Breaking Down the Complicated Time Travel in Avengers: Endgame
Warning: This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
At the end of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos uses powerful gems called Infinity Stones to snap his fingers and destroy half of all life in the universe. At the beginning of its follow-up film Avengers: Endgame, the Avengers hunt down Thanos and try to take the Infinity Stones back to undo the damage. Unfortunately for them, Thanos has already destroyed the Stones. There is nothing they can do.
Fast forward five years. A rat happens to crawl over a machine that allows people to travel through the Quantum Realm and accidentally releases Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). He’s been stuck in the Quantum Realm for half a decade, even though it feels to him as if only five minutes have passed. Ant-Man rushes to Avengers headquarters to tell his fellow superheroes that they can travel back in time and collect all the Infinity Stones.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees to work on a machine that would allow the Avengers to time travel — on one condition. He has started a family in the last five years and thus does not want to alter recent history in any way. Instead of trying to rewind time once they have the Time Stone and undo everything that has happened in the last five years, they decide to use the Infinity Stones to bring back everyone who disappeared in this current timeline, five years later. That way, Tony can preserve his daughter’s life, while saving dusted characters like Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
If you’re already confused, well, we’re just getting started. Time travel in pop culture can get rather tricky. Just ask J.K. Rowling, who destroyed all the Time Turners in Harry Potter just to avoid dealing with time-loop-related plot holes. Avengers: Endgame tries to side step these problems by establishing certain time travel rules. It’s complicated, so bear with me.
The Avengers time travel through the Quantum Realm
Later, when Steve visits her hospital bed, we see pictures of children but none of her husband — presumably because that would give away who her husband was. Tellingly, Peggy says in that scene that “none of us can go back.” She then forgets that Steve is there — because at that point, she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s — and exclaims, “You came back!” He replies, “I couldn’t leave my best girl. Not when she owes me a dance.” Likely this is a parallel to the off-screen reunion that happens when Steve travels back in time to find Peggy.
As long as Steve maintained his false identity and didn’t interfere with anything in the past that would bring the Avengers to their fight with Thanos (like saving Bucky from being brainwashed by HYDRA) the timeline stays stable. The other version of Steve still wakes up in 2012 after being frozen during World War II and still joins the Avengers. Older Steve watches on from afar. It’s unclear whether the two Steves would have encountered one another at Peggy’s funeral: They were both alive when it happened during Captain America: Civil War, but perhaps they were both there and the younger version simply didn’t recognize the older version or his fake moniker.
Everything happened the way it did because it had to, according to Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange suggests in Infinity War that the Avengers could only beat Thanos in one possible future out of millions. In Avengers: Endgame, he tells Tony Stark, “If I tell you what happens, it won’t happen.” Given that the Avengers defeat Thanos at the end of the battle (and Doctor Strange not-so-subtly flashes one finger at Iron Man during the fight), we know that we are seeing that one single future in which the Avengers defeat Thanos.
Knowing that, old Steve would resist meddling in the Avengers’ affairs so that they would eventually win their fight against the big purple baddie.
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Avengers: Endgame Writers Explain Why Iron Man Couldn’t Be Resurrected By The Gauntlet
Iron Man made the ultimate sacrifice at the close of Avengers: Endgame. Despite knowing that he wouldn’t survive using the Infinity Gauntlet, he snapped his fingers anyways, wiping Thanos and his goons from existence. When the Infinity Stones are involved, though, death doesn’t seem so final and fans have since wondered why the Gauntlet couldn’t perhaps be used again to bring Tony Stark back.
Endgame scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spoke to The Hollywood Reporter recently to answer any lingering questions about the movie and they tackled this one head on. In this case, the writers clarified that Iron Man can’t be resurrected as the Gauntlet can only be used to bring back those artificially killed by it (see: the half of the universe reduced to dust by Thanos).
“The Gauntlet, as of yet, has not brought back anybody to life that wasn’t removed by the Gauntlet. Tony was physically killed.”
Sound fair enough, right? After all, Hulk tried to revive Black Widow in a similar way when he used the Infinity Stones, but to no avail. The only wrinkle in this explanation, however, is that Thanos is able to reverse time and bring Vision back in Avengers: Infinity War, after he was killed by Scarlet Witch. The writers argue that this method wouldn’t work in this situation though, which makes sense, as reversing time to before Tony’s death would just undo his good work and resurrect Thanos, too.
The filmmakers have also pressed several times now that any characters dead by the end of Avengers:Endgamewill likely remain that way. Some of them received a new lease of life thanks to alternate realities – see: Loki and Gamora – but that’s not the case for Tony and Natasha. Instead, Iron Man’s loss will likely be further explored in Spider-Man: Far From Home this July, while 2020’s Black Widow prequel will finally dive into Agent Romanoff’s origins.