This article contains Marvel Cinematic Universe spoilers.
Something the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been able to incorporate well is taking certain ideas and building on them through the years, allowing them to balloon in importance until they go critical. Phase 1 was built around the novelty of a cinematic superhero team made of established characters. Phases 2 and 3 took the existence of the Infinity Stones and turned it into a massive, climactic two-parter. The finale to that story then opened Pandora’s box, giving us both time travel and the multiverse.
Several years later, we’re about to get Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The movie acts as a sequel to Doctor Strange and WandaVision, follows on ideas and events from other movies and shows, and STILL isn’t the climax to this thread. Considering Kang the Conqueror is supposed to be a major player, Multiverse of Madness is only a cog in the machine.
Time travel and alternate universes are practically joined at the hip in the MCU. Such ideas can be incredibly confusing, and because various Marvel projects have tried to build a makeshift narrative around it, some of the stuff doesn’t exactly make sense or mesh together.
Let’s take a look at how the concepts were introduced over the years.
A big plot point in the first Doctor Strange movie is the manipulation of time itself, both through the Book of Cagliostro and the Eye of Agamotto, also known as the Time Stone. Strange experiments with the Time Stone in one scene, testing it on an eaten apple. It’s a minor act, but it gets him yelled at by Wong, as such magic can grow out of control and really screw up the space-time continuum. Strange still manipulates time in the climax of the movie, but succeeds in not breaking anything.
Mordo looks at this behavior and, while a bit of a dick about it, understands that this magic manipulation at the cost of reality is only going to get worse over time.
By this point, the MCU has dealt with the idea of other dimensions, which I would imagine are tied to each alternate Earth. This presumably includes the Quantum Realm from the Ant-Man movies. Though Thor introduced the ability to travel through the Nine Realms, future movies make them appear to be on the same plane of existence, just with special passageways that make them easier to travel to. Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and What If…? show Asgard and Nidavellir to be stationed in outer space and not separate realities.
Avengers: Infinity War
The Time Stone comes into play twice as Doctor Strange attempts to keep it away from Thanos and fails. Thanos’ use of the gem is a simple rewind trick. Strange, on the other hand, utilizes his mastery of time in a more creative way: he looks into millions and millions of different possible futures. Only one future shows the heroes winning, and even that one involves allowing Star-Lord to fumble what seemed like assured victory. Strange has to act out of character (sacrificing the Time Stone for Iron Man, even though he said he would never do that) in order to follow the narrow possibility that Thanos would eventually lose.
In retrospect, this is an interesting situation, especially after what we learn from later Marvel projects. For one, all things considered, Thanos was unknowingly saving the universe from the threat of the Scarlet Witch. The victory over Thanos despite unbelievable odds feels somewhat frustrating when you consider it’s also the one avenue for the Scarlet Witch to exist and cause potentially more damage (according to Agatha Harkness) because she was killed in The Snap. Then there’s the Sacred Timeline concept from Loki. Is Strange really seeing the only possible path to victory or is something forcing him to see the way?
Scott Lang was imprisoned in the Quantum Realm for five years, but to him it felt like five hours. Through his idea of exploiting its time distortion and the reluctant brilliance of Tony Stark, the Avengers were able to make time travel a reality. It just happened to come with rules that made the situation more complicated than simply going back in time and preventing Thanos from winning.
Through this form of time travel, you cannot alter your own history. Not in a way that truly matters, at least. Meddling with the past will change nothing about your previous life, but it will create a tangent universe. Reality does appear to be very forgiving, though. For instance, if you were to go back in time 50 years and did something minor, like shake a stranger’s hand, it would presumably remain part of your timeline. On the other hand, if you were to shoot that stranger and kill them, then the timeline would have no choice but to split.
This added more stakes to the adventure, as not only was the main universe in danger, but so were the other timelines. For instance, if the Time Stone was not returned to the Ancient One in 2012, then there would be nothing to stop Dormammu from devouring Earth in that timeline.
Several new timelines were created from this adventure. Most importantly, a new timeline sprang out of the events of the first Avengers movie, as Loki was able to escape with the Tesseract. Then, in a timeline originating from the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Thanos and his massive army traveled to the main Marvel timeline for the sake of invasion.
The biggest question mark is the finale, as Captain America went back to drop off the Infinity Stones and Mjolnir in their correct locations and eras. It was revealed that he revisited Peggy Carter and married her, though the specifics are argued about by the writer and directors. Did Steve Rogers keep things so downlow that he lived through the main timeline without altering anything important (including the many, many atrocities he would know about)? Or did he change what needed changing in a new timeline, only to return to the main one when ready?
Either way, he was probably turning a blind eye to there being a frozen version of himself somewhere out there.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Listen, I know it’s Mysterio, but this is also a movie universe that gave us good guy Skrulls and a soccer-loving Mandarin. It was still worth hearing out Quentin Beck when he said he was from an alternate Earth that was ravaged by elemental beasts. After all, Avengers: Endgame already showed that there were alternate universes. Far From Home, though playing with Spider-Man and the viewer, was at least labeling the whole concept as the multiverse.
