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Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame are ahead!
For years, Marvel Cinematic Universe fans have prepared themselves for two possibilities concerning Steve Rogers: that he’ll die and that the Captain America mantle would be passed along to a worthy successor. Cut to Avengers: Endgame, Steve is still alive, although now an old man due to traveling back to the 1940s and living a life with Peggy Carter. So even with that Super Soldier Serum coursing through his veins, he likely doesn’t have that many years left.
However, as far as the Captain America identity is concerned, Steve did indeed pick a successor: his longtime friend and crimefighting partner, Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon. We’ll have to wait until the Falcon and Winter Soldier Disney+ series premieres to see if Sam dons his own red, white and blue uniform, but him being chosen to be the next Captain America was one of Avengers: Endgame’s most touching moments, and it definitely makes sense for Sam to take over for a variety of reasons.
However, this moment also came at the expense of Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. Winter Soldier, who, despite also being close with Steve Rogers, was sidelined in Steve’s final scene, even though their friendship has been spotlighted much more throughout the MCU. It’s not an issue of Bucky deserving the virbranium shield over Sam, but the fact that he didn’t get a proper final goodbye with his longtime friend. Thus, it all results in Endgame’s Captain America change-up feeling both fitting and frustrating.
Let’s start off with why it’s fitting that Sam Wilson is now the new Captain America. Getting the obvious reason out of the way first, it’s inspired by the source material. Half a decade ago in the comics, Steve Rogers was drained of the Super Soldier Serum, which aged him to an old man. Because he was no longer physically capable of being Captain America anymore, he appointed Sam to be the new Captain America.
Sam Wilson had a solid run as the Star Spangled Avenger, blending the patriotic motif with his longtime Falcon look. Sam has since reverted to being 100% Falcon, but his time as Captain America definitely stands out in the Marvel canon. But hey, Bucky Barnes also became Captain America in the comics, so why does it make more sense for Anthony Mackie’s Sam to inherit the mantle rather than Sebastian Stan’s Bucky?
For one thing, even when Bucky was serving as Captain America on the printed page, the only reason he initially filled Steve Rogers’ shoes was because he didn’t trust anyone else to be Cap. As time wore on, he started to feel more comfortable in the role, and he even continued on as Captain America for a little bit after Steve Rogers came back to life. But eventually, he went back to serving as plain ol’ Winter Soldier, which will always be a better fit for him.
Ultimately, it boils down to Bucky’s tragic past. Whether he was a brainwashed assassin for the Soviet Union or HYDRA, he will always be weighed down by those decades when he wasn’t in control and force to kill scores of people. He’s seeking redemption for all the harm he caused, but being Captain America is not the way to go about doing that.
In the case of Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, if he had his way, he wouldn’t be fighting at all, as evidenced by how he was leading a quiet life in Wakanda before the events of Avengers: Infinity War unfolded. Alas, life doesn’t always give us what we want, and for now, Bucky’s still in the superhero game. But as Winter Soldier, he still do some good and carve out his own legacy, and it’s also a better identity to rock when going on covert missions.
As far as Sam Wilson goes, while he’s certainly not free from darkness or inner turmoil, he’s ultimately a more hopeful and optimistic character. He can serve as a better beacon of positivity to the public than Bucky can, not to mention that he isn’t weighed down by the same kind of baggage. Bucky didn’t bomb the Vienna UN summit in Captain America: Civil War, but as far as the general public is concerned, he’s still a wanted criminal.
There’s also the fact that since he was unfrozen, Steve Rogers has spent way more time with Sam Wilson than he has with Bucky Barnes. This wasn’t a purposeful decision, just a matter of circumstance given Bucky’s unusual situation. Nevertheless, Steve and Bucky definitely aren’t the same men they were during World War II, and one could argue that Steve and Sam now have a closer relationship, hence why the former knew the latter was a better fit for the Captain America mantle.
So now that the Captain America of it all has been addressed, let’s go back to Bucky Barnes’ overall role in Captain America’s final Avengers: Endgame scene. Before heading into the Quantum Realm, Steve and Bucky had a reversed back-and-forth of their interaction in Captain America: The First Avenger (“Don’t do anything stupid until I come back.” “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you.”), but Bucky also seemed to know that Steve didn’t plan on coming back, and when we spotted Old Man Steve at the nearby bench, Bucky allowed Sam to talk to him first.
Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo have since confirmed that Bucky Barnes was aware that Steve Rogers intended to stay in the past, with Joe saying to EW:
Especially when he says goodbye. He says, ‘I’ll miss you.’ Clearly he knows something.
Okay, so evidently Steve informed Bucky of his plan ahead of time, which is fine. It enhances the surprise of seeing Steve as an old man, and I also don’t mind that Sam and Steve were conversing privately for the handoff of the shield.
The problem is that the meaningful farewell these two shared occurred offscreen. We never see these two share a proper goodbye. They might not be as close as they once were, but Steve and Bucky are still tight, and given all the time the MCU has spent highlighting their friendship, you’d that would warrant the audience get to see one last meaningful moment with each other.
Bucky Barnes has been a part of the Captain America mythology since the very beginning and was a key player in all of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s films. For all we know, Chris Evans will never reprise Steve Rogers again, so it’s a shame that Steve and Bucky might never share screen time again. It’s great that Steve informed Bucky about what he planned to do, but we the viewers deserved a better final interaction between the two on the big screen.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, Disney+ has that Falcon and Winter Soldier series coming up, so maybe this isn’t the end of Steve’s time with Bucky and/or Sam. Maybe that show has Chris Evans lined up to make a cameo as Old Man Steve in an episode or two.
Still, given that Avengers: Endgame concluded the Infinity Saga and wrapped up a lot of lingering plot threads, not to mention that not everyone who watches the MCU movies will necessarily watch the Disney+ shows, it would have been better if the movie had better closed the book on Steve and Bucky’s time together, like it did with Steve and Sam. It would have been appropriate and likely squeezed out a few extra cries in a movie that was already quite the tearjerker.
Let us know what you thought of how Avengers: Endgame handled the Captain America twist in the comments below, and be sure to read CinemaBlend’s review of the latest MCU movie.