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Having seen the film, and reading debates online about its plotholes, I wanted to explore what they mean for Steve Rogers and his journey throughout Marvel's finale for the Infinity Saga. This post contains massive spoilers. Read it your own risk.
Time travel is one of my least favorite storytelling devices, but it seemed inevitable as part of the Avengers: Endgame's plot. As soon as Infinity War ended, most fans theorized how the Avengers would dive into the past to fix what happened with Thanos. Most of the ideas fans came up with were utterly fascinating, but nothing could ever prepare me for how the Infinity Stones would be re-used: the team would go back into other Marvel movies, steal the stones they needed to create their own Infinity Gauntlet, bring everyone back, and then return the stones where they came from to not disrupt the original timeline.
Endgame handled their rules for time travel as easily as possible:
- the past couldn't be changed to fix the future
- any major change in the past creates an alternative timeline that branches off the MCU canon timeline
The Ancient One: If I give up the time stone to help your reality, I’m dooming my own. The infinity stones create what you experience as the flow of time. Remove one of the Stones, and that flow splits, now this may benefit your reality, but my new one, not so much. In this new branch reality, without our chief weapon against the forces of darkness, our world will be overrun, millions would suffer. So tell me, doctor, can your science prevent all that?
Bruce Banner: No, but we can erase it. Because once we are done with the stones, we can return each one to it's own timeline at the moment it was taken. So, chronologically, in that reality, they never left.Endgame’s version of time travel ultimately keeps our experiences of the MCU timeline in tact. The writers chose moments that didn't alter the storylines of all the previous movies. However, this doesn’t mean that time travel is perfect.
There are still plotholes in terms of how the stones are returned. They have to be 'replaced' the moment that they were taken. And given that it took ten people to retrieve the stones in the first place, it's almost impossible to think of how Steve could return them all by himself given that he doesn't know the landscape of three different planets he's never visited before. Additionally, Loki escaping with the tesseract in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy's Gamora, Thanos, Nebula leaving their timeline disrupts some of the canon MCU as we know it.
DO AS PEGGY SAYS
One big debate right now is Peggy Carter’s life including who she marries and if it is still canon. If we follow the initial rules that all MCU timelines haven’t changed, her television series Agent Carter remains safe.
The main thing to know about Peggy in the general MCU is that her husband is never officially confirmed, except for Steve in Endgame.
Agent Carter is clearer about the mystery man she supposedly ends up with. Throughout her series, Carter works as an SSR Agent. A fellow agent Daniel Sousa, who served and was injured in WWII, is one of the few male agents who treats Carter with respect but also internalized sexism from the era. They have a burgeoning relationship, one that ends with them kissing in the series finale. While Sousa was engaged at the time, their kiss remains on a relatively happy note that everything will work out. Of course, this isn't officially confirmed in canon.
Unfortunately, Peggy talking about her marriage in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is lingering misconception in the fandom. When Steve visits the Smithsonian and watches an excerpt of Peggy talking about their time in the war, she says: "Steve, Captain Rogers, he fought his way through a Hydra blockade that had pinned our allies down for months. He saved over 1,000 men. Including the man who would become my husband as it turned out. Even after he died, he was still saving my life."
Most assume that the man Peggy is referring to is Daniel, given that he is a WWII veteran, however:
Daniel lost his leg in The Siege of Bastogne in Belgium in December 1944. That's the latest date American forces were involved at Belgium, and the latest date Daniel could've been injured before being sent back to the states. The man Carter married, who Steve saved as revealed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was at Volvograd in 1945. The timeline likelihood that Sousa lost his leg and then managed to keep serving is highly remote.
Additionally, Daniel never reveals if Captain America or the SSR saved his regiment nor expressed reverence to Peggy about Steve or her experience about serving in the organization that saved his life. If Rogers did save Daniel, it was most likely indirectly since Rogers worked with the SSR for two years destroying Hydra bases all over Europe.
Like all time travel devices, it’s hard to keep storylines straight. I’ve seen a lot of websites say that Steve going back in Endgame means that he is the mystery man she marries in the MCU. But that distorts the rules of Endgame where time runs parallel to each other. Steve staying with Peggy, however he does it, doesn't effectively ruin her agency in the original movies or her series.
Fulfilling A New LegacyThroughout Avengers: Endgame, the Infinity Stones are used with one goal in mind. At the end of the film, Steve aims to return the stones where they belong. But then a curveball is thrown into the plot: instead of returning to 2023, Steve stays in the 1940s and only returns to the present timeline after aging gracefully and having lived a meaningful life with Peggy. Similar to fans questioning if Tony and Thor's endings reflected their arc, I wholeheartedly believe this finally gives him the ending he deserved.
