A while ago I wrote a blog post about how much I hate time travel. Sort of. I mean, specifically, I hate time travel plots in science fiction and fantasy books and films and TV shows because they make no sense and tend to eat the main story. Actual time travel, on the other hand, would be pretty cool. If done safely it could be like some sort of Disney ride. If you could climb on the Time Express and take a tour through your favorite moments in history without actually being able to interfere (keep your hands inside the car at all times!) that would be fun. You’d experience it like you were riding around in someone else’s brain, so it would look and feel like you were actually there… Wait. That’s just VR. Okay, dumb idea. I suppose it’s only actually time travel if you get flung off the ride at some point and have to experience being stranded in the past as yourself.
And then all the stuff I hate about time travel would happen; the alternate timelines, the impossibility of returning to your present, the infinite possibilities of the actions of other time travelers, the probable murder of your present/future self, etc. Yuck. Also, another thing that always bothered me about time travel – when you go back in time, you would look and act and speak differently than everyone around you, even if you went back in time in your own home town. You’d be immediately suspicious.
Unless you just went back to last week or something, but… come on. You’re not going back to last week just so you can distract yourself from hearing Bob give Endgame spoilers at the water cooler. What even are you doing with this time travel power?
Oh, that reminds me. There will be some Endgame spoilers here. Also, Umbrella Academy. So, if you haven’t seen either of those, then you should stop reading and go get on that. I’d say I’ll wait for you, but you already know I won’t. Your eyes have skipped down the page and you can clearly see I didn’t wait for you. But you should still go see both the Avengers movie and the excellent Netflix series The Umbrella Academy and then come back. I won’t be here, but my words will be because that’s how they work. It’s a bit like magic but also like science and… ugh… time travel.
So, we good? You all caught up? Here we go.
This isn’t a review of Endgame, exactly. I’m not sure I can break it down enough to examine it in depth. One day, I’ll probably do a combined viewing of Infinity War and Endgame to take a look at what they’re doing in terms of story and character arcs, but if I do that, I’ll probably have to include the entire MCU and that’s… just nuts. It’s insane what Marvel and Disney have done. Incredible and awe-inspiring, but certifiably crazy. I’m just not sure what storytelling lessons we can draw from it all. Not yet, anyway.
Instead, what I thought we’d talk about was the rather interesting things Endgame is doing with time travel, which I still hate. When the Avengers (or what’s left of them) go back in time to get the Infinity Stones before Thanos ever laid hands on them, they directly take on the problem of alternate timelines by promising to return them once they use them to undo “The Snap.” This is explained as clearly as possible in the confrontation between Banner-Hulk and the Ancient One. She shows him how taking the Time Stone she is guarding away from her will create an alternate timeline where the Earth has no Time Stone (and thus no way to guard against Dormammu in the Doctor Strange movie). Banner says that won’t happen because after they’re done with them, they’ll return to the exact time they took them and give them back.
So, one imagines that one second after Banner-Hulk jumps away with the Time Stone clutched in his beefy fist, Captain America strolls up to the Ancient One and gives it right back to her. Ta-da! No alternate time line!
Except, of course, that’s not true at all. Alternate time lines don’t work like that. They do not require Infinity Stones to exist. Alternate time lines are created just by the simple act of travelling back in time. Just by arriving in the past you have already made it into a different past than the one that existed and thus made a new timeline. You don’t even have to do anything. Your very existence proves the timeline is different from the original. Every consciousness that happens to detect your presence, every molecule of air you breathe, every atom you push out of the way with your own atoms – creates a new timeline!
But still the whole Time Heist idea was a good attempt at heading off paradoxes and maintaining some kind of rationale as to why they can return to a “post snap” future holding Infinity Stones from the past because they will (have) return(ed) them. Even though they haven’t (hadn’t) yet. And therefore there’s a paradox anyway, unless you believe in the Bill and Ted theory of time travel, which stipulates that as long as you leave a reminder to yourself in the future to go back and do something in the past, then you’ll see an immediate result in the present.
Which is eye-rollingly ridiculous. I would have been hugely disappointed by the movie at that point, but then all those Doc Strange portals started opening up and I got all distracted and excited.
So, while it was a nice twist on solving time-travel plot holes, it still failed in that regard. I didn’t really care. It was fun and epic and I got to see my man Hawkeye once more before they (probably) retire him. I’m satisfied.
But the time travel plot was unnecessary, in my opinion. I guess the creators and writers felt they needed it for all the fan-servicey stuff, but that was always a low priority on my list. I wanted a battered Avengers team hounding a battered Thanos and forcing him to finally admit that no matter what, his grand plan was and always will be futile. I still more or less got that, so as I said, after Endgame I look out at the complete MCU and I’m satisfied.
I know it seems like I’m hating on time travel a lot, because I am. But you know what time travel plot I actually like? The one they’re using in the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. I’ve never read the comics, so I’m unfamiliar with the source material, but the show comes across as some kind of Breakfast Club for superheroes. These kids, born under very strange circumstances, are adopted and raised by an eccentric rich guy straight out of an Edward Gorey book and trained to use their powers to fight crime. We join them when they are (mostly) grown to adulthood and see that they didn’t quite turn out as the old man had hoped.
Anyway, it’s very clever and the soundtrack is unbeatable, but since I’m assuming you’ve seen it, you know all that already. But you know what really impressed me with the show? The fact that they use time travel as a central plot point and yet do it in a way that actually adds to the story instead of distracting away from it. Apparently, there is ONE most favored timeline that must be kept intact no matter the costs and there is a sort of paranormal/supernatural governing body called “The Commission” that makes sure this happens.
From what I gather, the stipulation is that time is all happening at once, instead of in a linear fashion. This idea isn’t new, but it’s the first I’ve seen it presented in such an engaging manner. All the events throughout time come together somehow to form a certain desired timeline. Since all of them are happening at once, the Commission sends agents through time to make sure they happen (keep happening) the way they are supposed to. They seem to have a particular problem making sure the Hindenberg accident keeps happening, for instance. Now, what exactly this “preferred” timeline is and what the final outcome of said timeline will be is still a mystery, but we do know that it includes the destruction of the Earth. So, yikes. Our heros have their work cut out for them.
This is the first time I’ve seen a time travel plot include both the idea of a main timeline and a non-linear understanding of how time works and I love it. Instead of an infinite amount of alternate timelines, there’s just one that needs constant pruning. So, as we head into season two, we get the feeling that no matter what changes our heroes could make to the past, the Comission can simply correct either instantly or at another moment in time.
The conclusion we’re expecting is that the only way to truly change our fate is to destroy the Commission itself, but what that would do to the universe is unclear. Will there still be a preferred timeline or will time be allowed to fracture? Would that split the universe into a multiverse? Would that put an end to any meaningful time travel?
I don’t know, but instead of with every other time travel plot I’ve ever come across, I’ll actually be interested in finding out.