The Current MCU Timeline Explained
Before we go through the looking glass, let's first get everyone on the same page in regards to the accepted timeline.
Phase 1 was pretty much made up as it unfolded and the in-universe flow reflects this. You have Iron Man, then a year later in movie time Iron Man 2, which due to various easter eggs is also set in the same week as The Incredible Hulk and Thor. This was all retconned to have the first film in 2010 and "Fury's Big Week" happening in 2011, with Cap's defrosting in the present day bookends of The First Avenger occurring in 2012 ahead of The Avengers that same year. Complicated, but clearly placing the team-up provided a neat baseline going forward.
Phase 2 normalized things a little, introducing the idea of events simply unfolding in real-time unless there were specific exceptions. And looking at each movie we can find that it does match up: Iron Man 3 was set six months after The Avengers to account for Christmas, backed up by Killian saying it's thirteen years since his offer to Tony Stark from New Year's Eve 1999 (this also means we can't move The Avengers from 2012); Thor: The Dark World was set in release month November 2013, evidenced by a background calendar; both Guardians of the Galaxy and Vol. 2 are set in 2014 based on the date subtitles (the prologues occur in 1988 and 1980, then jump forward 26 and 34 years respectively); The Winter Soldier doesn't have any exact dating but is said to come two years after The Avengers (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. corroborates this); Avengers: Age of Ultron is the previous summer to Captain America: Civil War, which we know is two years after The Winter Soldier as Sam Wilson says they've been hunting Bucky for that long; and Ant-Man follows Avengers 2 directly. There's also Doctor Strange running through some of this, but we'll get to that in a moment.
Timeline specifics going forward are unclear, but we have been told that Infinity War takes place four years after Guardians 2, putting it in release year 2018. That's all pretty easy to follow and rather tight, although recently we've begun to struggle when looking at minutiae.
Phase 3's Previous Plot Holes
After things worked pretty neatly for a few years, with the expanding of Phase 3 cracks have started to emerge. The first indication that something wasn't lining up came in Civil War. When discussing the Sokovia Accords, Vision stated: "In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially". While it was indeed eight years in real time since Iron Man was released, it was only six since the events in the movie world - a minor but pretty confusing line drop.
Doctor Strange further confused things - not in any explicit way but by simply not existing in any coherent time space. It shunned the name drop from The Winter Soldier by clearly starting post-Age of Ultron, and had a very unclear passage of time. Ignoring all potential easter eggs linking it to other films and instead using the time given on his watch and the post-credits scene being set during Thor: Ragnarok, we can conclude it's set across 2016 and early 2017. This works fine enough, but the confusion indicated a lack of consideration.
Then came Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which despite mostly avoiding timeline considerations by coming so close to the original and being set in an otherwise uninhabited wing of the MCU still had problems; the lone Earth-set moment showing Ego's expansion directly clashed with everything else going on at the time - it's set between The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron.
Now we have Homecoming, which not only introduces its own plot hole but directly contradicts the one from Civil War; The Avengers is explicitly two years after Iron Man, yet both events are said to have happened eight years prior to 2016. This one's particularly hard to excuse as there's not even a real world reasoning for the confusion. It definitely seems like oversight, but if that's the case, what's happened to Marvel?
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) release date: Jul 07, 2017
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017) release date: Nov 03, 2017
- Black Panther (2018) release date: Feb 16, 2018
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018