Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are at this post-Endgame point where they are at their third, fourth, or even fifth screenings, analyzing every detail and every line. This is not unexpected, of course—after all, Avengers: Endgame is a once-in-a-generation movie event that took 11 years and 22 films to make. It takes up a gigantic space in pop culture, so discourse and analysis is not only expected, but also needed. Not to mention the fact that we love these stories and these characters because they have been a part of our lives for so long.
One of the hot-button topics under the Endgame umbrella is how one of the founding Avengers finds closure. When all is said and done, Steve Rogers goes back in time to live the rest of his long life with his great love. It is undoubtedly a divisive ending, but I argue that it was the only way that the Russo brothers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Chris Evans could have ended Captain America’s arc after the events of Endgame.
I understand that fans wear a lot of different lenses when analyzing Steve Rogers’ characterization, which are all valid and well-meaning. But that often leads to a tendency to obfuscate the character’s actual narrative, and that is a pity. Regardless of whether or not you agree with how he has developed over the course of the MCU, Steve Rogers’ has one of the most consistent character arcs since he was introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger. The way we said goodbye to him in Endgame was a suitable ending to that arc. It was not a betrayal of the character—it was just simply where he was headed after all was said and done.
When we first meet Steve, he is skinny but plucky. He says “I can do this all day” to men larger than him even when he’s bloodied and beat up. When he receives the super soldier serum, he finally finds purpose, finally proves that he can do this all day. Like Peggy, this is why we fall in love with the kid from Brooklyn. It doesn’t matter if he’s scrawny and sickly, or a full-fledged superhero—he’s going to get up and keep fighting.
In a way, this changes when he falls into the ice, because when he wakes up he becomes a man out of time. For the rest of his time in the MCU, Steve Rogers never truly feels at home. This is completely in contrast with the Steve Rogers we’ve known for decades in the comics (let’s call him Steve-616), where the found family trope is not just a leitmotif in the universe, it’s the bedrock of the Avengers and ties each character securely to one another. Steve-616 has a strong familial unit, which helps him assimilate into the future and overcome being a man out of time. “You gave me a home,” is one of Steve-616’s most iconic lines from the comics.
This is wildly different to Steve in the MCU. He never gets a unit strong enough to help him genuinely take root in the present. The moment he is found in the ice (by SHIELD no less, which is likely what seals his fate), he is treated as a soldier first and foremost, and is thrown from one dire circumstance to the next: from fighting aliens, to SHIELD being compromised, to Ultron and Sokovia, to the Accords, to Thanos. He moves through them without the strong emotional, even physical, support that Steve-616 receives from his team-cum-family. This is why Steve extricates himself from his present—he has no roots, no anchors, and everything he believes in comes crumbling down. He no longer trusts anything, or anyone.
The tragedy of Steve Rogers is that he does find it in himself to start build a life in the present—he just doesn’t succeed. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve tells Tony: “Family, stability…the guy who wanted all that went in the ice 75 years ago. I think someone else came out. I’m home.” He finds safe harbor with the Avengers temporarily, but his disillusionment and distrust with the institutions that shape his current present ultimately leads him to make drastic and desperate decisions in Captain America: Civil War.
An avalanche of heartbreaking events happen in Civil War that basically directs Steve’s trajectory towards the ending he gets in Endgame. Peggy Carter dies, and Bucky resurfaces in the most dangerous of ways. Steve is barely able to process this, which is why his response is understandable: he deepens his anchor to his past. With Peggy gone, he expends all his energy in protecting Bucky—Steve isn’t going to fail him again. He does, ultimately, save his closest friend, his brother, the only family he’s ever known.
But in exchange for Bucky’s safety, he fails another person in Civil War: Tony Stark. This is even more devastating for Steve, because by failing Tony Stark—by breaking the promise he makes to his fellow Avenger at the end of Civil War—he fails the rest of the universe in Avengers: Infinity War. Captain America experiences the worst manifestation of his personal failures, his first real loss. At the end of Infinity War, we see Steve at a loss for words, broken and utterly, well, defeated. It is a moment of reckoning for him.
When Tony returns from Titan at the beginning of Endgame, he confronts Steve and throws all of his failures back to him. His scathing judgment of Steve’s actions (“No trust. Liar.”) forces Steve to face his demons and come to terms with his mistakes. It’s cruel, but it finally pushes him to accept that he can no longer keep the present at arm’s length. He absolutely has to move on. He has to be where what’s left of his team is: here and now.
And he does. For a while, at least. It takes him five years to live in the present, but even then, he’s not fully there. “Some people move on, but not us,” he tells Natasha. He is haunted by his failure, and when he gets the chance to undo his mistakes, he is desperate to make it work. He reconciles with Tony and explicitly voices out that he trusts his teammate after years of wariness. It’s a big leap, one that finally gets him to follow through on his Civil War and Age of Ultron (“Like the old man said: together.”) promise to Tony. The bond that gave Steve-616 the ability to accept his new reality slowly begins to take root in Steve, and there is so much hope there.
But when Natasha and Tony die in Endgame, Steve loses the strongest connections he has to the present. Bucky returns, yes, but this is no longer the Bucky he knew before the ice, nor the Bucky he tried so hard to protect in the present. This is the Bucky who decides to go back under to face his own demons, who moves on without Steve. Bucky finds himself a place in this new world, while Steve is left behind. They both know this and acknowledge it when Bucky tells Steve “I’m going to miss you” before Steve makes the jump and lives out the rest of his life in the past. They both allow each other the dignity of their choices.
The moment Steve Rogers wakes up from the ice, the rug is pulled from underneath him and he finds himself treading on unstable foundation. That instability is a constant variable in his—and by extension the Avengers’—story. Throughout his arc in the MCU, he fails to reinforce that foundation, despite the fact that he is desperate to walk on solid ground. When all of that crumbles, he grabs on to the last unshakeable bastion he has left: Peggy Carter.
It’s a tragic story, but not unjustified. That’s what makes it a satisfying and acceptable goodbye.
You can disagree with how Steve Rogers has been treated overall in the MCU—as a fan of Steve-616, I definitely have my reservations—but it is incorrect to say that the character’s end was out of the blue, or nonsensical, or an insult. The signs are scattered across seven movies, and you don’t even need to dig that deep. You just have to take off whatever goggles you’re wearing to see it.