[This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame]
Since the release of Avengers: Endgame, one of the most contentious plot points among die hard fans seems to be the fate of Captain America: After helping rid the universe of Thanos and travelling back in time to return the Infinity Stones, Steve Rogers decides to stay behind in the 1940s and build a life with his original love interest, Peggy Carter. While many viewers are happy and emotionally moved by Steve’s decision, some have taken offence with how little time the film affords to Steve’s relationship with his best friend Bucky Barnes, even going as far as calling his decision to travel back in time for Peggy an “undermining” of “Captain America’s entire characterisation”.
In today’s intense fan culture, however, it is always important to keep in mind that just because something doesn’t happen in canon the way we wanted or expected it to might not necessarily mean that it’s bad writing. Not always. Is Steve Rogers’ ending truly a disservice to his character? Is his decision to return to the past a selfish one?
The answers, like many of the situations Steve Rogers often finds himself in, might not be quite as clear cut as many seem to think.
Steve is not returning to the main timeline
By going back in time to live with Peggy, some viewers initially think that this means Steve is in fact Peggy’s husband whom we have never seen and that he is simply living his life on the down low, allowing HYDRA to continue infiltrating SHIELD and using Bucky as their brainwashed master assassin. This, however, is not how time-travel works in the MCU. Both Banner and The Ancient One explain this in the film. The Russos themselves have explained this.
By deciding to go back and live in the past, Steve creates another timeline that branches off from the main one. The Peggy we see at the end is Peggy from this new timeline — not the Peggy with the husband and not the Peggy who went through the events of Agent Carter — and the Bucky in this timeline is not our Bucky. When Steve shows up to see Sam at the end of Endgame, he’s hopping back from his other timeline, which means we don’t know anything about what he’s been doing there. Yes, he’s had a life with Peggy. But they could also be rooting Hydra out of SHIELD, saving Bucky, having their own adventures etc.
Bucky knows and is okay with Steve’s decision. Watch the film again. Keep your eyes trained on Bucky when he and Steve say goodbye to each other. This is not an unexpected abandonment or betrayal. When Steve doesn’t return, Bucky’s not surprised, and when he spots the figure by the lake, he knows immediately who it is. They know each other so well, they don’t even need to explain step-by-step what is happening to the other; they’re that in-sync. It is also possible that our Bucky already has knowledge of the other Bucky and of Steve’s life in the other timeline. (The Russos have hinted at this possibility.)
Yes, Steve and Bucky deserve a bigger moment in Endgame, but an argument can be made that that’s because of time-constraint more than anything. Do I wish we could have had a longer scene between them? Even just a hug in the middle of battle? For sure. But please keep the logistics in mind: if you were the filmmakers and your film’s already three hours long and you’d have to choose between a scene of Tony and another Avenger VS a scene with Steve and Bucky, you’d probably have to go with the Tony scene for the very obvious reason that he’s the character that will not be returning. As much as we love Steve and Bucky, RDJ must take precedent, especially since Bucky and Sam will be getting their own show in which Steve can still return in a cameo.
Another criticism is that the lack of satisfying closure for Steve and Bucky in Endgame is down to Marvel viewing Bucky’s pain and trauma as something “alien” — a “vulnerability” that is ignored because it cannot be “turned into stoic snark” like with Thor and Tony. While there is merit to many fans’ frustration in Marvel choosing not to explore Steve and Bucky beyond a platonic friendship, comparing the treatment of Bucky’s character to lead characters like Thor and Tony seems unfair.
Thor and Tony are two of the original Avengers; they are the leads of their own films. Bucky, at the end of day, is only a side character in the Captain America franchise. No matter how popular he is, expecting a side character to get the same level of treatment as the lead characters is unrealistic, especially considering how Bucky, along with Loki, is already one of the most prominent side characters in the franchise: his struggle to cope with his trauma is very much the catalyst for both The Winter Solider and Civil War, with the former film even named after him.
Steve has earned his happy ending
Screenwriters’ words are not gospel and they shouldn’t be above criticism, but on this occasion, a quote by writer Stephen McFeely perfectly sums up why Steve’s ending resonates with many viewers: “From the very first outline, we knew he was going to get his dance. It’s satisfying. He’s postponed a life in order to fulfill his duty. That’s why I didn’t think we were ever going to kill him. Because that’s not the arc. The arc is, I finally get to put my shield down because I’ve earned that.”
