This whole exercise of trying to establish a firm timeline for the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more than a little bit silly because precisely when each of these stories takes place doesn’t really matter. The setting is significant inasmuch as figuring out how each movie relates to one another, but the core story of Iron Man doesn’t change much at all if it’s set in May of 2008 or some time in 2010. The biggest exception to this is Marvel’s first period piece, Captain America: The First Avenger. It is explicitly tied to World War II, specifically the waning years of the war in Europe after America had joined in the fighting. Because of this, you’d expect more care to be taken with having a solid, consistent timeline for this movie, and what d’ya know, you’d be right!
Just to recap, here are our rules:
Rule #1: Only the movies are canon.
Rule #2: Title cards are always true.
Rule #3: References to dates in spoken dialogue are always true unless they conflict with rule #2.
Rule #4: Written dates that are prominently displayed in the world are usually true, unless they disagree with rules 2, 3, or each other.
Rule #5: Props and background objects that can be tied to a specific date almost never count.
We begin with a prologue sequence that we can assume is set vaguely in “present day.” The only real information we’re given is that the crash site was only very recently discovered, but we don’t know precisely when that discovery happened.
Next up is the Red Skull’s invasion into Norway to retrieve the Tesseract in March of 1942.
After one more time jump we get into the main body of the movie with Steve Rogers trying (again) to enlist in the armed forces only to (again) get turned down. We don’t know yet exactly when this is taking place, but we do see that Steve’s birthday is July 4, 1918.
In the scene in the alley behind the movie theater we get some more clear information. The flyers on the wall give us some clues, but then Steve’s full enlistment form clears it up: it’s June 14, 1943, and Bucky has his assignment to ship out to Europe the next day.
A newspaper add for the World Exposition of Tomorrow reaffirms that this is, in fact, 1943, and then at the Expo itself, a young Howard Stark talks about the near-future of automobiles, but that doesn’t actually mean much for us. Moving on.
During Steve’s training, the flag that he and his fellow candidates are challenged to get is emblazoned with the dates 1914 and 1942. That’s one year older than we’ve established that this is, but the flag looks a bit worn so maybe it’s been there for a while. Either way, the last time someone got the flag was apparently 1926.
Here Dr. Erskine talks to Steve the night before the super soldier procedure, but at this point we’re not totally clear on the timeline of how long Steve was in training before the decision was made.
Here we can assume that Steve is talking about the war which America would have been involved in for about a year and a half by this point, which brings up the question of how Steve would have felt about the war prior to America’s entry. “A few years” is a broad enough term that it could just be referring to the 18 months since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but I like to think it’s an indication that Steve is the kind of person who was concerned about the war well before America had joined in the fighting. After all, that’s the behind-the-scenes legacy of this character in the comics with Jack Kirby and Joe Simon famously receiving death threats for creating the Führer-punching super soldier a full nine months before America was formally ready to get involved.
Again, reinforcing our timeline, we have Nazi commanders reprimanding Schmidt for not delivering any weapons in the year since Hydra invaded Norway to steal the Tesseract.
And now we have another signpost to move our timeline forward. Assuming this is the paper from the day after Steve’s procedure, that would mean only about a week passed between Steve’s enlistment at the World Exposition and his treatment with Erskine’s formula.
Another time jump following Captain America’s USO tour finding Steve in Italy in November of 1943, five months later. When you consider Steve was doing USO shows nearly twenty times as long as he was in basic training, perhaps Colonel Phillips gruff dismissing of him feels a bit more fair.
Another firm date. Steve’s raid of the Hydra facility was November 3, 1943.
These screen caps cover nearly a full hour of the film, but I’m lumping them all together because there’s some passage of time in the back half of this movie that is never explicitly defined. Obviously the setting of this movie has a definite endpoint with VE-Day being May 8, 1945, but it’s not entirely clear if Steve went in the water shortly before VE-Day or if the movie is bending time a little bit for emotional impact. Logically, it makes the most sense that Cap and the Howling Commandos were able to topple Hydra’s bases over a matter of months – and the wintertime imagery that prevails over this part of the movie seems to support that theory. Plus, Schmidt was pretty far along in the development of weapons; it doesn’t seem like it would take an additional year and a half before he’d be ready to launch his assault. I think putting Steve’s crash in late winter of 1944 makes the most sense, with the Howling Commandos taking a moment to drink to Cap amid the celebrations of VE-Day.
And speaking of things that aren’t explicitly defined, it’s still a little bit vague when exactly Steve was found frozen in the ice. Obviously it happens prior to The Avengers, and I think it makes sense to say it happens after Thor, but even that isn’t made clear. Fury says it’s been almost 70 years, so if we assume Steve went into the ice in 1944, “almost” 70 years could be anywhere from 2009 to 2014. My best guess is that this happened very shortly before The Avengers, a week or two at most, but we’ll get into that more next time.