It’s official: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a rousing success. The critics have spoken in their reviews, and audiences have spoken in the box office. Director Jon Watts and company crafted a film that intelligently uses elements from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, while still serving as a compelling solo tale. But with its triumphs comes a timeline-related headache for some hardcore Marvel movie fans.
Almost one month ago, I took to the web to complain about a concrete MCU canon. To summarize, I argued that there were multiple issues and questions about the MCU timeline that required a public figurehead to take charge of it. About a week before the theatrical release of Homecoming, my cries were sort of answered.
Upon his appointment as director, Jon Watts was given access to a special document that supposedly details the timeline. Watts described his first look at it to Entertainment Weekly:
“There’s an actual scroll that they unrolled for me,” says Watts. “One of my producers, Eric Carroll, it was his first job at Marvel to work on a timeline and see where things line up and see where things didn’t quite line up. Like, ‘Oh, that’s when Captain America is born.’”
Watts adds that when it’s unfurled, the scroll extends past a long conference table. “Uh yes, it’s very long. It’s the most amazing thing because it starts, honestly, at the beginning of time — I don’t remember specifically, but I think it has something to do with Thor.” He laughs. “It is truly an amazing document.”
That’s right, readers – the MCU timeline is on a goddamn scroll. To serious MCU continuity watch dogs such as myself, this was somewhat of a relief. We know know that there is an official canon resource that filmmakers can access. Considering the Marvel Studios/Marvel Television divide, we could speculate that this document only contains events depicted in the films. But seeing how Eric Carroll is open to referencing The Defenders in a Homecoming sequel, an optimist would hope that this scroll is more comprehensive than we think.
Knowledge of this scroll was one of a few signals that indicated how Marvel Studios was taking better care of their cinematic canon. Producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal openly talk about their long term plan with Peter Parker, and where future movies will fit into the character’s life. Spider-Man actor Tom Holland even revealed a very fun continuity tidbit about a young Peter Parker in Iron Man 2. So with all of this in mind, you could imagine the surprise of many when Homecoming added confusion instead of clarification.
After a cold opening that ties in Adrian Toomes’ (Michael Keaton) backstory with The Avengers, detail-oriented fans like myself were flummoxed when the film hard cut to an “8 YEARS LATER” time card, forwarding to Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) perspective of the events in Captain America: Civil War. It is then immediately established that Homecoming takes place two months after Civil War. For people who closely the Marvel film and television canon, these new developments have muddled the MCU timeline quite a bit.
Remember in Civil War that Vision (Paul Bettany) references “the eight years since [Tony] Stark announced himself as Iron Man,” meaning that Civil War must take place eight years after the first Iron Man film. Thus, if both Homecoming and Civil War take place in the same year, then Iron Man and The Avengers must also take place within a year of each other. This is a hard pill for some MCU fans to swallow, who can’t come to terms with the possibility that these movies must have happened so close to each other. Not to mention, it calls the timeline placement of everything after into question.
It is easy to surmise that the MCU films are relative to each other based on their release order, with some obvious (and not-so-obvious) exceptions. For example, there is the obvious example of Captain America: The First Avenger being a 1940s period piece, but the not-so-obvious example of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 taking place months after Vol. 1, despite releasing three years later. But when it comes to applying year numbers to movies, that where things begin to get complicated, kids.
With this eight-year gap confirmed, when exactly do the Phase 1 films take place? What year does Civil War and Homecoming take place? It has long been believed that most MCU films take place in the year of their release, but The Avengers taking place in 2012 would place Civil War and Homecoming in the year 2020. But seeing how the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War will take place four years after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is concretely in 2014 by title cards and simple math, that would mean Infinity War is set in 2018. This is simply impossible. Therefore, we may have to push these other films by a couple of years back.
Can the Knot Be Untangled?
If we want to try to untangle this knot, let’s begin by listing all of the concrete timeline details we know of.
