Well, this is awkward…
After making my sweeping, definitive declaration that The Avengers actually takes place in 2009, looks like I’m going to have to be second guessing that. This is the first major crisis of this project, so let’s not waste a lot of time on foreword and just dive right in.
As a reminder our rules are:
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.
Iron Man Three begins with a prologue that is explicitly tied to a very specific time. There’s no ambiguity or room for interpretation here, and all the rules agree; this is New Year’s Eve, 1999. It’s there in the title card, it’s there in dialogue, it’s there in background information and set design, and it’s going to be the immovable anchor for dating the rest of this film.
And now we finally have to have the “Present Day” talk. I’m kinda surprised it took until Phase Two for it to come up, but I’m also grateful that it first came up on this specific movie, because it makes my point more clear. “Present Day” is not an exact figure. It’d be easy to interpret it as meaning literally the day the movie came out, but Iron Man Three – regardless of what year – is very clearly set around Christmastime despite the movie having a May 3 release. In fact, “Present Day” is so broad that it can mean up to a couple years before or after the literal present day.
And yeah, this movie is set during the Holidays. The decorations in Tony’s garage are the first indicator of that, but like so many other Shane Black films, the Yuletide setting is obvious throughout the film. That said, I’m not going to catalog every instance of Holiday decor unless it’s tied to a specific date.
Not much here in terms of assigning a specific date to this movie, but we do get a few stray references to things happening several dozens of hours ago, as well as a reference to an actual, real world piece of history.
And here’s our first overt reference to the events of Iron Man Three taking place after The Avengers. There are other indicators earlier than this, specifically the presence of the Mark VII armor that debuted in Marvel’s big team-up event, but this one’s significant because it deals specifically with Tony’s anxiety disorder in the aftermath of that film. It’d be a lot easier on my timeline if we could just assume that Iron Man Three took place a few years after The Avengers, but though never made explicit, there’s an implicit immediacy to Tony’s breakdown where months of stress and anxiety are finally coming to a head and he’s forced to confront it. The obvious intention was that Iron Man Three is set during Christmas of that same year.
Another reference to the movie’s prologue happening in 1999 as well as our first specific date of the “present day.” It’s a bit hard to see, but behind the Skype window on Tony’s phone is the barely visible date 12/22.
And now we have our year. These are the first of many references to the fact that the events of Iron Man Three take place thirteen years after the New Year’s Eve, 1999 prologue or, in other words, 2012. There’s also the throwaway gag about Downton Abbey which didn’t premiere in the U.S. until 2011. If the setting of this was a little more vague, I could make up some nonsense about how maybe in that universe, Downton Abbey got made a few years early, but as it stands, it only corroborates the overwhelming evidence that this film is set in 2012.
And then there’s this. The day lines up with what we’ve already established, but the year… does not. This one’s pretty easy to hand wave away as a typo. It happens.
We also get some backstory about Harley Keener’s dad leaving, which apparently happened in 2006. That’s not particularly relevant to anything, but hey, now you know.
At this point in the movie, we’re bridging the night of December 23 with the morning of the 24th as the Mandarin promises that this will all be over by the end of Christmas Eve.
Couple minor things: it’s a pretty safe assumption that the “68” in Rhodey’s username is a reference to the year 1968, and it’s also a safe assumption that that’s probably the year he was born (Don Cheadle was born in 1964, but this lines up with the MCU’s previously established generosity for aging down their actors). Also, we get some info on AIM and Project Extremis indicating that they’ve been working on this project for at least three years.
One more reference to New Year’s Eve, 1999 being thirteen years ago.
Or was it twenty? No, Iron Man Three does not take place in 2019. That would be crazy. Tony’s exaggerating for effect because, well, it’s Tony Stark.
And now we’ve got our end point for the film. The bulk of the action begins on December 22 and ends on Christmas Day. But wait, there’s one more thing to discuss.
In the post-credits scene, we finally get some information on how old Tony Stark is meant to be. He says he was 14 years old in 1983, which means he was born sometime in either 1969 or 1970. What makes this slightly complicated is the fact that back in Iron Man, it’s established that following the death of Tony’s parents in December of 1991, Obadiah Stane took control of Stark Industries until Tony reached 21 years of age. So, literally the only way to square that circle is for Tony’s birthday to be in late December of 1970, meaning he would have turned 21 a few weeks after his parents were killed, meaning Stane only ran Stark Industries for all of 14 days at best. That’s sort of an absurd stretch, but it’s literally the only possible way to treat both of these things as true.
Which gets into some of the problems with our larger timeline. Iron Man Three takes place in 2012. There’s no disputing that. It comes up over and over and over again. And so, therefore, we have the assume The Avengers also took place in 2012, which means everything has to get moved around. So, at this point we basically have to throw out every reference to dates in Phase One that is not a title card or a spoken line of dialogue, which leaves us with seven bits of information to piece together the Phase One timeline. Working backwards, if The Avengers is 2012, then we know Iron Man 2 and Thor have to be 2011 since they happen roughly simultaneously and Nick Fury refers to the events of Thor as happening “last year.” We also know that the original Iron Man takes place six months before Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk is more than a year before The Avengers. We also know that Tony was captured by the Ten Rings sometime before June, escaped three months later, and that the climax of that film happened on the 24th of whatever month we decide it is. There’s also an opportunity to properly address Pepper’s line about Tony’s one night stand with Christine Everhart happening “last year” which I had previously waved away with a No-Prize.
So here’s the best I’ve got: If Iron Man 2 is set in 2011, is six months after Iron Man, but also in the next calendar year, then the earliest Iron Man can end is July. It also makes the most sense for the exchange in Iron Man about the MIT commencement speech in June to be a couple months away; close enough that Pepper’s worried about it, but far enough away that Tony’s not. So there’s where we’re going to start. Iron Man begins in April of 2010, ends on July 25 of 2010, and Iron Man 2 takes place in January of the following year. But wait, didn’t we just establish that Tony’s birthday is in late December, and isn’t his birthday a major plot point in Iron Man 2? Right you are, but here’s our way around that. Tony’s probably the kind of guy who wants his birthday to be a big event and doesn’t want it overshadowed by the holiday season, plus he would have been busy making preparations for the launch of the Stark Expo, so pushing the celebration into January is not the biggest stretch you could imagine.
Finally, for the sake of consistency, I’m maintaining The Incredible Hulk‘s same place in the timeline relative to everything else, which means it still overlaps with the end of Iron Man, just in 2010 now rather than in 2008. I don’t love any of this. It’s messy, and it means we’re setting ourselves up for another crisis point with Spider-Man: Homecoming, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, though, we have a functioning timeline as defined by our set of rules up top.