Marvel Studios changed the game when the movie giant announced that, alongside its usual movie slate, the studio would be diving into the world of streaming. A big move, adding dozens of additional hours to the MCU’s rich mythology.
2021 alone will bring six additional shows to the phase four slate, all of which will have six or more episodes. It’s easy to assume, in the grand scheme of the MCU, these television shows will mean little to nothing. That assumption could not be more wrong.
The first Disney+ show, WandaVision, set the stage for Scarlet Witch’s part to play in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—not to mention resurrecting Vision in a shiny new form. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier changed the status quo, giving the world a new Captain America in Sam Wilson. But Loki had the greatest impact.
Not only did the show lay more groundwork for the timeline, but the finale of the show set up the Multiverse itself––the very thing at the heart of Marvel’s fourth phase. Oh, and, of course, the very first Variant of Kang The Conqueror.
Fans got a lot of information from Loki, knowledge which could make everyone look at previous movies differently. Case in point: the Avengers.
THE INFINITY FLOW
Loki does a brilliant job at visualizing the timeline; both when it was The Sacred Timeline, and then when it became the Multiverse. But what is that flow made of? What is the structure? Looking back at Avengers: Endgame, The Ancient One seems to have given viewers a pretty straightforward answer.
“The Infinity Stones create what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one stone and that flow splits. Now, this may benefit your reality, but my new one, not so much. In this new branched reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world will be overrun. Millions will suffer. So, tell me doctor, can your science prevent all that?”
When talking about “the flow of time”, and how removing one stone will cause a split, The Ancient One is referencing a common visualization that Loki granted viewers throughout the show’s run: branching. From the monitors in the TVA to the glowing stream outside He Who Remains’ castle—the concept isn’t foreign for viewers of Loki’s recent solo antics.
If viewers take The Ancient One at her word, then they are to understand her to mean that the Infinity Stones quite literally make the timeline. So, on a wider scale, if those Infinity Stones were to ever truly be destroyed, the timeline would cease to exist entirely.
Of course, there is always the chance the literal viewpoint of her words isn’t applicable anymore, given the knowledge Loki has now bestowed upon the MCU. This would, in the simplest terms, mean The Ancient One is warning Bruce about the Avengers’ drastic decisions creating branch timelines that end with nothing good for those left in them.
This brings us to what Banner says in response to The Ancient One’s conundrum, something which is going to sound very familiar for those TVA agents reading right now:
“No. But we can erase it. Because once we’re done with the stones, we can return each one into its own timeline at the moment it was taken. So, chronologically… in that reality... it never left.”
“But we can erase it”––spoken like a true, up and coming TVA agent Doctor Banner. After the Avengers’ inevitable victory, Captain America goes back and does just what Hulk says they are going to do: “return each one into its own timeline at the moment it was taken…”
THE ROGERS EQUATION
So, basically, Avengers: Endgame hinges on cutting those branches the Avengers created in order to save their reality. So, fans were introduced to the concept of timeline pruning far before Loki was ever a thing.
A question comes up though. Mobius makes a particular note in Loki’s second episode that the TVA has to enter a branching timeline in real-time in order to do their work:
“Nexus events destabilize the time flow. This branch is still changing and growing, so you gotta show up in real-time.”
So what makes it different for our heroes in Avengers: Endgame? The simple answer is that it was all approved by the TVA and He Who Remains. But why? Well, this time, the people causing the branches not only had the intention of cutting them off themselves but also the means to do so without causing additional hiccups.
Unlike most instances, this time someone else had a way to sever those branches without needing everyone’s favorite timeline police stepping in. Think of it as natural pruning, as opposed to the artificial ones given by the TVA.
So, since all of those branches were cut anyway, the TVA––and He Who Remains––found all of those actions necessary for their Sacred Timeline to be what it was. But, what about Steve staying with Peggy? Wouldn't a branch timeline be created, one that'd stay untrimmed?
From the rules established in Avengers: Endgame, the answer to this is an unarguable yes; and Loki tells viewers that branching is bad for the TVA. How was such a choice allowed? Surely it was a Nexus event? Well, there’s one likely answer to this pickle, and it’s a mind-bender.
Maybe the once Sacred Timeline never included Steve staying behind. So when it was broken, that branching reality, the one where he stayed with Peggy, was able to continue existing. Remember, since the Sacred Timeline can now branch endlessly and in any way it wants, it means the branching has always been occurring––through all time, at every point.
The core story seen in Loki all takes place outside of time itself––or at least the timeline as fans know it. So, from within the timeline, the events of Loki basically never happened to everyone there. Remember, in the wise words of The Ancient One, “time is relative.”
This also solves the free will issue––all of those choices viewers saw through the countless movies and shows still mattered. When the TVA and Sylvie restored free will throughout the timeline, it did so at every point in history: past, present, and future.
THE QUANTUM CHAOS
With all this talk about time travel, let's get into the nitty-gritty of how the Avengers did it in the first place: the Quantum Realm. Having first appeared in 2015’s Ant-Man, and continuing on to play a key role in Ant-Man & The Wasp, this is the place that, prior to Loki, was the backbone to the MCU’s foray into time travel.
