April 28, 2019

About that [SPOILER] at the end of Avengers: Endgame

 I’m going to indulge in a little pop fiction today, because it’s right up my alley in multiple ways. In particular, it's an interesting exercise in the logic and principles of world building within hypothetical scenarios. We must "read the novel as if it were true."

 ***WARNING: Major SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame appear below.***

 There’s one question lots of people are asking about this amazing movie. How does Steve Rogers get back to that bench by the lake? There are two possible explanations, and they are both problematic.

 If Steve grew old naturally in the prime reality (the MCU timeline as we know it through all 22 movies), he must have lived a long life without changing anything. That would logically imply old Steve has always been hiding in Peggy’s life, which probably complicates some details from Winter Soldier and the Agent Carter TV show, but a bigger problem is pointed out by Meg Downey on the Gamestop website: Steve has never been the kind of person who could sit by and let bad things happen, and even if we suppose that he changes that m.o. for the sake of his love life, it’s horrifying to imagine that peacefully aging Steve spent decades ignoring all the ways his future knowledge could have prevented vast quantities of human suffering. Thus, explanation number one is a clever in respecting the time travel rules but this is simply not a desirable scenario to consider. In Downey’s perhaps not too strong words, it ruins the film.

 Option two makes more sense from the perspective of Steve’s character but creates a gaping plot hole. If Steve and Peggy’s past life changed anything at all about the MCU timeline then old Steve would wind up growing old in the alternate reality his actions created. It’s tremendous to think of Steve and Peggy working together to rescue Bucky, keep Hydra out of Shield, keep the tesseract out of the wrong hands, prevent the Chitauri from coming to earth, and potentially so much more… but then how does old Steve make his way to that bench by the lake? How could Steve Rogers “jump” (without using the quantum suit) back into the present timeline, and why would he do so at all?

 One efficient way to suggest solutions for problems like this is by letting one question answer another. Oh, yes. There’s a more perplexing question that nobody seems to be asking.

 How was Steve able to return the stones to their places? Yes, I know Banner seems to think he can do it. Yes, we should they made a plan together before Steve went back in time. Yes, I know Steve tells Sam, on that bench, “I put the stones back.” Still, there is one major unspoken problem in all this.

 The reason Steve shouldn’t have been able to accomplish his mission is because the objects he took with him in that briefcase were six colored gems. He did not have the cube. He did not have the scepter. He did not have the orb. We know *THOSE* are the objects, originally housing the gems, which Rogers is supposed to put back. Maybe Steve and Bruce thought about this in advance, but how did they intend to deal with it? We are not told. How is Steve supposed to manufacture those objects and put the stones back inside them once he gets back to those alternate timelines? Thus, we have two problems. How did old Steve get from his married future in some alternate reality to the lakeside? How did Steve manufacture the objects he needed, once he went back in time? I suggest the solution to both problems could be Tilda Swinton.

This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds
without end... [a] vast multiverse." -- Dr. Strange (2016)

 Suppose Hulk sent Rogers first to the Sanctum Sanctorum in 2012. He returns the time stone and asks the Ancient One for her help in returning the other five stones to their places. (Alternatively, perhaps the two of them decide the other stones can be put elsewhere for safe keeping, as long as they go back to exist in their own proper realities. Either way, the rest of this scenario is the same.) The Ancient One might also hold onto Mjolnir until 2014, at which point it can fly across the universe into Thor’s hand, moments after its past self disappears with pudgy future Thor. Finally, having finished his business from 2023, Rogers uses his stash of Pym particles to enact his own secret plan.

 Going back to 1945, Steve finds Peggy and begins an incredible new lifetime, creating a glorious new alternate timeline and enjoying that reality until Peggy dies of old age in 2016. Bereft without Peggy, elderly Steve returns to Greenwich Village and asks the Ancient One to transport him to the prime MCU timeline he departed from so many decades earlier. Although this is not the same Ancient One he met in the alternate 2012, this Ancient One is equally well aware of multiple realities. She inquires further, somehow locates the prime timeline, and agrees to help.

 At this point, if not sooner, Steve will have one more thing to do. He flies to the arctic, wakes up his frozen younger self, gives him the quantum suit and the Pym particles and sends him back in time to have another fresh start in 1945. However, he keeps the shield so he can give it to Sam. With this last loose thread tied up, Steve returns to New York where the Ancient One transports him and his original shield into prime 2023.

 Voila! Old Steve lived a long life in an alternate timeline and still got back to the lakeside.

 Assuming Steve didn't lie to Sam, by the lake, I really like this solution. But you tell me. If the Ancient One didn't help him recreate the cube, the scepter, and the orb, then who did? And if she did help him do those things, and we know she outlived Peggy by a few months or a year, then it makes sense to me that when Steve wanted to exit this timeline he would naturally think back to the point of his entry.

