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Justice for Steve Rogers, Part 2

After Steve Rogers entered the modern world, Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, gave him crucial support (courtesy of Disney and Marvel Studios).

This article is continued from Part 1, published yesterday.

Steve Rogers is a person characterized by loss. He is a solitary archetype, almost messianic in his charisma, and, as a result, always alone, as sometimes only he can see what others cannot. Evans — when given the good writing with which to do so — imbues Steve with a quiet grace and a wry self-awareness that makes his “sadness errands” (wandering his own museum exhibit, visiting his ailing almost-girlfriend) in “CA:TWS” all the more heartbreaking for their understated grief. (God, that sad smile when Peggy forgets what year she’s in is so fragile.) Steve’s relationship with Peggy Carter — a badass, British Strategic Scientific Reserve agent he had a will-we-won’t-we romantic side plot with in “CA:TFA,” and who later co-establishes SHIELD with Howard Stark — becomes the clearest crystallization of both his solitude in the modern world and the futility of living in the past.

Peggy, for the record, is my other favorite character in the MCU. Her introduction scene in “CA:TFA” has her right-hook a sexist private across the facewithout blinking. I was in love. One of my online handles in 2014 was peggycarterisbetterthanyou. Steve and Peggy, in “CA:TFA” had a sweet, strong understanding of each other, finally finding a kindred spirit equally as impulsive, as earnest, and as no-nonsense as themselves. The fact that this relationship was never realized, however, as Steve swan-dived into freezing water and Peggy talked him through his last minutes, is what lends it its tragedy, its wistfulness, and its importance.

Peggy Carter goes on to headline her own Marvel television show about the difficulty of being a female intelligence officer in the later 1940s. The first-season finale has her mourning Steve properly, performing a solitary funeral of sorts on the Brooklyn Bridge and coming to terms with his death, although he remains a an inspiration for the rest of her life. Peggy marries, has children and becomes the first director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

Steve, in the years of “The Avengers” and “CA:TWS,” is likewise learning to live again, but dealing with the level of devastation he does is awful — which is why this movie introduces his new support system: Natasha Romanoff and Sam Wilson. Peggy — aged, infirm, but still clever as ever — says to Steve, “I have lived a life. My only regret is that you didn’t get to live yours.” Steve finds himself a family — albeit an unconventional one — in a droll, complex former assassin and an honorable, funny, skilled soldier. Sam asks, “What makes you happy?” and Steve, smile sad, says, “I don’t know.” “CA:TWS” shows that Steve can heal — or at least, that he will. Steve and Peggy are the crux of each other’s origin stories; each is a bittersweet source of stability in the other’s emotional turmoil later in life. They will never be together, and that’s fine; they influenced each other enough. Peggy is still an infinite source of wisdom and reassurance for Steve in “CA:TWS,” reminding him, “Sometimes, the best we can do is start over.”

Which is why — and here’s where SPOILERS ARE AHEAD — it cheapens not only the Steve/Peggy connection, but also both characters’ story arcs, for Steve to have supposedly stayed in the past to play house with her after replacing the Infinity Stones in the timeline at the end of “Avengers: Endgame.” Peggy and Steve are both multilayered, charismatic, charged characters, and reducing either of them to the other’s love interest is just … rude. And weird. It’s a staid, cardboard-cutout ending that invalidates the very stories we’ve watched them live. Neither of them ever expressed interest in domestic life, either; if I were to imagine a universe in which they lived happily ever after together, it would have them busting open the doors of Nazi bases in matching uniforms while discussing dinner options.

Furthermore, in what world would Peggy Carter — intelligence agent, spy, soldier, icon — be unable to discern or care about the differences between this Steve, who has lived a decade without her, who has existed in an era of time travel and space politics and alien armies, and her own? In what world could she love a man who deserted a world in need for her?

And then, of course, there’s Bucky. Bucky, the best friend from “CA:TFA” who became a brainwashed Soviet assassin in “CA:TWS.” Bucky, with whom Steve was “inseparable both in the schoolyard and on the battlefield.” Bucky, who Steve refused to fight and by whose hand he very well could have died, if not for the brainwash-breaking phrase “I’m with you to the end of the line,” which is a barely-concealed marriage vow. Bucky, for whom Steve defied both the United Nations and his own teammates, becoming an international fugitive based on his belief in his best friend’s innocence. Bucky, whose relationship the “CA:TFA” and “Avengers: Endgame” writers described as a “bond [that] stretches across half of the 20th century.” Bucky, the character who turned to ash under Steve’s fingers in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and Bucky, to whom Steve spoke all of two lines to in “Avengers: Endgame.”

