This post contains spoilers for 'Loki' episodes one and two.
Humans can only travel in one direction through time, making the idea of defying that rule fertile territory for science fiction stories. But everyone has a different concept of how it should work, from Back to the Future to Timecop to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But in this most recent episode of Loki, we’ve already seen everything we were told about Marvel’s timeline turned upside down, and that’s probably for the best because it never made much sense in the first place.
Though the Time Stone made its first appearance proper in 2016’s Doctor Strange, the concept of time travel itself didn’t really hit the MCU until 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. The entire plot hinged on the team traveling back to key moments in MCU history to snag the Infinity Gems and use them to restore the missing half of the universe’s population. Ant-Man (Scott Lang) and War Machine (James Rhodes) had understandable concerns about this — won’t they alter the timeline just by being there? The Hulk (Bruce Banner) told them no, because their past already happened and can’t be changed, so they would be fine.
It’s a selfish way of looking at time travel, one that assumes you’d be able to return to your exact flow of time even after mucking about in the past. The Ancient One even points out that taking the Time Stone would screw up her timeline, prompting Bruce to promise to return it to that exact point. But the outcome of the “time heist” left so many questions about the few things that went wrong, namely what happened to 2012’s Loki, who grabbed the Tesseract (aka the Space Stone) and disappeared with it. That’s the jumping-off point for the new Disney+ series: the moments immediately after the trickster god left Stark Tower.
Bruce’s assertion that their timeline would go unaffected was borne out, but not precisely for the reasons he claimed. It turns out there’s an entire department called the Time Variance Authority (TVA) that “prunes” any divergent timelines that start to arise, ensuring there is one, and only one, “Sacred Timeline.” Immediately after a variance is detected, the foot soldiers of the TVA show up and remove the offender and use a device that basically nukes everything in the physical vicinity of the divergence in order to get the timeline back on track. How this would somehow fix other problems like the 2012 Steve Rogers lying facedown on a walkway in Stark Tower, or how 2023 Cap got the stones back to their places in the timeline, is never really explained. Even Loki doesn’t seem terribly impressed by the whole thing. (And that’s after seeing a desk drawer full of Infinity Stones.)
We presume the TVA must have had some way to insert Loki back into the Avengers’ captivity without raising too many questions. Perhaps the intent was to take this variant, wipe his memory, and drop him right back where he disappeared from. It’s certainly possible, since years of time travel fiction has taught us you can disappear and then immediately reappear, with those around you none the wiser of the months or years you spent in Ancient Rome or the Old West.
But there was a strong indication they were just going to off him right then and there — just like that trust fund kid in the first episode. Which raised even more questions: what did that obnoxious guy do to end up at the TVA? The “Miss Minutes” cartoon suggested you could create an alternate timeline just by being late for work, but how would that be a violation of the time stream without outside intervention, and why is it the person affected who is to blame? While Loki later on says he knew there were time travel shenanigans afoot, it’s not clear he knew when he grabbed the Tesseract. The TVA even seemed surprised that he figured it out, which means they weren’t taking him into custody based on him knowingly breaking the timeline.
The MCU’s stance has always been that, well… it really doesn’t matter. By referencing films like Hot Tub Time Machine, the writers and directors seem to be saying to the audience that you shouldn’t worry about it, and just enjoy the ride. The Russo brothers have even said as much in interviews. But now it’s a central plot point in Loki, creating new loose plot threads even as it ties up the ones left over from Endgame.
The rest of this story contains big spoilers for episode two of ‘Loki.’
But this is where Phase Four of the Marvel Universe comes into play. In episode two the murderous variant Loki blows the entire Sacred Timeline wide open, far beyond the TVA’s ability to weave all the strands back into a singular thread. And our 2012 variant might only be happy to help: Loki is the god of mischief, after all, and making a mess is just one way to cause trouble. But for our purposes, neutering the TVA in that moment actually works because it no longer matters if the MCU’s time travel is like Looper or Time Cop.
Instead of worrying about time as one dimension the MCU can now exist as a multiverse — which has already been hinted at in the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Nerdier fans know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is technically Earth-199999, with the main comics continuity living over on Earth-616. (You can blame writer Alan Moore for the crazy number.) In one instance it means that even films like Fox’s Fantastic Four and X-Men movies do exist somewhere in a story sense, even if that tale is technically over and done with. It means all the cartoons are canon in a way too — especially Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
But the bigger impact this cracking open of continuity will have is that it gives the show’s writers freedom to openly explore weird ideas, with the ones that don’t work shuttled off to an alternate earth and the ones that shine allowed to exist in the main MCU. It might be a mess, but it’s a mess with a lot of potential.