Why 'Avengers: Endgame' Time Travel Troubles Can Be Forgiven
[This story contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame]
Avengers: Endgame is time travel porn for movie fans.
Heat Vision breakdown
It name drops Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, Time After Time and other key entries in the genre in an effort to tell audiences that all these movies have taught them about time travel is, to quote Tony Stark, “horseshit.” Endgame introduces a new story logic around the concept of time travel — and it asks audiences to forget all they know or have learned from pioneers like Marty McFly. But in trying to throw out the old to streamline and simplify the new rules governing The Avengers’ Hail Mary trip through time to stop Thanos (Josh Brolin), the movie ironically ends up making it somewhat more complicated.
Prior to embarking on their time heist to retrieve several Infinity Stones from key moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) tells the team to discount what popular time travel movies have put forth as to how the fictional science works. He tells them that once someone goes back to the past, the past becomes their present. Therefore (*pushes up glasses) their actions cannot change their future because it no longer exists as they once knew; the past is their future — because it is the present. (Everybody got all that?) But to say the Back to the Future logic doesn’t apply here is problematic, as the film’s emotional stakes do not always conform or follow through on that. Because the movie essentially says these things shouldn’t happen and then they happen anyway.
Endgame establishes some time travel logic and then seems to immediately ignore it. Hulk and Tilda Swinton’s Sorcerer Supreme establish a rule that the only way to ensure no alternate realities are created by the Avengers’ tampering with time is for someone to put the Infinity Stones back in the exact times and places where they were plucked from history. They establish this and then proceed to mess with causality in every other scenario, without consequence to the rules set forth.
For example, Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) going back to the events of 2012’s Battle of New York and interacting with SHIELD’s strike team comprised of Hydra double-agents. When he enters that elevator, in an intentional call back to Cap’s epic brawl with them in Winter Soldier, and whispers “Hail, Hydra” to Agent Sitwell — Cap’s words essentially nullify Winter Soldier. That movie, according to Endgame’s logic, shouldn’t really take place or exist as we know it. And neither should Cap’s emotionally satisfying but narratively problematic happy ending with Peggy. How did Cap get to finally dance with his “best girl” if he returned the Time Stone to where it belongs? Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo have addressed this, confirming that OK, Cap and Peggy's happy life together took place in an alternate timeline. So how did he get back to the mainline MCU as an old man? (Also, how did he get the Soul Stone back to Vormir without a space ship?)
The Avengers' efforts to avoid the creation of an alternate reality that Hulk promised wouldn’t happen actually does happen in the case of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Nebula’s alternate reality basically started the moment Thanos witnesses the 2014 Nebula project, a memory from Nebula’s future self.
And Gamora can be “alive” in Endgame’s present (despite the movie’s one ironclad rule that no life sacrificed for the Soul Stone can be saved) because this Gamora is from 2014, circa the first Guardians movie. She travels forward in time to a post-Snap reality. So there is an alternate reality in which where Gamora, Nebula, Thanos and his army disappeared into the future via the Quantum Realm and were never seen again, as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) snapped them out of existence, making them unable to return to their past.
And the Gamora we always knew — the one who died in Infinity War — remains dead.
Emotional consequences in movies depend on sound logic used to get there. Simply saying movies like Back to the Future can be thrown out the window isn’t enough to deliver on that. Especially when Endgame owes a considerable debt to that movie’s sequel. Endgame wants to have its cake and eat it, too, in regards to time travel rules. It both acknowledges all that came before, says what they show us is not how time travel works at all, while simultaneously pushing its new take on the genre that works because and despite of all the other movies referenced in the process.
Endgame manages to get away with its time heist’s narrative flaws because of our relationship to the characters executing it. And their interaction with each other. Over a decade of adventures with these heroes have us rooting for them whether or not the logic underpinning their actions make sense. The emotional stakes have never been higher for these characters. Have you ever made a mistake? Wish you could fix it? Endgame asks “what if you could? What if the thing that keeps you up at night … what if that didn’t have to be who you are?” That’s something everyone can relate to, even if the means don’t quite add up to a logically satisfying end.
But, as Tony says, “part of the journey is the end.” And since he and his fellow Avengers’ journey started over a decade ago, every victory they’ve earned or loss they’ve suffered has felt like one of our own. And that’s why Endgame’s time travel works despite its broken parts; we care. The MCU had made it impossible not to.
Our love for these characters overrides the loose timey-wimey science they use to complete that journey. Even if they have to break the laws of (movie) physics to get us there.
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