Maybe that was it. Or maybe he was only following Peggy’s orders. When Steve met the aging Peggy in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she left him with a piece of advice: “All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best that we can do is to start over.”
Yet the Endgame finale—with its heart-stoppingly romantic last shot, of Steve and Peggy dancing in their living room, reunited sometime in the past—has made Captain America a target of some less-than-Cap-friendly commentary since the film’s release. His final scene, one critic argued, “makes no sense.” On Twitter, he’s #notmysteve and #notmycaptain, with the word selfish brought up the most.
To many, apparently, starting over is the worst way for Steve Rogers’s story to come to an end. For one thing, the time-travel mechanics are too tricky: Does Cap’s return to the past mean he erased Peggy’s original one, which included—as shown in Winter Soldier—a family? Isn’t that morally wrong? (Not if you buy the directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s explanation: They say that Cap created an alternate reality and found Peggy there.) For another, the choice feels out of character: Didn’t Cap promise his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) that he’d be with him until the end of the line? (Yes—and he’s already kept that promise more than enough times, through three different films. And again, according to the Russos, Bucky knew what Cap was about to do.) Most important, shouldn’t Cap, the righteous soldier, have gone out swinging in a battle, any battle, instead of solemnly sitting on a bench?
It’s a good thing Cap’s weapon of choice is a shield.
Not that he should need it. His decision should be celebrated for how satisfying it is; it’s Endgame’s most human exit compared with all the epic, sacrificial, and even otherworldly losses. Of the original Avengers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) launches herself off a distant planet’s cliff for the Soul Stone (which can be retrieved only in exchange for, well, a soul). Iron Man dies on an apocalyptic battlefield to destroy Thanos. But those legendary finales happened because of their character evolutions: Black Widow, though her arc is never explored as deeply as those of her teammates, felt she had prior acts to atone for, while Iron Man had his transformation from playboy billionaire to chivalrous hero to complete.
Cap, though? As the paragon of duty, honor, and loyalty since his days as a frail army reject, he’s been a superhero long enough—so in his last moments, he returns to being just a kid from Brooklyn. His choice isn’t about being a quitter; it’s about finally getting to quit.
Besides, superheroes don’t usually get such tidy closure. Comic-book characters, Uncle Ben and the Waynes excepted, aren’t supposed to ever really die. It’s a classic trope: They get reborn as higher beings, resurrected as clones, experimented on and rebuilt, time-traveled into the present, moved from alternate Earths or realities to the one dominating the story. Endings are never endings, especially on-screen; they’re open-ended teasers. Superman perishes in the DC Extended Universe, then promptly reenters the narrative a few short scenes later. Jean Grey dies, only to come back with a vengeance—a feat she’s about to accomplish in theaters again. Thanos dusts off half of all species, yet here they are, right back where they left off.