The Marvel Universe Doesn't Need an Official Timeline

The complicated chronology is a feature of the comic book source material, not a bug.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Fans confused about just when Marvel's movies take place are about to have all their questions answered, with Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige promising that the studio is planning to release a formal timeline of its output to date. But is that really necessary?

"We are going to be publishing an official, and I'm not sure when, or in what format, an official timeline," Feige told ScreenRant this week. "It'll probably be a part of, ah, I don't know, a part of a print that you can fold out and look at. But suffice to say, only in limited cases do we ever actually say what the actual years are because we never want to be tied down to a particular year and I think people assume that whenever the movie is released is when is when the movie is taking place, and that is not the case."

The uncertain nature of the cinematic timeline has become more obvious with the Marvel releases of 2017; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 apparently took place in the immediate aftermath of the first movie, despite coming out three years later, and Spider-Man: Homecoming had an "Eight Years Later" onscreen announcement that would appear to place it (and Captain America: Civil War, for that matter) in 2020, presuming Avengers took place in 2012 when it was released. The confusing timeframe of the Marvel movies has been present for a while, however: The Incredible Hulk, which came out in 2008, was set after 2010's Iron Man 2, because that's the only way the Tony Stark cameo in Hulk makes sense.

On the one hand, this could be considered the result of haphazard planning, the kind of thing that could — and, apparently, has, if Feige has to answer questions about it — confuse an audience. On the other hand, this is a case of the new medium successfully adopting one of the bugs of the source material, because Marvel's comic book timeline is infinitely screwy in ways that the movies would have to work years to successfully replicate.

Obviously, Marvel's comic book stories don't conform to any kind of real-life timeline; if they did, Peter Parker would be somewhere in the region of 70 years old under the Spider-Man mask, with Tony Stark in his 80s, if not older. But while Marvel's comic book continuity keeps to a vague 10-year rule — wherein the Fantastic Four's first trip into space, which launched the Marvel Universe as fans know it, happened around about a decade ago, no matter what — there are various problems that have continued to complicate matters as time goes on.

For example: Ben Grimm and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four fought in World War II; it's actually shown, via flashback, in Fantastic Four No. 11 (1963). Even with the sliding timescale method, that would make them somewhere in the region of 90 years old by now. Similarly, the Punisher is on record as being a Vietnam vet, originally — but that would make him, at the very youngest, 60 today, if that were true. Less seriously, Dazzler was created to cash in on the disco craze — her name was originally the "Disco Dazzler" — and Spider-Man once teamed up with the original cast of Saturday Night Live, two other chronological anomalies if the 10-year rule stands.

Even the idea that stories can take place out of sequence is a comic book staple — in the runup to its 2015 event series Secret Wars, Marvel's Avengers comics took place eight months in the future of all the other superhero comics the company was publishing in an attempt to build dramatic tension by upending the status quo. Perhaps Avengers: Infinity War could follow suit, and jump ahead of Ant-Man and the Wasp and the other upcoming movies, just because?

All these complications — not to mention irregularities like children growing from babies to toddlers, or teens becoming adults, although no other characters around them seem to age — haven't scared off fans, however; if anything, there has grown a culture of acceptance of them, a mindset that such contradictions and mistakes are part of the whole deal, to be enjoyed and appreciated.

With Marvel's cinematic universe beginning to look as if it could become as contradictory and confusing in its own right, the same thing might be about to happen for movie fans. Instead of formalizing the chronology of its movies, why doesn't Marvel Studios embrace the confusion and start sending out No-Prizes to those who can work it all out, instead?