Why The Timeline Is Broken
Before looking at why this broken timeline is - for all its unavoidable existence - not a problem, we must first understand why it is like this in the first place.
Ultimately, it's the result of simply making a shared universe. Even in the early days, Marvel were actively working on a half-dozen movies in various states of development, and now they're up to three movies a year that's ballooned: there are five slated films, two more we know about, and likely just as many in the pipeline (films are dated up to 2022). That's already a lot of moving pieces before you work in the practicalities of franchise moviemaking: as one releases, another is finishing shooting, another starting and so on. When you have that many projects, each with the primary purpose of telling a good, standalone story, some contradictions are inevitable. A change in one has a knock-on effect to all the others, but at the same time that can't always happen.
This is best seen with Spider-Man. The Sony-Marvel deal to share the character didn't have much of a damaging impact on Captain America: Civil War due to the screenwriters having two versions of the script in development - one with and one without Peter Parker - but long term it shook up Phase 3. Spider-Man: Homecoming changed the release plan, pushing Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther back and introducing a key new element in Infinity War. However, that doesn't really hurt story (Avengers 3 was in early stages when the deal happened). The real problem came from introducing a Generation Z Spider-Man; for him to be inspired by the Avengers, everything needs stretching. That's surely not the entire picture, but it represents it.
Marvel's Character Continuity Works
For all we've done to show and explain the broken timeline, none of this should be taken as a criticism of the MCU or its storytelling. In fact, that these exist serve as an ideal example of creative compromise to build a better whole. While the mechanical specifics of the Marvel timeline makes no sense, the narrative flow within it, and particularly the myriad of character arcs, do. You can trace the story from Iron Man to Infinity War and find few genuine contradictions; we have questions about the "when?" but not the "what?", "why?" or "how?".
Like with Marvel's oft-cited villain problem or sometimes-formulaic narrative structure, everything is done in service of the heroes. That's how they took Iron Man from B-list to go-to billion-dollar raker, Captain America from presumed propaganda into bastillion of good, the Guardians of the Galaxy from basically nothing to new-age Star Wars. And while casting, characterization, marketing and good standalone movies are all essential, it's the way it grown over time that's been so important. This has been at the core of the MCU since conception, and in that regard the continuity of the MCU is pitch perfect. Captain America's evolution from well-meaning everyman to renegade by way of man-out-of-time is a standout, but even the little turns that feel strange - Tony Stark goes from giving up his suits at the end of Iron Man 3 to being back in action come the start of Age of Ultron - still fit into the characters' broader arcs.
This is the distinction between plot and story. The former is basic events, but the latter is the method by which it's told and what it overall means. If you have to smudge the plot a little to get to a better story (something Black Panther did with Bucky), then it's often a worthy sacrifice. Marvel's timeline problems exist - there's no getting around that - but that's OK because they're in service of something bigger.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018