Avengers: Endgame – Captain America, Friendship, and Masculinity

Avengers: Endgame poster, 2019, Disney

By now, most of us have seen Avengers: Endgame. While the film gave us a lot of feels, it certainly wasn’t without its problems. As the Avengers’ swan song, and the wrap-up of so many storylines, what was surprising was the lack of closure for Steve Rogers and his platonic, male friendships.

While Marvel has explored Steve’s emotional connection with Tony Stark, Bucky Barnes, and Sam Wilson over the years to some extent, Steve wasn’t allowed to embrace his feelings for these important people in his life in the finale. Steve’s dynamics with Tony and, especially, Bucky, were core factors that drove numerous MCU films, including The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War, and one would have expected closure for Steve on all those accounts. Why didn’t that happen in Avengers: Endgame?

Emotional attachments and intimacy among primarily male figures in films is often shunned by blockbuster studios because of their apparent fear of fanboy backlash and the loss of box office capital in supposedly conservative countries. All that is euphemism for insular storytelling, something Marvel has been guilty of for far too long.

What was apparent in Avengers: Endgame is that Marvel is still hopelessly out of touch with its audience and the modern world. The fat-shaming of Thor, the fridging of Black Widow (which followed the fridging of Gamora in Infinity War), and the complete lack of diverse representation proved that Marvel still has a long way to go. Marvel and Disney’s latent – and insidious – “no homo” policy is also a major reason why several character arcs get short shrift. And no, the nameless gay character played by Joe Russo in Endgame does not absolve Marvel and Disney of their queerbaiting agenda.

At the end of Avengers: Endgame Tony got a heroic death and Steve got to be with the love of his life – but did we explicitly see these two patch things up between them during the three-hour duration of the film? Tony and Steve have rarely seen eye to eye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they certainly bonded as co-leaders in Avengers: Age of Ultron, before falling out over the Sokovia Accords and Bucky Barnes’ involvement in the death of Tony’s parents in Civil War. One would have expected the conclusion of the MCU’s current Avengers franchise to have resolved the strife between them, but Avengers: Endgame merely hints at it.

In Avengers: Infinity War, Tony struggles to muster the courage to contact Steve (using Steve’s flip-phone) when he hears of Thanos’ impending arrival. He eventually doesn’t have the chance to because he has to rescue Doctor Strange from Thanos’ ship. Tony then spent the entirety of Infinity War in space, out of reach of the rest of the Avengers. Back on Earth, Steve definitely felt Tony’s absence, even calling him Earth’s ‘best defender’.

In Avengers: Endgame, the surviving Avengers spend 23 days hoping for Tony’s return. When Captain Marvel brings Tony home, Steve runs as fast as he can to be by Tony’s side. Tony is emaciated and shell-shocked, especially because he lost Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, a teenaged boy who Tony brought into the big leagues in Civil War. Steve doesn’t judge Tony, nodding understandingly in an effort to get him to safety, before Pepper Potts, Tony’s fiancée, greets him.

When Tony recovers enough strength to voice his true feelings, however, they are all words of hate towards Steve. Tony blames Thanos’ win on Steve breaking up the Avengers, throwing Steve’s words back at him. Steve doesn’t retaliate, partly because Tony’s right, but also because Tony needs to vent his frustration about his nightmares coming to fruition. This dynamic between Steve and Tony sets the tone for the rest of the film. All Steve wants to do is reconcile with Tony, offering olive branch after olive branch. But Tony doesn’t respond in kind.

Unlike most other people on Earth, Tony’s family life remains the same (and gets better) after the snap. Tony has Pepper, with whom he starts the family he so desperately wanted in Infinity War, whereas everyone else has lost some of their loved ones. When Scott Lang arrives with a plan to save the people from the snap, the surviving Avengers are hell-bent on going through with it. Convincing Tony, however, is another matter. It takes Tony’s listless conscience (and a pep talk from Pepper, of course) to sway him to help the Avengers.

