Avengers: Endgame (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019) is the highest grossing film in film history. Capping off an impressive twenty-one film universe (and being the starting point for further adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) with a three hour run time, the film’s worldwide box office total was almost $2.8 billion. It was recently added to Disney+, where many fans began a Marvel movie marathon during the pandemic. The film received praise from various critics and most Marvel fans, most becoming emotional over the on-screen deaths of characters such as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
However, there was one ending that didn’t sit well with many fans – Steve Rogers/Captain America’s (Chris Evans) fate.
At the end of the film, Steve goes back in time to return all of the Infinity Stones that the Avengers had to use (quick note: the explanation of time travel in this film is flawed and quickly uncovers larger plot holes when further delving into Steve’s ending). Instead of coming back to the present day at the age when he left, he shows up in the present day as an elderly man, saying that he decided to stay in that time and live his life to present day with his love from previous films, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
Immediately, this choice undoes all of Steve’s character progress from the first Captain America film in 2011 until Endgame in 2019.
Since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston), Steve has been branded “the man out of time.” He started as a 1940s man who suddenly had to deal with life in the 2010s, as well as help to save the world from an alien invasion. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014), Steve is slowly starting to acclimate to the world around him, compiling a list full of suggestions of what to watch or listen to, and making friends with Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). When the organization S.H.I.E.L.D is revealed to be a part of HYDRA, the organization that Steve tried to stop in the 1940s, Steve disassembles it and actively focuses on trying to move forward, to not rebuild the organization, in order to remove any more doubts of compromise. He learns that he has no desire to return to the past after finding his place in the modern world. He has grown with the world, yet his morals and values remain strong, to put others before himself, to help other people.
His best friend, Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is the true test of his values. Before Steve took the super soldier serum, Bucky was the person who looked out for Steve when he was small, telling him that he was “with him until the end of the line.” Even when Bucky was brainwashed by HYDRA to become a super assassin for decades, Steve did whatever he could to help Bucky. Their friendship was the glue that held Captain America: Civil War (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2016) together, with Steve valuing Bucky’s past loyalty and putting him at odds with some of his fellow Avengers. Steve would forgo the Captain America mantle for Bucky, they would die for each other. The Captain America trilogy insinuates that Steve’s friendship with Bucky is the driving force and most important relationship in his life that emphasizes those selfless values; it is the constant presence in the films.
So, does it make sense for Steve to abandon Bucky for a life in the past with Peggy? No, it doesn’t. The audience had been told, throughout the Captain America trilogy, that Steve’s friendship with Bucky is held above any of his other friendships and relationships. For Steve to abandon Bucky, who had recently come out of cryofreeze (similar to Steve being unfrozen), in a very unknown world for a woman who Steve barely had a relationship with does not fit with the narrative that the audience had been given. Even more so, it creates even more issues with Endgame’s explanation of time travel and its effects. If Steve went back in time to the 1960s to be with Peggy, Bucky would be a super assassin working for HYDRA who had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. For Steve to do absolutely nothing to stop any of those from happening would betray all of his morals and values. Yet, seeing that nothing else in that timeline changed, he did nothing. He left his best friend to the devices of a tortuous organization for decades and did nothing to stop it.
Though, on the surface, it seemed like Steve had a happy ending with the love of his life, it betrayed the character values that had been instilled in viewers since 2011 and left a bitter taste in many viewers’ mouths.