The Avengers is the lynchpin movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s weird, messed up timeline. depending on which detail from which movie you want to prioritize at any given moment, the film can take place in either 2009 or 2012. But it’s not just that one movie that shifts back and forth through time. By the nature of the way Phase One was constructed The Avengers drags four other movies along with it. By the time Phase Two wrapped up, we were on reasonably solid ground. The Avengers happened in 2012 and the rest of Phase One was moved up two years to accommodate that.
Phase Three isn’t going to let things be that simple.
We start out easy enough. A brief prologue featuring the Winter Soldier, set in 1991. Not much to talk about yet, but we’ll be coming back to this (a few times).
As we’ve discussed in the past, “Present Day” is a somewhat flexible term that does not literally mean the exact day the movie was released. Depending on where you live in the world, Captain America: Civil War was released in either April or May of 2016, but judging from the newspapers in this scene, this is happening sometime in March.
Here Steve mentions that they’ve been hunting Rumlow for six months. If this is taking place in March of 2016, that means they’ve been on his trail since August of 2015. If we assume that Avengers: Age of Ultron took place in the summer of 2015, that’d work pretty nicely. The Ultron ordeal is dealt with, the new Avengers team is formed, and Steve promptly sends them out in search of the one remaining HYDRA agent he knows of that’s avoided capture.
If only it were that simple.
And now it’s Christmas. Of 1991. I could play coy to preserve the progression of the film’s reveal, but we’ve all seen the movie (if not, what on earth are you doing here?). Specifically, this is December 16, 1991, a day that we’ll hear a lot about over the course of this film. It’s the day Howard and Maria Stark die, which, if you’re observant, is one day earlier than I’ve had it listed on the timeline since the first entry in this series. That’s okay, though, because the date I was getting was from a newspaper headline, and it would make sense for the newspaper to be dated the morning after their death.
We then jump forward a month after the Avengers’ mission in Lagos. If you’re keeping score, that likely puts us in April of 2016.
The General-turned-Secretary-of-State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross mentions that he had a heart attack five years ago. If we’re assuming this is 2016, that would put his heart attack in 2011, or about a year after the events of The Incredible Hulk.
There are a couple ways to interpret Ross’s reference to four years. The first and most obvious is that he’s referencing the formation of the Avengers in 2012, four years prior to 2016. Except, that’s not technically accurate. The Avengers fell under the jurisdiction of S.H.I.E.L.D. up until the time when that government body was dissolved in 2013. But if we’re counting from that point, it would only be about two-and-a-half years, not four. We’ll unpack this a little more in a second, but first…
We’ve got another reference to the day Tony’s parents died. Anyway, back to what we were talking about.
And here it is, the crisis point in Phase Three that re-breaks the timeline. Turns out it’s not Spider-Man: Homecoming after all, that film’s just reiterating the timeline established by Civil War. Eight years before 2016 is 2008, which puts Iron Man back in 2008 where it was originally meant to be, but because the entirety of Phase One (Captain America notwithstanding) happens over the course of 18 months, moving Iron Man back to 2008 means moving Iron Man 2 and Thor back to 2008 as well, which in turn means moving The Avengers back to 2009. That means Ross’s comment about four years ago couldn’t possibly be referring to The Avengers and has to mean the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., but in order for that to work, that would have to make the events of Civil War set in 2017.
Wait what? I’ll admit, this is a weird stretch, and almost certainly not what anyone involved in making this movie intended, but because they couldn’t keep their timeline straight, it’s the only way to make sense of the timeline of events as presented in this film. And weirdly, as you’ll see as we keep going, pushing Civil War forward a year makes almost every spoken reference to dates work in this movie. You have to disregard the out of focus newspaper at the beginning, but we’ve already disregarded so very many dates on props and computer displays already that what’s one more? The only piece of dialogue that doesn’t fit, ironically, is the one that led us down this whole path. If Civil War is in 2017 now, then eight years earlier would put Iron Man in 2009, not 2008. That’s too much of a leap even for me, though, so instead I’m gonna No-Prize this and say that rather than rounding up, Vision is just dropping the “and change” from the equation. It’s been more than eight years, but not quite nine.
