It's opening day for Avengers: Endgame, and the latest Marvel movie made good on its name--not only is it packed full of Easter Eggs, it delivered plenty of endings. There's tons of resolution and closure for the MCU characters to go around, and most of them were actually great. Take Tony Stark, for example. However, one of these endings did not work, and it nearly ruined the entire movie.
Consider this your spoiler warning.
Steve Rogers finished out his tenure as a main line MCU hero by not only wielding Mjolnir and surviving a truly brutal beating by Thanos, he also (apparently) volunteered to be the person to deliver the Infinity Stones back to their respective points in the timeline. You know, to avoid all the branched timelines that the Ancient One warned Bruce Banner about with the help of their handy cosmic infographic. Steve does this completely alone for some reason, which also doesn't make a lot of sense, but we'll let that slide for right now.
The real problem is that Steve doesn't actually succeed at his mission. He gives the Stones back, sure, and returns the Mjolnir he's been using to Asgard, apparently, but then he decides to take a detour and go live a full life with Peggy Carter somewhere in the past. This results in him showing back up in the present not by taking the quantum portal, but by walking (or maybe he took an Uber? Who knows) to a bench about 50 feet to the left of the portal, returning as an old man who has lived an entire life in the blink of the audience's eye.
We even get a little flashback of Steve finally sharing his dance with Peggy back in the '40s (or maybe the '50s, after the war) in what is obviously intended to be a very romantic, fulfilling coda to his story.
Or, maybe it would be, if it worked at all either in terms of Steve's thematic arc throughout his MCU tenure or by the rules that Endgame itself established.
Getting Technical With Time Travel
Let's take a look at Endgame's time travel logic first. As explicitly stated, by Endgame's own rules, you cannot change the present, you can only create new timelines--i.e. If the Infinity Stones weren't placed back in the exact places in the exact moments they were taken from, the MCU would be dealing with a bunch of branching timelines where various characters and entire movies either couldn't exist or would be completely doomed. A few of those branched timelines definitely still exist--an alternate 2014 where Thanos brought his forces to Earth years earlier than he originally did, an alternate 2011 where Loki escaped with the Tesseract after the end of Avengers 1, and so on--but the ones that were taken care of, were handled by Steve. That was his mission.
But in the process of closing off all the potential branches, Steve apparently made a new one. Or, rather, he should have made a new one, but somehow didn't. Steve changed his own past, and the past of Peggy Carter, by being present for those 70 years he originally spent frozen and marrying her--which, for whatever reason, allowed him to still exist as an old man in the main timeline he left--our present.
If Steve had actually created a branched timeline, he wouldn't have been an old man in our present. His reformed existence in the past should have changed events to the point that the movie’s present day would be different not only for Steve but for everyone. We'd be seeing a different timeline all together.
In the interest of mitigating the confusion here (and make no mistake--this is confusing as hell) let's break it down. There are two potential possibilities.
Possibility 1 is that Steve did create an alternate timeline that we just never got to see where he and Peggy were married, possibly went off and were superheroes together, stopped HYDRA from infiltrating SHIELD, rescued Bucky, prevented Howard Stark's assassination, and negated the need for the Avengers entirely. In the process, he erased the entire life that he knew Peggy had without him, including her husband and the kids she had while he was in the ice. Poof, gone.
Then, happy and old, Steve miraculously jumped back to our timeline unassisted, which ought to be impossible, and for no real reason, just in time to pass the shield on to Sam. Seriously, why would he bother coming back at all if he was so confident that the present day world didn't need him anymore? Why leave the timeline he made, especially if it really were so much better? What incentive does he have to go through the trouble?
What About Option 2?
Possibility 2 is that Steve did not create a branched timeline by going back, just lived his life as quietly as possible through the post-war years. That would make him complicit in the knowledge of all the horrific things happening to the people he loves during those years. This would also mean, in order for the timeline not to be fundamentally broken, that our version of Steve would have always been married to Peggy, even if he didn't know it until this exact moment. This not only contradicts the entirety of the Agent Carter TV show and various parts of the MCU up to now (like Steve's meeting with dying Peggy after he dethaws), it also means that Steve would be Sharon Carter's uncle--and, uh, that's pretty gross, even if he didn't know it at the time.
Even discounting the potential for unwitting incest, there are some other major problems here. Remember when Steve said when he sees a situation headed south, he can't turn his back? Remember how Steve's entire origin story revolves around his inability to sit back and let a conflict run its course without him? How he doesn't like bullies no matter where they're from? How he literally submitted himself to a potentially lethal science experiment rather than not fight in a war? How he jumped into German occupied territory without an army backing him up just on the off chance that there was something he could do to help his friend? How he can "do this all day?" Started a war to clear the name of his ex-assassin bestie? Still acted as a hero even while he was an international fugitive?
