Avengers: Endgame is a film about the present of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its strongest points can be found in its adoration for the journey there.
*Basically Entirely Spoilers*
You see, at the end of the day, all I really cared about in the movie was how Captain America was handled.
I firmly believe him to be the anchor of the MCU as it was, and The Russo Brothers had adeptly crafted his narrative throughout all of their films. This was bolstered by Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, where cast and crew were able to out-Donner 1978’s Superman. Cap is the perfect parallel to Superman in the MCU. Created in war, but maintaining his ethics no matter the challenge. Standing next to gods and aliens, Cap somehow remained consistent. Steve loses the life he wished for and keeps pushing on, though it is always in the back of his mind.
In the first Avengers film, Steve Rogers was established as the moral compass of the team, even challenging Nick Fury’s use of Hydra *cough Nazi cough* technology. Captain America’s presence began to serve as an indicator of importance, with The Winter Soldier serving as a turning point for the MCU as a whole. The dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. led to an era of tension and uncertainty, allowing for more interesting threats to arise. Sure, Iron Man was also around for the majority of these key moments (Captain America: Civil War may as well have been called Avengers 3) but Tony’s sequels never contained the gravity of Steve’s. Iron Man may have gotten the ball rolling in our world and been the contemporary hero of the MCU, but we soon learn that Captain America was at the center of nearly everything. The tension between Captain America and Iron Man was earned and had a greater impact than even the comic book Civil War.
It is the only two ways to see the genesis of the MCU. It was either a product of Iron Man’s (real and fictional) success or a series driven by the Captain America’s ethics. Regardless of your view, Steve Rogers became the heart of The Avengers. The team could not exist without him. When he appears in Infinity War, we hear The Avengers theme. I believe it is because of this that in Endgame, things move so quickly in the beginning.
Yes, we have to get the obligatory Stark meltdown in and it is utterly appropriate, but Cap calling the shots is part of the team’s allure. A group of wildly flawed people driven by a stunningly good person. Then a bunch of stuff happens until we get to that crazy final battle and Cap picks up Mjlonir. Categorically the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard in a theater. It affirms that Captain America was not only right through all of this turmoil, but makes him the physical embodiment of The Avengers. Captain America is the tip of the spear and allows the other heroes to do their part. When Iron Man sacrifices himself, Captain America still remains. His survival is symbolic of the team’s triumph.
In turn, Iron Man’s death is symbolic of the death of this first iteration of the MCU and The Avengers. This allows Cap to finally lay down his shield and, through the magic and technology that has changed the world of the film, achieve the goals he seemingly lost to time.
Now, this point is a bit controversial. Meg Downey wrote a rather well-thought out decimation of Cap’s epilogue, citing both thematic and narrative issues. Steve Rogers brushing aside the plan he committed to so he can get his reward certainly seems a bit contradictory, but I think there is something of a high order going on here. The aforementioned death of Iron Man brings about a symbolic end to the MCU as we know it. This works within the narrative as well, as the world presented in the film is now unrecognizable. This world is no longer ours, nor is it Captain America’s. Steve Rogers, so tied to the evolution of the superhero finds himself at the end of that particular story. This frees him to return to the life he wants, as his service is concluded.
Now, do I think he sat everything out in those lost years?
But that’s the beauty of time travel stories, we don’t need to know what he did as long as we believed it helped. Additionally, even The Russo Brothers have acknowledged that this whole situation may require another timeline and that Cap’s journey back to the prime one may be something special in itself. This is a wildly Comic Book way of seeing reality, hammering home the promises of the early films. It was a great feeling for an occasionally grumpy, old comic fan. Some things don’t need to make sense as long as the feel right. Just ask Professional Wrestlers.
Ultimately, the aging Rogers passes on his shield to a new Captain America, Sam Wilson. A new heart for a new era of films. Or maybe not. That’s the beauty of this film’s end. In the MCU, everything is now new again.