Few characters embody all the ideals that we as a culture hold dear the way Steve Rogers, better known by his crime-fighting alias Captain America, does. Over the course of his eleven appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), he has stood for truth, justice, and freedom, easily snatching the mantle of a pure and innocent do-gooder from the DC Extended Universe’s Superman.
From his first appearance, Steve Rogers demonstrated that he would fight for what was right, even if that put him at great personal peril. He’d take a beating to defend his beliefs. He was even willing to go so far as to sacrifice his own life if it meant saving the lives of others. This was clearly demonstrated in Captain America: The First Avenger when Colonel Phillips threw a dummy grenade into the training area, and Steve Rogers responded by jumping on it, potentially using his own body to shield the other trainees from the blast.
Throughout the rest of his appearances in the MCU, he proved time and time again that he was not willing to budge. In Captain America: Civil War, his resolve is aptly put to words by Sharon Carter at the funeral for her aunt Peggy.
“Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, you move’.”
And that he did.
He opposed S.H.I.E.L.D. when they attempted to establish absolute domination over the Earth’s inhabitants. He opposed the Sokovia Accords even though his stance made him an instantaneous fugitive of the law. He opposed Thanos’ henchmen even though they were monsters and gods, and he was just a kid from Brooklyn.
Going into the concluding chapter of the Infinity Saga, Avengers: Endgame, it seemed all but certain that Captain America would be the one to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the universe from extinction. But of course, we all know that was not the case. Captain America didn’t just survive the climactic battle in which Tony Stark stole the infinity stones and snapped Thanos out of existence. Rather, after taking the stones back to their original positions in the timeline, he journeyed to a point in time shortly after his apparent death in the waters of the Arctic Ocean. There, he lived out a life of peace and quiet with the love of his life, Peggy Carter.
The reason this is such a fantastic conclusion is that this is not the obvious choice for Cap. We all know that if he was left to his own devices, he would have sacrificed himself to defeat Thanos. That’s who he was. That’s how he acted. As such, a sacrifice play would have been expected, but it would not have demonstrated a significant evolution in his character development.
Instead, he stepped down from his role as Captain America. He left his responsibilities behind him. He allowed others to take up the mantle and defend the oppressed. He finally got the quiet, peaceful life he needed, even if it was never the life he thought he wanted. Steve Rogers was willing to accept the life that he had done so much to earn. He developed as a character. He changed. He was willing to make the transition from character wants to character needs. Because of all that, Captain America’s character arc is one of the most compelling instances of a superhero arc in recent memory.