There are rumors that Avengers 4 will involve a five-year time jump, which, if accurate, means we’ll never actually see Captain America and Iron Man reunite on the big screen, and there’ll never really be any payoff for the core conflict of Captain America: Civil War.
The tentpole Avengers movies have always struggled to incorporate all the elements from previous films. Thor, for example, ended with the destruction of the Rainbow Bridge, meaning the God of Thunder should have been unable to get to Earth, a problem Joss Whedon dismissed with a throwaway mention of “dark magic” in The Avengers. Iron Man 3 came to a head with Tony Stark destroying all his previous armors and settling down for life with Pepper – but again, Whedon chose to ignore that in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even Avengers: Infinity War struggled with the same problem. There’s a strange discontinuity between the end of Thor: Ragnarok and the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War. Reportedly the script for Infinity War’s opening scene was being worked on before Marvel had even decided how Thor: Ragnarok would end.
The fundamental problem is that these Avengers films have so many different characters and ideas in play at once. Avengers: Infinity War had the biggest cast yet, and somehow had to balance giving all the heroes screentime against focusing on the story of Thanos and the Infinity Stones. The stakes are even higher in Avengers 4, and reports of a time jump suggest a major character arc will go unresolved.
Marvel’s first Phase 3 film, Captain America: Civil War, transformed the landscape of the MCU. A philosophical dispute over superhero registration led to a schism among the Avengers, with James Rhodes badly injured due to friendly fire. By the end of the film, though, the divide had become far more personal. Tony Stark learned that the Winter Soldier was responsible for his parents’ deaths, and that Steve Rogers had known about it. The two even came to blows, with each barely managing to stop short of killing the other.
In the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers and his closest friends – Falcon, Black Widow, and of course Bucky – wound up becoming illegal vigilantes, fugitives from justice. Iron Man briefly attempted to reform the Avengers, but eventually gave up on that idea simply because not enough people were interested in working with him. He was given a burner phone with which he could contact Steve Rogers should he ever need help; but, although Stark kept that phone with him, he never used it.
Marvel originally intended to resolve this arc in Avengers: Infinity War. The plan was for Rogers and Stark to come face-to-face partway through the film, and be forced to work through their past hurts. Unfortunately, as Infinity War co-writer Stephen McFeely noted, every time they tried that in a draft it brought the movie’s plot screeching to a halt. As he explained:
“[It] meant that you’re slowing down your Thanos [Infinity] Stones [quest] to deal with other threats from other movies. And that became, as much as we wanted to do, and as many times as we wrote those scenes, it became clear that this movie needed to be propulsive and be about Thanos and what he represented to the Avengers.”
It was undoubtedly the right decision in terms of the film’s overarching story. But it does mean that a major plot thread is yet to be resolved.
Shortly after the release of Avengers: Infinity War, we suggested that there should be some sort of time jump to truly explore the horrific impacts of the snap. In his conversation with Gamora, Thanos insisted that the ends justified the means, that the sacrifice of half the life in the universe was necessary to create a “paradise.” A time jump would reveal the truth, allowing the Russo brothers to show just how Thanos’s act of galactic genocide had changed the world. The nature of those changes – crises in government, political and ethnic tensions, crime sprees, whatever – would up the stakes considerably. The Avengers would presumably be fighting to undo the snap (or, more likely, avert it through time-travel). The state of the world would justify the lengths they were going to.
With the significance of the events at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, there’s simply too much to cover to immediately jump into Avengers 4. The movie simply can’t be about the Avengers reacting to the snap and saving the world in its aftermath and reuniting and devising a plan to defeat Thanos and executing on that plan and undoing the effects of the snap. So many of the things that need to be covered are simply best served to happen off-screen so the movie can be about the actual second confrontation with Thanos.
There have been growing rumors that Avengers 4 will indeed have a five-year time jump. Although they’ve never been officially confirmed, these rumors do fit a little with the facts. Set photos have shown Robert Downey Jr. playing an older Tony Stark, one with gray in his hair. Emma Fuhrmann has been cast as an older Cassie Lang. A throwaway comment from Gwyneth Paltrow seemed to imply that, in Avengers 4, Tony and Pepper would have a child. While the idea of a time jump is far from proven, it certainly does fit with the little we know.
One popular theory runs that Scott Lang will escape from the Quantum Realm via one of the mysterious “time vortexes,” and will emerge five years in the future. Disturbed by the dystopian world he discovers, he’ll rush to see his daughter, only to find she’s five years older. When Scott eventually finds his way to the Avengers, Tony Stark realizes that he’s evidence that time-travel is possible. Thus the Avengers launch a quest to rewrite history and undo the snap. It’s just a theory, but it’s a strong one. Whatever the truth, though, a time jump seems to make the most sense.
But here’s the catch; if Marvel does indeed take this approach, it will mean they have to sacrifice the emotional payoff from Captain America: Civil War. There’s no reasonable way to argue it would have taken Tony Stark five years to get back to Earth after was stranded on Titan with Nebula, who’s no stranger to intergalactic adventuring. Tony would presumably have arrived back on Earth several years ago – maybe even barely a few days after the snap – and he’d have been a major part of trying to help Earth recover from the chaos.
So what would have happened between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers? For all the emotional baggage between these two, they’re both heroes. Steve made it clear how much respect he has for Stark when, in Avengers: Infinity War, he still referred to Tony as the planet’s “greatest defender.” Official art has confirmed that he’ll take up the mantle of Captain America once again, and Steve would only do that with Tony’s blessing. And it’s not as if the man who got between them – the Winter Soldier – is still alive anyway. Bucky was one of the victims of the snap.
If there is indeed a five-year time jump, it’s inevitably the case that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have sorted out their differences years ago – and we’ll never see it on the big screen. The emotional payoff from Captain America: Civil War will have to be sacrificed in order to continue the plot. What’s more, it’s not the first time the Russos have made that call either; when viewers noted that the reunion between Steve Rogers and Bucky in Avengers: Infinity War was underwhelming, the Russos essentially just shrugged and said they assumed they’d met up before over the two-year period between Captain America: Civil War and Infinity War.
No doubt it won’t be long before plot details of Avengers 4 begin to leak, and we learn whether or not there really is a five-year time jump. If there is, though, as exciting as that may be in story terms, it will also come at a cost to a major character arc.