Throughout the entire series, Steve has questioned his purpose in the 21st Century. After he woke up out of the ice, he was searching for home besides fighting on the battlefield. Even though he might've been hopeful in The Avengers after leading the team to victory, his story became a rinse-and-repeat: train more Avengers, fight more battles, resist the longing to find his true place. Unlike Tony who was striving for a family while always looking over his shoulder, Steve focused on his next mission and trying to make The Avengers his family. But, no amount of made him feel like he fit in. No matter how many women Nat thought he might be able to date, or places Sam thought he should call home, Steve’s real home is being back in his original era.
For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I'm not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. It's just not the same. - Captain America: The Winter SoldierSteve's choice to return to Peggy is also rooted in the loss of his ideals and friends. Cap's reunion with Bucky, as well as his "old-fashioned" beliefs, always had its limitations. Bucky is not the same person he used to be; he changed after being brainwashed and was turned into The Winter Soldier as well as realizing his actions and starting to accept what happened while healing in Wakanda. Even though Cap woke up in a new century and tried to make the best of it, he always suffered from "golden age thinking"; beliefs stemming from The Greatest Generation that either made him friends or made him seem old-fashioned. Meanwhile, Bucky never expressed wanting to go back to a previous era; he was content "in the future". Though Bucky was never given the chance to make up his own mind, Steve's values often came in conflict with The Avengers, Nick Fury, and The Accords. Cap's patriotism was always fueled his desire to do what was right, but eventually he had to reconcile losing everything that was familiar to him: institutions, The Avengers, and his last piece of history with Bucky.
While I do think the script rushed and overlooked Steve's relationships to the newer Avengers about his departure (no goodbye between him and Scarlett Witch? Hawkeye? Thor?), especially Bucky, their farewell stemmed from a mutual understanding and respect for Steve's choice. Hopefully the Disney + series The Falcon and Winter Soldier will dive more into what happens with Bucky without Steve by his side.
Every movie Steve was apart of essentially stripped down his beliefs - The First Avenger lifted him out of his own era and thrust him in the 21st Century. He suffered from PTSD and loneliness while throwing himself back into another mission. The Avengers and Age of Ultron gave him a duty as a soldier but made him question a life outside of Avenging. The Winter Soldier confronted him about corruption in government and SHIELD. Civil War put his own wants and needs first against the people who he knew and loved. Infinity War took him back to his roots as a soldier, but this time going rogue. In Endgame, Steve is finally left with the one thing that Tony and Nat fought so hard for - as Tony says in Age of Ultron: "Isn't that the mission? Isn't that the 'why we fight'? So we get to go home?" Just as Tony sets up his life Post-Thanos, Steve finally takes his advice to do the same.
"The world has changed, and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best that we can do is to start over." - Peggy Carter, Captain America: The Winter SoldierEven though the epic battle in Endgame puts our favorite Avengers on the battlefield again, interestingly, Our Cap never says “I can do this all day” like he normally does. Instead 2012 Cap says it, to which Our Cap says exhaustively "I know, I know." It's a nice callback to one of his famous phrases, but it's also a subtle signal that war is finally serving its last purpose for Cap. Once Nat and Tony are killed in Endgame, Steve knows Earth is going to be okay – there’s a new set of Avengers who will take care of everything, especially passing down the shield to MY BOY SAM WILSON. Similar to Thor recognizing that he doesn’t have to rule Asgard, Steve finally recognizes he was one of Earth’s mightiest heroes, but that’s not who he has to be anymore. Finally, he can retire - he can go home, he doesn't have to imagine it anymore.
As a tried and true Captain America fan girl, I attempted to be realistically objective about his choice at the end of Avengers: Endgame. In looking back at this role in his own trilogy and the Avengers spin-offs, I realized how much I always watched his arc with a bittersweet heart. He always felt like a man out of time but doing the best he can. While I can't speak to some of the plotholes, Captain America fought the good fight so Steve Rogers could live. And that is a 1000% chill with me. I can finally watch his movies and know that everything turns out all right.
And that first dance between Steve and Peggy? Nick Fury played it in Steve's apartment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Performed by Kitty Kallen with Harry James's orchestra, its lyrics are probably the best easter egg in Avengers: Endgame.
Updated: It was recently revealed that the writers and directors don't agree on how Steve Rogers uses time-travel and how it impacts his arc.
The writers believe Steve returns to his original timeline in The First Avenger and lives out his life with Peggy as the other Steve remains under the ice. He becomes the noticeably absent husband in her photographs in Winter Soldier. And they believe an older Steve attends Peggy's funeral in Civil War, even though an older Steve is never shown in the film.
The directors believe Steve's choice to stay with Peggy leads to an alternative timeline and leaves the MCU as we know it in tact. Because Steve stays in the 1940s, they can do whatever they want from that point on and create an entirely new future together. The possibilities become endless such as rescuing Bucky, stopping Hydra from infiltrating SHIELD, etc.
While I tend to side with the directors, fans have the freedom to choose what they believe is best for Steve, and can find either solution as the one they agree or disagree with the most.