Avengers: Endgame is in almost every way the perfect ending to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, and no character earned a more satisfying resolution than Captain America. But did the logistics have to be so confusing?
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
After Thanos is dealt with at the end of the film, Steve Rogers is tasked with returning each of the Infinity Stones to the timelines they came from. The idea seems to be that removing the stones from the past will create alternate timelines, but not if they’re returned back to the instant they were taken.
While the plan is for Steve to jump back in time and return to 2023 immediately, he decides instead to stay in the past, living out the rest of his days with Peggy Carter. As an old man, he comes back to the spot he left in order to pass the torch to Sam Wilson.
So wait a second: did Steve return to the actual past — as in, the past of the timeline we’ve been watching for 22 movies — or the past of an alternate timeline? This is a question that immediately divided viewers and sparked a fierce debate in the days since the movie’s release.
The alternate timeline interpretation is what seemed to fit best with Endgame’s depiction of time travel, as the film hammers home that going into the past and changing things will not alter the present but instead create new timelines. By this logic, Steve going back and marrying Peggy is such a divergence that the movie’s rules suggest it would automatically create a new timeline. According to this reading, Steve grows old in the alternate reality, and at some point, presumably after his timeline’s Peggy dies, he jumps back into the main timeline to sit on the bench.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have since confirmed this is exactly what they were going for, telling Entertainment Weekly “If Cap were to go back into the past and live there, he would create a branched reality.” They would go on to provide this same explanation in multiple other interviews, including several released on Monday alone.
But strangely, screenwriter Christopher Markus has said the exact opposite is true, telling Fandango, “Steve going back and just being there would not create a new timeline. So I reject the ‘Steve is in an alternate reality’ theory.”
If we buy the Russos’ explanation and it’s meant to be an alternate timeline, it’s hard to blame fans for not getting that impression. After all, Bruce Banner suggests that Steve is going back in order to close off alternate realities, and we’re told to expect him to return through the time portal. He doesn’t, with Bruce saying he blew past his time stamp.
The cinematic language the Russo Brothers then utilize — a dramatic reveal that Steve has already been sitting on the bench waiting for Bucky and Sam, as if he was there all along — creates the impression that he got there with no time travel required and has actually been in their timeline from the very beginning. Besides, Bruce mentions that Steve had as long in the past as he needs, which would seem to suggest he would only not return through the portal if he never traveled through time at all.
If that’s the case, and we buy the Markus explanation, the idea would theoretically be that when we heard about Peggy’s husband in The Winter Soldier, this was always Steve. But this would imply that Steve idly sat by in the past while horrible thing after horrible thing happened — including his best friend, Bucky Barnes, being tortured by Hydra. It also raises the question of why Sharon Carter, who Steve kissed in Captain America: Civil War, never once recognized him as her great uncle.
And, of course, the biggest issue with this explanation is just that it totally goes against the time travel rules that had previously been set up. We’re told all throughout the movie that you can’t possibly change the past without creating an alternate timeline, and then the movie ends with someone changing the past without creating an alternate timeline? Perhaps you can argue Steve doesn’t change the past since he always went back to live with Peggy, whereas the Avengers didn’t always kill Thanos as a baby. Still, if that’s the case, these two diverging views on time travel existing in the same movie seems pretty messy.
Considering this is almost certainly Steve Rogers’ final farewell in the Marvel universe, these details being so muddled, with the directors and screenwriters not even being able to agree them, feels like a mistake. Either explanation creates problems: the alternate timeline theory doesn’t quite fit with the way the scene is directed, and the main timeline theory doesn’t fit with the movie’s rules.
Still, while Endgame may have stumbled a bit in this regard, what really matters is how effective the very closing scene is on a thematic level. Peggy in The Winter Solider told Steve she lived a life but was sorry he didn’t get to do the same — and now, thanks to the wibbly wobbly time travel magic of the Quantum Realm, he finally can. And while we’re watching them finally have that dance, time travel mechanics is the last thing on our mind.