But there’s no discussion of inevitability without finality, and where our characters end up. The arc of this franchise has been tied to Tony and Steve; Iron Man launched this narrative and took us through Phase 1, where Cap then took the reins. While a new generation of heroes has arisen since, the story necessarily had to end with these two. And in this, Endgame delivered perhaps its biggest twist: having Tony and Steve do what they previously thought impossible for themselves. Not to subvert expections, but because they better understand who they are.
When forced to face their own ghosts in the 1970’s, their reactions are distinct but telling. Steve finds himself in the office of his former flame Peggy Carter, complete with a picture of his unSuper-Soldier self. When he finally sees Peggy in person, he maintains his Captain America discipline (while understanding the ramifications of time travel) to keep silent vigil. But the desire is there, as evidenced each time he glances at Peggy’s picture in his compass.
Tony, on the other hand, is a futurist; he meddles, he tinkers, he’s a mechanic. When confronted with his father Howard, he can’t help but insert himself into his father’s struggles of impending fatherhood. Posing as “Howard Potts,” Tony gets to have one last conversation with dad — the one he never got because of the Winter Soldier. Here, a mature Tony can appreciate Howard’s struggle of balancing ambition and love, and give Howard comfort. This not only gives Tony closure, but clarity.
For Tony Stark, there was always a solution, a way to cut the wire. But after New York, Tony has been haunted by this vision of Thanos killing all his friends but not him. That’s why he boards the spaceship at the start of Infinity War and why he comes back to the team now. That’s his endgame, and he’s willing to not come back if it means his family, Stark and Avenger, endures. When Doctor Strange finally indicates this is the battle they win, Tony knows he has to seize it. Whatever it takes. The Iron Man that started the MCU was a hero for his own sake but ended as one for all’s sake.
Steve Rogers’s end state is far more contentious, but meaningful all the same. The audience expects Cap to be the sacrifice guy, the ultimate “jump on the grenade” moment. But to borrow a phrase from another soon-ending cultural behemoth: “Men’s lives have meaning, not their deaths.” No moment of sacrifice will show off Captain America’s iron will more than his refusal to stand down. Even with Avengers HQ ruined, his shield broken, and his comrades all down, Cap keeps getting up to face down his enemy. His march up to Thanos, a beautiful shot of perseverance in the landscape of ruin, tells us everything we know about Steve Rogers, and everything we love about Steve Rogers. As long as one person stands, Thanos will never be able to claim victory.
Which is what makes Cap’s ending a shock, but also shockingly appropriate. After returning the Infinity Stones to their original timelines, he does the unexpected: he stays in the past to live out his days in secret with Peggy Carter. Steve Rogers never really wanted to go to war in the first place, he just didn’t like “bullies.” In defeating Thanos, the Avengers thwarted the ultimate bully, a man who would impose his violent and abusive will on the entire universe. This gives Steve an opportunity to do what he never thought possible; hang it up for good. With the greatest threat gone and a new generation of capable heroes ready, Steve can finally reverse his last conflict: being a man out of time. A chance for the greatest soldier to finally have peace, but not in the macabre sense that comes from death.
In Civil War, Sharon Carter tells Steve that she never told him about aunt Peggy because she didn’t want Peggy to have any secrets from Steve. How fitting, then, for Steve to return to Peggy in the past, and for the two of them to keep the secret of the fate of the world only to themselves, and to live out their days with that truth.
Big Cosmic Comic Book Stuff
Let’s talk about the other promise of a 22-film cinematic universe drawn from comic books. It’s the ability to just get big and incredibly stupid in the best possible way with all the conceits that come with comics: Time and space travel, desired team-ups, and all-around absurdity paying off all the stories that came before.
The phrase “fan service” is thrown around often, and derisively so, but not here. My proposition is that if the MCU can’t reward its fans for sharing the journey, what’s even the point of doing it? This is why you invest into characters for so many films, and this is why you suffer their losses, too. So that the catharsis can be that much more affecting when it comes.
But everything in Endgame does a wonderful job of staying true to both MCU canon and the Marvel comics it draws from. Cap wielding Mjolnir, for example, is something Steve and Thor both realized in Age of Ultron, but still causes a rush. Thor reclaiming his old hammer earlier is a wonderful character beat, a confirmation that he’s still worthy. And it makes it all that much more exciting when he wields both his weapons at the end. A stunning example of character informing the spectacle.
And there’s just so much drawn from the comics that started with the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko, and of course Stan Lee. Endgame borrows some of its biggest moments from vaunted events like Infinity Gauntlet but also maligned comics like Secret Empire. The most memorable moment of that line was the initial reveal of Steve whispering “Hail Hydra.” Halfway through Endgame, Steve finds himself once again in an elevator with Hydra personnel. But instead of another amazing fist fight, Steve diffuses the situation with a whisper. Steve’s cunning and strategy comes through, a character beat this time instead of spectacle.
There are even stunning tributes to film writ large baked into this popcorn blockbuster. Shades of Kurosawa emerge in a duel in the streets of Tokyo between Clint and a gang leader. Steve and Tony’s voyage to the 1970’s has a comedic strain borrowed from Starsky and Hutch, complete with cameos from Community/Russo regulars Yvette Nicole Brown and Ken Jeong. In a giant love letter to its own universe, it’s wonderful that there was space to honor the medium as a whole.
And of course there’s the grand ending, a callback to Kurt Busiek’s Avengers Forever, a time-hopping adventure that climaxes with the Avengers of all timelines assembling to defeat an existential threat. Likewise, the climax of Endgame brings together every last soldier, warrior, and Guardian to stand against Thanos’s army. It’s an affirmation of all the premise laid out: that this story is not just about overcoming, but overcoming as a certainty, and that a collective struggle for justice survives because it believes it will win.
That’s the promise of the Avengers. That no matter what, we will win, and we’ll do it together.