The final fate of Captain America in Avengers: Endgame has proven to be a source of confusion for viewers, fans, and even the filmmakers.
While it seems that most of the people who want to see the movie have seen it, based on box-office figures, there are still people out there who wish to see the movie who have not yet. (My mother is one of them, as it happens.)
So in the interest of fairness, we’re putting in some spoiler space before we get down to whether or not Endgame’s ending for the star-spangled Avenger was a total assassination of the character of Steve Rogers.
SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: ENDGAME LIE BELOW HERE! EVERYTHING WRITTEN AFTER THIS PARAGRAPH ASSUMES THAT YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE OR DON’T CARE IF YOU’RE SPOILED FOR IT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED…
As a reminder: the only way for the Avengers to safely be able to pull the infinity stones from the past—what Scott Lang referred to as “time heists”—to use to restore everyone (and then fight Thanos, though that wasn’t planned) was to then go back in time again and put everything back where they found it. Captain America took on that task, returning the stones, and also returning Mjolnir to Asgard in 2013 so Thor could continue to wield it in The Dark World.
(Parenthetically, there’s a couple of untold stories there that are worth telling. First of all, he had to inject the aether back into Jane Foster, which can’t have been any fun. Secondly, the guardian of the soul stone on Vormir is none other than the Red Skull, his mortal enemy from World War II.)
But then, rather than come back to the present like he was supposed to, he decided to go back to just after World War II and have the dance he promised to Peggy Carter at the end of The First Avenger. He then lived a life with Peggy, and then showed up as an old man shortly after he went back in time to bequeath his shield to the Falcon.
The question this raises is: did Cap create an alternate time track—as described by Bruce Banner to the other Avengers and as later discussed between Banner and the Ancient One during the 2012 Time Heist—where he lived his life with Peggy, or did he live his life in secret during the mainline timeline without letting anyone know who he was?
The evidence provided in the movie itself points to the latter, mostly by omission, as it’s never specified. Having said that, it’s easy enough to interpret the former, given that Loki stole the Tesseract and disappeared and Thanos, Nebula, Gamora, and a bunch of Thanos’s lackeys all popped from 2014 to 2024 to fight the Avengers and were all (save Gamora) dusted by Tony Stark. Both of those happenings created alternate time tracks, since in the mainline MCU, Loki and the Tesseract were brought back to Asgard in 2012 (not to mention Captain America never getting beaten up by his future self) and Thanos went on to gather the stones and dust half the universe.
So which is it?
If Cap were to go back into the past and live there, he would create a branched reality. The question then becomes, how is he back in this reality to give the shield away?
But then we have co-scripter Christopher Markus to Fandango:
I do believe that there is simply a period in world history from about ’48 to now where there are two Steve Rogers. And anyway, for a large chunk of that one of them is frozen in ice. So it’s not like they’d be running into each other.
Finally, we have MCU overlord Kevin Feige, who was asked during a Reddit AMA if he could give a definitive answer to this conundrum, and all he said was, “Yes.”
The thing is, the intent of the screenwriters was that he was living in the MCU this entire time as Peggy’s secret husband, and the evidence in the movie itself points to that—and ultimately, that’s what we have to go on. The text is what matters, not what the creators say on the Internet after the fact (SEE ALSO: Dumbledore’s sexuality).
And if he has been living in the MCU this entire time and not saying anything, as the screenwriters posit, then they, at best, have absolutely no understanding of the character that they’ve written as a main character in five movies (Markus and Stephen McFeeley wrote all three Captain America movies and the last two Avengers movies), or at worst, have absolutely destroyed that character for the sake of a clichéd, offensive, largely theoretical happy ending.
At least the was-here-all-along theory doesn’t entirely shitcan the Agent Carter TV show. Markus said that Rogers showed up in 1948 or so—which tracks with the late ’40s cars we saw outside their house when they were dancing—and the two seasons of the show took place in 1946. One does feel for poor Agent Sousa, though…
Still, it is a reduction of Peggy Carter from the bad-ass we met in The First Avenger, who was later established as co-founding S.H.I.E.L.D. and being its director for decades, into simply a prize for Rogers to win after fighting the good fight.