One could argue that Tony returning Steve his shield in all its former glory is his way of forgiving Steve (most likely it was so that Steve could easily stand in for his 2012 counterpart). It certainly was a step towards reconciliation, but it isn’t allowed to move forward from there. Steve and Tony riff off each other well when they travel back to 2012, but they don’t intentionally team up.

Once the Avengers successfully land in 2012, Tony comments on Steve’s derriere in his old Captain America suit. Since Tony Stark (like most of the MCU superheroes thus far) was written as being aggressively straight, Tony’s comments may have been an olive branch to Steve, or else he was simply attempting to diffuse the stress of their mission. The closest the two come to re-forming their relationship is when, having lost the Tesseract to Loki, Tony and Steve have to improvise and jump back in time again to retrieve the space stone. Unlike Plan A, when they knew the exact locations of the stone, Tony’s new plan leaves plenty to chance. But Steve seems to implicitly trust Tony, and they succeed in their mission.

When the two travel to 1970s, it is the only sequence when Steve and Tony are exclusively together, but the characters still spend no time together. This would have been the ideal moment for Steve and Tony to heal their wounds, but again the creative team put their reconciliation on the backburner. Instead, the focus during the 1970s sequence is on Steve’s love for Peggy Carter and Tony spending time with his father. Even when the opportunity to show the characters burying the hatchet arises in the script, the text of the film still doesn’t allow for any obvious dialogue or actions to show a bond between Steve and Tony.

Once the battle moves to Avengers headquarters, there are precious few character moments. Steve, Tony, and Thor fight alongside each other, but Tony and Steve don’t share any further moments together. Which is what makes Tony’s death even more tragic.

It was a strange decision by the creative team to not allow Tony and Steve that final closure. Tony doesn’t even see Steve in his final moments – Steve isn’t in his line of sight.

When Tony sacrifices himself to dust Thanos and his army, his best friend, James Rhodes, is at his side to say goodbye. Peter Parker weeps all over him before Tony’s wife, Pepper, has to physically pull Peter away to say goodbye to her husband. While Pepper, admittedly, needed that moment, it was a strange decision by the creative team to not allow Tony and Steve that final closure. Tony doesn’t even see Steve in his final moments – Steve isn’t in his line of sight. After Tony dies, Steve stands afar, shedding tears for his fallen friend. Remember when Bucky Barnes fell to his death in Captain America: The First Avenger and Steve kept reaching for him till he realised he’d fall too? Why wasn’t he reaching for Tony in the same way in Avengers: Endgame?

Steve and Tony shared plenty of screen time in this film. They shook hands, they admitted to trusting each other. But their easy camaraderie, their friendship, was never resurrected. Steve did his level best to bring Tony back into the fold, so why didn’t Marvel allow these two characters the closure they deserved?

It’s not like Steve’s other friendships were given much integrity either. Steve barely spoke a word to his only close friends, Bucky and Sam, when they returned from the snap. Though Sam, as Falcon, was by Steve’s side during part of the climactic battle, Bucky Barnes fought from afar.

Keeping Steve and Bucky away from each other has seemingly become the modus operandi of Marvel. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes was presented as Steve’s fierce protector and friend in Captain America: The First Avenger, before his death fuelled Steve’s determination to take down the Red Skull. Bucky eventually developed into someone much more crucial in the sequel, The Winter Soldier. When Steve realises Bucky is alive, he risks certain death to ensure his friend remembers him and snaps out of Hydra’s brainwashing. Despite Steve once saying ‘even when I had nothing, I had Bucky’, leaving Bucky at the altar (or rather, the quantum tunnel) in Endgame without nary a hint of his plans to grow old in the past with Peggy Carter, seems like a thoughtless gesture.

