Captain America: Moving On and Going Back
Note, for the Captain America and Iron Man essays, I really feel I need to go back and connect what happens in Endgame to what happens in the movies that focus on the individual characters leading up to the end. However, that means I would need to rewatch six Marvel Movies and I don’t have that kind of time right now, so here goes. Maybe I can write an expanded edition later on.
If Endgame is really about failure, then what does the First Avenger do when he finally fails? I say finally because Captain America doesn’t really loose. Sure, in the larger arc there are setbacks and temporary defeats. Sure, Sokovia was a bad situation that led to Steve Rogers being on the wrong side of the law. And you could argue that, at the end of Civil War, Captain America “lost” in the sense that the Avengers were split up, his relationship with Tony Stark was ruined and SHIELD was destroyed. That’s all true. But through all of this, Cap stuck to his principles. Institutions were fallible and fell, but that’s because those institutions were not principled. SHIELD was literally compromised by Hydra. Tony was willing to compromise freedom for security. And the whole Sokovia mess was because Tony and Banner could not stop messing around with stuff. Cap has a deep and guiding moral compass, one not easily moved. That compass has always led him down the right path.
I have always liked the Captain America story in these films, not just because he’s the morally upright hero, but because there’s an element of tragedy to his entire situation. He’s a man out of time, who thought he had sacrificed himself for the greater good only to wake up in a world radically changed. There’s that scene (I think it’s a deleted one) from The Avengers where Steve is living in a 1940’s house constructed inside some aircraft hangar. I found that profoundly sad. There’s the other scene at the beginning of the Avengers where Cap is pounding the crap out of those punching bags. Nick Fury comes to see him. Cap asks “What’s the mission?” The mission, his duty, is all he has left.
Captain America is all about duty. To his country and his principles, at least to the degree those things overlap. He’s also a man who has had everything taken away from him except that duty. He’s a soldier, so he does what he is told in service to a greater good. That’s all he knows. Part of his larger arc is Cap building another family with the Avengers, seeing that duty is best when mixed with love. Perhaps, even, the two are largely codefinitional. As institutions fail and principles are stretched, our duty to those we love remains.
And then almost all of his family dies. Bucky. Falcon. All those people Cap has come to love and trust and see has something bigger than any particular duty he has. He has a duty to them, which is why he refuses to destroy Vision when that’s an obvious way to solve the whole Thanos problem. He fails in that duty when Thanos snaps. One of the most heartbreaking parts of Infinity War was the look on Steve Roger’s face when he takes the handful of ashes that used to be Bucky and falls backward, sitting down hard on the dirt. There is a man who has failed. He has failed those whom he loves, whom he has never failed before.
He fails again at the beginning of Infinity War. The plan to track down Thanos, get the gauntlet, and snap everyone back seems reasonable. But it does not work, of course. Thanos wins again. What’s more, Captain America lets a captive, wounded Thanos be straight up murdered by Thor. The movie does not dwell on this, but I see it as icing in the failure cake for Cap. He’s let have the universe be destroyed. He’s failed his loved ones. He fails Thor in letting his friend succumb to his rage. And he fails his principles by letting a captive be murdered.
Cap has nothing left to do or fall back on. As he tells Natasha on the journey to find Thanos, if the plan didn’t work, he had no idea what to do next. It’s that line, and the heated conversation with Stark when the later returns from space, that are key to the rest of Cap’s choices.
Upon being rescued from space, Tony tells Steve to let it go. They have lost. They cannot fix it. They just need to move on. There is finger pointing, as each sees the other as being somewhat responsible for Thanos’ victory. But each knows it is not one person’s fault, even as each accepts a lot of responsibility.
So what does Steve Rogers do? He tries to take Tony’s advice. He’s leading a support group. He’s letting Natalia run the “team.” Really, he doesn’t think there’s a team that needs running. His conversation with Black Widow over that peanut butter sandwich is essentially Steve telling her she needs to relax and move on, just as he is trying to.
(Brief aside. I know it’s product placement. But you expect me to believe Captain America drives a fancy Audi around? No way. He can have any car he wants now. Maybe a 1960’s Corvette? A nice F-150? Come on!)
But an opportunity presents itself, one Cap can’t quite wrap his head around, but he seizes on it anyway. Travel through time, get the stones, bring everyone back. We can do this.
I need an entire essay to talk about how easy it is for Steve to accept Tony’s revision of their plan to just bringing everyone back to now, not resetting everything to five years ago. But, intentionally or not (I tend to think the writers just didn’t want to dwell on a point that should have been source of serious moral debate), Cap’s acceptance of Tony’s demands shows his acceptance of his own failure. He has moved on, to some extent. But more on this later.
As we know, Cap then goes back in time. . . twice. He fights himself and comments on his own butt in 2014 (this was my least favorite part of the movie, btw), then he and Tony go back to 1970 to get the tesseract and some more Pym particles.
Of course, Cap almost runs into Peggy Carter in 1970. It’s this moment, seeing her through the shutters of her office, seeing his own photo from 1945 there on her desk, undoubtedly remembering visiting her when she was dying and later carrying her casket, that lingers, another reminder of what Steve Rogers has given for duty. He had no control over being frozen for 70 years. Just as Thor lost his family, Steve lost the possibility of love. He became a man out of time, focused on the mission and his duty because those things seemingly remained constant when so many other things had changed. It’s there, standing in Agent Carter’s office when he’s out of time again, he realizes that another possibility might exist. He could let go, move on, and there would be someone overjoyed to see that happen. He just has to save the world again first.
Being confronted with his past love might have thrown him into a conflict of duty versus that love, but this is Captain America we are talking about. There is no conflict. There’s regret, sure. But Steve Rogers know what he has to do, while silently hoping he is successful enough in his plan to defeat Thanos to really move on, or move back.
Thus, Captain America confronts his failure in two ways. There’s the obvious, massive failure that led to the snap. Cap confronts this by moving on, accepting the new status quo when there seems to be no alternative. This acknowledgement of failure, of attempting to reconcile one’s self to new circumstances, humanizes Cap, insofar as now he’s a superhero who fails and has to deal with that just like anyone else.
While I think it’s wrong to call his decision to not to stay and love Peggy a failure, it’s still a source of “what if”. It was the price he was willing to pay to due his duty. Indeed, it’s love that allows him to persevere in his duty, be it to Peggy or the other Avengers. But this duty is also a burden, insofar as Steve believes he can never put it down, that things won’t get done unless he does them. He was the first Avenger, after all. Captain America’s arc of failure is about letting go, of sharing responsibility with others, about returning to something that, while a powerful source of moral motivation, is also just for him.
Cap’s ultimate victory is not over Thanos. He gets the brass ring when he gets to live a life with the person he loves most in the world.
He’s like Tony in this way.