But if we buy this notion, that Steve Rogers was Peggy Carter’s secret husband from 1948 until her death in 2016, it causes all kinds of significant character problems for the sentinel of liberty. Let’s take them one by one…
- Cap let S.H.I.E.L.D. continue to run with Hydra moles throughout. Rogers learned, in graphic detail, in The Winter Soldier (written by these same two guys) how much Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D.—the organization that his wife ran, that his wife co-founded, and which was her life’s work. Are we supposed to believe that Captain America would just sit idly by and let his wife be made a total fool of (and let lots of people die) by allowing Arnim Zola’s long con to happen unchallenged and destroy that life’s work?
- Cap let Bucky Barnes be brainwashed into a Soviet assassin who killed tons of people, including Howard and Maria Stark. We’ve already seen that Rogers would break the Avengers and give up being Captain America in order to protect Bucky in Civil War (written by these same two guys). As established in The First Avenger (written by these same two guys), Bucky was his best friend and protector throughout their childhood. Are we supposed to believe that Rogers would just let his bestest buddy in the whole entire world be a Soviet assassin who would go on to kill tons of people, including Iron Man’s parents, for decades without trying to do something about it?
- Cap either let his dementia-ridden wife think that the de-iced Steve Rogers was really him, or he and his wife had her pretend she had dementia so he wouldn’t ask too many questions about her hubby. As we saw in The Winter Soldier (written by these same two guys), Peggy Carter was suffering from some serious dementia in her old age, and her responses to Rogers were those of someone who hadn’t seen him in decades, which doesn’t track at all with her being married to him all this time. Plus if she really had dementia, there’s no way she would be able to keep who her hubby was secret. Which makes you wonder if they were doing it as an act, which is unimaginably cruel and despicable.
- Cap let all the awful things that happened between World War II and the present day happen. Are we supposed to believe that Captain America, the greatest hero the country and the world has ever seen, the guy who was deemed worthy by Odin’s enchantment to wield Mjolnir, as seen in this very same movie, would just sit around and let President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. get shot? Would let 9/11 happen? Would stand around while the U.S. engaged in horrid conflicts in Asia and Eastern Europe throughout the latter half of the 20th century? Really?
If this is an alternate timeline, it’s way more fun. It has so many more story possibilities than turning Peggy Carter into a trophy for Rogers to win at the end, albeit at the expense of her life’s work being destroyed by Hydra while her husband stood by and did nothing about it.
If he goes full-on let’s-change-this-for-the-better—which is actually in character for the guy we’ve seen played by Chris Evans in more than half-a-dozen movies, not to mention in character for the 80-year-old comics character he’s based on—then there’s all sorts of fun to be had. First, he’d tell Peggy about Zola’s plan and lock him down, keep him from destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. from within. Next, he’d go to Siberia (or wherever) and free Bucky, keeping him from being the Winter Soldier. He’d use his wife’s status as a S.H.I.E.L.D. director to do things like tell President Kennedy to have a canopy instead of driving in the open air and suggest that Dr. King have stronger security and that President Bush actually pay attention to his briefings about al-Qaeda.
He’d also make sure that Henry Pym doesn’t quit S.H.I.E.L.D. in a huff (especially since there won’t be a Hydra mole pissing him off, as seen in Ant-Man), and work with him to be able to jump through the quantum realm to his original timeline so he can give Sam Wilson the shield in 2024.
And then he’d still be Captain America, instead of a lying, indolent, murdering sack of shit.
Let’s hope a future movie or TV show actually addresses this once and for all. And if it does, that it’s in a way that is actually true to the character of Steve Rogers.
Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing about pop culture for Tor.com since 2011. He recently chronicled all the call-backs to previous MCU movies in Endgame. Keith writes the weekly “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch,” which looks back at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic book. (He’ll get to Endgame some time in October, based on the current schedule.) He’s also a novelist of some 25 years’ standing, with his output in 2019 including the novels A Furnace Sealed, Mermaid Precinct, and Alien: Isolation, as well as stories in the anthologies Thrilling Adventure Yarns, Brave New Girls: Adventures of Gals and Gizmos, Unearthed, Footprints in the Stars, and Release the Virgins!