Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Endgame.
For all the criticisms that the Marvel movies are about restoring the status quo (which is a lot like attacking firefighters for not working in construction; some people have the job of saving, others have the job of building), Avengers: Endgame has some real finality to it, especially where some of its biggest characters are concerned. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is really dead. Captain America (Chris Evans) is really an old man. These are permanent changes. There’s no way to go back without cheating the audience of these moments and diminishing the impact of Endgame. But these endings help breathe new life into the MCU by making what came before matter.
What’s more, these conclusions feel like the natural end of these stories. When Tony Stark decided to become Iron Man, he wasn’t just deciding to fight against the weapons he created. He was remaking his entire life from careless playboy to someone who was putting his own life on the line to try and right a wrong. The story of Tony Stark throughout the MCU is someone who keeps making new mistakes as he tries to fix what’s been broken. As you see at the beginning of Endgame, Tony’s not even that remorseful about Ultron—he thinks a suit of armor around the world would at least have protected it from Thanos.
For all his brilliance, Tony Stark is a short-term thinker. “I created weapons? I’ll become a weapon to stop those weapons.” “I want to hang up the need for the Avengers? I’ll create an autonomous machine whose job is protect humanity.” “I feel responsible for the collateral damage I’ve caused? I’ll support accords that impose regulation on superheroes.” As Iron Man 3 points out, he’s a mechanic, and he’s constantly trying to fix things. And yet when it came time to a problem he couldn’t outthink, Tony Stark acted and wiped away Thanos and his legions at the cost of his own life.
For Tony Stark, the nightmare he saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just that his friends were dead. It’s that he survived. That survivor’s guilt has long haunted Tony Stark—ever since the first Iron Man—and it was compounded when he got a glimpse of the other side of the portal in The Avengers. His sacrifice in Endgame provides a nice symmetry to the MCU, but more than that, it provides the proper close to his story. The guy who tries to control everything gives up his life and in his dying moments realizes that the world is in the safe hands of the people he loves and inspires. He did “build a suit of armor around the world”, but it wasn’t his machines; it was the people who followed his example. His legacy is people, from his fellow Avengers to his friends to his and Pepper’s daughter, Morgan.
Steve Rogers’ story is a little different. In my review, I said that Endgame succeeded without fan service, and that’s slightly inaccurate. It succeeds without cheap fan service, where the story betrays its natural direction in favor of giving the fans what they want. Endgame absolutely gives fans what they want, but it’s earned. Yes, when Steve decides to stay back in time, it opens up a can of worms: Did he assume a new identity? Did he stop helping people? Does going back in time negate his sacrifice in Captain America: The First Avenger when he goes into the ice?
But pulling at that thread is ultimately unrewarding because Steve Rogers has earned his happy ending. Marvel Studios does not traffic in downers. At most, their movies can be bittersweet (like the ending of The First Avenger), but ultimately heroes are rewarded for their heroism. The desire to do good is its own reward, and that is what makes a hero in the MCU. And that quiet heroism is a fitting conclusion for Steve Rogers because it shows what would make him happiest.
Captain America did his job, but in The Winter Soldier and Civil War, you can still see he’s a man out of time. He’ll never quite fit in with our modern world, not because we can’t accept his goodness, but because he’s simply from another era. He can muddle through and figure things out, but he belongs in the middle of the 20th century, not in the early 21st century. Where he belongs is back with Peggy (Hayley Atwell), and it’s hard to say that’s a selfish decision when you see all that he’s done. And when he goes back, it’s not to reset the course of the 20th century or any other grand design. He just wants a simple life with the woman he loves.
Is that fan service? Sure. But so is, “You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.” These movies are made with the fans in mind, and while it may occasionally go against their expectation, Marvel movies aren’t here to punch you in the gut. They’re here so that we can escape to a movie where people do good things and good things happen to them. It’s a world where there’s a semblance of fairness and that you can be reunited with the person you love.
None of this is a betrayal of who Steve Rogers is as a character. I’d like to think that when we see him in the support group at the beginning of the movie, that’s an indication of who he was when he went back in time—someone who helps others even if it’s just emotional support. And it’s not like being Captain America has been lost. There was a Captain America since 2011/2012 and it gets a new one when Sam Wilson gets the shield. Cap didn’t give up on the world; he just wanted to live his life. That’s the life of a soldier—you do your duty, and then you come home. Cap’s ending shows that Steve Rogers wasn’t defined by war, but by peace.
Through the conclusions of these two stories, we finally get a shape to them. The Iron Man and Captain America of the MCU now have closure*. The characters and their stories are stronger because they don’t go on indefinitely. And the closure provided in Endgame is specific for these characters. It looks at where they’ve been and where they should go. The ending of Endgame isn’t just a farewell to these beloved characters; it’s a way to give them the sendoff they deserve.
*While Black Widow’s arc also has closure of sorts, it’s harder to see it since there’s a Black Widow movie on the way.
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