Avengers: Endgame Time Travel Explained: Attempting to Explain the Complicated Plot

Are you still trying to figure out Avengers: Endgame’s time travel rules? Then you’re in the right place!

Note: This story is updated with new (and conflicting) information from the filmmakers! Be sure to also read what’s next for the Endgame cast, a recap of who lived and who died, and our breakdown of the ending. FULL SPOILERS AHEAD!

As we long suspected would be the case, yes, the Avengers use time travel in order to undo Thanos’ Snap heard round the universe. And while the circumstances of how that time travel play out might be different from what many fans had theorized, the end result is the same: The Mad Titan is defeated and everyone who was lost in the Decimation is returned, albeit after five years of non-existence.

But how exactly does the time travel work in Avengers: Endgame? Basically, it’s super-confusing — no, we’re not gonna start explaining what a Mobius strip is here — and it seems like the filmmakers purposely avoid fully explaining it in the film, instead opting to point out how it doesn’t work. That said, let’s put on our Quantum Realm Suit, adjust our time GPS, and time-heist this thing!

Exit Theatre Mode

The Quantum Realm

The key to time travel is revealed once Scott Lang escapes from the Quantum Realm, where he was stuck for five years ever since the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Time operates differently there, and for Scott it seemed like he was only gone for five hours. So he takes this info to the Avengers, since he’s better at the “heist” part of a time heist and needs a big brain to figure out the “time” portion of things.

At first, Tony Stark isn’t interested in pursuing the matter, as he thinks it was dumb luck that Scott made it out of the Quantum Realm at all. So Captain America and Black Widow bring Ant-Man to the Hulk, who agrees to give it a go… even if it isn’t exactly his area of expertise.

Time Travel Doesn’t Work That Way!

Eventually “Professor” Hulk comes in to help figure out how to use Scott’s discovery to send the Avengers back in time. And while everyone has their own idea of how to go about the mission, Banner reminds the group that time travel doesn’t really work the way it does in movies such as Back to the Future or The Terminator (or Time After Time or Somewhere in Time or Timecop…). War Machine suggests just going back in time and killing Baby Thanos, a twist on the old killing Baby Hitler concept, but again, that’s “movie time travel.” Or so we’re told.

According to Banner, you can’t just go back in time and change the past in order to alter the future. Because the future is already your past! You can’t change the future, because if you did, you wouldn’t be the same version of yourself who time-travelled in the first place to make that change. See, it’s confusing.

Instead, any change to history will create an alternate, or divergent, timeline. Say you did kill Baby Thanos. That wouldn’t affect the Thanos in the MCU timeline that already saw him cause the Decimation. Instead, it would just create a parallel reality where Thanos died as a baby. But the world of our heroes would remain unchanged. So what to do then?

Time Heist!

Here’s where we get to the time heist, as Tony Stark can’t help himself and basically figures out how time travel works when he has a few hours of spare time one evening. He joins his old teammates, who have been kinda/sorta getting there, though Scott Lang narrowly avoids being permanently turned into a child/baby/old man in the process, and definitely wets himself along the way. The Hulk is smart, but Stark is needed for this one.

Soon enough, the plan is hatched to send three teams back to various points in time/space in order to retrieve each Infinity Stone from a time before Thanos had them. The Avengers will then take them back to their present time of 2023 (five years after the Snap) and use them to undo the Decimation with a new Snap. But as the Ancient One explains to Banner during the Battle of New York back in 2012, removing one of the Stones from their timeline will cause said timeline to splinter off into the divergent realities mentioned above. The Stones being together, presumably in the same time if not in the same specific place, keeps the timeline intact. That’s why, once the Avengers finish undoing the Decimation in 2023, they must return the Stones to the exact moments they took them from the past. That way the Stones will not truly leave their respective past points, and hence not alter the timeline.

Update #1: The directors of Avengers: Endgame, Joe and Anthony Russo, have addressed the time travel in the film while talking to EW. According to the pair, Captain America did in fact live out his days with Peggy in an alternate timeline. “If Cap were to go back into the past and live there, he would create a branched reality,” Joe Russo told the site. “The question then becomes, how is he back in this reality to give the shield away [to Falcon at the end of the film]?”

The brothers go on to imply that there may be more to Cap’s story that is yet to be revealed. “Maybe there’s a story there,” Joe said. “There’s a lot of layers built into this movie and we spent three years thinking through it, so it’s fun to talk about it and hopefully fill in holes for people so they understand what we’re thinking.”

It’s also worth asking how the elderly Cap made it back to the “main” MCU timeline at the end of the film if he lived out his years in a different reality. Did he somehow stumble upon tech that allows him to traverse realities as well as time?

The Russos have also confirmed that Bucky knew what Cap was going to do before he left for his fateful time-travel trip to find Peggy. And the Falcon didn’t know. EW also raises the question of where Cap got the shield from that he gives to the Falcon when he passes the Captain America torch to him (remember, Cap’s shield was wrecked by Thanos). Could it be that he knew a Falcon who became Captain America in the reality where he lived out his life with Peggy, and that’s where the shield came from? Of course, there’s a Falcon and Winter Soldier show (let’s just start calling it Captain America and Bucky) coming to the Disney+ streaming service. It sure seems like clues have been dropped here which will be picked up there…

Update #2: The Russos and Endgame screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don’t appear to be on the same page. In a separate recent interview with Fandango, the writers rejected the theory floated by the Russos. IGN has reached out to Disney for clarification on which party has the official and final say on the matter.

The Bottom Line

So what can we definitively say about time travel in Endgame? It’s clear now that, as the Hulk pointed out, changing the past won’t change the characters’ futures. But beyond that, it seems that, despite the team’s best efforts, at least some divergent timelines were formed. All of which brings us back to the beginning, when we said that time travel in the MCU was confusing. But aside from what may just be some needlessly misleading dialogue from the Ancient One, and thanks now to some confirmation from the Russos, it all basically fits together… while also leaving the door open to be further explored in future MCU properties. Make mine the multiverse!

What do you make of the MCU’s take on time travel? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!

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