective fates when Sentinels take over the world in the future.
What’s so confusing? The actual plot of “change the past, save the future” is pretty straightforward. However, Logan returns to a future that is drastically changed. Cyclops and Jean Grey are alive, Xavier is healthy, and everything’s keen.
However, recent X-Men “prequel” movies have now shown that Jean will embrace the Dark Phoenix yet again, which is something that previously killed both Cyclops and her. Logan showed us a future where, allegedly a handful of years after the healthy “future” Professor X we see here, Xavier becomes a decrepit old man who can’t contain his power. Finally, despite his past self being rescued from Stryker by Mystique, Wolverine still ends up captured by Stryker!
The gold standard for the weirdest, dumbest superhero time travel moment will always be held by the first Superman movie. In that film, audiences were shocked to see Lois Lane die; she suffocates to death after falling in a crevice. Superman, grieving and angry, proceeds to fly around the Earth, making it spin in the opposite direction. This somehow turns back time, allowing him to save Lois Lane.
If we were to detail everything wrong with this, you’d probably wish you could turn back time after reading it all. Suffice it to say that the Earn spinning in the opposite direction would not turn back time. What would happen? Considering that he did it in a matter of seconds, it should have knocked every human on Earth out – and every building on Earth down. This, of course, is not counting the people who would just instantly die from air pressure in the vicinity around Superman.
11. Age of Ultron
The first item of confusion for many readers new to the Age of Ultron comic is that it has absolutely nothing in common with the movie of the same name except for Ultron being the bad guy. The comic revolves around a Dystopian future where Ultron has taken over the world. Wolverine eventually travels to the past to murder Ultron’s creator, Hank Pym. This creates a splinter reality where the Avengers disbanded early and the Earth was ravaged by Morgan le Fey.
What made this more confusing than the normal Marvel time romp? First is the plot resolution: eventually, another Wolverine travels from the future to keep the first Wolverine from killing Hank Pym. This somehow necessitates one Wolverine having to kill the other one. Furthermore, they simply end up telling Hank Pym what will happen so he can develop a countermeasure. This should have been Plan A, even for murder-happy Wolverine.
Finally, the comic explains that these frequent time jumps have somehow fractured time and space. Frankly, it’s insane to believe that a few time jumps from Wolverine can break time when the jumps from Cable, Bishop, Kang the Conqueror, and others never did!
10. Savitar Storyline
In the third season of the CW hit The Flash, Barry Allen and his friends had to contend with an evil speedster from the future who claimed to be a god. After taking its sweet time, the show revealed the true identity of this evil villain named Savitar: he was a “time remnant” of Barry Allen who felt abandoned by his friends, so now he has traveled back in time to kill Barry’s fiancée, Iris, to force Barry into the desperation to create “time remnants” in the first place. If Barry does not do so, then “Savitar” will never be born.
The plot is muddled all the way through. For one thing, we get an instant “chicken and the egg” paradox with Savitar traveling to the past to make sure he gets born. So how was he born in the first place? He also gets a kind of countdown after the good guys thwart his attempt to kill Iris and he is going to fade after a few hours. No, seriously, how did he not just blink out of existence when they saved Iris?
9. Green Lantern in the Year 5700
In any given comic, Hal Jordan is already a pretty confusing character. He has had relationships with underage aliens, gone on galactic killing sprees, and his original weakness (the color yellow) was pretty much the saddest thing ever. However, one of the weirdest things about the character is that he periodically gets kidnapped, mind-wiped, and turned into a future hero.
In the past, Hal has been abducted by the alien Solarites from the year 5700. They make him be Solar Director (a kind of space cop), but a side effect of the time travel is that he loses his memory. Thus, they give him a new name (Pol Manning) and a new relationship (with a girl named Iona Vane). When he’s done, he’s deposited back in the past with no memory.
The most confusing thing about this is that a super-advanced alien race from millennia in the future had no better option than to kidnap an ancient Earthling. It’s also bizarre that they don’t tell him the truth—Hal would likely help them out if he knew the situation, but they create an entire fake identity. Finally, they con some poor woman into being his girlfriend just to keep up the ruse!
8. The history of Cable
If you ask longtime X-Men fans about the most confusing thing in X-history, they are going to point to Cable. This is a character whose background is a patchwork of bizarre retcons, and he comes complete with an evil clone for extra confusion. The short story of Cable is that he is the son of Cyclops and Madeline Pryor, and he is infected by a Techno-Organic virus. They send him to the future to heal him, and when he comes back, he is a grizzled Cyborg badass from a war-torn future.
The confusion starts from the beginning. Originally, Cable was a token badass cyborg from the future, created by Rob Liefield. Only later is he linked to Cyclops and Madeline Pryor, and Madeline is also revealed to be a clone of Jean Grey created by Mr. Sinister. As a baby, he is taken to the future by people who think he is a mutant savior. He gets protected in the future by someone who is actually Rachel Summers (a half-sister from a different apocalyptic future). Finally, he is tormented by Stryfe, an evil clone created in the future who serves Apocalypse– the blue bad guy Cable fights in the future.
With any luck, Deadpool 2 will ignore this convoluted background!
7. Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes
One of the weirdest conventions of older Superman comics was the frequent adventures he had with the Legion of Superheroes. This was a group of younger heroes from the 30th century who brought Superboy from the past to their future so they could have wacky adventures. These early stories went out of the way to explain that Superboy’s mind was wiped upon his return to the past, which was meant to explain why he didn’t completely screw up the past with his future knowledge.
Things got more confusing as time went on. John Byrne’s Superman retcons made it so that Superman didn’t have any Legion adventures. So, what happened with those adventures? They were explained as being trips to a different dimension due to the villainous Time Trapper.
Later stories did some more timey-wimey stuff and replaced the character of Superboy with the character of Mon-El (the very same who wooed Supergirl in her second season). The ever-increasing complexity of the Legion and their time-traveling adventures would be adjusted and retconned multiple times over the next decades, making this one of the most confusing storylines superhero ever.
6. The Thing is Blackbeard the Pirate
In the fifth insane issue of Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom throws a net over the Baxter Building, abducts Sue Storm, and forces the rest of the team to go back in time to steal Blackbeard’s treasure. They all wear disguises, and the black beard on The Thing leads to him being named Blackbeard, serving as the inspiration for the legend. The team grabs Blackbeard’s treasure, but they only bring the empty chest back to Doom (who was counting on getting mystical gems enchanted by Merlin) and rescue Sue before heading home.
Most of this is obviously crazy. First, Doom’s use of time travel; sending them to fetch the treasure enchanted by Merlin is weird when Doom himself could have stolen the treasure from any time. He is also risking all of future history with this plan. There’s a chance their shenanigans in the past could keep Doom from being born!
It’s also strange that legends and stories recall the orange rock guy with a beard but not the super-stretchy guy and a living incarnation of fire. Finally, the FF save the day by punching out a Doombot while Sue uses her powers to escape – they could have done that from the start!
5. Age of Apocalypse
Well before Apocalypse graced the silver screen in his own movie, the “Age of Apocalypse” was one of the most ambitious comics storylines in all of Marvel Comics. It involved Professor Xavier’s son David Haller (better known to FX viewers as Legion) going back in time to kill Magneto so Xavier’s dreams can come true. The Xavier of the past tries to save Magneto and gets killed. David disappears and Apocalypse ends up taking over the world, and the X-Men are not around to stop him.
As awesome as it was, this plot had more issues than the comics themselves. First, the story doesn’t really address the grandfather paradox very well; if David kills his father before he is born, then how was he ever born to eventually kill his father? Also, it weird to imagine that it was only the lack of X-men that kept Apocalypse from conquering all of America; were the Avengers on vacation?
Finally, the M’Kraan Crystal (the X-Men’s favorite plot McGuffin) eventually restores all of reality, but at the same time, this terrible timeline continues in a separate reality… which means that millions of people end up getting murdered even after the good guys win.
4. All-Star Western
In his own way, Jonah Hex has always felt like a man out of time. In a comics line filled with superheroes in the modern world, Jonah Hex was an old-fashioned cowboy (and occasional bounty hunter) who lived in the Old West. Nonetheless, there was a period where a bad guy named Reinhold Borsten transported him to a strange, Mad Max-like future. He traveled with a Mad Max ripoff crew, fought drug dealers, got cool new guns, teamed up with Batman, and even led a slave revolt.
Honestly, his time-traveling adventures are pretty awesome, but they don’t make much sense. First of all is the conceit that an old cowboy, who arms himself with revolvers because they are familiar, is able to outshoot everyone who has fancy modern guns. Second, there is nothing that wipes Jonah Hex’s memory, which means he gets back to the past with extensive knowledge of future events, technology, and heroes, which may drastically change the past.
Finally, there is no explanation for how he gets back in time… in a later comic of a different series, his second wife simply mentions that he came back. Understandably, this non-explanation was a bit of a letdown.
3. Avengers Forever
For better or for worse, most Avengers stories are pretty straightforward: a group that includes gods, monsters, and geniuses punch assortments of evil robots or aliens until they save the day. However, “Avengers Forever” is utterly insane. It involves the villain Immortus fighting Kang the Conqueror, a guy who will eventually become Immortus (don’t ask). They are fighting over Rick Jones, Hulk’s buddy who is now empowered by the Destiny Force, which he uses to summon different Avengers from the past, present, and future. Ultimately, they are fighting against “villains” who actually want to save the future from humanity.
The story is wonderfully wacky. First, anything involving a villain fighting his future self is going to make little sense; it suggests the future is fixed and that Kang will have no choice but to eventually become Immortus. The story tries to reconcile this by having the villains split Kang and Immortus into separate beings, which brings with it its own set of problems of someone’s future self existing despite having no defined past anymore.
Finally, the Captain America of the future is meant to evoke the original Secret Empire story—the one that ended with Richard Nixon killing himself after being unmasked as a supervillain!
2. Starman and the JSA
There have been many heroes named Starman, but none of them have storylines or personalities as crazy as Thom Kallor. His story, revealed in bits and pieces over the years, is that he is actually a member of the Legion of Superheroes from the 30th century. He is a schizophrenic whose mind only worsens when he is in the past and doesn’t have access to his 30th-century medication. Despite being schizophrenic (or possibly because of it), he is trusted with a map of the multiverse that is meant to help him save all of space and time.
His story has some holes in it. First, it’s truly bizarre to imagine a mission of great importance is trusted to someone mentally unstable, and the brief explanation that he’s harder for telepaths to read is bizarre. Joker is hard to read, but this isn’t considered a reason to send him on important missions!
Starman also witnesses the events in Kingdom Come due to his travels, and this made him even crazier; this means that the future Legion ended up trusting all of reality to someone whose mind would only unravel more as he traveled 1,000 years away from the medication he requires!
Doctor Doom and time travel are apparently just two great tastes that taste great together. In a particularly memorable Iron Man comic, a fight in Latveria ends with Doctor Doom and Iron Man transported to King Arthur’s Camelot. There, Iron Man teams up with Arthur and his knights while Dr. Doom teams up with Morgan le Fey and her army of zombies. Iron Man wins (it’s his comic, after all), and he and Dr. Doom use their suit parts to MacGyver together a time machine to bring them to the future.
While there’s a lot to love here, there’s also little that makes sense. First, it’s truly weird to think historical details like an army of witch-led zombies is not something history records better. Speaking of history, Iron Man and Doom have utterly wrecked the course of human history by showcasing insane new technology and magic – perhaps this is the inadvertent reason our own history has no true knowledge of Arthur. Finally, it’s impossible to imagine that Dr. Doom and Iron Man can simply build a time machine using nothing but their suits… this devalues the rarity that makes time machines in Marvel special!
What superhero story did you wish you could fly around the Earth to undo? Be sure to sound off in the comments!