- Iron Man 2 takes place six months after the first Iron Man
- Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor takes place within one week, AKA “Fury’s Big Week”
- Viral marketing for Iron Man 2 placed the Stark Expo in 2010
- Iron Man 3 takes place during the Christmas after The Avengers
- Directors Joe and Anthony Russo consider their Captain America films to be in real time, with The Winter Soldier being two years after The Avengers and Civil War to be one year after Age of Ultron
- Both Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 firmly take place in 2014
- Avengers: Age of Ultron must come after Guardians of the Galaxy, as Thor’s vision of the Infinity Stones included the Power Stone
- In Captain America: Civil War, Secretary Ross (William Hurt) states “For the past four years [the Avengers] operated with unlimited power and no supervision”; in the same movie, Vision references “the eight years since Tony Stark announced himself to be Iron Man”
- Spider-Man: Homecoming takes place during Peter Parker’s sophomore year, eight years after The Avengers and two months after Captain America: Civil War
- Avengers: Infinity War will take place four years after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- The sequel of Spider-Man: Homecoming “minutes” will start after the untitled fourth Avengers movie, and possibly depict Peter Parker’s junior year of high school
Does your head hurt yet? If not, I applaud you – you’ve either figured it all out, or have taken the rational approach of simply not caring. But those of you who do care must have noticed some contradictions, potential awkward time gaps, and other logical fallacies when attempting to piece this together.
For example, let’s say that Iron Man, “Fury’s Big Week” and The Avengers all somehow took place in 2008. This would place The Winter Soldier in 2010 and probably Civil War in 2012, which doesn’t make a lick of sense. Of course, this is assuming that Secretary Ross’s “four years with no supervision” comment is referring back to the formation of the Avengers and not the period since S.H.I.E.L.D.’s falling. But even so, the latter would place Civil War in 2014, which is still incompatible with what we know. Trying to put Civil War and Homecoming back in 2016 still has putting Phase 1 in 2008, placing timeline theorists back in a Dormammu-esque time loop.
We haven’t even begun to factor the television shows into all of this. And for some reason, I suspect that the filmmakers haven’t as well. As I stated in my previous feature regarding the canon, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has acted as a dependable timekeeper to MCU fans. Acting as connective tissue between films, the ABC show has placed the films from Thor: The Dark World onwards roughly in real time. So if the timeline of the films are murky, this places into question the passage of time in the television shows. As mentioned in the previous feature, it isn’t concrete on when the Netflix shows take place. And if there are larger time gaps between movies, say, between The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, or Age of Ultron and Civil War, at best it makes the S.H.I.E.L.D. timeline much more stretched out than we thought. At worst, it puts the canonicity of the entire show at doubt (#ItsNotActuallyAllConnected).
So what is the simplest solution to all of this timeline nonsense?
Let’s Just Wait
As you might have gathered from the memorable post-credits scene from Homecoming, patience is a virtue. We all know that Kevin Feige is not infallible, and Marvel Studios makes mistakes. Heck, even Marvel Studios knows that Marvel Studios makes mistakes. Somebody is clearly wrong, whether it’s Vision in Civil War or the Vulture in Homecoming (and by extension, the screenwriters, directors, and producers of those films). We can’t reconcile every single line of dialogue as gospel in an ever-evolving universe. And Marvel hasn’t been shy to retcon details- look at the two Infinity Gauntlets we have, the mysterious Adam Warlock-like cocoon, and the aforementioned Peter Parker at the Stark Expo. Marvel does what it needs to do to make individual stories work, generally not committing year numbers to films and worrying about the details of months and weeks later.
Kevin Feige and his colleagues like to constantly remind us how Avengers: Infinity War will be a culmination of everything, and how the sequel will end a “22-movie narrative.” With callbacks and references to potentially any and all MCU films before them, it would be easy to make corrections and retcons with dialogue and title cards. And with Marvel Studios having such prolific figures like Feige, someone official could offer their insight and clarification in their next interview. For now, let’s just all try to continue enjoying Spider-Man: Homecoming for the fun movie it is. Untangling the knot is a fool’s errand. With the information we have now, there’s no correct way to totally know how this MCU timeline works.
All I know for sure is that I really want that timeline scroll to be packed in with the Phase 3 boxset.
Any thoughts on how these movies all fit together? Is it still worth trying to figure out at this point? Let us know in the comments!