As the Avenger’s franchise comes to an end, audiences all over the world have wept, laughed, and clapped. The characters in this movie series have long since stopped being nebulous ideas that are forgotten once the lights in the theater turn on. The audience cares about their heroes—evidenced by the emotions expressed by the deaths in Avengers: Infinity War. What is needed now isn’t necessarily a happy ending—instead, we need a resolution that fits.
That’s where Avengers: Endgame is successful. Here, we see a narrative arc that makes sense of each of the main character’s lives—namely, Iron Man and Captain America—in ways that are unique to their specific personalities.
Iron Man is reckless, brilliant, and daring. His driving fear is the fear of failure and of not having done his all. He is willing to bend and often breaks the rules in order to accomplish his goals. His morals are dubious, but his intentions are clear. He takes his role of hero seriously—though it’s often hard to see it in his manner.
A big part of Iron Man’s problems has to do with the difficult relationship he had with his father. Since his father died at the hands of Bucky (cue Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War drama), this relationship is impossible to restore. However, two things happen to bring peace. The first is that in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark discovers lost video footage of his father addressing him and telling him how everything he had done was for Tony. In addition, in the city model he left behind, Tony is able to find the solution to the problem that was killing him. For the first time, Tony sees that perhaps his father did love him.
The second scene comes in Avengers: Endgame. When Tony goes back in time to get more Pym particles, he inadvertently comes in contact with his father. As the two talk, Stark Sr. discusses how afraid he is of becoming a father (as his wife is currently pregnant with Tony). In a touching scene, Tony is able to affirm his father and also see his father’s heart for him as his son.
This reconciliation is a needed part of Tony’s arc. Once he has made peace with his father, he is free to tackle the heart of his troubling vision. Though five years after their last attempt to thwart Thanos shows him, Pepper, and their five-year-old daughter living in rural happiness, it is clear that he is still carrying the weight of his failure. Wrestling with whether or not he should attempt time travel, Pepper, knowing his heart, encourages him to go forward because he will never be able to rest while there is a possibility of making things right.
In the end, Iron Man is able to confront and conquer his fear of failure. He does this by taking the infinity stones himself to vanquish Thanos and his army and, thereby, ending his own life. Pepper’s final words to him encourage him to finally go and rest.
Captain America, on the other hand, is the traditional hero. He is honest and unwavering. He never gives up, and he keeps his emotions in check. His fear is quite different from Iron Man’s and has nothing to do with his role as a hero. He has no doubt that he has given his all. Instead, his fear is that of missed opportunity. In his selflessness, he does not seem to know how to live.
Captain America’s resolution is different because while Tony’s resolution necessitated sacrifice, Captain America’s necessitated joy, though a joy delayed. In his origin story, we are introduced to his one true love, Peggy Carter. Though they do admit love for one another, their love is doomed by Captain America’s self-sacrificing heroism. The plane he is in has a detonated bomb and is heading towards a city. The only way to save everyone is for him to crash the plane in an uninhabited place with him in it. As he makes this decision, Peggy is on the radio with him talking about the dance they promised to have with one another, until the radio becomes static. He does not die in this crash though. Instead, his plane sinks into the ice, where eighty years later they find him still alive but in a coma. He wakes to find Peggy has lived her whole life and is now dying. Though there are other possibilities for romance, Rogers is adamant that Peggy is the only one for him. He instead focuses on the job at hand.
The beginning of Avenger’s Endgame shows him trying to help others move on from the tragedy that Thanos brought upon the world. Ever trying to encourage others, it is clear he still doesn’t know what to do with his life or whether what he is now living could be considered a real life. Later in the movie, he goes with Tony Stark to the past to secure the infinity stones. In the same scene that Tony Stark gets to see his father, Steve Rogers glimpses his beloved. Though he is tempted to reach out to her, he keeps his mind on the mission and walks away.
At the end of the movie though, he is tasked with returning the infinity stones to the past. When he is meant to return and does not, Bucky notices an older man sitting on a bench nearby. When Falcon addresses him, they find that it is, in fact, Steve Rogers. He passes on his shield to Falcon and says he finally got a life. The ending scene of the movie shows him in the past, dancing with Peggy in a picturesque home—the dance he forfeited when he crashed the ship.
Iron Man’s resolution required his life, Captain America’s resolution gave him one.
These resolutions, while opposite, evoke a feeling of rightness in the audience. Iron Man finally gets to be the hero he wants to be and Captain America finally gets to be the man he wants to be. Though they had previously warred with each other and had different visions of being a hero, they are both able to demonstrate the fullness of life they both desired as heroes and as men who experience love. We know their stories are over, but the sadness is infused with peace that they were able to become who they were meant to be.