Having had two films exploring it, and being stuck there for a while, Scott was the perfect person to come to the Avengers Compound to save the day. Having only spent five hours in the Quantum Realm, Lang escaped back into our dimension––but five years later instead. As Ant-Man says, “Everything [there] is unpredictable,” and “the rules of the Quantum Realm aren’t like they are up here.”
And just like that, the Avengers had the key. Let’s give the floor to Scott Lang:
"Time works differently in the Quantum Realm. The only problem is, right now, we don't have a way to navigate it. But what if we did? I can't stop thinking about it. What if we could somehow control the chaos, and we could navigate it? What if there was a way to enter the Quantum Realm at a certain point in time but then exit at another point in time? Like... Like before Thanos."
Picking out one specific line here, the one in him questioning if there was “somehow [a way to] control the chaos”, allowing the heroes to navigate it. Who could possibly help with that?
A BUNCH OF BULLSH*T
Of course, the first person one goes to when it comes to things like this is Tony Stark. When the group has their first conversation with him, he basically throws around a bunch of science technobabble, such as referencing the Planck Scale, that doesn’t amount to anything meaningful.
There are articles out there that explore if Stark's jargon actually amounts to anything, but at the end of the day, it’s not important to the viewers’ comprehension of the concepts at play. The Quantum Realm is their vehicle, and they are building navigational equipment to properly guide it.
There’s only one more concept that is truly important to hold onto: there is no changing the past. While it goes against the normal understanding of how time travel may work, Professor Hulk does his best to simplify it:
“…Think about it. If you travel to the past, that past becomes your future. And your former present becomes the past. Which can’t now be changed by your new future..."
Much to Rhodey’s chagrin, the Avengers cannot just go back in time to kill baby Thanos. As Scott so eloquently puts it: “so the Future is a bunch of bullshit?” Well, that’s pretty much the point Professor Hulk was making:
This isn’t the first time Back to the Future is utilized as a way to hit the point home––Stark criticized Scott in their very first conversation in reference to his assumptions based on the classic film's plot. That’s simply not how time works in the MCU.
One cannot alter their past by going back in time and changing the course of events. Instead, it simply creates a branch on that timeline from which they originated. But all said person’s experiences remain the same. As Hulk initially puts it, “Changing the past doesn’t change the future.” Throw the entire concept of the Butterfly Effect out of the window.
So, in order to undo what Thanos did, the Avengers need to create a Time GPS. In the group’s very first test run, they ended up doing something interesting. What was played as a gag, was actually a pretty important detail which may very well show up in the future.
The team accidentally got time to flow through Scott Lang, instead of him flowing through time. What ensued was funny, but think of this: Steve is old now. If Marvel decides they want to bring Chris Evans back into the fold, then they already have their way of doing so. On top of that Multiverse thing.
Despite their mistakes, the missing piece to their puzzle ended up pulling right to the front door, with a red, white, and blue shield in hand: Tony Stark. Not to mention the additional recruiting of Bro Thor and Hawkeye, though neither were going to be solving any equations.
With everyone on board, they begin work on the Quantum Tunnel—that very large platform the Avengers are seen standing on as they get sucked into the Quantum Realm to travel to a different place in time.
Now Ant-Man establishes that if someone is shrinking (or growing) within the capabilities of Pym Particles, then they need a helmet—breathing is important and all. Since the Quantum Tunnel is technically shrinking all the Avengers down to an incomprehensible size, the same applies to the team as it usually does to Scott.
This is where the Avengers’ first team outfits come into play! Note, as mentioned above, there is a reason that the suits all have a similarity to Ant-Man—whose design can be seen in its earliest stages based on Hank Pym’s suit in Ant-Man and The Wasp.
The suits and their respective Time-Space GPS’ were fueled by Pym Particles. Something the team only had enough of for one round-trip per member. Alongside one Lang goof, and then Clint’s first successful trial run.
For simplicity’s sake, picture the Sacred Timeline before it branched into oblivion. the Avengers used the combination of the Time-Space GPS, Quantum Tunnel, Team Suits, and Pym Particles to traverse within it. A fun note on those GPS’: they sure do seem like the devices could be an early version of a Temp Pad—something the TVA used all throughout Loki.
Everyone knows how the film goes from there. The stones are retrieved from their various timelines, assembled into the Nano Gaunlet, and then successfully bring back the missing 50% of the world.
Oh, the team also allowed Loki to get his own show. While then ending their journey by bringing back a time-displaced Thanos, who, thanks to Nebula’s capture, and Maw’s consequential duplication of the Avengers’ Pym Particle technology, jumped timelines only to be snapped into dust.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at particular instances in the film which raise additional questions. Starting with one involving none other than the Sorcerer Supreme.
THE STRANGE PARADOX
When on Titan, after having just had a skirmish against the majority of The Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange took a moment with the Time Stone to see the team’s chances of beating Thanos. In viewing alternate futures, out of the 14,000,605 he saw, only one of them won.
One might ask, why is it if our Stephen Strange looked into all of those futures, how come the Stranges of every single one of those alternate timelines didn’t do the exact same thing—assumedly they would all want to achieve the same victory. The answer is simple: those timelines didn’t exist.
