In "Avengers: Endgame," Captain America is a man out of time (and other maddening plot holes)

"Avengers: Endgame" was good! But that doesn't mean it all made sense

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 11, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America in "Avengers: Endgame" (Marvel Studios)
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America in "Avengers: Endgame" (Marvel Studios)

Spoilers ahead for "Avengers: Endgame." You have been warned! You can read a spoiler-free review of the movie here.

During a recent appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!", "Spider-Man: Far From Home" star Jacob Batalon admitted that the impact of "Avengers: Endgame" on his upcoming film had created "one of the biggest plot holes of all time." Specifically he was referring to how "Avengers: Endgame" takes place five years after the events of "Avengers: Infinity War" (and thus six year after the events of "Spider-Man: Homecoming," which I loved) and yet the characters from the first film are still in high school.

This isn't the only plot hole caused by "Avengers: Endgame," or even the most notable one. Indeed, when "Avengers: Endgame" is analyzed in the clear light of day, its biggest flaw is just how often its plot is either illogical or shortchanges important characters and questions.

One of the challenges of reviewing a movie like "Avengers: Endgame" is explaining what works and doesn't without delving into spoilers. While usually a mid-review spoiler warning will suffice, films like "Avengers: Endgame" aren't mere works of popular art; they're cultural events, perhaps even historic moments, and people are so emotionally invested in them that it becomes necessary to exercise an excess of caution to avoid accidentally ruining someone else's experience.

Having said that, there is something else that can ruin the experience of watching a movie, a point that I made in my spoiler-free review of "Avengers: Endgame" and can elaborate upon here — namely, the aforementioned unsatisfying character resolutions and plot holes.

The story arc for Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is most egregious because it contains both of those flaws. The most obvious is the ending in which Captain America returns the Infinity Stones to the points in time where they had been apprehended by the Avengers and decides to move back to the 1940s to marry his longtime romantic interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). While this decision could have had a logic to it had there been an in-story reason for Rogers to hang up his shield, within the context of the "Captain America" series it feels like a sudden abandonment of his historic mission. It makes sense only because we, as moviegoers, know that Evans' contract to play Captain America has expired and the actor wanted to provide the character with a resolution. That said, as a development in the story we've seen since the first movie in 2011, Captain America's choice seems both abrupt and at odds with the internal logic established for that character.

Indeed, the problems with Captain America's decision go beyond the fact that he has randomly decided to stop being a superhero, despite zero indication that the world needs him less than it once did. Even though it had been clearly established that creating alternate timelines would be dangerous in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rogers' choice to stay in the past creates a massive alternate timeline that effectively alters every event of the 70-plus years since his disappearance at the end of "Captain America: The First Avenger." Even if one assumes that Rogers was super-careful about not meddling with most aspects of the past as it had been, it is unlikely that he wouldn't have made any changes (even inadvertent ones) over the period of nearly eight decades spanning from his disappearance in 1945 to the events of "Avengers: Endgame" in 2023 (do the math, that's when "Avengers: Endgame" takes place). If nothing else, we already know that he marries Carter, which at the very least nullifies the events of the "Agent Carter" TV series and has unsettling implications regarding the brief romantic relationship Rogers shared with Carter's grand-niece Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Captain America: Civil War" (who, for all we know, may accidentally get poofed out of existence because of Rogers' new presence in the elder Carter's timeline). These facts make Captain America's choice not simply short-sighted, but borderline evil.

Nor is Captain America the only character to be shortchanged in "Avengers: Endgame." It's not a plot hole, but it is disappointing how Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is killed off in a way that is meant to seem tragic but instead feels like an insult. By having her character arc end in the overused sexist trope of a woman losing her life to further a man's journey (in this case, that of her friend Hawkeye/Clint Barton, played by Jeremy Renner) — a trope known as "fridging" — the Marvel Cinematic Universe shortchanged one of its earliest and most prominent female badasses.

Similarly, after spending five movies building up the hostile relationship between the Hulk and Bruce Banner personalities in the Incredible Hulk character (Ed Norton in the first film, Mark Ruffalo in the subsequent four), "Avengers: Endgame" abruptly introduces him as Professor Hulk — a best-of-both-worlds hybrid of Banner's brains and the Hulk's brawn. While this is an effective resolution to the character's central dilemma, all of the work in seeing how Banner merged with Hulk occurred off-screen, with Ruffalo giving audiences an exposition dump instead of actual character development, which would have been more satisfying.

This isn't to say that all of the character arcs fall flat. The ultimate sacrifice made by Iron Man/Tony Stark to defeat Thanos is poignant and moving both because it proves with finality that he has overcome his self-absorbed past and because audiences have grown to love his character over eight previous films (the three "Iron Man" movies, the previous three "Avengers" movies, plus his roles in a "Captain America" and "Spider-Man" movie). As I've discussed at length already, Thor's character arc is a comical yet touching look at how even the godliest of heroes must cope with feelings of failure, one that humanizes a superhero who when first introduced to audiences seemed stuffy and remote.