 At any rate, that’s my fan theory. It’s a more satisfying scenario to me. Avengers fans, imagine something different if you wish.

 Let me also say THANK YOU right now to Kevin Feige, Joe and Anthony Russo, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for all their amazing storytelling efforts. If you guys like this fan theory, I'll accept my "No Prize" anytime... or in any timeline!



Susan said...

I dunno man, that’s a complicated theory. I think we’re meant to think that he knows his other self is going to save the world a few times over, and he just wants to be with those he loves. Is it a tragedy to spend time with your love? Isn’t that what saving the world is for?

jblosser said...

Establishing actual rules for time travel in soft sci-fi like this are tricky, but the ones we are explicitly given are:

1) Multiverse. There are multiple universes (long established Marvel canon), and the collapse/decision points of at least some quantum waveforms creates a new universe/branch point (stated in the movie in the explanation of how time works).

2) Relativistic and linear time "travel". There is no "changing your own past", or even entering your own past, because at the point you time travel, you are (a) creating a new branch point, and (b) attaching that branch point as your own relativistic future (explicitly stated in the movie when tossing the "Back to the Future" approach). It's more of a web than a tree in this view. You're not travelling through time as much as entering another universe at a point in its time. The Ancient One did not object to her universe being forked off the prime timeline--that had already happened once Banner was there--she objected to them taking the stone from that universe to the MCU's prime universe and leaving them powerless against threats (like Dormammu).

3) Quantum suit mechanics. The base station is necessary for travel (explicitly stated, and shown in the fight for the van), but it doesn't control the suits' activity (explicitly demonstrated when Rogers and Stark make a second jump on their own volition).

4) Quantum GPS mechanics. The use of a "quantum GPS" allows knowing where one is in multiverse space and time, to allow returning to an explicit universe/time (explicitly stated and core to the plot about solving the time travel problem). The primary use of this is getting back home, but it's also core to Banner's assertion to the Ancient One that they could get back and return the stones *to the universe they took them from*. This one frankly is the hardest to grasp, as it seems to contradict rule 1 and 2, but the movie is very explicit about this mechanic, more than once. It feels easier to understand when contemplating returning to home, but harder to understand when contemplating jumping back into another universe (without forking it instead), but that's not really a logical distinction. Call it this model's "it all gives me a headache" time paradox.

So, given these, what Rogers did was:

1) Use the GPS and suit to return jump to each of the branched universes and return the stones/hammer to the moment after they were taken.

2) Skip his scheduled return jump to the prime universe base station, which was under his control, not the base station's.

3) Use the GPS and suit to jump to a universe at a time Peggy was alive, and live out his life with her. Who knows what he did there, or what utopia they maybe/probably created. It could not impact the MCU prime universe, because he already didn't do those things there.

4) Use the GPS and suit to jump back to the prime universe in time to get to the bench as an old man after her death, to say goodbye to those iterations of his friends and make sure his home universe was not without a Captain America moving forward due to his choice to have a life.

I don't think it needs to be any more complex than this.

Unknown said...

I thought the film was great. The time travel was ridiculous and I don't buy the whole premise that there was only one possible future in which they win. Though perhaps the greatest absurdity of the series is the fact that the whole universe speaks English... But ignoring that--it was a ton of fun, and a lot more nostalgic than I expected. A fitting tribute, and a remarkably effective way of tying the whole series together.

I didn't have as big a problem with Steve spending his life with Peggy as you: I'm happy to imagine that he simply kept his head down in the Prime Universe (since he must know that changing anything substantial could lead to the snap being permanent). But I never watched Agent Carter, so maybe that messes up more than I think.

My two biggest questions though were about the infinity stones. The first you addressed: How did Steve return the stones without causing massive ripple effects, since he did not have their original housings? That the Ancient One could have restored them for him seems the only possible explanation, so I'll happily go with that.

But the other problem is more subtle: According to the Ancient One, removing the stones from the universe would have devastating consequences, which is why they had to return them in the end. But doesn't that mean that the prime universe is now screwed, since Thanos destroyed all six stones, and--once Steve returned the copies they borrowed--the prime universe must now go on without them, permanently. So was the Ancient One mistaken about the consequences of losing the stones, or will the prime universe never be the same again?

Unknown said...

The director confirmed that Steve created an alternative timeline when he returned to marry Peggy, so he could have done whatever he wanted in that timeline without affecting the Prime timeline, then he made a final jump after Peggy's death to return to "our" universe.


Unknown said...

"Unknown" is Ken, by the way. Not sure why it isn't recognizing my login.

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