This contains spoilers for Avengers Endgame.
There is a delicate, unspoken balance that must exist in a superhero universe. For a superhero story to work, the world in which the superheroes live must resemble our own – with the exception that it has superheroes. The impacts of superheroes can be explored… to a point, after which the whole house of cards tumbles down.
The balance is precarious. Go too far in one direction and you find the audience asking why Tony Stark doesn’t solve the energy crisis or global warming, or why Shuri and the Wakandans don’t cure cancer. Yes, characters can go into space, but we can’t have a colony on the Moon. Go too far and the science fictional world of superheroes – a world one day in the future – becomes a world that is gradually unrecognizable, that is fully futuristic science fiction.
Avengers Endgame creates just such a world, and beyond simply ignoring it I don’t know how future films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will deal with it.
In Infinity War half the universe is wiped out. All life forms, from protozoa to people, are affected. And then five years pass. The year is 2023 (going by the previous film taking place in 2018, which we know it does because Tony Stark tells Doctor Strange the Battle of New York was six years ago, and when the Avengers time travel to the Battle of New York onscreen graphics tell us it’s 2012). Things are dark.
We know this because we see Citi Field is empty, except for trash. When Scott Lang, freed from the Quantum Realm, returns to his neighborhood it looks abandoned. And Steve Rogers is leading a support group for people who are traumatized by the sudden disappearance of half their loved ones.
What happened in those five years? It’s hard to know, as the movie is vague, but we can make some assumptions. We can assume that some people killed themselves because of the enormity of the tragedy. We can assume that some people lost their loved ones and moved on with their lives – getting remarried, moving to new states, etc. We can assume that cities contracted themselves a bit, as half their populations suddenly disappeared. Real estate in San Francisco probably got a lot cheaper.
We know that there is a global funk for five years after the snap. It’s probably not unlike, in general terms, the global funk we’ve all been experiencing since Trump was elected – we moved along, there are some high points, but our stress levels and unhappiness are through the roof.
Then one day everybody comes back. Suddenly, out of nowhere, and exactly where they were when they disappeared. As Slashfilm notes, this seems bad for people who were in planes when the snap happened. I’ve read that there are about 6,000 commercial flights in the air at any given time, and if there’s an average of, let’s be generous, 100 people on those flights, that means maybe 600,000 humans are in the air at any given time. If half of them disappeared – and statistically half of them should have – then when the people get undusted about 300,000 human beings will suddenly materialize in the atmosphere and fall thousands of feet to their deaths in morbid clumps.
But that’s the most extreme part of it. Let’s assume that the people in planes materialize safely on the ground. There’s still a huge problem. Three billion people suddenly show up, five years after they all disappeared. The most immediate problem might be food – the food production pipelines will have contracted to serve smaller numbers of humans, so three billion new hungry mouths overnight could be catastrophic. While the dusted farm animals would return as well I’m not sure how long it would take food production and distribution to get back to speed; I feel that it’s likely big cities would be hit with food riots and famines.
Okay, let’s assume that the famine stuff doesn’t happen. I don’t know how, but let’s assume it doesn’t. Let’s keep it personal.
Three billion people show back up, and many of them no longer have homes. Somebody else lives there now. All of them, I assume, are no longer employed. Some of them find their spouses are married to other people, or dead. Some of them discover their loved ones and friends are suddenly five years older; this isn’t a big deal to a 30 year old, but it’s life-changing to a 12 year old.
But more than that, three billion people return to discover another three billion people who are deeply traumatized. People who are profoundly damaged, sad and dealing with complex PTSD the likes of which we can’t even begin to imagine. Imagine you closed your eyes and when you opened them half the people you knew were suddenly mentally unwell in ways you couldn’t imagine.
And those three billion left behind people? Their religions, their philosophies, their understanding of the universe are going to be hugely changed. In the show The Leftovers 2 percent of the population vanished and everything is fundamentally impacted. The MCU took that 2 and added a 48% to it.*
Watching Endgame I figured, well, they’re gonna erase all this. There’s a lot of precedence in comic book history for major world-changing events to be erased from the minds of the populace; almost nobody remembers the true scope of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the Age of Apocalypse got undone in time to return everybody to the status quo. It’s pretty common in time travel movies too; just look at Back to the Future Part II. We like to see the darkness and then be reassured by the return to normalcy.
But that didn’t happen in Endgame. At the end of the movie five years had still passed, and all the people who had been alive for those five years seem, as best as I can tell, to know those five years happened. Things that changed in those five years – like the founding of New Asgard – still were there. And so the next Marvel movie, this summer’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, takes place in the year 2023. All future Marvel movies that are not period pieces will also, we can assume, take place in the future.
(The only other franchise that I can think of that ended up setting its own movies in the future by doing time jumps longer than the time between releases of the films, are the Friday the 13th movies. By the time Jason took Manhattan the films were accidentally set almost a decade in the future)
Watching the trailer for Far From Home I can’t even believe it takes place in the same universe in which Endgame leaves us. Set aside the fact that luckily all of Peter Parker’s friends also got dusted so they remain the same age as he is. Imagine if your kids were dead for five years and then they came back to life – would you let them go on a school trip to Europe? It’s hard to believe that a kid who comes back to life after being dead for five years gets to take a trip like that just a few months after returning.
The world is a totally different place. Besides the MCU being set in the future, it no longer resembles our reality. Half the people living in it no longer resemble the people living in our world. I honestly don’t even know how the movies pick up from here, besides simply ignoring the event altogether, or turning it into a background thing (“I got this great home while everybody was gone for five years. The housing market really crashed – too much inventory!”).
Maybe the plan is to move the MCU into a more concretely scifi direction – to embrace the change in society and to follow it up with Wakandan technology having a big impact, to visually create a world that is very different from ours. But that feels like a betrayal of the core Marvel values; where DC’s heroes lived in made-up cities like Gotham, Keystone and Opal, the Marvel heroes lived in our cities. Hell, we even know what street Doctor Strange lives on.
Or maybe there’s a bigger plan. Maybe the idea is that all the mucking in the time stream catches the attention of Kang the Conqueror, 31st century time traveling supervillain. Maybe there’s a long game time travel story being told that will eventually bring the MCU more in line with our world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kang were on the table as a villain, but I would be surprised if his story involved a retcon to fix this weird choice.
No, the reality is that the MCU will likely ignore any ramifications of this huge, world changing event. Everybody in the universe will just compartmentalize what happened and we’ll never hear about the nightmare of paperwork required to bring three billion people back from the dead in a legal sense (imagine all the people who need to get new driver’s licenses). I’m actually guessing we’ll never even get a mention of what year it is in future films, and ironically Phase Four could be over by the time the real world reaches 2023.
This idea bums me out because the MCU films have been always been very good about exploring the impacts of superheroes and their adventures while still maintaining an identifiable ‘real world’ around them. I don’t want to see either of those two things given up; I like the more outrageous scifi adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but I also like the idea of the upcoming Shang-Chi taking place in our world, not a scifi one.
In Marvel I trust, even though this tests the boundaries of that trust.
*If I’m going to REALLY nitpick I’ll mention that the Ancient One tells Bruce Banner that removing the Time Stone from the timeline would result in this plane being overrun by dark forces. But Thanos destroys the Time Stone in 2018 and in 2023 there’s no indication that the world has been overrun by dark forces. Maybe nobody needs a Sorcerer Supreme after all. Here’s hoping Doctor Strange 2 deals with Strange having to mop up a world full of demons and beasties.