There's strong evidence that Avengers: Endgame will feature time travel - but just how does time travel work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? There's a sense in which the MCU has been building up to this for quite a while now. The concept of time travel and temporal manipulation was really introduced back in 2016's Doctor Strange, a film that's far more important to the overarching narrative of the MCU than was realized at the time of its release. Both Ant-Man and Ant-Man & the Wasp have added another layer to the idea, hinting at how it's possible to travel through time without use of the Time Stone.
Even Marvel Television has dabbled with the idea of time travel, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5 seeing Phil Coulson and his team attempt to rewrite history in order to avert the Earth's destruction. The showrunners handled the idea with care; although the mechanism was different - a Kree Monolith that linked two points in spacetime - they still followed the rules established by the movies. As a result, since 2016 the MCU has consistently explored how it's possible to both travel through time and how people can rewrite history.
Given Avengers: Endgame is expected to build on the loose "rules" of time travel that have already been established in the MCU, this is the perfect time to cast an analytical eye back upon the MCU to date. Just how does time travel work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
- This Page: Time Travel in the MCU So Far
- Page 2: MCU Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame
MCU Time Travel in Doctor Strange
Time is the central theme of Doctor Strange, the film that introduces the Time Stone to the MCU. Kaecilius had come to see time itself as the true enemy of life; "Time kills everything," he reflected furiously, remembering the heartbreak he suffered when his wife passed away. In contrast, the Ancient One taught Doctor Strange that this isn't true. "We don't get to choose our time," the Ancient One told Strange. "Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered, your time is short." In philosophical terms, it's an echo of Vision's argument in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when he told Ultron that a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts.
The Time Stone can be used to manipulate the spacetime continuum. Strange learned how to use it when he began to read the Book of Cagliostro, which Wong said was dedicated to "the study of time." Doctor Strange established two different ways of using the Time Stone; to see the future, and to reverse the present. The Ancient One had used the Time Stone to explore possible futures, glimpsing potential disasters and then working to avert them. The fact she was able to do so proved that, in the MCU, time is not immutable; the path of time can be changed. Interestingly, the Ancient One was never able to see beyond the moment of her death.
A more dramatic power, however, is the ability to reverse time. When Strange first begins to use the Eye of Agamotto, he experiments with it upon an apple, reversing and accelerating time around it. Crucially, the apple's past and future appear to be predetermined; chunks are suddenly bitten out of it, as though it had been eaten. Later, in Hong Kong, Strange uses the Time Stone to reverse the Dark Dimension's breach into our reality. This time around, he's able to change the course of events so it never happened. It's difficult to say why time worked differently in this case to when Strange tried out the Time Stone on the apple; it may simply be a result of the sheer scale of events, or perhaps it was because of the dimensional breach, with the Dark Dimension - a realm beyond time - breaking through and compromising the spacetime continuum.
Whatever the truth may be, Strange is warned that manipulating time is a dangerous business. When Wong and Mordo find him with the Eye of Agamotto, they're horrified, warning that he wasn't manipulating the spacetime continuum; he was breaking it. They cautioned him that the fabric of reality is dangerously fragile, and that there could be consequences from meddling with time. "Temporal manipulations can create branches in time," Mordo warned. "Unstable dimensional openings. Spacial paradoxes! Time loops! You want to get stuck reliving the same moment, over and over, forever, or never having existed at all?" Ironically, Strange used those consequences in his favor in the end, creating a time loop in the Dark Dimension that allowed him to hold Dormammu prisoner and force the monstrous being to strike a bargain with him. According to scriptwriter C. Robert Cargill, Strange wasn't just there for a few minutes, either; he remained trapped in the Dark Dimension for quite a while, long enough to gain advanced mastery of his powers.
MCU Time Travel in Ant-Man & the Wasp
2015's Ant-Man introduced the Quantum Realm, a mysterious plane of existence that was further explored in Ant-Man & the Wasp. Although it's not initially obvious, the Quantum Realm is inspired by real-world theories of quantum mechanics - and allows for the possibility of time travel. Marvel consulted with quantum physicist Dr. Spiros Michalakis when they were working on the Quantum Realm, and in a blog post back in 2015 he explained just how it works. He suggested that, if you shrink beyond a subatomic size, you would enter a state of being where the laws of time and space do not apply.
"But if someone could go to a place where the laws of physics as we know them were not yet formed, at a place where the arrow of time was broken and the fabric of space was not yet woven, the powers of such a master of the quantum realm would only be constrained by their ability to come back to the same (or similar) reality from which they departed. All the superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics combined would stand no chance against Ant-Man with a malfunctioning regulator…"
As revealed in Ant-Man & the Wasp, the Quantum Realm appears to have a sort of geography to it. Presumably it works like a sort of series of concentric circles: the deeper you get into the Quantum Realm, the more the laws of reality - laws like time and gravity - cease to apply. And significantly, in the post-credits scene of Ant-Man & the Wasp Janet Van Dyne mentioned that there are "time vortexes" in the Quantum Realm. It was only a throwaway comment, but it confirmed that there are natural phenomenon inside the Quantum Realm that may allow a person to travel through time and space. They appear to be dangerous and unpredictable; but, naturally, that doesn't necessarily mean they couldn't be mastered.
Page 2 of 2: MCU Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019