In Avengers: Endgame, Steve Rogers reminds us there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to protect the people he loves, no matter the cost. But the way things play out for Steve in the movie leave open a number of significant questions about the choices he makes and how they might affect the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In a bold move, Endgame opens almost immediately after the events of Avengers: Infinity War with half of the universe dusted and the dismayed surviving Avengers scattered across the universe. After Captain Marvel runs a quick errand to retrieve Tony Stark and Nebula from dying in space, the team spends a few scenes licking their wounds before deciding to go after Thanos. They discover he’s settling into his retirement on another and has recently used the Infinity Gauntlet once more. The Avengers initially believe that together, they might have a chance at taking Thanos down and perhaps using the Gauntlet to undo what he’s done, but once they find the Mad Titan on his quaint little farm, they’re dismayed to learn that he used the Infinity Stones to destroy the stone, ensuring they’d never be used again.
From there, Endgame proceeds to follow as the Avengers concoct a convoluted plot in which they use the Quantum Realm to travel into various points in the MCU’s past in order to steal the intact Stones, bring them to the future, and bring back everyone Thanos killed. There are all sorts of problems raised by Endgame’s take on time travel, but the important takeaways by the end of the film are that the Avengers’ plan works specifically because of its final steps involving Steve returning each of the Stones, and Mjölnir (which Thor steals from Asgard), back to their designated places in the timeline so as to not disrupt the present day the film closes out on.
After Steve makes his solo jump into the past, Bruce, Sam Wilson, and Bucky assume he’ll return within moments, having completed his task, but instead, they realize that Steve never intended to pop right back, and instead chose to live out his years peacefully until becoming an old man. The way Endgame is shot, one could be led to believe that Steve simply zapped himself back to a point when he and Peggy Carter could be together, and the two went on to live happily ever after.
But according to the Russo Brothers, that’s not the case.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the co-directors broke down how, if Steve were to go back into his own timeline, he’d fundamentally change the way history played out, making it so that the Avengers’ triumph over Thanos could never happen:
If Cap were to go back into the past and live there, he would create a branched reality. The question then becomes, how is he back in this reality to give the shield away? Interesting question, right?
Maybe there’s a story there. There’s a lot of layers built into this movie and we spent three years thinking through it, so it’s fun to talk about it and hopefully fill in holes for people so they understand what we’re thinking.
While the directors didn’t go into detail about why Cap staying in the past would be any more significant than ripping the Infinity Stones out of their intended places, they did confirm Steve’s travels weren’t about just going to the past—at some point, he also hopped dimensions, which...is its own can of worms entirely.
Endgame gets a little fast and loose with the way it talks about time and reality, which makes things a bit difficult to follow as you’re watching the movie. At one point, Bruce and the Ancient One have a conversation about how removing the Stones from the past would cause splits in reality, some of which would likely have very bad endings for everyone within them. In the same conversation, though, both Banner and the Ancient One speak about returning the stones to their “realities,” implying that multiple realities existed before the Avengers took the stones, or that the two people are simply using “realities” and the phrase “points in time” interchangeably, which doesn’t help clear things up.
But the Russos’ assertion that Rogers decided to hop into another reality (for the sake of clarity, let’s assume that they mean “timeline” here) is interesting because it confirms that, despite the Avengers’ plan, they do end up fundamentally creating and impacting alternate timelines and they have the technology necessary for accessing them if they want to.
Even though there’s already an entire movie about an Infinity Stone with the power to warp reality, the concept of multiple parallel universes is new for the MCU and opens up an infinite number of possibilities as to where the franchise could go in the future. Marvel’s animated What If series (which is based on the comics) is already poised to show us glimpses of worlds where moments related to characters like Peggy Carter becoming Captain America and Steve Rogers becoming Iron Man, but with this new tidbit about Endgame, there’s a chance that an epic multiple reality-spanning adventure might be in order somewhere down the line.
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