THERE ARE SPOILERS
JUST SEE THE MOVIE ALREADY
Maybe the biggest debate coming out of Avengers:Endgame is what is going on with the timeline. I admit, this is my favorite post-Endgame debate. Talking about Natasha is frustrating for all the wasted potential, the Fat Thor debate is answered in Joanna Robinson’s definitive take, and Strongest Avenger is a pointless controversy because the movie makes it clear who that is. But we can have a lot of fun with the timeline, because time travel is always a f-cking mess and opens up a lot of possibilities and questions about what is or isn’t happening in the post-time travel universe.
As we know, Steve returns the Infinity Stones to their respective points of origin in the timeline, then decides to stay in the past. What does this do to the timeline?! I got COMPLETELY bogged down in this, even though Endgame makes sure to reiterate its time-travel rules twice, just to so idiots like me do not overthink it. (Although Endgame does seem to break its own rules as twice Tony makes references that point to a time loop, which the movie expressly rules out.) The time-travel rules in Endgame are about as simple as time-travel rules can be: Changing your past does not change your future, it just creates an alternate reality. This eliminates the Back to the Future “grandfather paradox”, where changing your past will erase you out of the timeline. Endgame sets up time as a constantly forward-moving element that can only be splintered, not truly altered. Simple. Right?!
Not really, because boy, does Old Cap have everyone in their feels, as the youths say. I went through the whole cycle of thinking Steve must have gone back, got with Peggy Carter, saved Bucky, and righted every wrong he could, because surely, that would be the happy ending, right? A Steve who can stop all that terrible sh-t happening? But then, after seeing the movie again and really absorbing the character arcs and how they are categorically tying up conflicts introduced in earlier films, I swung back around to thinking that Steve went back and stayed in his own past and just kept his mouth shut and lived his life in peaceful obscurity. This is not a satisfying resolution for a lot of Cap fans, so let’s break it down.
The Branch Theory
This is the theory that Steve goes back and starts fixing everything, which would create an alternate timeline where the events of the MCU either don’t happen, or happen completely differently. I spent about a day thinking this was the “answer” to Old Cap, but the more I thought about it, the worse the branch theory really is. Because in this version, Steve lives in an alternate reality, which he would KNOW is an alternate reality. Essentially, he’s choosing to live in a fantasy. Further, once he returns to the lake in 2023, this timeline would close. He puts all the Stones back but by staying in the past, he displaces himself from that moment in 2023. Once he goes back, he returns to his own point of origin, closing his loop. The branch theory means Steve Rogers chooses to live in a false reality he knows is impermanent. That’s not a very happy ending, when you consider what it means for his mental state and ability to move on, which is the whole point of Endgame. It’s about these characters finding resolutions. In the branch theory, Steve never really finds resolution, he just chooses a dream life.
Old Cap in the main timeline
In this version, Steve puts all the Stones back and returns to an earlier point in the main timeline. Based on the song and the cars on the street in the final scene, I put him in the late 1940s, sometime after his 1945 crash into the ice depicted in The First Avenger. This means that yes, there are now two Steves in the main timeline, one living as Captain America, one living quietly as Mr. Peggy Carter. But how could Steve keep his mouth shut? How could he let all that bad stuff happen? Why wouldn’t he save Bucky?!
Because he’s already saved Bucky. It’s like he tells Bucky by the lake—it will be okay. By 2023, Steve knows that, for the most part, everything works out. They rectify the Dustening, Bucky is in a place to move forward, Sam will be fine, Thor is off on new adventures, Clint is retiring (again). He also knows that if he goes back and saves Bucky, it’s not HIS Bucky he’s saving. 2023 Bucky is still out there, having gone through all that awful sh-t. All Steve has done is create a new Bucky. He knows he can’t really save anyone, because he can’t change anything for the people in 2023, he just creates an alternate reality. The 2023 people still have to soldier on. He fixes nothing.
But at least he gets a life of his own. He gets to put down the shield. Steve has fought all his battles, he’s done everything he can. He deserves a quiet life. At one point, he thought that life missed him (Age of Ultron). But now he has a chance to have it all. He can save the world as Captain America, AND live quietly as, I don’t know, Pheeve Lodgers. He goes back after his ice-crash to ensure he is there to be found in 2011, so he can join the Avengers, and that Cap lives out the events of the MCU, and then in 2023, he goes back in time, only to appear as Old Cap. The two Steves resolve into one. And no, he doesn’t erase Peggy’s life post-Steve, because the Agent Carter show didn’t last long enough to explicitly name her husband. They were definitely setting someone else up, but they didn’t get to commit to it. You can easily assume her mysterious veteran husband is Steve under a fake name. Peggy keeps his secret, everything stays the same.
Is it satisfying? YES. Because Steve Rogers finally gets to move on. There is nothing left for him to do. Any other possible ending means Steve continuing to fight, FOREVER. Sending him through alternate timelines means he has to fight all the same battles over and over. Staying in the present means continuing on as Captain America even as we can see how f-cking exhausted he’s become by Endgame. Seriously, Chris Evans does a GREAT job showing just how tired Cap is by 2023. Sure, 2012 Cap and 2023 Cap fighting is a cool scene, but it’s also a clear demonstration of how far the character has come, and how completely done he is with the gig. Cap is ready to hang it up in 2023. So let him. It’s not a brain-bender to assume he stays in his own past, living the good life he missed the first time around. He’s won every battle already, he knows how things work out. He can tolerate Bucky’s misery because he knows, in the end, Bucky will be okay. Let Steve have his good, quiet life. He earned it.