Avengers: Endgame creates a big timeline problem for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward and, while it's not a full-blown plot hole, it puts a lot of pressure on the movies coming in Phase 4.
While the interconnected continuity has been one of the MCU's strongest elements, allowing Marvel to tell stories on a scale that would be otherwise unwieldy few would deny it's been a rocky road for those following closely. Because the gameplan for the MCU - first to The Avengers and then the team's showdown against Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War - was always changed as story goalposts moved and characters evolved, the films are riddled with narrative road bumps that don't quite add up: from Tony Stark's is-he-isn't-he membership of the team in Phase 1 to Odin's "fake" Infinity Gauntlet to Spider-Man: Homecoming's "eight years later" snafu, the list of inconsistencies to spot even as bigger picture pieces fall into place is long.
And yet, somehow, Avengers: Endgame manages to confuse things even further. This isn't about the movie's use of time travel either; as we've discussed at length, while it creates some confusing plot loops and possible branching timelines, the end result is an untampered MCU timeline. Nor does Endgame mistake real-world release dates for in-universe time or similar mistakes that make the Marvel timeline actually impossible to chart (we'll get to that).
No, what Avengers: Endgame does is entirely self-contained, yet with a major impact on movies coming in the near and far future. It isn't a plot hole yet, but lays the groundwork for some biggies. And, in honor of Spider-Man: Homecoming, it's only right it comes from a time jump.
Avengers: Endgame Ends In 2023 (And It's Messy)
Avengers: Endgame picks up in the immediate wake of Avengers: Infinity War - per Tony Stark's message from space, 22 days - with the team still reeling from Thanos' victory. They discover the Mad Titan, learn he's destroyed the Infinity Stones, Thor beheads him, and then the film jumps forward five years.
No official dates are given directly, but it can be verified as now being in 2023 by multiple means: Infinity War took place in 2018 (per Tony it was six years after The Avengers in 2012); Thanos is told in 2014 that Nebula is from nine years in the future. And even with all the time travel in the middle act of Avengers: Endgame, everything ultimately returns to 2023 for the final victory against Thanos; Hulk is even forbidden from affecting anything in the preceding five years when bringing back the Vanished. No way around it, Avengers: Endgame ends in 2023.
This isn't just the future of the world we know, however. This is a world that has been utterly decimated by Thanos' actions, where half of all life disappeared for a period of five years before returning as if nothing happened; per Peter Parker, from the perspective of snap victims, no time passed at all; they went dusty, passed out, then woke up in 2023. To everyone else, though, everything happened. People mourned and tried to move on, and in a more general sense people changed; you have two populations split by their experiences, one five years older than the other. This is a post-dystopia, a world in recovery.
Yet we don't get a sense of that at all. Defeating Thanos is an immediate victory, one that has everybody return to their normal lives; the happy ending montage betrays no sign of anything out of the ordinary. The implication, at least as how Avengers: Endgame tells it, is that with Tony's snap, everything bad Thanos wrought has been undone. But as nothing can be changed, that just can't be the case. It's reminiscent of when X-Men: Apocalypse saw Magneto destabilize the Earth's core and cause mass destruction around the world yet he got away with a slap on the wrists, except Marvel has endeavored to explore the genuine ramifications of these events.
The Big Timeline Challenge Of Avengers: Endgame's Ending
It used to be that unless otherwise stated, MCU movies took place in the year they were released (obvious exceptions were the period-set Captain America: The First Avenger and direct sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). That went out of the window in Phase 3, which saw Captain America: Civil War's 2016 story followed up by Homecoming and Black Panther, despite the movies releasing in 2017 and 2018 respectively. It was, normally, this approach that created Marvel's timeline plot holes.
Having Avengers: Endgame finish in the future may appear to be a way to work around this, to have everything exist in the not-too-distant future similar to the Fox X-Men films and provide license to be a bit more free and loose. But in a constantly evolving world, there's just too much baggage; and this goes a lot bigger than the wrong year number. Will every movie to come adjust the characters' relationships to reflect whether they survived the snap or not, accounting for different aging and life experience? While there's nothing directly contradicting at this point, continued ignorance of the ramifications will leave a timeline that challenges the illusion of permanent impact more than ever before.
And that's not even mentioning practicalities of the five-year time jump. The MCU shifting to 2023 means all films must take place then or later; the next eight entries (assuming three a year except for 2020) are all in the relative future (or have to be set before 2018, at least a year in the past). That's a strange restriction, and considering the aforementioned road bumps created following Civil War, unlikely to be smooth.
What Is Going On With Spider-Man: Far From Home?
The immediate question for this is Spider-Man: Far From Home, the next Marvel Studios movie that releases a little over two months after Avengers: Endgame. The fact that a Spider-Man sequel must release in 2019 (a result of the deal struck between Marvel and Sony to bring the character to the MCU back in 2015) has provided problems already for Endgame: Sony had to start marketing a movie featuring a character who, when audiences last saw him, was turned to dust. There were even theories that Far From Home was a prequel, with the film erroneously suggested to be ending just as Infinity War began (the field trip at the start was to MoMA, not Europe).
Now Peter Parker is back to life, having reunited with Ned Leeds at Midtown High, everything is on the surface clear: he can just head to Venice/Prague/London the next summer. Except that doesn't account for the fact this is 2023 and Spider-Man's been out of the loop for five years while many of his classmates won't have been. For Spider-Man: Far From Home to work as a sequel to Avengers: Endgame as has long been stated, all of MJ, Ned, Flash Thompson, Betty Brandt and Remy Hii's character need to have been snapped and returned, which is incredible odds for a 50/50 snap.
The obvious solution to this is that Far From Home is actually a prequel after all, set before everything that happened in Avengers: Infinity War (albeit not immediately). There would be minor continuity questions to be had there - why doesn't Spider-Man use his black-and-red suit in Infinity War? - but they're easy enough to explain, especially considering there's an almost two-year gap after Spider-Man: Homecoming before Thanos arrives. However, even if that's the plan, it merely prolongs the inevitable addressing of the MCU future timeline.
Marvel Is Trying To Ignore Avengers: Endgame's Timeline Problem
After Spider-Man: Far From Home, the next Marvel movies are unavoidably prequels. In 2020, Black Widow will show Natasha Romanoff's time as a spy in the 1990s/2000s (and, considering her Endgame death, is unlikely to have any modern-day framing device) and The Eternals is a founding prequel to the whole MCU. That means it won't be until 2021 and the expected releases of Black Panther 2, Shang-Chi or Doctor Strange 2 that we'll really see a post-Endgame world. On the Disney+ Marvel TV side, Loki and WandaVision shows involve characters dead or removed from the timeline, essentially meaning their connection to the Infinity aftermath is loose at best.
What this indicates is that, for up to two years following Avengers: Endgame, Marvel won't actually need to explore the ramifications of the movie's ending. And considering that in two years Thor went from searching for the Infinity Stones to yukking it up on Sakaar, it's clear that memory is short; this putting it off could create the illusion that, despite 2021 being two years before when Endgame is supposed to have ended, everything can have reverted back to normal. There's no guarantee this is actually what Marvel is going for, but their slate does mean it'll be something debated for a long time.
We Should Just Accept MCU Timeline Issues
As already stated in the introduction, this isn't the first time a new Marvel movie has created timeline issues (Captain Marvel had several plot holes), and while Avengers: Endgame's problem is more directly applicable to the future than usual, it really highlights the problem with overthinking these movies. At a glance, the ending of Avengers: Endgame makes sense - Tony Stark dies to beat Thanos, Steve Rogers returned the Infinity Stones to their right place in the timeline, everybody moved back to their lives - and that is how the movie wants to be taken.
This is why the oft-discussed timeline hiccups across the MCU are never that detrimental to the enjoyment of the movies at hand. In fact, even as Phase 3's release order became erratic, so too did the focus go from just bluntly setting up the future to telling singularly unique stories that interested audiences enough to want to watch everything converge; Thor: Ragnarok leaning into the funny did much more to build excitement for Infinity War than the God of Thunder being obsessed with the Infinity Stones as initially pitched. As niggling as all they can be, these plot holes only ever affect mapping the MCU timeline rigidly; when watching the movies as a story, not a historical document, the gaps are negligible.
And so while that approach to storytelling means that expecting the ending of Avengers: Endgame to have the very real effects it should is foolhardy, it does mean something else: MCU Phase 4 should have some really good, hopefully standalone, movies!
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019