Marvel has released an official MCU timeline. It's just a shame that it's still broken. Over the past ten years, Marvel Studios has crafted an unprecedented shared universe, with 20 films (and multiple less-connected TV shows and tie-in comics) telling an epic and intimate story of Avengers, Guardians, Titans and giant ants. It's a masterful patchwork of cinematic storytelling - as long as you don't look too closely.
While the MCU movies flow fairly well into each other - Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp are all directly influenced by Captain America: Civil War, for example - if you try and construct a cohesive timeline of the films, it gets a bit tricky. It used to be that Marvel movies were set in the year they released, period adventure Captain America: The First Avenger notwithstanding. However, as events stacked, movies released years apart are said to happen around the same time. In making this change, though, Marvel didn't make any major considerations for, say, a 2018 blockbuster being set in 2016. Because of that clear flow and a bevy of wider-reaching Easter eggs, slowly the MCU timeline began to - on a micro, obsessive sense - not make sense.
This isn't necessarily a problem for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a blockbuster force, especially considering that its character-focused stories make the when of it all a moot plot point, but for a franchise that's prided itself on interconnectivity, it's a rather lacking approach to continuity.
To combat this, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige promised an official timeline that would address the mounting continuity issues. Now, thanks to Titan's Marvel Studios: The First 10 Years, we have an endorsed timeline. Unfortunately, it doesn't fix the biggest of the Marvel canon breaking problems, and creates a lot more of its own.
- This Page: What The MCU Timeline Gets Right & Improves
- Page 2: What The MCU Timeline Gets Wrong & Makes Worse
- Page 3: Our Fix Of The MCU Timeline
What The Marvel Timeline Gets Right
Before breaking down the problems maintained and created by the new MCU timeline, it's worth highlighting that it gets a lot right. Indeed, Phases 1-2, the first 13 movies in the shared universe, are right where they should be.
Phase 1 of the MCU consists of six movies released between 2008 and 2012, but in Marvel time that's truncated: 2008's The Incredible Hulk, 2010's Iron Man 2 and 2011's Thor all take place in the same week (dubbed by fans as "Fury's Big Week"), revealed by surprisingly coherent Easter eggs. From The Avengers being set in 2012, this has been set to have happened in 2011, with Iron Man a year earlier. This can be tracked using quotes in the films, and is reaffirmed by the MCU timeline.
MCU Phase 2 was even simpler: nearly every movie was set in the year it released. The only exception is Iron Man 3, which is set at Christmas 2012, not Summer 2013. Again, the MCU timeline maintains this, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 also taking place in 2014 mere months after the first.
What The Marvel Timeline Improves
On top of nailing Phase 1-2, the MCU timeline also provides a couple of smart improvements to how we view the continuity. The biggest is an official dating of Doctor Strange. The mystical origin story was always an odd one in the timeline due to the sheer length of time it spans; from Stephen Strange's previous life as an arrogant doctor to taking up resident in New York's Sanctum Sanctorum could be as long as four years, although director Scott Derrikson later confirmed it was just one. Still, with an Avengers Tower Easter egg, that means it's been in the background of Phase 2 all along or set in the future (something later appearances disproved). The timeline places it as happening in 2016 to 2017, presumably Fall to Fall. This is the best fit proposed for Doctor Strange, and also allows for a cool Captain America: Civil War reference to be taken as canon.
Aside from dating movies, the timeline also provides key info on various key events in the MCU's past. Perhaps the most cohesive is the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1949, lining up with various clues dropped in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Page 2 of 3: What The MCU Timeline Gets Wrong & Makes Worse
MCU Problems The Marvel Timeline Doesn't Fix
But none of the timeline problems really came from Phases 1-2, and Doctor Strange was so removed from events it could slot in anywhere without much issue (Avengers Tower had been in existence since 2012, after all). The problems came with Phase 3, although less from the events of the movies themselves but throwaway lines to the past.
First, in Captain America: Civil War, Vision claimed it had been eight years since Tony revealed himself as Iron Man. Then, Spider-Man: Homecoming explicitly dated itself as eight years after The Avengers. There was no way to consolidate this per accepted continuity: following threads from the first two Avengers movies, Civil War takes place six years after Iron Man; by similar logic, Homecoming, set in the months following Captain America 3, is only four years after The Avengers. There's not even the argument of an unreliable informer; Vision is the closest the MCU has to an Earth-based God, while Homecoming's dating was part of the movie. The only explanation is that the filmmakers were working off the real-world passage of time, massaging events to improve the story at hand (Homecoming especially benefits from being further after The Avengers).
