Young Donald Birch is playing outside with his action figures of World War II heroes, such as Captain America and Bucky against the Red Skull and Zemo. Suddenly, he starts when he hears a cough. An old man in a wheelchair sits under a tree watching him. “Our memories as reality. We are all time machines”, he remarks. That moment, his mother calls the boy. He protests there is a man by the tree, but he is no longer there.
The more recent past:
Tony Stark sits in a house, a prisoner of the past, of this tired body. Whatever Birch did to shut down his armor, he’s never physically recovered. He’s weak and ill. Weakly, he looks at a bottle. He’s lived alone here for so many years. He’s lost count. He didn’t open a bottle. For the first few of those.
It was his decision to hide himself away after Phoenix destroyed Doom’s time machine. He knew he was stuck in the past. He knew this era’s Tony Stark was out there living his life. He knew history was happening. His history. A history he dare not change.
He’d had enough long late night conversations with Reed Richards to know that, so he locked himself away. In loneliness and obsession.
He walks to his workshop. His arrogance created Dr. Birch. His arrogance destroyed the world and killed everyone he’s ever known or cared about. His arrogance also told him he could build his own version of Doom’s time machine. After all, he’s studied the schematics. He made the world burn. He would save it alone. He figured he had all the time in the world to do it. Even if it took years.
As soon as the machine was functional, he could go forward to the exact stop before Birch captured Phoenix and stop him. But it did take years and he couldn’t make it work. And he learned the humiliation of frustration and failure.
Yes! he shouts as the Tachyon field begins to build up, but a moment later everything explodes. He tries to grab the control panel. Everything is burning and he recalls the memory of the Phoenix burning the world…
He’s very tired, Birch tells a powerless Tony Stark as his robots are dragging up an unconscious Dark Phoenix. Stark was the seed of this life he has lived. So of course he wanted him to see what his actions eventually created. To see his life’s end. His alpha. His omega.
“Doctor Birch!” Iron Man shouts as he appears from the time platform along with Dazzler, Cyclops, Captain Britain the Human Torch and Power Man and Iron Fist. They’ve got a second opinion!
Cyclops orders them to hit the robots hard. His voice trails off when he sees Dark Phoenix, whose eyes are open.
"He brought them here too late! he shouts at Iron Man. They were supposed to stop the robots before they grabbed Phoenix. If he wants to spend a decade building his own time travel device and making it work to the exact second, feel free, Iron Man suggests caustically. Just getting this close is a miracle.
A furious Dark Phoenix begins to glow with energy as she announces she is life and fire incarnate. That sound good to him? Power Man asks Iron Fist, who admits he was a little distracted by how good she looks in that outfit. Cyclops shoots him a glare. He’s a little intense, Iron Fist mutters while the Torch agrees she is smoking.
Dazzler wishes there were more women on this team. If this is a team. If it makes her feel better, he is the only non-American on the team, Captain Britain points out. Yay, she’s on a team, Dazzler exclaims.
Upstairs, Tony wonders who is in the Iron Man suit. Rhodey? Him? Birch too is bothered. He has seen things play out a hundred times using Doom’s time machine. Always the same heroes. One of them is not here! Where’s Pym?
Hank Pym hands Tony Stark a cup of coffee. He should have come to him a lot earlier he tells him and calls him a stubborn idiot. Tony Stark and Hank Pym can work together, he suggests. Tony admits that, despite being from the future, he hasn’t grown that much. He doesn’t really do “needing help.”
He told Birch to his face back in London. He promised him he’d save the world and beat him. Building the time machine challenged Tony’s intellect, his ego. It became his own private heavyweight bout. His “Rumble in the Jungle.” Once he got involved, he couldn’t let Foreman knock him out. Why is he not surprised Tony is Ali in that metaphor? Hank smirks.
But it did knock him out, Tony admits. It beat him. Birch beat him. He has the schematics drawn out. It should work but he energies are crazy and no one understands dimensional variances like Pym. He can’t do this alone.
