Avengers 4 Theory: It's Not Time Travel, It's Memories
Concept art for Ant-Man & the Wasp has raised an exciting new possibility: that next year's Avengers 4's time travel isn't about simply jumping backward, but that Earth's Mightiest Heroes will be tapping into memories through the Quantum Realm.
It's generally accepted that Avengers 4 will be a time-travel film of some sort. Set photos have shown many of the heroes suited up in classic costumes, harking back to 2012's The Avengers: Chris Hemsworth was seen sporting his flowing golden locks; Chris Evans was spotted wearing that "old-fashioned" costume. One set of images even showed Loki in chains being led away for his imprisonment in Asgard. Most curious of all, one batch of set photos showed Ant-Man stood next to Captain America, Iron Man and Hulk during what was clearly the Battle of New York; three years before Scott Lang started using Pym Particles.
The accepted theory is that the Quantum Realm will be the key to time travel. This mysterious dimension is one where the normal rules of time and space do not apply, meaning it could, in theory, be used to rewrite history itself. The Quantum Realm is a key part of Ant-Man & the Wasp, and is confirmed to appear in next year's Captain Marvel as well.
ANT-MAN & THE WASP ALMOST HAD MEMORY-BASED TIME TRAVEL
The Art of Ant-Man & the Wasp includes an entire section devoted to the Quantum Realm, revealing the concepts and ideas Marvel toyed with during pre-production of the film. It seems Marvel considered creating an entire ecosystem inside the Quantum Realm, with a literal food chain. Even more incredibly, Janet's Quantum Realm costume was designed to hint that she'd encountered an alien civilization who live inside the Quantum Realm. It all sounds very similar to the comic book idea of the Microverses, dimensions that can only be accessed by shrinking beyond a subatomic level and contain all manner of races and creatures.
Explaining why Janet has aged while living in the Quantum Realm, Kevin Feige pointed out that there are "various levels" to this reality; Janet, for example, asks to be rescued from "the Wastelands beyond the Void." The idea seems to be that the deeper you go into the Quantum Realm, the more the laws of reality - laws like time and gravity - cease to apply. Janet has aged because she's stayed on the borders, never going too deep into the Quantum Realm. The Art of Ant-Man & the Wasp reveals that Marvel toyed with revealing a so-called "Nexus," presumably at the heart of the Quantum Realm, where you can rewrite history.
SEE ANT-MAN & THE WASP NEXUS CONCEPT ART HERE
The book includes a series of images from Marvel's concept artist Jackson Sze featuring a shrunken Hank Pym walking through a spectral reality, approaching a vast column of light. When he steps into the column, there's a flare as reality itself is reconstructed around him. And then, astoundingly, Hank finds himself stepping into a surreal representation of his own memories. As Sze explained:
"Early on, there was almost a Nexus inside the Quantum Realm that they wanted to explore, which was a quantum memory palace. I think they were discussing ideas about how Hank might actually be able to go into his own memories and change history. My ideas for the memory palace was, 'What would be the most important, most striking memory that he has?' And that would be when he loses Janet to the Quantum Realm when they were on that rocket for that one mission. That is his most scarring memory. And so his memory has been made up of that kind of imagery, but in a surreal state, so the panel of the rocket that Janet flew into is basically just repeated over and over - he's just zooming through this, reliving that mission flying through the sky."
This concept didn't make it into the finished film (although memories were a key aspect of Ant-Man 2's plot, with Janet communicating with Scott via her past), but the idea of a memory-based form of time travel was considered at the concept stage. Considering how the Quantum Realm in the finished film has links to time travel (and given that Marvel often save ideas for later movies), this could be the key to what's going on in Avengers 4.
DO THE AVENGERS TIME TRAVEL THROUGH THEIR MEMORIES?
This idea is vaguely reminiscent to one toyed with by C.S. Lewis in his unfinished novel, The Dark Tower. This is a science-fantasy story in which a group of scientists are toying with the idea of time travel. They conclude physically traveling through time is impossible; the atoms you'd need in order to reconstitute your physical form are already in use. Lewis's story suggests that the consciousness can travel in time, though; in fact, he proposes that the memory itself is a form of time travel, with the human mind literally reliving the past. The phenomenon known as deja vu may thus be caused by the human mind having glimpsed the future too, presumably while in a dream. Lewis, of course, went one step further; he suggested other dreams tap into alternate dimensions and parallel realities. All this may sound like science-fiction, but it's become a respected scientific theory, with Endel Tuving coining the term "chronesthesia" to describe this mental time travel.
It's possible the idea of chronesthesia has already been subtly woven into the fabric of the MCU. In the aftermath of The Avengers, Tony Stark's experience flying through the wormhole left his mind reeling. It's possible the experience transformed his mind a little, granting him a concrete awareness of the future. That would explain why Stark became so confident another alien attack was coming; though he couldn't explain it, his mind had already experienced it. Later, in Avengers: Age of Ultron Scarlet Witch uses her powers to cast visions into the minds of the Avengers. These could again be examples of chronesthesia, glimpses of alternate realities and possible futures, rendered cryptic and confusing because they were only half-perceived and originated from someone just learning to use their powers.
According to The Art of Ant-Man & the Wasp, then, when a human enters this Nexus they would gain access to their memories - and thus can rewrite history. Presumably this is done by projecting their consciousness back into the memory they're glimpsing; their past self would perhaps encounter their future self, or else experience a chronesthetic moment in which they had a sudden awareness of their personal future. How this would transfer physically - see Ant-Man in the events of The Avengers - is unclear, but the Quantum Realm is abstract enough to allow it; the time travel may be physical, but powered by the memories (this would explain why the OG Avengers survived).
Curiously enough, the set photos do actually support this model of mental time travel. All the set photos from Avengers 4 have been scenes that the surviving heroes would remember, and indeed that would be key to them; most are around the events of the Battle of New York. While future versions of Ant-Man and Tony Stark have indeed appeared in these scenes set in the past, these two characters have literally only been seen standing around talking. It's possible the focus is on Stark, with Ant-Man serving as a guide through the Quantum Realm. The future Stark would thus interact with his past self, giving advice and guidance about the impending threat of Thanos. Each time he interacts with the past, of course, the Avengers would rewrite history. It would be a matter of changing enough elements to ensure the "snap" didn't happen, leading to a fresh confrontation with Thanos the Mad Titan.
It's true that this theory is entirely based on concept art and that Ant-Man & the Wasp doesn't experiment with the idea of time travel at all; this mysterious and exciting "Nexus" never appears in the film. But the art does tell us that, at some point, Marvel Studios was toying with this kind of approach. As a result, it can't be ruled out.
Most viewers assume Avengers 4 is a time travel story, and for good reason. But Marvel Studios seem determined to be as secretive as possible. In fact, co-writer Christopher Markus has insisted that the movie "doesn’t do what you think it does. It is a different movie than you think it is." Perhaps the reason is that we're focusing on the wrong models of time travel. Marvel may have taken a far more interesting, and less commonly used, approach instead.