Back in 2014, I got to attend a Q&A at USC with Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of the then-newly released Captain America: The Winter Soldier. During the Q&A, a question came up about the lack of a visible date on Nick Fury’s head stone at the end of the film (believe it or not, I was not actually the one who asked), and the Russos responded that – at the time – Marvel did not want to lock down a firm timeline for their movies.
Obviously that changed somewhere along the way, but what’s interesting is that even though The Winter Soldier never explicitly broadcasts its date in a title card or through spoken dialogue, it does imply a specific time… just not the one you’d expect.
Let’s dig into that, but before we do, a quick rundown of the 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.
First up we’ve got Steve’s list of pop culture touchstones he’s missed doing time as a Capsicle. Doesn’t do much in the way of establishing our timeline, (the earliest entry is I Love Lucy from 1951 and the latest is arguably Steve Jobs who wasn’t really a household name until the mid-2000s), but it’s fun to look at more closely.
Hey, wouldn’t you know, we got our date: it’s “Today”!
*Ahem* moving on…
Again, nothing to help us place this movie on the timeline, but for any of you dying to know Jasper Sitwell’s birthday, this one’s for you.
First off, we’ve got this museum display at the Smithsonian on Bucky Barnes that has his year of death listed as 1944. Back in the entry on The First Avenger, we talked a bit about how the broad timeframe of that movie is clear, but specific events in the back half are a little bit fuzzy. Here we get a bit more clarity: Bucky died in 1944. We also get some archival footage establishing that Peggy was still kicking for a number of years after the war (and, in fact, is still kicking by the time of this film).
So, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the timeline, but this is a bit of weirdness I wanted to highlight. In Iron Man Three, we establish that the president of the United States circa 2012 is the fictional Matthew Ellis. That’s reaffirmed by a quote from President Ellis prominently featured in the Smithsonian exhibit earlier in the film. And yet, on Steve’s bookshelf is Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss. The best way to square this circle is to suggest that Obama was also president in the MCU, but only for a single term, being succeeded by President Ellis.
Remember how I said the date for this one’s weird? Well, here it is. Typically the background details in these movies have defaulted to roughly the date the movie was set to be released, even when that directly contradicts the more explicitly stated setting. And yet, here in this movie released April 4, 2014, we have a hospital whiteboard displaying a date in April of 2013. There are probably a number of ways we could hand wave that away, but for now, let’s keep moving.
First up we get a vague reference two when Alexander Pierce and Nick Fury first met, but more important for our purposes is this supposedly live camera feed of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents interrogating Batroc datestamped October 12, 2013. Now, yes, that’s a ways off from the April date we saw earlier, but both are in 2013 which is still kinda weird.
Skipping over the conversation with Pierce that doesn’t really mean much to us to talk about some backstory on the Winter Soldier. Assuming Natasha is using “fifty years” somewhat loosely, that means the Winter Soldier has been active as a sleeper agent since the late 1950s or early ’60s. Or about fifteen years after Bucky was assumed dead.
And now we’re up to three pieces of evidence establishing the setting of this film as 2013, and with the most recent logged date on the Lemurian Star files being August, this one is more in line with the October date than the April one.
Two things here, previously we had assumed that Steve went into the ice in 1944, but Natasha says 1945. She could just be rounding up, but let’s keep that in mind. The other thing is Steve says he’s 95, and with his birthday being in 1918, that also puts the movie in 2013. Now that it’s been said aloud, it’s pretty much concrete. And yeah, Steve’s birthday is in July, so he’d still be 95 in April of 2014 when the movie was released, but combined with everything else, it makes a pretty strong case for this being set roughly six months before the movie came out.
And in case you were wondering if Steve’s birthday had been retconned, Zola’s here to confirm that yes, Steve Rogers was born in 1918. Also, we get Natasha’s birth year, and if I’m not mistaken, she’s the first major Marvel character to not be substantially younger than the actor portraying her (Steve says he’s 95, but if you’re only counting time out of the ice, he’d only be, like, 28).
Hoo boy, whole lotta backstory here. Let’s break it down piece by piece. First, we learn that Zola was captured in 1945 and died in 1972, but his consciousness was uploaded to this computer server. Next, we learn that Zola was formally recruited by the SSR in August of 1945. We also reaffirm the date of Howard and Maria Stark’s death, established all the way back in Iron Man, and we get a definitive date on when Steve went into the ice.
The problem here is that Zola was captured on the same mission where Bucky “died,” and the Smithsonian lists Bucky’s death in 1944. So who is wrong, Zola or the Smithsonian? Well, remember, the mission to attack HYDRA’s final base had to happen in short order after Zola’s capture because the Red Skull was ready to strike. And if Steve went into the ice in March of 1945, that means Bucky must have fallen from the train shortly before that. Those hacks at the Smithsonian need to check their sources.
Okay, so this one doesn’t do anything to establish a date, but we need to have a conversation about it. I’ve seen a lot of people take this reference to Stephen Strange to mean that Strange has already gone through his origin story by this point in time. Now, not only will that very clearly not be the case by the time we get to Doctor Strange, it’s also missing the point of what this scene is trying to communicate. Zola’s algorithm is specifically designed to target not only current threats, but anyone who could conceivably be a threat at any point in the future. It’s a big, pulpy comic book idea, but the notion is that Zola’s algorithm predicts Strange is going to become a hero years before he actually does.
Burning through a few of these that don’t really matter to get to Nick Fury’s grave. Here’s what I was referencing at the top of this article, and as you can see, the dates on the grave are intentionally obscured. That being said, you can just make out the very top tip of a four in the year 2014. Everything else in the movie has pointed to this taking place in 2013, and from the Q&A I mentioned earlier, I understand that the exact text on this headstone wasn’t finalized until a few weeks before the movie released. It’s easy enough to assume that whatever graphics department designed the headstone hadn’t obsessively gone back through the dates shown earlier in the movie, and the edge of a number that’s intentionally not meant to be read isn’t a good enough reason to throw out the rest of what we’ve got.
You can’t really make out what is written in this file, but the date 1959 is clearly visible, meaning the Winter Soldier has been active since at least that date.
This is a weird one. It tries on some level not to establish a concrete position for itself on the timeline, but it has a wealth of dates that firm up pieces of backstory, and by working backwards we can get a pretty clear picture of when this is supposed to be. None of this clears up the weirdness of Phase One’s timeline, but Phase Two has been pretty internally consistent by choosing not to make really specific statements about when it’s taking place. Marvel could have kept going on like this, keeping the timeline intentionally vague, but for whatever reason they didn’t. We’ve got three movies left in Phase Two, all of which should be pretty straightforward, but then after that, things get weird again.
As for this one, I’m gonna go ahead and make the call that it takes place in fall of 2013. Two of the three sets of dates displayed are later in the year, and there’s a dozen other reasons why the hospital whiteboard would have an April date written on it.