If there’s one thing all those years in the Avengers should have told him, Hank explains it’s that they are stronger together than apart.
And so they get to work. Hank suggests involving Reed Richards. Tony is against it. In Birch’s base were pictures of certain people. Hank, Cyclops, Johnny Storm, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Dazzler and Captain Britain. All of whom he just happened to meet in the past? They are the ones meant to be involved at the end. He knows that now. Birch travelled though time and saw it. They need to set the control panel to zero in on just after the individual moments he left each of them. But will they help them? Of course they will, Hank points out. Whatever era they are in, they are heroes.
He still thinks his staying here is crazy. Tony, on the time machine field, reminds him his picture was on Birch’s display. His staying here and working the machine is hitting Birch with a variable he doesn’t expect. One less hero is helping him? Pym spells out. Tony doesn’t know, but having Hank stay feels like a back-up plan. He disappears.
Thanks, Pym remarks sarcastically. Whatever the era, still the same Tony Stark, eh?
The heroes fight and Dark Phoenix is about to go ballistic. Iron Man sees Luke Cage in the way as she loosens a deadly blast. Thinking only it is his responsibility, Iron Man throws himself in the way of the blast and is evaporated. He’s ever so sorry, Birch tells the present Tony. He’s just killed him. Only Iron Man’s mask is left.
Cyclops runs towards Phoenix, but she lashes out at the heroes.
Birch announces that Stark’s team is as easily incapacitated as ever, but his robots are the stuff of genius. He orders the robots to amplify Phoenix’s energy to planet-engulfing levels. Stark threatens to kill him. A robot holds him back as Birch remarks he hasn’t got the strength, physically or mentally. No watch as he makes this world burn! This is for Tony!
Stark is helpless when suddenly the robot holding him malfunctions thanks to Hank Pym. He respects him, he informs Tony, but he can shove his back-up plan! He’s offending people via time travel now? Tony mutters confused.
Birch protests this is not supposed to happen. He’s travelled endlessly through time and seen this moment in myriad scenarios. This doesn’t happen! The two heroes just reply that the future isn’t set in stone.
Down below, in her fury, Dark Phoenix is about to destroy the world. Tony and Hank work together using the robots. Birch used future technology to create them, so they’d be powerful enough to incapacitate and capture Phoenix. The two men alter their controls, so the robots attack Phoenix instead of amping her power level.
However, Phoenix still stands despite the robots’ attack, more furious than before, while the robots are down. The heroes, in the meantime, have recovered and Cyclops orders them to hit Phoenix with a second barrage. They attack, she falls down and it is over.
Cyclops cradles the unconscious Jean, while Hank sorrowfully examines the remains of the older Iron Man. Tony’s strength and the Iron Man armor return to him the moment Birch dies of the combination of cancer and shock of failure.
They have won and Tony wonders why he feels such a terrible sense of loss. Like he only knows a very small part of a larger story.
Pym sets the platform to his own time, from where he will return everyone to the moment they left off. Tony doesn’t know what to say. Luke Cage surprisingly hugs him. He doesn’t claim to understand what happened here, but he won’t ever forget what the guy in the Iron Man armor did for him.
Tony makes a point of shaking Johnny Storm’s hand. He turns to Cyclops, who is carrying the unconscious Dark Phoenix. Cyclops insists he is going to save her. Tony wishes him good luck. Waving them goodbye, Tony reminds them of the date and the place.
The same evening, dressed in a tux, Tony enters a swanky restaurant. At a table with two empty places sit all the present versions of the heroes he fought with.
Brian Braddock gets up, announcing that, a very long time ago on this day, they were part of a team. On this day, they saved the world together. They’ve all changed since then, but they all remember.
Tony takes one of the empty chairs. The other is left for the dead Johnny Storm. Tony raises his glass: To absent friends. To the future.
The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. But some things don’t change.