Theory: Are Marvel Shifting The Timeline?
While it doesn't account for Vision's Civil War snafu, there is actually a way to address this within the universe, it just requires a bit of shifting of some other movies on the accepted timeline. Phase 1, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor 2 and Guardians are all locked in place by aforementioned date references, and we know the start of Doctor Strange is in 2016. However, the other movies - Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Civil War and Homecoming - all date themselves only in reference to each other (this is where we have to ignore S.H.I.E.L.D. and WHIH). This means that we can shift them as a block along the timeline; so, if Homecoming is in 2020, then so is Civil War, with Avengers 2 and Ant-Man in 2019 and The Winter Soldier in 2018. Doctor Strange then starts in 2016 and runs up to 2020, leaving Stephen Strange training for a long but not unbelievable period of time. In turn, we have to push Infinity War up to 2021 at the earliest.
Natural anachronisms that come from setting movies in the near-future aside, this does sort of work. In fact, this was a possibility that was first raised with Doctor Strange which likewise stretched the timeline without consideration for the other films. Back then we dismissed it due to it clashing with Thor: Ragnarok, but as we're now saying every post-The Dark World Earth-set film is shifted it can work.
This seems weird now, but considering how much is set to go down in the MCU over the next few years it could actually help it make a little more sense. If everything continues unfolding in real-time, then Peter Parker will be well out of high school by the time of Homecoming 2, something Sony and Marvel explicitly don't want. Instead, you can have Ragnarok and Infinity War all occur in a tight timeframe, allowing the sequel to be set in 2021 and a third film in 2022 (by which point the timeline won't be as out of step). It's putting onus on Spider-Man over all others, but as 2019's Avengers 4 is wrapping up the current arc and Spidey is key going forward making sure his story makes sense is a high priority.
However, this does create bigger narrative problems. In the five years between 2013 and 2018 basically nothing happens in-universe; Captain America spends far too long adapting to the modern world before Bucky steps in and we overall lose the momentum that powers Civil War (and the whole universe). There's also the Stark Expo 2018 posters spotted on Homecoming's set - we don't know where they are in the movie at the time of writing, but that suggests it's meant to be 2016/2017. It further creates a much bigger gap between Guardians 2 and their Avengers team-up than we've been previously told. And, again, this is flagrantly ignoring Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which explicitly puts the films in the mid-2010s
That's a lot of issues that make it questionable - so why even do it? Well, we think it could all be because of a single easter egg.
Is Homecoming Adjusting Because Of Iron Man 2?
Yes, there is one canonical consideration that could have had an influence. Just weeks before Homecoming came out, Tom Holland confirmed a long-standing fan theory that the kid Tony Stark came across at the Stark Expo wearing an Iron Man mask and immitating Shellhead was actually a young Peter Parker. That's really rather cool, but creates a problem; per Iron Man 2 being set in 2011 and Peter being fifteen in Homecoming, if the latter film was set in 2016 as expected that makes this kid ten years old. He's clearly much younger than that - we'd reckon six or so - which reveals the retconned cameo as opportunisitc. But having the timeline stretched swiftly accounts for it; if Peter's six in 2011, he would be fifteen in 2020.
This feels particularly pertinent as, in his explanation of the easter egg, Holland said "I literally had a conversation with Kevin Feige only 20 minutes ago. Maybe I’ve just done a big, old spoiler, but it’s out there now." That implies there is some greater purpose to it, which this seeming plot hole would fit in with. If that's the case, then it would seem the timeline shift theory above is the true explanation and Spidey has secretly rejigged the entire MCU canon.
Of course, that's the epitome of this "for the now" approach to wider continuity discussed earlier; they've messed up the entire timeline to address a slight easter egg just because it was announced recently while giving no consideration to backcatalogue of films (or the TV show's besides). It's not much more reasonable than them simply not realizing the mistake in the first place.
Maybe it's time to just accept that the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline is broken beyond repair and just enjoy the movies for what they are? Heartbreaking as it may be after nine years of continuity investment, it's the only way to truly make sense of all this.
- 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