The MCU timeline makes no effort to address either of these concerns, leaving them major anomalies in the franchise. That shouldn't be too surprising, though, considering that Marvel has since begun treating them as mistakes. Joe Russo said the Homecoming reference was "very incorrect" and Avengers: Infinity War (which he co-directed with brother Anthony) correctly stated it was set six years after The Avengers, essentially retconning both of these mistakes away. However, that only works if the rest of the timeline stays static...
MCU Problems The Marvel Timeline Creates
And so we come to real problems with the new MCU timeline. As already stated, Phase 3 is interesting because it's been told entirely out of order. Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp all exist in the shadow of Captain America: Civil War, with the former two picking up directly where it left off. This would dictate they are set in 2016. However, the MCU timeline puts Black Panther in 2017, for no clear reason. The film picks up in the weeks after the summer-set Civil War, and while it tells an epic Wakandan tale, it's not one that passes over into the new year. This change is a bizarre one, perhaps the most egregiously wrong of the whole MCU timeline.
The film may have been shifted not because of its beginning, but its ending. Black Panther's mid-credits scene sees T'Challa opening Wakanda's borders to the world, revealing the technological marvels that lie within. This directly beelines into Avengers: Infinity War, where that invitation brings Team Cap, Vision's Mind Stone, and an army of outriders. But there's the other problem: the MCU timeline puts Infinity War in 2017 too, presumably to tie into Thor: Ragnarok's mid-credits scene starting Thanos' attack on New Asgard. Again, this is a major mistake for a multitude of reasons: evidence in both Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp (which is not on the timeline but takes place alongside the team-up) says it's two years after Captain America: Civil War, while the Doctor Strange redating means that movie would end after Infinity War.
Both of these moves - Black Panther forward a year and Avengers: Infinity War back one - seems to be done to fix perceived issues in tightly connected post-credits scenes, but in doing so they contradict everything else in the films themselves.
Page 3: Our Fix Of The MCU Timeline
Why Marvel Can't Fix The MCU Timeline
Marvel could craft 14,000,605 timelines, and not even one would be truly correct. The MCU is, at this point, too scrambled to work. The central problems are the Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming "eight years" claims that twist and stretch perceptions, but things run deeper. There are too many references to dates or past events across the movies that don't quite line up leaving weird logic gaps.
Even more than that, though, the continuity simply isn't as tight as many believe it to be. Broadly, the MCU timeline can only ever flow on a macro level; the moment you start exploring micro-continuity, it falls apart. Iron Man's arc, from hedonistic billionaire to showboating superhero to self-sacrifice to PSTD sufferer to fearful protector to father figure to gallant protector to wherever Avengers 4 takes him is very clear across Tony Stark's nine movie appearances so far, yet if you try and pinpoint the steps along the way, it's murkier waters; Tony blows up his suits at the end of Iron Man 3, yet in Avengers: Age of Ultron is back at it with an even more dangerous automated army. It can't track, and that's because Marvel movies tend to hone in on their in-the-moment stories over building the universe, outside of very obvious big picture hints (and even those don't always make sense: see the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin's vault).
In fact, the new MCU timeline highlights that a lot more aptly than perhaps intended. In trying to connect plot threads from Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok's credits sequences to their influence of Avengers: Infinity War, all Marvel's proposed solution does is undo the individual movie's other continuity clues.
As always, though, this shouldn't reflect badly on Marvel. In fact, it's one of the most underrated aspects of their formula; for all the complaints in the mainstream about the amount of required knowledge to see an event like Avengers: Infinity War, each movie is designed as a first movie. The individual story comes first, with any connections the sprinkles on top for those who care to notice. When that's the case, of course some things aren't going to line up (this is only exacerbated when there are a half-dozen Marvel movies in development at any one time).
The Best-Fit MCU Timeline
But we're not just going to pick apart the latest MCU timeline and not suggest a better solution. Ignoring the two "eight years" flubs and taking the prime dating of a movie (so where it is in relation to others rather than what a background newspaper may say), this is the best-fit timeline for the MCU:
- 1943-1945: Captain America: The First Avenger
- 2010: Iron Man
- 2011: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor
- 2012: The Avengers, Iron Man 3
- 2013: Thor: The Dark World
- 2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man
- 2016: Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther
- 2016 through to 2017: Doctor Strange
- 2017: Thor: Ragnarok
- 2018: Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp
Hopefully, Marvel will accept they can't make everything work and opt for a model like this going forward. There really is no other way, and given the success everywhere else in the storytelling, a consolidation like this would set things up nicely for the future That is, of course, assuming that Avengers 4's time travel doesn't totally reset the MCU timeline!