Last fall, when Chris Evans tweeted that he'd had an "emotional day" wrapping filming on the fourth Avengers film and that playing Captain America "over the past eight years has been an honor," fans of the Marvel superhero flipped out. Many feared Cap -- aka Steve Rogers -- would be killed off in Avengers: Endgame, which opened in theaters worldwide this week.
Well -- MAJOR SPOILER HERE -- fear no more. Captain America doesn't die. But he does end his run as an Avenger in an exit that's emotional, bittersweet -- and well, just perfect.
And I say that as a huge Captain America fan. He's my favorite Avenger -- and the fact that we're both from Brooklyn is only part of the reason. It's because he embodies the ideals -- bravery, honesty, loyalty, nobility -- that get overlooked when we talk about what makes someone a superhero in movies these days.
So I braced myself for a future in which the very prolific and successful Marvel Cinematic Universe would plod on without him.
But four days after seeing Endgame, I'm genuinely happy with how his story plays out in the Russo brothers' funny, smart, moving and masterful follow-up to last year's semi-annoying cliffhanger, Avengers: Infinity War. (Our spoiler-free review calls Endgame an epic "thrill ride" and our spoiler-packed review calls it "so close to being perfect.")
Sure there's a lot to unpack in Endgame, but Rogers gets the hero's ending he deserves, and that's why I've been telling friends to go into the flick dehydrated. You don't want to skip a single minute of this three-hour, one-minute-long epic for a bathroom break (though my colleagues have figured out three scenes where you can run out if you really need to).
So while I'll miss Captain America, Endgame does a great job of reminding me why I'm glad to have known him at all. If Tony Stark/Iron Man is the brains, Thor the brawn and Natasha "Black Widow" Romanova the soul of the Avengers team, Cap is the heart, showing us how one good guy can make all the difference. And I'm not talking about superpowers here.
When we first meet Rogers in 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, he's a skinny and asthmatic but earnest Army reject, desperately trying to enlist so he can fight the Nazis during World War II. He gets his wish with help from German scientist Abraham Erskine, who's developed a super soldier serum that transforms Rogers into the mighty, muscular superhero. Erskine (played by an endearing Stanley Tucci) explains why he tapped Rogers, calling him "a good man":
"The serum amplifies everything that is inside. So good becomes great, bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life may lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength and knows … compassion."
We see just how much of a good man he is over and again in The First Avenger, including how he throws himself on top of a grenade to protect his fellow soldiers or when he goes into an enemy camp on his own to save his childhood friend, Bucky. He gets knocked down by a bully but stands up each time, offering up his now signature line: "I can do this all day."
And I love the moment when Cap confronts the villainous Red Skull, head of the evil Hydra cult. Red Skull asks why Dr. Erskine chose Rogers for his serum?
Red Skull: "So, what made you so special?
Rogers' answer: "Nothin'. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn."
Humility is its own superpower.
At a time when our world is fractured, with some espousing the same un-American values he fought against successfully 75 years ago, Cap is a role model we can all get behind. Some argue he personifies an idealized version of American values and plays into audience nostalgia for a time that never existed. Maybe. But who doesn't want a leader who's honest, humble, compassionate, courageous and noble, a team player able to earn the trust of those around him so much so that they're willing to go to the end of the line with him?
In Endgame, Captain America's story stands out as the Russo brothers lean into the overarching theme of loss. The story (mostly) takes place five years after Thanos' deadly finger snap in last year's Infinity War. The tone for the movie is set with the opening track -- Steve Winwood's Dear Mr. Fantasy: "Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune, Something to make us all happy, Do anything, take us out of this gloom."
Some of the Avengers cope with that loss by -- SPOILERS AHEAD -- wallowing in self-pity, drinking beer and playing video games (Thor at his funniest). Or going on a bad-guy killing spree (Hawkeye, at his most disturbing) or focusing on putting the past behind them (Stark, at his most detached). Cap not only doesn't let that devastating loss take him down, he has the strength to help others deal with it. He hosts a self-help group with other survivors struggling with the aftermath of Thanos' evil plan.
"The world is in our hands. We gotta do something with it," he tells the group, with a touch of world-weary sadness. "Otherwise Thanos should have killed all of us."
It could be a mushy, overly sentimental scene, but it's not. It's another moment that shows us that Captain America's true superpower is his humanity. And it's not the only moment in Endgame that makes the point that this is a man who's more than his star-spangled suit and cool Vibranium shield. In a quietly touching scene -- SPOILER -- a time-traveling Rogers comes across his photo on the desk of Agent Peggy Carter, the woman he loved, lost and can't forget. But it's not a photo of our buff superhero in his cool costume. It's a snap of that skinny kid from Brooklyn, taken before he got the serum boost.
I'm pretty sure it's the same photo Carter puts away in Rogers' file at the end of The First Avenger, as she's coming to terms with his loss. He promised he'd take her dancing, right before he ditches his plane into the ocean to save New York from oblivion. As he takes one for the team, he stares at the photo of Carter he carries around in his pocket compass. My lip quivered just a bit over their goodbyes when I saw the movie eight years ago.
And it did again earlier this week as I watched a new ending to their story. It's his abiding love for Carter that prompts Captain America to do a hero handoff to his friend Sam (the Falcon) and retire from the Avengers, after Thanos is vanquished, of course. MAJOR SPOILER HERE -- I applaud screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for giving Rogers the chance to rewrite his story so he and Carter can share the life together they wanted. Captain America has certainly earned it.
As Endgame comes to a close, we see Rogers and Carter finally get their dance while the old World War II ballad "It's been a long, long time" plays. It's a lovely moment. And it delivers an exit that's emotional, bittersweet -- and well, just perfect.
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Originally published 8:04 a.m. PT.