I love timelines. I’m obsessed with them. I love tracking the ways events fit together in a broader context – how each piece influences and is influenced by every other in an endless chain.
I also have a special fondness for fictional timelines that are just complete horseshit. Where the people in charge were just making it up as they go and none of it connects together cleanly. I’m sure that’s frustrating for most people, but for me, trying to make sense of something that is inherently nonsensical becomes the world’s greatest puzzle. There are limits, though. I have no interest in trying to make sense of the X-Men movies because they’ve been revised and retconned so often that there’s no way to even try to connect those dots. The best possible version of this is a long-running series with interconnected events that occur in sequence with just enough references to dates and times to feel like it could tie together even though in practice it super-duper doesn’t.
That, my friends, is exactly the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’ve been keeping a rough timeline of these films for a few years now and I’ve managed to pull together a chronology that takes every movie into account. It’s admittedly flimsy in spots – held together with some wild leaps of logic and inventive No-Prize solutions, but it works without having to blatantly disregard the information presented on screen. Which is more than I can say for Marvel’s recently released official timeline that is just absolute nonsense. For the sake of comparison, here’s where they landed:
- 1943-1945: Captain America: The First Avenger
- 2010: Iron Man
- 2011: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor
- 2012: The Avengers, Iron Man 3
- 2013: Thor: The Dark World
- 2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- 2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man
- 2016: Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming
- 2016-2017: Doctor Strange
- 2017: Black Panther, Thor Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War
At a glance, this seems to make sense. Most of the movies are set in the year they were released. The entirety of phase one is moved up to align with the release of The Avengers, and the “incorrect” time jump established in Spider-Man: Homecoming is reconciled (spoiler: it’s not actually incorrect). When you dig a little deeper, though, this is just as full of holes as anything else. For a start, Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t on this list, but that film takes place at the end of Scott Lang’s two year house arrest following the events of Captain America: Civil War. We also know, thanks to the end credits tag, that Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place shortly before Avengers: Infinity War. Except, wait– according to this Infinity War happened only one year after Civil War so how could Scott be two years into his house arrest? Not to mention Black Panther stating at the beginning that it happens shortly after Civil War, not a full year later. For this timeline to work, you’re not just disregarding Homecoming, but half the movies in the series.
So, let’s try something else. Let’s try taking the movies at face value and charting out a timeline based on what’s actually there on the screen. We’re going to get deep into the weeds with this silliness and catalog every reference to a date present in all 22 MCU movies. But before we begin, a few notes on methodology, because we have to establish some rules in order to try to make any sense of this.
Rule #1: Only the movies are canon. That means TV shows, comic books, and statements made by filmmakers in the real world don’t count. Agent Carter probably doesn’t do too much damage, but if we try to account for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Defenders Netflix shows, and the tie-in comic books, this house of cards is just gonna collapse right off the bat. Besides, the movies already don’t treat these things as canon, so why should I? Also, they’re bad.
Rule #2: Title cards are always true. Whenever a movie puts a date on a title card it means the movie is explicitly telling you when it is happening. There’s no more objective measure of time than this.
Rule #3: References to dates in spoken dialogue are always true unless they conflict with rule #2. This might be controversial, and you could probably make a strong argument for swapping rules two and three, but people misspeak and get dates wrong all the time in real life, so there has to be some margin for error here. Also, it’s my list, so eat my shorts.
Rule #4: Written dates that are prominently displayed in the world are usually true, unless they disagree with rules 2, 3, or each other. This is going to get messy very quickly, but unless something with higher authority actively conflicts with it, it’s probably safe to assume the dates presented are intentional.
Rule #5: Props and background objects that can be tied to a specific date almost never count. Sure, maybe one of the movies features an iPhone 6 and you know that those were released in 2014. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean anything. Movies have anachronisms like this all the time and trying to account for every inconsistency possibly introduced by the props department is a recipe for madness.
All right, with all of that cleared up, let’s dig into the first film in the series.
Okay, so this one fails the test under Rule #5. It’s not a prop, but at the time Iron Man was written and produced, there’s no way the filmmakers could have known MySpace was about to be a dead platform, so it’s unfair to hold this line of dialogue against them. That being said, if we take Marvel’s official timeline as gospel, that means genius mogul Tony Stark, a man who’s on the bleeding edge of technological development, is using MySpace as the go-to reference point for social media in 2010 (a/k/a the same year they made a movie about Facebook and it was nominated for Best Picture). Anyway, this one doesn’t count, but I needed to get that off my chest. Moving on…
Title card establishing that Tony’s capture takes place a day-and-a-half after he received an Apogee Award in Las Vegas. That doesn’t exactly firm anything up yet, but let’s keep going.