Don’t think about the TVA and its pruning; throw that in the corner for a second. When Doctor Strange viewed those 14,000,605, he was viewing hypothetical branches from the timeline. Branches that had not yet occurred because no decisions had been made yet. In a way, Doctor Strange was simply binging future seasons of What If…?.
It sure seems a lot like what The Ancient One did back in Doctor Strange. So why then, did her glimpses into the future reach a dead-end at the moment she died? If that situation had those restrictions, one would think the same applies to Strange.
But, it doesn’t seem that way––a conundrum which sadly has no real answer to yet. That is unless all the futures Strange saw were also cut off at his death. This wouldn’t really make the most sense given the many implications, so it’s probably safer to just assume the situation differs in some way.
Bringing this back to the words of the Ancient One, which have guided this piece for some time: “The Infinity Stones make up the flow of time.” Words that are hard to not take literally, but for the sake of theorizing, let’s continue looking at it in two ways. So, what if they were destroyed entirely?
The very first instance of this was in Avengers: Infinity War, where fans saw Thanos brutally murder Vision not once, but twice. If the Infinity Stones are as important as The Ancient One claims, why did nothing happen when the Mind Stone was destroyed? Did the other five make up for its absence in relation to keeping the flow of time in existence?
Of course, it didn’t stay broken for long. Much like the apple trick in Doctor Strange, Thanos simply rewound Vision’s forehead back into existence with the Time Stone—important golden pieces included. Maybe the stone’s state of destruction was so brief that there wasn’t time for any consequences to start spiraling out of control?
Or if The Ancient One’s lesson isn’t to be taken literally, then it’s as simple as one of this universe’s chief weapons being destroyed for a mere few seconds. But say they were all destroyed?
It’s a question posed by the opening scene of Avengers: Endgame, where the Avengers arrive at Thanos’ farm only to hear words from the Mad Titan’s mouth that strike dread in their hearts:
“The universe required correction. After that, the stones served no purpose beyond temptation… Gone, reduced to atoms... I used the stones to destroy the stones… It nearly killed me, but the work is done. It always will be. I am… inevitable.”
If in using the “stones to destroy the stones,” and Thanos truly did wipe them out of existence, then the timeline should be destroyed. No more. Think of the six stones as the pillars holding it all up. Without them, everything comes crashing down.
There could be an explanation though, as Thanos mentions just moments before: the stones were “reduced to atoms.” This could literally mean, with the power of the stones, he shrunk them down so small, they’ll never be located. It’s akin to using your wish from a Genie to wish that you didn’t have any more wishes.
Maybe even ground to dust (or atoms ) is enough for things to keep going round. Or “reduced to atoms.” could just be Thanos driving his point home. The Infinity Stones are destroyed. The universe's chief weapons are off the table, and they were never quite the timeline’s support pillars that The Ancient One claimed them to be.
A GRATEFUL UNIVERSE
Just before the final battle truly begins, Thanos makes a pretty bold claim. One which has some major implications if even possible:
“I'm thankful. Because now I know what I must do. I will shred this universe down to its last atom, and then, with the stones you collected for me, create a new one teeming with life that knows not what it has lost but only what it has been given. A grateful universe.”
Could Thanos truly “shred this universe down to its last atom?” Well, really it depends on one’s interpretation of the word universe, and the scale it corresponds to.
Keeping within the confines established so far, and the literal interpretation of The Ancient One’s wisdom as mentioned, technically Thanos could start a new existence—or timeline to use a more proper term. With the stones theoretically making the flow of time, by wielding all six of them, the user would have infinite power over the timeline and everything in it.
So yes, Thanos could take everything in what was previously known as The Sacred Timeline (always easier to simply visualize that one circle of time), and rewrite it to fit whatever narrative he wanted. His rules. At least for anything residing within the timeline itself.
This is important because viewers have now witnessed that there is far more outside the timeline than previously known. Such as the entire TVA organization, or He Who Remains in his little reclusive castle. There’s a reason Loki made a point to show the Infinity Stones as mere paperweights to the TVA. Each one of them was outside the timeline they originated from—rendering them useless.
HE WHO IS AN AVENGERS FAN
Jonathan Majors’ debut as He Who Remains was a memorable moment for fans, one even the character knew was coming. After all, the all-seeing dictator has been watching the timeline for quite some time.
If it isn’t clear already, he is clearly a huge fan of the Avengers and all of their heroics. Really the MCU as a whole; at least those first 24 or so films. After all, without their events playing out exactly as they did, his Sacred Timeline wouldn’t be so complete—sans that previously discussed Steve and Peggy clause.
It’s crazy how integral these last two Avengers films made the Infinity Stones to the timeline, only for Loki, the very show to properly explore this all for the first time, to simply disregard them right off the bat. It will be interesting to see how much future MCU storylines will utilize the newly minted paperweights, if at all.
With over a decade of storytelling devoted to those colorful stones, it is about time to give them a little rest; they certainly deserve it. Though Marvel is going to have to fill in some gaps as to why they aren’t as prudent anymore. Especially for someone who aims to control the very timeline.