The original Avengers was the flashpoint for all of the timeline woes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe up until this point – releasing in 2012 and potentially taking place in either 2009 or 2012 depending on which way you’re counting. By comparison, the rest of Phase Two has been pretty easy. No real conflicting timelines in any of the movies and, in fact, temporal setting is rarely even touched upon.
That holds constant in Avengers: Age of Ultron, so much so that, for the first time, we can’t actually place this one on firmly on the timeline just yet.
But before we get into that, let’s go over the rules once more…
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.
Right off the bat, we establish that this takes place at some point after Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not only Tony Stark saying as much out loud, but in the whole opening sequence that revolves around the Avengers raiding a HYDRA base to retrieve Loki’s staff. So far that puts us in 2014 at the absolute earliest (The Winter Soldier took place in fall of 2013, but we’ve got to allow for some time for the Avengers to reassemble and to raze multiple HYDRA facilities).
Starting the flesh out the internal timeline of this movie, we find out that the party in Avengers Tower happens a few days after the attack on the HYDRA base.
We’re never given any information on how old the Maximoff twins are meant to be now, but if we assume they’re both roughly as old as the actors portraying them, that puts their birth right around 1990, meaning Tony would have been running Stark Industries for about nine years when one of his missiles blew up their apartment.
Further clarifying the timing of the party. We now know it’s on a Saturday, three days after the battle at the Sokovian HYDRA base from the beginning of the film.
When Ultron awakes and begins searching the internet for information on Tony Stark, the Avengers, and his purpose, we get several brief flashes of information. Broadly speaking, it lines up with the timeline where we have it now – Iron Man takes place in 2010, The Avengers takes place in 2012, etc. The specifics are off, for example we have five whole months passing between the photo of the Mark I Iron Man armor and the News Archive footage of Tony attacking the Ten Rings, but these dates appear for all of two or three frames at the most, so it’s not worth worrying too much about them.
Yet another reference to it being a few days since Barton’s injury while attacking the HYDRA base.
Another reference to the twins being ten when Stark’s missile wrecked their apartment. We also get a computer monitor that does not display a date, but does give a day of a week. If the party in Avengers Tower was on a Saturday, this would indicate it takes the Avengers at least five days to chase down leads and find where Ultron is heading.
To that point, almost a full hour later in the movie, when Hawkeye is searching for clues that might lead to where Ultron has taken Natasha, we see that it is once again Thursday, which, if we’re taking that as gospel, along with Vision’s comment to Ultron following the battle of Sokovia, means that the events of this movie play out over about two weeks rather than the two days of the original.
Again, we don’t have a specific date, but aside from the reference to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this is the only information that helps place this on the timeline at all. We know that this has to take place after Guardians of the Galaxy, but we just don’t know how long after.
So, if we’re taking Steve’s line here as literal, that would put this movie in 2020, which doesn’t seem right for a number of reasons. There’s a number of reasons Steve could be getting the time wrong here; he could be exaggerating for impact, or he could just plain be misremembering how long it’s been given everything that’s happened in the few years since he’s been out of the ice.
And… that’s it. 141 minutes later and we still don’t really know where to put this one on the timeline. I’m actually sort of surprised it took us this long to get one like this, when honestly this is sort of the Platonic ideal of how these movies should have approached time: by just not dealing with it. But for our purposes, I’m going to tentatively say that this one happened in 2015. That’s the year it came out, so it’s the obvious choice, but also it fits with all the information we’re given – it’s after both Captain America: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. We’ll have to rely on later movies to firm up more specifically when this might have taken place.