The good old days of Cap and Bucky (from Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, fans were caught off guard by Steve and Bucky’s relationship. It was raw and emotional and immediately launched a thousand ships. The shipping part of fan fiction has gained a loud platform and this has caused many studios to turn tail every time two male characters are in close proximity. In turn, that cowardice has led to stunted characterisations on screen. McFeely and Markus have revealed that they didn’t believe a Bucky-centric storyline would work in Captain America 3, so they effectively made it into Avengers 2.5.

In Civil War, the majority of Steve and Bucky’s screen time was hampered by heteronormative dialogue. Despite plenty of unnecessary queerbaiting during the promotional tour for the film, Steve and Bucky forgot to talk to each other; they talked about each other. Looking at it from a purely platonic angle – because that is how these character’s relationships were written – the producers’ fears that fans might read between the lines of their friendship led them to not developing their relationship at all. Instead, a ham-fisted and extremely gross romantic moment between Steve and his ex-girlfriend’s own great-niece, Sharon Carter, was shoe-horned into the film, doing both Sharon and Peggy Carter a huge disservice. In essence, the explicit context of Steve and Bucky’s relationship has suffered because Disney and Marvel are too afraid of the queer subtext that some fans have read into it.

Steve and Bucky’s intimacy has been stultified to the point where Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans have not had much screen time together. Every time the two characters unite, they are quickly separated. Along with them, Steve’s other close friend, Sam, has also been sidelined. In Avengers: Endgame, Steve, who has just lost his two closest friends in the snap, still pines over the picture he has of Peggy Carter. Shouldn’t he have been tearing up over pictures of Bucky and Sam? No, MCU Steve wouldn’t even possess images of his male friends, no matter how accepting he is of homosexuality.

This brings us back to Endgame. In Marvel’s eyes, Steve gaining closure from his relationship with Tony, Bucky and, to an extent, Sam, weren’t deemed worthy. Tony and Pepper’s romance deserved closure, as did Tony’s arguably contentious mentorship of Peter Parker. But Tony’s friendship with Rhodey and Steve are not considered to be on par with Tony’s heterosexual relationship because of the “no gays allowed” sign that every MCU movie is latently watermarked with.

While Steve’s obvious love for Tony is evident in Endgame, Marvel couldn’t allow it to be reciprocated. Instead, we are meant to believe that despite witnessing Tony’s sacrifice, Steve was still able to go back in time and live a life with Peggy instead of having the courage to stick it out in a post-Tony present. It’s the same reason why Finn and Poe Dameron had to be on separate missions for the majority of Star Wars: The Last Jedi ­– Disney executives had obviously heard of fans’ love for this new budding friendship between two male characters, and panicked that people would read gay subtext.

It is disheartening to think that in 2019, when we are celebrating 11 years of a franchise, that close-minded capitalists can hinder something as simple as a bromance.

Admittedly, Steve deserved the happy ending he got, but in the context of Avengers, he also deserved Tony’s forgiveness, and Tony deserved to have his friend by his side in his last moments. Alternatively, Bucky and Sam didn’t deserve to be abandoned for the nth time by Steve, and despite Sam’s delight at becoming the new Captain America, Sam deserved a better farewell from the man he sacrificed his peaceful life for. The Endgame writers have now confirmed that Steve told Bucky about his plans to live in the past, which actually makes Sam’s treatment even worse. Also, it’s become painfully evident that if the creators have to explain the film after the fact, they didn’t do a good enough job in making the film.

It is disheartening to think that in 2019, when we are celebrating 11 years of a franchise, that close-minded capitalists can hinder something as simple as a bromance. Having built the MCU and its characters for over a decade, does it make sense for Marvel to fail at something as fundamental as male friendship?

2 thoughts on “Avengers: Endgame – Captain America, Friendship, and Masculinity

  1. So…I guess this means #GiveElsaAGirlfriend will not only have failed, but will also result in the sisters in Frozen 2 will have even MORE time apart then?

    …gods do I hate homophobes…

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