The subtext here, if you couldn’t tell, is that Steve and Bucky’s relationship is a love story. An accidental one, clearly, because Marvel won’t make a canon not-straight superhero for a long time yet (especially when the character in question is ostensibly a bastion of traditional masculinity), but the writing of the “Captain America” trilogy establishes Bucky as Steve’s “emotional cornerstone,” as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw put it at The Daily Dot. Steve, who has lost everything, mourns in “CA:TWS,” “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.” Writers have said in interviews that Steve and Bucky are “soulmates, if you will, because no one on Earth understands what either of them has been through as well as the other does,” or that their story is “so complex and tragic, [and that] they have a devotion to one another that is undermined and devastated by fate” (Markus and McFeely and the Russo brothers, respectively). Even within the films, a character says to Steve’s face, “Your pal, your buddy, your Bucky” as a distraction tactic, and it works. Hell, Steve said its equivalent to his own face in “Avengers: Endgame.”

And yet.

Instead of doing the story they’ve composed justice, Marvel decides to “no homo” so hard that they swerve into character assassination. As Baker-Whitelaw so straightforwardly puts it, “The problem is, Steve and Bucky’s friendship is the lynchpin of their franchise. If you try to tone it down to avoid gay subtext, you’re shooting your own story in the foot.” Audiences are left scratching their heads about why any of the previous “Captain America” movies mattered, if one of their key characters — and dynamics — was flicked away like a loose thread. Doing so, Baker-Whitelaw notes, “culminates in a sequence where Steve barely acknowledges Bucky’s return from the dead, and then abandons him with no warning to start a new life in the past.” 

In what godforsaken world would Steve Rogers — the Steve Rogers I’ve described here, the Steve Rogers who defected from any and all official posts he’s ever had for Bucky time and time again — desert his recently-recovered, formerly amnesiac, heavily traumatized best friend to live alone in an uncertain age? Especially when he himself was so traumatized by that same isolation and confusion in his own movies? In what world would Steve “Fight Me” Rogers watch the atrocities of the 20th century go by? How can the writing team who graced us with both “CA:TFA” and “CA:TWS” so fundamentally do their character so dirty? It’s three steps — or movies — forward and seven steps back. Even if Steve still decided to pass the Captain America torch to Sam in the future — a solid emotional storyline, and Sam is one of the few characters worthy of the title — he could have retired in the here and now, taking the time to finally figure out what he is without someone else’s war to wage, with Bucky at his side.

“Steve’s marriage to Peggy,” Baker-Whitelaw acknowledges, “is meant to be a satisfying conclusion, allowing Chris Evans to gracefully bow out of the franchise,” but “in addition to making no sense (the writers and directors can’t even agree on whether Steve ends up in an alternate universe or stays in the same timeline), this ending obliterates years of character development.” Not only that, but Peggy’s own history becomes rewritten, essentially erasing the story in which fans of “Agent Carter” invested their time and attention. 

It doesn’t matter what the writers meant to say with this outcome, but what they did, and what they did say with this subplot is that Steve Rogers, the hero defined by selflessness and endurance and gritting his teeth and taking it, abandons his team, his two best friends and all the Snapped civilians who are experiencing the very same sensation of waking up and having lost years of life just like he had, to pursue a wish-fulfillment fantasy and exist in eternal denial.

But hey, no homo, amiright?

This is not to mention the fundamental storytelling logistics that don’t support Steve being able to stay in the past, undetected, without severely distressing any and all timelines. Or the creepy fact that in marrying Peggy in the past, Steve apparently becomes the uncle to Sharon Carter — y’know, Peggy’s niece with whom he had a half-hearted romantic fling in “CA:CW.” Or the basic super-soldier-serum logic that means Steve doesn’t age like a normal person, so he wouldn’t be Grandpa Steve after living only, what, a grand total of 90 years? I saw this movie twice, and the second time I wanted to make like Thor and Stormbreaker that smug, raisin-looking face from Old!Steve’s wrinkly neck. If a depressed 22-year-old with a computer can source this shit, it seems like the largest cinematic property on the face of the Earth have the resources to, as well. Internal consistency? What’s that?

I’m not going to touch the gross treatment of Marvel’s female characters in this film (killing off the one original female Avenger?), nor am I going to discuss the use of Thor’s deep depression and weight gain as comedic fodder, nor am I going to even contemplate the troubling implications of displaying heterosexual domestic bliss as the only valid “happy ending,” nor am I going to address the suggestion that morally complicated characters can only apparently be redeemed through death. This article is solely about Steve Rogers, because he showed that a hero can be resolute and vulnerable and sarcastic and awkward and stubborn and good in a day and age in which choosing compassion is hard to do. I thank Chris Evans for delivering him to my screen, and, without a doubt, our present is better for Steve Rogers having been in it.  

He, as a character, and we, as an audience, deserved better. 

Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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