Paul Rudd is quite likable as the relatable and down-to-earth Ant-Man/Scott Lang, who shrugs off his status as one of the less-popular Marvel heroes with charming self-deprecation (and mild embarrassment). Finally there is the standout performance by Karen Gillan as Nebula, who has evolved from a teeth-gnashing villain in "Guardians of the Galaxy" to a psychologically complex antihero struggling with unimaginable personal trauma.

The underlying problem here is the same one that existed in "Avengers: Infinity War" — when you have so many different characters competing for attention, some are bound to be shortchanged. While "Avengers: Endgame" is superior to "Avengers: Infinity War" in large part because it reduced its cast list for most of the running time, it still struggles with doing justice to more than a half-dozen major characters who would normally be the protagonists of their own films. It's why templates like those in the last two "Avengers" movies set such an ominous precedent for Hollywood. If even a studio as talented as Marvel can't effectively juggle so many different characters and not drop the ball on any of them, one shudders to imagine the kind of movies that lesser studios will churn out when they stuff too many characters into their overwrought epics in an attempt to mimic the success of the last two "Avengers" films (see "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice").

There are also the numerous plot holes created by the film's time traveling premise. According to an interview with GQ by co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo, "if you go back to the past, you simply create a new reality. The characters in this movie created new timelines when they went back to the past, but it had no effect to the prime universe. What happened in the past 22 movies was still canon." Professor Hulk tries to make a similar point during a crucial scene, explaining that "if you travel to the past, that past becomes your future, and your former present becomes the past, which can’t now be changed by your future."

This is all well and good on paper, but the film shows the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) initially refusing to give one of the Infinity Stones to Professor Hulk because she explains how creating alternate timelines establishes countless unknown dangers for inhabitants of the new timelines. Setting aside the already-established problem with how Captain America created a major alternate timeline anyway, the movie tries to resolve this by having Professor Hulk promise to return the Infinity Stones to the exact moments when they were previously extracted. Even if we take it for granted that Captain America was later able to do this without a hitch, the nanoseconds when those stones would have been gone would still create alternate timelines with potentially unforeseeable consequences.

Beyond that, as the trailer for "Spider-Man: Far From Home" and reports about the upcoming "Loki" series clearly establish, alternate timelines were established anyway. And unless Captain America-as-an-old man somehow traveled from his alternate timeline to the "Avengers: Endgame" one, the audience is left to assume that the alternate timeline he created by marrying Peggy Carter in 1945 is one and the same with the primary timeline from the first 22 movies — which contradicts the notion that the changes made by the Avengers in extracting the Infinity Stones from the past won't alter the present.

With that factoid in mind, we arrive at the problem with the paradoxes created by the deaths of 2014's Thanos, 2014's Nebula and presumably a number of other 2014 characters once they are transported to 2023 to fight the Avengers in the last battle. Even if one assumes that 2023 Nebula killing 2014 Nebula doesn't create a paradox for 2023 Nebula due to the reasons that Professor Hulk stated, it doesn't explain the other ramifications that this would have for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nine whole years of story have been effectively wiped away by Thanos and company leaving 2014 to travel nine years into the future, an impact that would still be felt by every character who isn't in the special timeline created by the "Avengers: Endgame" protagonists going back in time. Numerous events caused in subsequent films by Thanos' actions will have now never happened unless an alternate timeline was indeed created, and if the Ancient One's warning to Professor Hulk is to be taken seriously, that either establishes a whole new world of dangers or establish a major paradox for literally trillions of living creatures in the existing continuity.

Finally, there is the fact that having half of all life in the universe vanish for five years would drastically alter the world we live in. Indeed, Thanos' finger snap would be regarded by every intelligent civilization in the universe as one of the most important historic events of all time — nothing else would even come close, even after all of Thanos' victims were brought back from the dead (which would, incidentally, be another major historic event, with Professor Hulk being a historic figure of equal significance to Thanos himself). Yet while there are a few moments where the film shows people feeling depressed, as well as a brief line referencing to some ecological improvement, for the most part "Avengers: Endgame" totally ignores the real-world ramifications that would exist both due to Thanos destroying half of all known life and Hulk bringing them all back. How did the vanished reintegrate into their lives after the universe had moved on without them? How did the survivors cope with their return? How had the political, social, economic and cultural changes that countless societies had made due to half of all life vanishing adjust to Professor Hulk's snap?

This is usually the point where fans of a movie will say that I should turn off my brain and just enjoy the show — and make no mistake about it, I did my best. I recommended "Avengers: Endgame" in my review and feel the same way after having seen it again. It's a fun, visually spectacular and emotionally satisfying adventure film, and the strengths of moments with characters like Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and Nebula outweigh the weaknesses in how it depicts Captain America, Professor Hulk and Black Widow. Yet while it's one thing to nitpick a film for its own sake, a movie is flawed if its plot holes and unsatisfying character resolutions are so glaring that they detract from your ability to fully enjoy the film while you're watching it or diminish it in retrospect.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa