The Ringer is celebrating time travel this week, so we decided to resurface this piece, published soon after the 2019 release of Avengers: Endgame. But here’s the question you have to ask yourself: Did Future Us travel to the past and force us to publish this piece so that we’d have it for this week in 2020? Or did Past Us travel to the future and see how hard up for content we’d be in July of this very odd year? You know what, you’re right—we should stop asking questions. Just enjoy the article.
Avengers: Endgame is, of course, a time-travel movie—because the only way to walk back Thanos’s whole “killing half the living things in the universe with one snap of the fingers” moment was to go back in time. And because none of us are smart enough to read books anymore (sorry, H.G. Wells), Endgame attempts to explain time travel to viewing audiences through other time travel movies. So while Captain Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) lay out their plan to reclaim the Infinity Stones, they reference Timecop, Time After Time, A Wrinkle in Time, Somewhere in Time, Star Trek, Quantum Leap, and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Also mentioned are Terminator—which suggests the MCU exists in a world where Arnold Schwarzenegger became California’s governor, and no superheroes stepped in to stop it—and Hot Tub Time Machine, because it has a funny title. But the film with the most significant impact on Ant-Man’s plan to save the universe is—well, I’ll let Tony Stark take it from here: “Are you really telling me your plan is based on Back to the Future?”
That’s right about when Ant-Man makes the following recommendation in regard to the Avengers’ quantum-travel time-heist: “We don’t talk to our prior selves or bet on sporting events.”
Why does Ant-Man say this? Oh, precious young person, let me tell you about this thing that happened in the 1980s. In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox—just before showing the NBA how to play the isolation game via Teen Wolf—played a character named Marty McFly, a teen who had befriended a much older inventor guy named Doc, who designed stupid automatic toasters. One night while Marty and Doc were hanging out in a mall parking lot (the ’80s!), Doc got shot by Libyan terrorists and Marty accidentally traveled back to 1955 while trying to drive away from them in an impractical car. Once he got to 1955, Marty kissed his mom (this was when it was OK for every significant franchise to include incestuous themes), turned his dad into a better writer, and almost caused the erasure of himself and his siblings. He also invented skateboarding and rock music. This was the highest-grossing film of 1985.
At the end of Back to the Future, there was a teaser for the sequel—call this the pre-end-credits scene, before the MCU fully birthed the end-credits scene—in which Marty had to follow Doc back to the future, again, but actually for the first time. This set the stage for Back to the Future Part II, in which franchise villain Biff Tannen—the man who sexually assaults Marty’s mom, but then somehow remains a family friend for decades—travels from 2015 to 1955 to give young Biff a copy of the Grays Sports Almanac, so he can become rich via sports betting. And that brings me to my point: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a 22-film series stretched out over 11 years that was created solely to draw attention to the fact that Back to the Future Part II is a load of bullshit.
The key to the plot of the movie is the Grays Sports Almanac, a book that, as Old Biff explains to Young Biff, contains “the results of every major sports event until the end of this century.” That is 50 years of sports, a lot of sports. And yet this Almanac is thin; suspiciously thin:
I cannot overstate how ridiculously flimsy this book is. If you were to buy a replica of the book—which you can, because the internet—you’d see that it is 155 pages long. The pages appear to be A4 size, which means they can each fit about 650 words. So let’s say there are 100,000 words in the book. Hell, let’s be generous and say the book was printed in Times New Roman 8-point font—it isn’t, because Biff reads it while driving a convertible at night; I’ve tried to do that and it doesn’t work—and the designers got frugal with the spacing and pushed the margins as wide as possible. Even in that hypothetical, the book still contains only about 160,000 or so words. The oldest running sporting almanac in the world is the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. The latest issue runs more than 1,538 pages and has somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 words. That is for one year of cricket.
In Back to the Future Part II, it’s stated that the Grays Sports Almanac has “the results of every major sports event till the end of this century”; on the cover it says “Complete Sports Statistics.” Lies! Thank god Ant-Man benevolently used his powers to force us to reexamine the sequel of a film that came out during the Reagan administration.
After all, what does this book cover, major sporting events or all sporting events? Perhaps it doesn’t include international sports like cricket or rugby—perhaps Grays is ignorant like that—but still: Have you sized up the American sports landscape lately? There are so many sports. One of results mentioned in the movie is a college football game between Maryland and Clemson that actually happened. Maryland and Clemson were both good teams in 1955, but this game was not a national championship, which means we can assume that the almanac purports to cover all college football games. If it has every college football game, then it most likely has every MLB, NFL, NHL, and NBA game too. That’s more than 200,000 games right there—to fit in a pitiful 155 pages. And to live up to its “Complete Sports” billing, Grays would have to to include tennis (men’s, women’s, singles, doubles, and mixed doubles), golf, Olympics sports (the one that everyone watches and the one that’s held in the cold for rich people), and more. The plot of Back to the Future Part II makes it clear that this almanac includes horse racing, so pretty much everything else is on the table.
And then there’s the word “Statistics.” Does Back to the Future really expect us to believe this tiny almanac also lists important box score information over a 50-year span? Is Biff betting on how many points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, touchdowns, interceptions, hits, runs, RBIs, or goals a player had in a given season? By my count, we’re at 8,000 pages by now. Thanks to Endgame, I know now that Biff’s holding that brochure and passing it off as an almanac is a personal affront to me and my children.
But Back to the Future Part II isn’t bullshit merely because of the insufficient size of its sports almanac—it also depicts a fantasy world of sports gambling. Honestly, how did Biff make all that money? Just knowing the results isn’t enough—to maintain the scam you need to be smart.
Biff waits until he’s of legal age for his first big win. That’s good. But everything Biff does after that is not good. His first winning streak comes at the local horse-racing track in Hill Valley, placing bets with the bookmaker there. On a good day at a major racetrack, you can make a lot of money if you know the results. However, a track bookmaker can pay out only what has been bet. Hill Valley is a pissant town; it’s got one square, when the school burns down the residents don’t rebuild it, and no one ever seems to leave. There’s no way, in 1959, this small community race track could ever pay Biff $1,182,000.
And then Biff lets a newspaper write about his “luck” and put him on the front page. Huge mistake. There’s a general rule in the gambling industry: If the house thinks it is going to lose, it will not let you play. That’s why Jim Sturgess gets beat up in the movie 21. So Biff letting the entire gambling world get a look at his kisser after ONE BIG WIN is just idiotic. As he continued to notch suspiciously large wins—I bet he never purposely made bad bets to throw people off the scent, because he’s stupid—every racetrack and casino in America would have hung his photo on the wall and refused to take his money. (Also worth noting: Sports betting was not legal in America in 1959, so if Biff wanted to bet on football, he would’ve had to do it with the mob. Biff would’ve been pinched after two bets.)
Beyond not posing for photos, a smart person would have created a system, laying small bets with an ever-rotating number of bookies, using a cast of hired gamblers who could play his bets anonymously. Was Biff smart enough to pull this off? Of course not—this is a man who, in the Back to the Future series, ends up covered in shit multiple times. Not smeared, not splattered—covered.
Above all, Biff is too stupid to truly take advantage of the gift he’s been given. Thanks to the (too-small) almanac, Biff knows how good every athlete and horse will become. In his meaty hands is the blueprint on how to dominate the U.S. sporting world. He could buy Muhammad Ali’s contract, sign teenage Wayne Gretzky, and own Secretariat. He wouldn’t need to invest in stocks or companies (though that’d be smarter than just gambling, too); he could buy teams. In 1957, the Lakers were purchased for $150,000 and moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles three years later. Biff could have bought an NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL team with a million dollars. He’d have been the man Jerry Jones thinks he is.
Instead, Biff went into toxic waste.
How does this change what we think about Avengers: Endgame? Well, I’m no quantum physicist; I’m still not confident I fully followed Bruce Banner when he said, “If you travel to the past, that past is your future and your former present becomes the past, which can’t now be changed by your new future.” It would’ve been a whole lot cooler if he’d said, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
But I do think I can answer this question: It doesn’t. Endgame is still super cool, and we should think about the time-travel stuff as little as possible. It’s not real; that video you saw on YouTube of the people from a century ago holding things near their faces were not holding phones.
What is real is the fact that Biff Tannen is an idiot—and that we have Endgame to thank for reminding us of that.
Jarrod Kimber is a filmmaker from Australia who also writes for ESPNcricinfo.