We also clear up a bit when specifically Age of Ultron was set. We know now that it was in the summer. Of what year is still unclear, but for now let’s keep assuming 2015.
Referring to the ending of Captain America: The Winter Solider, which by our count would have been about three-and-a-half years ago. Comfortably fitting the definition of “a few.”
Glossing over a few dates that don’t really matter to get to Tony’s reference to Iron Man Three. Even though we’re moving all of Phase One back, Iron Man Three is not moving with it. I’ll explain more why at the end of this, but for now, Iron Man Three still takes place in December of 2012.
This one we have to stretch a little bit, but if we assume that the Avengers reassembled shortly after the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. to take down HYDRA and retrieve Loki’s staff, Steve would have been too busy to really focus on finding Bucky. After the events of Ultron, though, Steve could have put more effort into finding his friend, putting the search at just a little bit less than two years.
Another couple references to the elder Starks’ deaths. Moving on.
Starting to solidify the internal timeframe of this film. After the one month time jump at the beginning, the bulk of the movie seems to play out over the course of four or five days.
Peter Parker has had his powers for six months by this point, and if we’re assuming this is somewhere around April of 2017, that would put his fateful spider bite somewhere around October of 2016. This shouldn’t cause any conflicts since this is our first time meeting the kid (don’t @ me about Iron Man 2), but someone’s likely to point out the oblique Spidey reference at the end of Ant-Man. I mean, sure, nothing in that movie firmly establishes its place on the timeline beyond vaguely after Age of Ultron, so we could move it up to 2016, but I don’t feel like that’s really necessary for a reference that’s specifically intended to mean more to the audience than it is to any of the characters in the story. We, the audience, are intended to hear “guys who climb up walls” and think “Spider-Man!” but he’s hardly the only comic book character who can climb things.
Glossing over a lot of redundant or not particularly relevant information here to get to Bucky and Steve’s conversation about Dot. It doesn’t make a huge amount of difference because in either case they’re speaking in rough estimates, but if this takes place in 2017, Bucky would be exactly 100 years old and Steve would be 99.
And here’s the other big one that, despite what was almost certainly the intent, indicates this probably takes place in 2017 rather than 2016. If Age of Ultron happened in the summer of 2015, having Civil War set in spring of 2016 would make Zemo’s line untrue. You could push it to fall of 2016, but then we go back to the problem of Ross’s line about the Avengers operating without supervision. There’s definitely some stretching involved, but spring of 2017 is the only setting that makes every line make some sort of sense.
Yet more references to December 16, 1991 as we reach the film’s climax. The one last trivia point here is Steve’s mention that he’s been on his own since he was eighteen, which means his parents were both dead by 1936, seven years before he enlists in the military.
And that about wraps it up. So, let’s take a look at the updated timeline. Phase One has reverted back to the timeline we’d established by the end of The Avengers, however Iron Man Three is staying right where it’s at because the film makes it abundantly clear that it can only be set in December of 2012. That’s kind of frustrating because it means the film is taking place years after The Avengers instead of in the immediate aftermath, which undercuts some of the movie’s weight, but according to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of PTSD can sometimes develop years after the traumatic incident. Even with the messed up timeline, it’s not implausible that Tony might have begun spiraling three years after the fact.
Also, Thor: The Dark World happens before Iron Man Three now. I don’t like that any more than you do, but like the way the Phase One movies are all inextricably linked, the only way we can place The Dark World on the timeline is that it’s two years after the original Thor. So if Thor moves backwards, so does The Dark World. Everything else is the same for now, but we’ve still got seven of these silly movies to go. It’s just gonna get dumber.