Even as it becomes increasingly unlikely that Marvel Studios meets its previously slated 2024 release dates as the ongoing WGA and SAG strikes begin to knock down some dominoes, rumors about the future of the MCU continue to swirl. One such rumor indicated that Marvel Studios is contemplating an adaptation of Time Runs Out, a 20-issue comic book event published in 2014 and 2015, for the plot of the third Doctor Strange film. Written by Jonathan Hickman, Time Runs Out served as a prelude to his 2015 Secret Wars and capped his long run on Avengers and New Avengers titles. With Marvel Studios’ Multiverse Saga set to end with Avengers: Secret Wars, it seems sensible that the studio would turn to the comic book prelude to Secret Wars for inspiration; however, for a studio that’s already losing connectivity with its fanbase, it might be best for them to stay clear of borrowing anything but the title for Doctor Strange 3.
What is Time Runs Out?
In 2012 and 2013, Jonathan Hickman took on one of his most ambitious Marvel Comics projects. Working across both the Avengers and New Avengers titles, Hickman laid the groundwork for a new iteration of Secret Wars. Hickman, through Reed Richards “Everything Dies” speech, introduced the idea of the contraction of the Marvel Multiverse through incursions, an eight-hour timeframe in which parallel Earths collide with one another. Those collisions cause the destruction of both universes and, over time, only two universes remained: Earth-616’s, the original Marvel universe, and Earth-1610’s, the Ultimate Universe.
Time Runs Out tells the story of the final eight months before the incursion between Earth-616 and Earth-1610. It is a vast that includes high-profile members from across the Marvel universe such as the Avengers, the Illuminati, the Cabal, the Fantastic Four, members of the Future Foundation, the Shi’ar Empire, Doctor Doom and more. As a member of the Illuminati, Doctor Strange played a pivotal role in the event. Though a prelude to Secret Wars, Time Runs Out was also the culmination of nearly 60 issues of storytelling by Hickman and required every inch of runway to make it work. As is often the case with Hickman’s work, Time Runs Out included high-concept science fiction and complicated real-world science and, as is often the case with Hickman’s work, it wasn’t for everyone.
Why Should the MCU Steer Clear of Adapting Time Runs Out for Doctor Strange 3?
Before answering the question, it’s worth pointing out that if Marvel Studios does choose to move ahead with Doctor Strange: Time Runs Out, the film adaptation will likely only borrow the title and a few plot points and/or characters from Hickman’s work…and that’s for the best.
As of now, incursions are the only thing the MCU has in common with Hickman’s run on Avengers and New Avengers and that’s in name only. Whereas in the comics incursions are just part of the natural order of things, though sped up a bit by the untimely end of one alternate Earth, as once again explained by Reed Richards, the MCU’s incursions are–maybe–the result of too much traveling between alternate Earths in the multiverse and, so far, pretty much all caused by different Doctors Strange. Want to destroy an alternate Earth? Just travel to it and hang out there and you’ve got it done.
The decision to make incursions the results of choices made by characters rather than part of the contraction of the multiverse makes TRULY adapting Time Runs Out impossible. The whole point of Time Runs Out is to put the heroes up against the clock as they try to find a way to stop the incursion that will wipe out their Earth. As more incursions happen, they learn more and more, including how to prevent one. According to the present rules of the MCU’s multiverse, that entire scenario isn’t viable. Incursions are super easy to avoid: just stop traveling the multiverse. And what happens when there are only two Earths left, like in the comics? Why are the heroes and villains of each Earth fighting each other at that point? To keep each other from traveling to each other’s Earth? It seems like moving forward in the MCU, an incursion will probably be an intentional tool of destruction.
In the Time Runs Out comic book event, Stephen Strange actually joins up with a group of powerful beings, The Black Priests, who were actually all in on intentionally destroying other universes. By deleting a few intrusive Earths, The Black Priests hoped they would stabilize the contracting multiverse. These same Black Priests are rumored to be part of Marvel Studios’ Time Runs Out adaptation and apparently one of them, Clea, has already appeared on screen. Clea’s goal: to fix the latest incursion caused by Strange’s trip to Earth-838. Black Priests fixing incursions rather than causing them (how can they be fixed, anyway?) would make them Black Priests in name only.
So what’s the problem with adapting Time Runs Out? Nothing has been earned. Nowhere near enough has been set up. And as has already begun to happen, general audiences are going to have a very hard time following the multiversal logic that causes incursions and how they can be fixed. Any true adaptation of Time Runs Out would need to include a significant amount of exposition about the origins of the multiverse and should include a much bigger team of heroes working on the problem. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the comic event was, as a reader, working through the problems in lockstep with the greatest minds of the Marvel Universe. Having Doctor Strange be the sole POV character for an event of this magnitude would not only be underwhelming it would underserve the enormity of the event itself.
While there’s plenty of reasons for Marvel Studios to turn to Hickman’s works as they approach Avengers: Secret Wars, trying to make an event that included dozens and dozens of Marvel Comics’ brightest and best into another Doctor Strange multiverse adventure (especially considering the lukewarm reaction to the last one) would be a mistake…and Marvel Studios can’t really afford another theatrical mistake in their Multiverse Saga. If they’re not careful, they are going to end up with a film, that like Hickman’s work, is not for everyone.