In what world does Steve Rogers, even a beaten down and jaded Steve Rogers, just sit on his hands and let the future deal with its own problems?
The answer should be none of them.
This doesn't even begin to broach yet another uncomfortable topic. The people who returned from the Snap were very literally dropped into a future when no time had passed for them at all--the miniature version of Steve's experience waking up from the ice back in 2011. But apparently he's totally fine with just bailing on a world experiencing a level of trauma that he is uniquely qualified to help them through.
"He's earned the right to be selfish!" You say? Sure. If anyone deserves a vacation, it's Steve--but that doesn't mean he's going to take one. We've spent the last 8 years learning the ins and outs of this character in the movies, and the last 7 decades learning about him in the comics. Letting things just happen is fundamentally not something he'd do. It's just not. He could retire, pass the shield over to Sam, and take a major step back, but there's no way Steve is ever just going to give up the fight altogether--and this has literally happened in the comics. Steve's even been an old man, but he still doesn't stop participating in superheroic world. It's simply not in his nature to quit--that would be like Tony suddenly deciding not to be an engineer just for the hell of it.
But say the goofy, esoteric time travel logic doesn't matter to you either way--there's still an issue. It has less to do with the mechanics and more to do with Steve's place within the MCU's meta-narrative.
Let's Ignore The Time Travel All Together
For a second, let's just pretend that we don't have almost 100 years of comics to look at and focus exclusively on the 60-some hours of film we've been given. Thematically, Steve is a guy who has lost a lot in these movies. Arguably, that's his most defining quality--he went into the ice 70 years ago, and he thinks a different guy came out--his words, not mine. The motif of being unable to go home again is repeated poignantly again and again and again--and through all of that, through everything, Steve has learned how to keep going. And that's a good thing--or at least, it was a good thing. By moving on, Steve was actually doing exactly what Peggy Carter had hoped for him ("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.")
Sure, there are a few beats in Endgame specifically where it looks like he's finally hit his breaking point ("some people move on, but not us"), but that only means he's been beaten down, not taken out. Hell, he even manages to summon up the force of will in the 11th hour to be worthy of wielding Mjolnir, making him only the third character and only mortal in the MCU to do so. That's nothing to scoff at.
Steve may be defined by loss, but the power of his character comes from turning that loss into strength. Sure, he's a super soldier, he's fast and strong and can take a major beating, but his actual superpower is his indomitable will. If there's one thing you can count on in the world, it's that Captain America is not going to give up, even when things are at their absolute worst.
Except for when he does, apparently. Giving Steve a temporal get-out-of-jail-free card may seem like a good idea on the surface, but at the end of the day all it does is recant his entire journey. What's the point of emphasizing the perpetual motion machine that is Steve Rogers--the constant assurance that no matter how dark things get, no matter how much you lose, you can still move forward--if the ultimate reward is getting to do the exact thing he was told he couldn't do; that he spent his life and five movies moving beyond?
Which is to say nothing about the completely squandered pay off for every moment of his solo trilogy. Remember how important his "I'm with you till the end of the line" refrain was with Bucky Barnes? Hopefully you do--there's officially licensed merch with that line printed on it. Fans got it tattooed on their bodies. It comes up a lot, and for good reason. It wasn't exactly subtle as far as big symbolic gestures are concerned and it was a major part of not one, not two, but three individual movies. Funny how now it's more like "I'm with you until the exact moment I decide I don't want to stick around anymore." Funnier still how that line, maybe the most memorable Captain America line of the entire MCU next to "I can do this all day"--another thing that was, apparently, not true--doesn't get a single shout out or call back in a movie that is about 90% shout outs and call backs to memorable MCU moments.
It's cheap, not romantic, and a needlessly dull edge to an otherwise powerful arc. The lesson that ought to be about processing grief and turning toward the future became a carelessly handwaved wink-nod at returning to the past, at which point Steve's journey is no longer about the process of recovery, it's a message about working really hard until you're miraculously presented with a magic bullet to make all your hard work and effort no longer matter.
Which, frankly, sucks.
And, really, none of this is even touching on the fact that Steve and Peggy's soul mate level connection was fostered over the course of, what, like a week back in 1945? Maybe he should have gotten over it. She definitely did. There was a whole TV show about it.
They both deserved so much better.