Steve more than deserves another chance at happiness in his own time period. He more than deserves his new ‘What-if?’ timeline where he can finally have a genuine life with the girl he loves and (quite possibly) his childhood best friend without the responsibility and sacrifice of being ‘Captain America’. On the other hand, the main timeline Bucky now appears stable and healthy enough to build relationships with other Avengers — like Sam, Shuri and even T’Challa — without Steve’s help. His upcoming show with Sam also hints that he is finally ready to start a new life free from the horrors of his past. To expect him and Steve to always be together — to expect Steve to always be responsible for him — is again asking Steve to go above and beyond what is necessary.
After years and years of being a soldier, of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, Steve can start over and become a ‘person’ again by returning to a branched timeline. He can enjoy life, savour the time he’s gotten, plant things and see them grow. There’s a reason that the song that’s playing at the end of the film is “It’s A Long, Long Time”: this story about a solider who’s out of time is finally ending with the soldier returning home to his time after “a long, long war”.
“I had a date”
Saying that Peggy has been only “an undercurrent” or a barely significant part of Steve’s storyline is such a fundamental misunderstanding of his character and arc. Yes, Steve has a very intimate, ferocious bond with Bucky, and that bond drives much of the plot of the Cap films. But he also has a similarly strong bond with Peggy: The compass with her portrait appears in nearly every film; Him going to see Peggy for advice in The Winter Soldier; Him dreaming of her in Ultron; Him making a date with her as his plane goes down; “I had a date” as the closing line for The First Avenger.
Yes, the screenwriters might have once referred to Peggy as “a woman Steve once kissed”, but when you consider the whole context of the interview, the quote is not necessarily about their romance being insignificant, but rather that their romance never evolved beyond kissing and, therefore, adds to the argument that him dating Sharon Carter is not incestuous. Furthermore, in the same interview, they also say, “[Peggy] continues to hold weight, which is great.”
Implying that Bucky’s bond with Steve is stronger than his bond with Peggy or vice versa is insulting to all three of them. Yes, their bonds may serve different functions in the films — the bond with Bucky more to drive the plot, while the bond with Peggy more to anchor the character — but if you really examine Steve’s entire arc in detail, you’d see that his relationships with Bucky and Peggy run in tandem with each other rather than in competition.
Part of why Steve goes against Tony in Civil War and fights tooth and nail for Bucky despite legitimate reasons not to (superhero accountability is a topic for another day) is partly because he’s already lost Peggy. It is because both Peggy and Bucky are what tie him to his past, to his old life, and to the life he could have had. As he explains it to Tony in Civil War, the Avengers are Tony’s family “more so than [his]”; that he’s never really fit in anywhere, even in the army. His faith “is in people. Individuals.” These people, who are essentially his family, are Bucky, Peggy, his Howling Commandos and — after the events of The Winter Soldier and Civil War — Sam and Natasha.
Steve is not a man out of time purely because he’s now living in the twenty-first century: he’s a man out of time because he’s literally lost time — time he could have spent with the people he loves. He’s not a man out of time just because of the loss of Bucky. He’s a man out of time because of the loss of Peggy as well.
“Selfish” Steve Rogers
Now that the branched timeline is confirmed, we can dismiss the theory that by going back to the past, Steve is somehow robbing Peggy of her other life, letting HYDRA fester within SHIELD and leaving Bucky to rot in a Russian dungeon. Again, we might be getting more information on Steve’s alternate timeline in the Falcon and Winter Soldier show.
However, the fact that the word “selfish” is being attached to Steve at all is very fascinating. (Some fans have even gone as far as creating the hashtag #NotMySteve in protest of this ending.) But, surprisingly, one of the first people who’ve ever called Steve “selfish” is Chris Evans himself, in reference to the choices his character makes in Civil War.
After Civil War came out, I wrote a blog post titled “The Tragic Selfishness of Captain America”, exploring how Steve’s decision to go against Tony and the accords in order to save Bucky is not as black and white as Steve himself and many fans make it out to be. Steve might be “a good man”, but he is still flawed. And what makes him relatable and compelling as a character is not his ‘infallible goodness’, but his ability and inability to let go. Here is a character so defined by his sense of duty, sometimes it is difficult to discern where his duty ends and his personal needs or values begin.
This is why the Captain America trilogy, along with Lord of the Rings, is my favourite trilogy of all time. The Cap trilogy is so incredibly human because fundamentally it is about loss, grief and the lives and the people we bring or not bring with us as we journey along. This is why, despite a few tiny bumps along the way and maybe one missing beat with Bucky, the completion of Steve’s arc – going back in time and “getting a life” in a branched reality with the two people he love most – works for me. Considering what Steve has gone through and the weight of all the ghosts he’s carried, this ending is not just beautiful and poignant, but also kind.
And for Steve Rogers, one of the kindest human beings in the MCU, ‘kind’ is fitting as hell.
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