BotA week – how does time travel work in the X-Men world?

Battle of the Atom is coming, and time-travel is at the centre of the story!  So I figure it’s time to look at just how time works in the Marvel Universe, and what happens when people travel in it.  Trust me – quantum mechanics it ain’t.  It doesn’t take Reed Richards to understand most of it!

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It’s best if you start with a simple idea of time – a straight line, from beginning to end.

Timeline 1

OK, so time moves from the past – the left end of the line – to the future at the right.  The present is simply a moment of time in that sequence.  But here’s where it gets a little bit more tricky.  You see, in the Marvel Universe all sorts of alternate futures exist side-by-side.  So we have the X-Men of 2099, for example, and so we have Bishop’s future in contrast.  How does that work?

Well, imagine there’s a single key event.  Let’s say it’s the assassination of JFK, to use a famous example.  Because of the importance of that event, time splinters off from it, with a few possibilities – let’s limit them to he lived and he died.

Timeline 2

Now, in Marvel terms there’s such a thing as the prime timeline.  This is the one where things matter, the 616 timeline.  And this timeline contains many such junctions – Professor Xavier founds the X-Men, Gwen Stacey dies, you get the idea.  Think of them like train-tracks, and the train has passed on through these junctions.  Somewhere, there’s an alternate present where the train went down the different track.  But the prime timeline is what counts.

This is where it gets rather interesting.  Imagine that you’ve got to a junction.  The train could now go down any of two or more tracks.  Well, this is exactly what happened in Messiah CompleX, when Hope Summers was born.  Forge – over to you:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Every timeline has its junction, and if you avert the junction – you avert the timeline.  So, to use the classic example, Kate Pryde could travel to the present and prevent the assassination of Senator Kelly in Days of Future Past.

A classic scene!

But what happens if you change the past?  What happens if you create a new junction?  Well, that question was asked back in the 1990s, when David Haller – the man known as Legion, now starring in X-Men: Legacy – tried to go back and kill Magneto back before the X-Men were ever founded.  Professor X went and got in the way, and the reality was that Legion went and created a whole new prime timeline.

It was the X-Men’s version of the Grandfather Paradox – but more of a Father Paradox. Hey, that reminds me of a Doctor Who novel…

Yes, that’s right, Legion went and kick-started Age of Apocalypse.  When mutants travelled back from that reality to stop him, the junction was successfully passed, and AoA became nothing more than another alternate timeline.  If all of this sounds familiar, it is – Marvel have recently done the same thing (twice) in Age of Ultron (and the title of said series is surely no coincidence).  Only this time, too much damage has been done to the fabric of time, and the walls of reality are breaking down.

So what?  Well, we know that Battle of the Atom features the X-Men of the future, but it’s worth asking – what futures are ahead of us?  It looks likely that BotA features the rather interesting one recently highlighted in Wolverine and the X-Men.

Well, the Hellfire Academy has happened; Azazel and his pirates are in the forthcoming X-Men book by Jason Aaron (and boy are cool stuff awaiting!). So the rest sound to be waiting for our heroes too… And notice that one word that should set the rumour mill a-blazing: “Jean.”

But a number of other timelines are still viable, and these are the ones I’m watching with interest.  Case in point: Bishop’s.  When Bishop first appeared on the scene, we thought the ‘traitor’ plotline was where the junction was at.

It was such a cool scene, but a bit of a let-down when it came round in Onslaught.

We’ve since learned differently.  Bishop’s timeline still hasn’t diverged from the prime timeline – his story included the Decimation, Avengers vs X-Men, and shows no signs of having been abated yet.

From what little we know of Bishop’s past, I suspect that the junction is a single decision that Hope must one day make.  If she chooses to initiate some sort of ‘Six Minute War’ (whatever that is), then Bishop’s timeline is set in stone as anti-mutant fervour floods the world.  But if she turns left instead of right, then Bishop’s timeline is successfully averted.

I recommend keeping a careful eye on this little lady.

One more question: what would happen if a junction were created by taking people out of the past?  Well, initially, nothing at all – we know this from when the Askani pulled Cyclops and Phoenix into the future to raise baby Nathan back in the 1990s.  But had Scott and Jean died, well, I have absolutely no idea.  This, fairly obviously, is what Hank McCoy had so unwisely done in All-New X-Men.

And this guy’s supposed to be a genius?

Now, before we chastise Beast too badly, it’s entirely possible that this used to be a moot point.  He could have known full well that, because the prime timeline included these five mutants living on, they couldn’t die in the modern-day Marvel Universe.  That’s the kind of temporal physics I reckon Hank would need to settle down on a couch and discuss with Reed Richards.  But after Age of Ultron broke the timeline, anything is possible… Space-time has been devastated, first of all with the Annihilation Wave, then with the Fault, then with Kang’s war with Ultron; Wolverine’s time-travelling was the final straw.

And here’s the rub.  We have not one but two comics that suggest everything I’ve written before has changed, and both are part of the X-universe.  First we had a hint – in Wolverine and the X-Men, we saw a future Logan who had no memory of the time capsule he recovers from the past.  And then, in Cable and X-Force, a future Hope is massaging the present day in order to avert a whole series of disasters.  And she’s actually watching the timelines change!  Apparently she’s protected by the ‘Paradox Engines’ in Stryfe’s armour, but still – she clearly anticipates the timeline realigning around her.

Now that’s what I call a nihilist!

So what?  Well, this makes me wonder: what guarantee is there that the future X-Men are from a stable timeline?  What if they’re watching their timelines warp and change around them?  That might well give them the reason to come crashing back into the past – to prevent any more disastrous changes.

Bring it on!

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