Like Far From Home, WandaVision played with multiversal concepts without going through with it. Before we knew for sure that Wanda was puppeteering Westview, NJ, it was suggested that an alternate reality had bubbled over into this Earth. The “recasting” of Pietro Maximoff was a red herring to connecting the MCU to the Fox X-Men universe by using Evan Peters. It got people talking, but it was mainly a narrative distraction.
The unexplained commercials that would pop up on Wanda’s sitcoms were mostly about her tragic moments. We saw references to her family being bombed, her time with Hydra, the explosion in Lagos, and so on. The final commercial was for an anti-depressant called “Nexus,” which was an interesting choice. Not only is that a keyword in the comics involving multiversal travel, but it’s also a major keyword to how timelines are defined in Loki. Is this commercial referencing a tragedy that has not happened yet?
In the post-credits scene in the final episode, Wanda is then seen reading the Darkhold and hears the voices of her sons crying for help. Either their souls are out there in the multiverse or the Darkhold wants her to think that.
As entertaining and charming as the first season of Loki is, its logic crumbles upon itself. As it goes, once upon a future, multiple counterparts of Kang the Conqueror discovered multiversal travel and met with each other. Some of the meaner variants made a play for power and next thing you know, there’s a full-on multiversal war that threatens to wipe out all reality completely. A Variant known as He Who Remains weaponized the creature Alioth to wipe out all realities but his own.
He Who Remains then set up a system to keep it so that he would be the only Kang to exist. If there was no multiverse, then there can be no alternate versions of himself. Unfortunately, the universe itself is reluctant to go along with this and manifests tangent realities naturally. He Who Remains put together a religious bureaucracy called the Time Variance Authority to monitor and eliminate any of these branching timelines. Those captured for the very crime of existing in a way that could potentially create more Kangs are either brainwashed into becoming TVA employees or are sent to Earth at the end of time, where Alioth devours them.
Loki is arrested for the crime of escaping the aftermath of the first Avengers movie, though the Avengers are not considered liable for their time heist actions, as He Who Remains deems the events of Endgame to be necessary. Loki comes across other versions of himself, notably Sylvie, a female Loki who was aware of her adopted nature. It’s not certain if that’s why she was captured by the TVA, but she unknowingly did something to convince them she was a threat to the Sacred Timeline.
Loki briefly hangs out with a group of Lokis that include Boastful Loki, a more Thor-like take on him who is also black. The black thing makes a bit more sense after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, where three versions of the same person look completely different. Why is this Loki black? Because he’s played by a different actor in another universe. Besides, Loki’s human-like appearance is a form of permanent shape shifting when you get down to it (blue-skinned frost giant and all), so that’s just what he landed on.
It’s the inclusion of the Alligator Loki that especially makes no sense in the context of the show. This Variant was captured for “eating the wrong cat,” but why is that the nexus point and not simply being Alligator Loki? All the Lokis appear to be confused by his existence, so it’s not like Loki knowingly went through a reptile phase back in the day.
In the end, Sylvie ends up killing He Who Remains, which shatters the competency of the TVA and allows branches to form in the timelines. The multiverse is suddenly reborn. Being that this show takes place outside of time, the aftermath is felt before, during, and after. For instance, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies from years back only exist canonically because Sylvie stabbed He Who Remains and allowed the opportunity for them to exist. Whatever remains of the TVA is now ruled by a malevolent Kang.
Uatu the Watcher looks at various alternate realities, leading up to a big multiversal team-up. Despite how grounded this version of Uatu feels, he is still a cosmic entity who appears to exist in some non-linear fashion. He is one watching all of these worlds at the same time. Even though he is directly involved in the Infinity Ultron universe, he’s also confused when watching Infinity Ultron barge into Party Thor’s world.
Getting back to Doctor Strange, we also get another look at how powerful the Time Stone and the Book of Cagliostro are. Unlike the Ant-Man time travel in Avengers: Endgame, the Time Stone is able to alter its timeline without creating a branch. But…branches exist for a good reason, as it’s the universe trying to prevent paradoxes. Without branches, the universe will literally fight back against any attempts to alter events that absolutely need to happen. In this case, the event in question is the tragic accident that starts Strange’s mystic journey that allows him time travel in the first place.
Strange spends years powering up to fight against this failsafe and succeeds. Then reality melts apart. Whoops.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
There is a LOT wrong with Doctor Strange’s magic spell and how it brings in characters from other Spider-Man continuities (plus that whole Morbius post-credits thing). I’m not going to sweat the inconsistencies here because at the end of the day, I don’t think Strange himself fully understands what is going on with the spell. Magic is just a more complicated science and Peter Parker did the equivalent of pouring water on an NES and hitting it with a baseball bat. Trying to find logic in how this mangled spell works is a fool’s errand.
What’s important is that the MCU’s multiverse is no longer just offshoots of MCU events. All these Sony movies are connected. Presumably, Spider-Verse is also loosely attached to it. The trailers for Multiverse of Madness make it look like the Fox X-Men movies are also linked to this. Hell, for all we know, the Generation X TV movie could be fair game.
This is all going to get more complicated as it goes on, because even if Strange and Wanda don’t cause massive damage to the multiverse, Ant-Man and the Wasp are on a collision course to meet a version of Kang the Conqueror, and who knows where that will lead.