As any fan of “Doctor Who” will tell you, time travel can be confusing. With that in mind, no comic company has tangled up a big ball of timey-wimey stuff like Marvel, which will very commonly have characters from three different timelines on a single team, while having them fight a team of villains composed of the same person from different points in his life. Can they do this without causing massive time paradoxes? No they can’t! That’s why we’re here – to look at the mechanics of time travel commonly used in Marvel Comics and the paradoxes therein.
Now, there are a vast number of paradoxes that time travel could cause – the grandfather paradox, ontological paradoxes, and so on. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to condense those into two categories: consistency paradoxes and predestination paradoxes. In a consistency paradox, the effects of time travel should logically change the timeline so that the characters never should have wanted to to travel through time in the first place, thus preventing the events from playing out, thus creating the need to time travel in the first place, and so on and so forth infinitely. In a predestination paradox, while time travel is possible, everything has already happened in the past, so what you’re about to do has already happened; not only is it impossible to change history, it logically means that free will is an illusion, and we’re all puppets dancing on the strings of fate.
Since we are talking about comics where heroes defeat impossible odds and destiny on a regular basis, Marvel tends to cause consistency paradoxes more often than not. After all, a hero must be able to defy all odds to save the day, even if time itself is saying they can’t; if predestination was the case, then why should they even try if the end is already written? But boy do they ever give us plenty of time travel stories to examine!
We begin with perhaps the most famous of Marvel’s time travel stories: “Days of Future Past.” In it, we see the dystopian future world of… 2013. Mutants are hunted and imprisoned in internment camps, and a nuclear holocaust is at hand. It’s Kitty Pryde who sends her mind into her past self, using future knowledge to change the course of events to prevent the horrific future she flees from.
Of course, it all works out eventually, and the future Kitty returns to her own time. However, the last we saw of the future timeline featured nearly all the X-Men dying at the hands of Sentinels, before Kitty managed to change the future. Thus, the comic leaves it open-ended, with the question remaining: did they change the future, or only delay it?
The question is compounded further in the “Days of Future Present” storyline, which also pulled the Fantastic Four into the mix. This time, it’s the future version of Franklin Richards who semi-travels back into the past, as well as Rachel Summers. Rachel remained in the present (well, our present; her past), and it’s uncertain if the timeline she came from still exists, or if there is no future for her to return to. If the future did change, then the logical explanation that history split into alternate timelines, meaning she’s from an alternate future.
Of course, given how often the X-Men muddle in time, there are plenty of alternate futures to choose from. We can’t overlook Cable or Bishop, who’ve also come from various dystopian futures, which may or may not have been averted. In every case, they present a consistency paradox – if they changed the future that they came from, why are they still here? If they weren’t ever there, of course, then they couldn’t have changed the future in the first place.
Yet we’re only dipping our toes into the murky water that is X-Men and time travel. Let’s now take a look at more recent developments, with the time-displaced X-Men team. We have the classic, young versions of the original team pulled out of their original timeline and into our present, which was initially supposed to be a temporary jaunt into the future to solve a little Cyclops problem. In the end, though, the X-Men stayed in our present/their future, in spite of the obvious damage to the timeline it would cause.Continued below
In this case, the young X-Men changed too much from their trip to the present; even if they had their memories erased, there’s no doubt the future would have been changed. Thus, time corrected itself, and there’s another set of original X-Men still in the past, separate from those who were brought to the future. Yet before that, we saw that drastic changes to the time-displaced team could still impact their present versions, such as a temporary death of young Cyclops resulting in his older self disappearing. So it begs the question: is there now an alternate timeline where the X-Men mysteriously vanished? And if so, do the X-Men from that timeline continue to impact their future selves?
Still, even that pales in comparison to the time-changing nonsense that is “Age of Ultron.” Now it’s Wolverine’s turn to muck up history, thanks to some good old-fashioned stabbing. Yes, this time the dystopian, post-apocalyptic future is the present, caused by Ultron finally wiping out nearly all of humanity. Wolverine and Sue Storm travel back in time, and Wolverine’s best solution to the Ultron problem is “kill Hank Pym long before he gets the chance to create Ultron.”
Naturally, that causes some problems. Killing Hank creates such a seismic shift in history that we get an entirely different dystopian, post-apocalyptic present, now with the Kree-Skrull War wrecking the earth, a cyborg Iron Man, and Morgan le Fay having conquered half the world. So they have to travel back in time again so Wolverine can stop himself from killing Hank.
Even then, Hank has to built Ultron, because without Ultron, there would be no Vision, and without vision, we wouldn’t have his fantastic comic run by Tom King (illustrated by Mike Del Mundo). And, y’know, there’s also all the times where Vision helped save the world, and everything that came from his relationship with Scarlet Witch. No Ultron also means no Victor Mancha, which would also be bad. Except in the version of the future where Victor becomes Victorious and destroys all the Avengers, in which case not having him around would be good. Time travel!
The solution they go with is meant to create the least amount of paradoxes, by creating a failsafe to use on Ultron in the future, some time between his creation and world domination. One future Wolverine kills the version from slightly further in the future, to prevent the paradox that the two of them would cause, and Ultron is defeated. Thus, it seems continuity is maintained!
