In a recent episode of Loki season 2, Ravonna Renslayer and Miss Minutes travel to 1863 Chicago. There, they find a young boy and give him a TVA handbook written by Ke Huy Quan’s TVA technician, Ouroboros. The next time we see that boy in 1893, he’s a man going by the name of Victor Timely who has studied the details of that book and is now able to invent the contraptions inside it, including the temporal loom that will become the center of the TVA.
This, of course, raises a question. Who really started the TVA? We’ve been told that the TVA was founded by He Who Remains, the man who Victor Timely will become. But now Loki shows that Victor/HWR got the idea for the TVA from OB’s book. How can He Who Remains be both the inspiration and be inspired?
The answer, of course, is time travel. Some might point out that the paradox at the heart of Loki season two breaks those roles. To that, I offer the following thoughtful rejoinder: “So?”
The Marvelously Simple Rules of Marvel Time Travel
“So Back to the Future is a bunch of bullshit?”
Scott Lang spoke for us all in Avengers: Endgame, when Smart Hulk contradicted the central assumptions of every major time travel movie ever made. Where Back to the Future showed that Marty McFly could erase himself out of existence if he got it on with his mom or give his family the yuppie good life by teaching his dad how to punch, Endgame laid out very different rules for time travel in the MCU.
Against War Machine’s suggestion that they simply go back and kill baby Thanos, Smart Hulk explains that “if you travel back to the past, that past becomes your future [and] the present becomes the past, which can’t now be changed in the future.” He later gets a visual depiction to work with when he travels back to the Battle of New York and meets the Ancient One. When he tells the Ancient One that science doesn’t back up her worry that his taking the Time Stone will doom her reality, she shows him how branching timelines work. “The Infinity Stones create what you experience as the flow of time,” she declares, stretching a glowing band in front of her. “Remove one of the stones, and that flow splits,” she continues, knocking away a stone and making way for a string to separate itself from the band.
That same imagery is used in Loki’s first season, with the introduction of the TVA. As Miss Minutes cheerfully explains, the TVA maintains a single Sacred Timeline by pruning Variants at Nexus Events. Through their work, the TVA prevents the explosion of a multiverse, and it’s work that some employees continue to toil away at in Loki’s second season, even though Sylvie has killed the man in charge of the Sacred Timeline.
The Maliciously Broken Rules of Marvel Time Travel
And almost immediately after establishing those rules, Marvel broke them.
In “Time and Again,” the standout episode of Ms. Marvel season one, Kamala gets pulled to 1947 by her great-grandmother Aisha. At Aisha’s request, Kamala uses her bangle powers to reconnect Sana, Aisha’s daughter and Kamala’s grandmother, to her family, thus ensuring that the timeline stays intact. However, that demonstrated a circular time loop, in which Kamala saved Sana by using the bangle that she would eventually inherit from her grandmother.
Doctor Strange’s spell in Spider-Man: No Way Home brings various baddies from other Earths shortly before the moments of their deaths. Upon learning that Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, and Electro will die when they return to their worlds, MCU Peter devotes himself to curing them, hoping that he can change their pasts. When he and the other Spider-Men stop Electro and Goblin and, with the help of Doctor Strange, send the villains back to their points on the timeline, Peter changes their pasts and their futures.
Doctor Strange does a similar trick in the fourth episode of What If…, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?,” in which he manipulates time to save Christine Palmer. Each revision to the past costs Strange more, leading to the monstrous Strange who ends the episode. This also has connections to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in which multiple Variants of heroes interact, as well as a version of Wanda that has children who actually exist and aren’t manifestations of her Westview Hex.
And then there are the rules broken within Endgame itself. Even if we accept that Steve Rogers returning to each point where the Avengers stole the stones in the time heist is a continuation of his personal time stream, and even if we accept that he returned the stones at the exact instance they were taken, thereby ensuring that the milieu around those stones remains stable, he undoubtedly changed everything by going back to be with Peggy. By doing so, he altered every instance we’ve seen of Peggy since the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, including the entirety of Agent Carter.
The Unmistakably Irrelevant Rules of Marvel Time Travel
If you’re a hardcore fan, just reading the above may have made you cross. You may have already stopped reading, rushed to the comments, and posted something about how I’m an idiot. Maybe you’re yelling about how branching timelines create alternate realities and they all have validity. Maybe you’re saying that magic time travel works differently than scientific time travel and shouldn’t be considered the same thing. Maybe you’re just saying I’m a big dumb dumb who doesn’t actually like Marvel like I’m not wearing Secret Wars underoos as I type this.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care. And, arguably, neither should you.
The absolute least interesting thing about superhero stories is how science and/or magic works. Because if we cared that deeply about it, then the whole thing falls apart. Scientifically speaking, Peter Parker and Bruce Banner should get cancer, not superpowers. Scientifically speaking, Pym Particles can’t push together atoms to shrink size but maintain weight and power. And even if they did, Hank Pym tosses that aside immediately by keeping a tank on his key chain.
If you want that kind of accuracy and consistency, go read a textbook. You’ll get lots of detailed math and physics facts. But you know what you won’t get? A teenager who invented his own super-strong elastic for crawling walls. A psychologically tormented man who suddenly grows and shrinks without leaving stretch marks. A giant Scott Lang who falls into an airplane to the sound of crashing bowling pins.
The rules in fictional worlds only matter to the degree that they elicit a response in the audience. We like to see Cap’s shield repel Mjolnir in The Avengers and then break in Endgame because that looks cool and builds the stakes. But we don’t want the movie Falcon to have the ability to talk to birds like his comic book counterpart because that feels too corny in the MCU. Nor do we want Hawkeye’s skill set to suddenly include super strength because it saps the fun of the characters.
Every fictional world has its gaps, things that don’t line up in terms of consistency or scientific rules. And that’s okay because it’s fiction, it exists to create an emotion or to develop a theme. It’s okay because breaking the rules is usually what got us to the fictional world in the first place.
The Imminently Disregarded Rules of Marvel Time Travel
Did Ravonna create a causal loop by visiting young Victor? Does young Victor as the Prime He Who Remains undercut He Who Remains’ more comic-accurate story about a scientist in the 31st century, as explained in season one? Will OB have to obliterate himself to break the circle of the TVA?
Maybe! Whatever happens, I don’t care at all about the rules they used to get there. As long as it’s exciting, moving, or thought-provoking, then I’ll feel like I experienced a good superhero story.