Occam's Time Gem.
As Avengers: Infinity War's May 4th release date ticks ever closer, conjecture and speculation about the movie's plot have been gaining steam. Following the sharing of a handful of set photos--one of which showed an empty street designed to look like the 1940s, others featuring Chris Evans in the Captain America costume he wore in the 2012 Avengers movie--the idea that time travel is going to be an integral element of Infinity War's plot has taken hold.
It wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility with the Infinity Stones, one of which has the specific power to manipulate time (as seen in 2016's Doctor Strange).
But recent comments made by director Joe Russo while on MTV's Happy Sad Confused podcast made it seem like the explanation for Infinity War's time travel may be slightly less cosmic in nature.
Russo explained: "It's interesting because photos always leak and there's lots of conjecture about what those photos mean. Certainly, there is a five minute sequence in Civil War around a piece of technology that was laid in for a very specific reason. If you go back and look at that film, you may get a hint as to the direction."
The five minute sequence in Civil War he's referring to is likely the moment toward the beginning of the film where Tony Stark debuts what he calls his "Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing"--or, unfortunately, "B.A.R.F."
The tech itself is demoed by Tony essentially "reliving" his own memory, featuring a just-this-side-of-uncanny-valley CGI Robert Downey Jr. rendered to age appropriate interacting with his long deceased parents the day before they were killed (or, as we learn later, assassinated by the Winter Soldier in what becomes the emotional climax of the film). Interestingly, however, the memories presented by the B.A.R.F. tech aren't actually just verbatim replays of events that have already happened.
Present day Tony acts as an outside observer to his younger counterpart and his digitally projected mother and father, but he also, apparently, has the ability to edit the playback. In the presentation, Maria Stark pulls young Tony aside and tells him "You're going to miss us, because this is the last time we're all going to be together. You know what's about to happen. Say something." Obviously, that's information that the real Maria Stark couldn't possibly have had on the actual night in question.
Modern Tony elaborates as the presentation winds down, saying that his new tech is an "extremely costly method of hijacking the hippocampus to clear traumatic memories." He's quick to qualify that the B.A.R.F projections aren't actually changing anything. Put plainly, Tony's tech is an extremely specific method of self-therapy, but one that seems to rely on the user's knowledge that what they're participating in is, in fact, not actually real--just a fancy way to clear out old cobwebs from your past, in a totally artificial sense.
It's important to note that Tony's presentation in Civil War is showing a prototype for the tech, rather than the finished product. Eagle-eyed fans have pointed out that characters in the Infinity War set photos seem to be wearing devices on the backs of their hands, which could be the next step of B.A.R.F's evolution.
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But the question remains: If Infinity War's time-warping is actually just the slightly more developed version of a therapeutic StarkTech toy, and one that only allows the modification of memories rather than the literal manipulation of the past itself, how will any of this actually help the Avengers face off against Thanos?
The lowest hanging speculative fruit is that the B.A.R.F tech will be used in conjunction with one or more of the Infinity Stones, perhaps to supercharge the concept in a way that makes it possible to edit actual events as they unfold. Perhaps some time spent either studying or working with the Time Stone allowed Tony to crack some sort of scientific barrier and advance the tech that much more.
Alternatively, and a bit more esoterically, there's certainly no discounting the idea that portions of Infinity War might actually center around the resolution of past trauma for many of the MCU's superheroes. There's no shortage of baggage to go around after a decade of superheroic close calls, and what better time to do some soul searching than when the actual, real life, cosmically infused end of the world comes knocking at your door?
That would at least explain why all indications of time travel so far have been going backward rather than to the future, an ability that something as powerful as the Time Stone would have no trouble manifesting.
There are a lot of variables in play here, and without knowing what the pieces look like on the rest of the proverbial board, it's next to impossible to really narrow things down. Still, it must be said that whatever role the B.A.R.F tech winds up playing in the MCU going forward, the least we can hope for a less embarrassing acronym by the time Infinity War is all said and done.
Please stop making us say B.A.R.F.