Except for the fact that Wolverine broke the space-time continuum. But at least we got “Avengers A.I.” out of it.
Wow, that’s a lot of times where our heroes utterly wrecked the timeline! Surely Marvel’s villains threaten to do even worse, right?
For that, we have Kang the Conquerer, and all his many incarnations (Scarlet Centurion, Immortus, Rama-Tut, and even Iron Lad). Where do we begin with Kang? Perhaps from his first appearance, as Rama-Tut back in 1963’s “Fantastic Four,” or a year later as Kang in “The Avengers.” Or perhaps when, as a child, he was told by his older self that he’d eventually become the feared villain he is, and rebelled against himself by fleeing into the past and starting the Young Avengers as Iron Lad.
As Iron Lad, his story arc involved fighting against his own destiny – he wanted to become a hero, but eventually he still found himself set on the path to become Kang. There, we have the predestination paradox at work – his older self knows everything he’s already done, and he follows those steps no matter how hard he tries to avoid it.
Yet at the same time, Kang has often teamed up with past and future versions of himself. In those cases, the future versions should know he’s going to fail, since from that perspective he already has. However, it seems they never do, and not once has the future Kang gone “No, I remember trying this, it didn’t end well. I took a hammer to the face, and it hurt.” He still tries, fully convinced that this time it will work.Continued below
This, perhaps, is due to the fact that Kang thrives off paradoxes. No matter how fragmented and splintered he makes the timelines, he can still find other versions of himself to work with (or sometimes against). Trying to create a cohesive timeline for Kang’s life is a herculean task, considering all the different versions of himself from across timelines and centuries, but perhaps this can be excused thanks to his role as a time-traveling villain.
Somehow, the most cohesive attempt at using time travel responsibly comes in “Secret Empire,” of all places. Yes, as ill-conceived as most of the story is, it actually has a half-decent use of time travel technology that avoids creating paradoxes or alternate timelines. Raj Malhotra, the current Giant Man, creates a time capsule. It waits a hundred years for the planetary shield to go down, then sends a message back in time to before the planetary shield and Darkforce bubble around New York went up, so it could air the message right after they set the time capsule down.
In doing so, they (more or less) cleverly avoid creating any time paradoxes. They’re not changing the past or future in any major way, but rather setting things up so that the message gets sent right after a point where they know it’ll be needed. Think of it as the “Bill and Ted” style of time travel.
The comic also brings up the idea of using time travel to forward them about Captain America’s heel turn, but explains that such a plan would more likely just create an alternate timeline where they stopped Cap, rather than changing their present at all. Thus, we can conclude that in every case where the X-Men (or other characters, admittedly, but mostly the X-Men) changed history and it didn’t have a disastrous effect on the time-space continuum, all they did was create an alternate timeline where things were changed.
So by that theory, the “Days of Future Past” timeline still exists. Cable’s dystopian future still exists. Bishop’s dystopian future still exists. The dystopian future the evil X-Men from “Battle of the Atom” came from still exists. (I’m noticing a recurring theme with all these futures.) They’re all just alternate timelines that the “main” Marvel universe managed to avoid. The “alternate timeline” method of avoiding paradoxes isn’t unheard of, and has been used before in movies such as the Star Trek reboot series, or even in the “Dragon Ball Z” manga.
However, there is another explanation as to how time travelers can change the past without affecting them, as explained in “Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” of all places. After being sent back to the 60’s, Squirrel Girl and her companions have to stop a time traveling Doctor Doom before he conquers the world at a time before superheroes. To prevent the paradoxes that would create, Doom explains that any worthwhile time machine includes a protective barrier against the effects of changing history. Remove that barrier, and any changes they make instantly catch up with them, such as turning an iPhone into a Doom Phone, with a future Wikipedia detailing all of Doom’s many victories. (Of course, that then means that Doom is destined to change the future, until Squirrel Girl stops him by using a time loop to outnumber Doom with a swarm of herselves. And it was awesome.)
That explains how characters from the future can avert their timelines and hang around, and how characters remember traveling in time to prevent a disaster from happening. It more or less neatly avoids any paradoxes from the character’s perspective, maintaining their place in the timeline while still allowing them to impact history.
There’s a lot to keep up with, but at this point, we can safely condense Marvel’s time travel mechanics into the following points:
- History can be changed.
- Doing so can possibly create alternate timelines.
- Changing the future too much can rip a hole in the fabric of time and space (and that’s bad).
- Time travelers have built-in protections against their own paradoxes catching up to them. Continued below
- Consistency paradoxes are subsequently ignored.
- There is no predestination, except in the rare cases when there is.
Not the neatest or most consistent time travel mechanics, but with as lengthy a history as Marvel has, there’s bound to be some continuity snarls here and there. Overall, they don’t impact our enjoyment of the stories, but still fall into several paradoxes upon close examination.
What are some of your favorite time travel stories in Marvel, and how did they manage time travel in those? Let us know in the comments, and check back later when we look at DC Comics and how they handle the same concepts.