In the brief biography montage at the Apogee Awards, we see Tony on the cover of a (presumably recent) issue of Wired magazine dated January 2008. We’ve established that that this can’t take place any earlier than January 2008.
This doesn’t do anything to firm up the setting of the film, but it does give us another point on the MCU timeline: the death of Tony’s parents. Also, and this is a fun quirk, December 17, 1991 was not a Friday in our universe, so this (perhaps accidentally) establishes that the calendar of the MCU is subtly different from our own. This will matter in a minute.
We’re narrowing the window for our setting. We now know it’s no earlier than January 2008 and sometime before June. Presumably several months before June, but Tony could just be being a diva.
Tony’s capture happens the day after Pepper Potts’s birthday. That doesn’t exactly help us since we don’t know what day Pepper’s birthday is, but it’s there nonetheless.
After Tony is captured, he and Yinsen have a conversation about the shrapnel in his chest and how, even with the electromagnet, he only has a week to live. Tony then constructs the ARC reactor, buying himself more time, but the way this period of time is depicted on screen makes it feel like only a few days. That notion will be dispelled in just a moment, though.
This doesn’t help us firm up the timeline at all, but it’s another reference to dates, so it gets included here. Moving on.
Here Tony firms up the timeline of how long he was held hostage by the Ten Rings. Earlier the film suggested he was only there for about a week, but it wasn’t explicitly stated, so this doesn’t count as a contradiction. Anyway, we now know the bulk of the film takes place roughly three months after Pepper’s birthday, which we still don’t know.
And now we do! The TV display in Stark’s mansion the day after his press conference lists the day as May 4, 2008, meaning the beginning of the film takes place some time in early February. This isn’t as clean as a title card or spoken dialogue, but unless something contradicts it, there’s no reason not to count it.
“A ha!” I hear you saying. “The HUD of the Mk. 2 armor identified one of Tony’s cars as a 2010 model Audi! That lines up with the official timeline! Case closed!” Ah, but not so fast there, champ. Tony having a 2010 model car doesn’t necessarily mean the movie takes place in 2010; it means he’s rich enough and connected enough to own a prototype sports car years before it’s on the market. You can find pictures of 2020 model Audi vehicles online right now – they do make them that early. This isn’t even a stretch; it’s the interpretation that was almost certainly intended.
News report establishes that we’re now at least two weeks out from the May 3 press conference. Combined with Tony’s watch face showing the date as Thursday the 16th, it’s safe to assume this is happening on May 16. May 16, 2008 was not a Thursday in our universe, but remember the Washington Times front page from earlier established that our calendars don’t perfectly line up. Again, this is something that could be disregarded if it was contradicted, but it’s reinforced by a date shown earlier in the film and spoken dialogue in that same scene.
Phil Coulson makes an appointment to meet with Stark on the 24th (again, presumably of May) at 7:00 p.m. He keeps his appointment, and is whisked away by Pepper to go confront Obadiah Stane, locking the date for the climax of the film.
Tony reaffirms that he was in captivity for three months (people use “a couple” to describe more than two all the time. It’s fine.), and learns that the pictures of his weapons being used by the Ten Rings were taken on May 16. That doesn’t really matter, but now you know!
This is sort of a non-sequitur, and really the only one in the movie. If Obadiah stepped in to run the company after the Starks’ death in 1991, he’d have only been “holding up” Tony for about 20 years. We aren’t explicitly told how old Tony is meant to be here, but Robert Downey Jr. was 43 at the time and it’d be silly if he was supposed to be playing ten years younger. Ultimately this doesn’t really matter though, so it’ll just remain an odd, throw away line.
And finally, we establish that the end of the movie happens one day after the battle between Stark and Stane, which means we have our timeline!
Iron Man takes place between February and May of 2008, with the bulk of the film happening between May 3 and May 25. This movie’s chronology is almost entirely internally consistent, so one movie in, we’ve got a rock-solid timeline so far. Strap in kids, it’s just going to get worse from here.