Marvel promised Avengers: Endgame would mark the end of an era that started with a run of solo films nearly a decade ago, bidding farewell to OG heroes and laying the groundwork for the next decade of the MCU, and it paid that promise off in spades.
**Spoiler Warning: Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Endgame.**
Though the deaths of Iron Man and Black Widow were the real tearjerkers — and seemingly took those characters off the board for good (assuming that upcoming Black Widow flick is a prequel, of course) — it was Captain America’s exit that really served as a true time travel twist. After returning all the Infinity Stones to their proper places along the timeline, Cap decides to skip his return trip to the present and instead heads back to a time not long after he disappeared into the ice at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. We only get a brief peek at this life requited, as he finally gets that first dance with young Peggy Carter a lifetime later.
It’s a touching story moment, and though the time travel threads of it leave you scratching your head, directors Joe and Anthony Russo have teased there could be a bit more to that story than what fans saw on screen. They hinted Bucky knew “something” in that moment in which Old Man Steve shows up to pass on the mantle of Captain America — could that mean he made contact with Bucky in some altered timeline? Or something else entirely?
Regardless, the meeting between Bucky, Sam, and Old Man Steve serves as a watershed moment for the MCU. There’s been a Captain America in the MCU timeline for more than half a century, and that man has always been Steve Rogers. Now, someone else is taking up the shield. But, where most comic fans would’ve likely expected Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, to take up that mantle, Endgame pulls a more modern twist.
With Bucky’s nod of approval, Old Man Steve unwraps the shield and asks Sam to try it on — then makes it clear it’s Sam’s shield, now.
Steve: “How’s it feel?”
Sam: “Like it’s someone else’s.”
Steve: “It isn’t.”
That moment made it official: The MCU has a new Captain America, and his name is Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon.
As comic fans are almost certainly aware, both Bucky and Sam have taken up the shield at various points in recent comic history. But the interesting part is that Bucky actually took on the role first in the comics, not Sam. Though, at least in adherence to the comics, the circumstances surrounding Sam’s big screen ascension are relatively close to the events that caused him to take up the shield a few years ago on the page.
In the comics, in the early to mid-'00s, Bucky was asked by Tony Stark to take up the shield following Steve Rogers’ apparent assassination. Bucky does the best he can in the role for a couple of years, adding a handgun to his weapon line-up alongside the shield, eventually helping hold together a new-look team of Avengers for a while. Those stories find Bucky grappling with what it means to step into Steve’s shoes, and the challenge of carrying the shield during a trying time (though admittedly, most days are trying times in the MCU). Bucky gets to fight past his darker inclinations and his history as the Winter Soldier. He then passes the shield back to Steve once he eventually returns (this is comics, after all).
As for Sam, his tenure as Captain America is a bit more recent. Falcon took on the stars and stripes around 2014, after Steve is aged into an old man for a while (of course, he eventually gets better). He chooses Sam as his hand-picked successor, and Sam becomes the All-New Captain America for a couple of years. His story goes a bit different than Bucky’s time in the suit. Sam keeps his wings and just incorporates the shield and red, white, and blue into his look. Sure, it’s just a costume refresh on the surface, but it’s symbolic — Sam truly tried to make the mantle his own, to not just be Captain America, but to be what Captain America means to him, to be his own version of Captain America, not another version of what had come before.
Sam’s time as Captain America is spent in an America that closely reflects our own in many ways, and tackled questions of social justice and racism head-on. He fought white supremacists, got involved in immigration cases on the border, and tackled inner-city crime and its causes. It told hard stories and found Sam grappling not just with the pressure of the position, but with the fact that — no matter what he does — there are still going to be people in this world who will never accept a black man in this role.
The narrative potential of seeing Sam take on this role is simply too good to pass up. When Sam took up the shield, we got to see a sidekick become not just a hero, but one of the most iconic heroes on the planet. His perspective as a black man in this powerful position gave him a perspective Steve Rogers never had, which leads him to be a Captain America who, arguably more than ever before, stands in the gap for the under-represented of the world. His decisions are scrutinized, his every move is picked apart. But through it all, Sam becomes his own version of Captain America, not just a guy keeping the shield warm for a few years. He leads a team of Avengers made largely of new heroes like himself, saves the world a few times, and even holds his ground when he comes up against Steve Rogers himself.
As for Bucky, his potential to be the next Cap was arguably done in by the fact that the Winter Soldier himself is more interesting a character than Bucky Cap could ever be. The Winter Soldier lives in the gray areas of the Marvel Comics Universe, and even heads into space for a while to serve as the Man on the Wall, a secret first line of defense against potential alien invasion (now wouldn’t that make for a wild Winter Soldier solo movie?). Bucky Barnes is better off as the Winter Soldier, something the comics version of the character eventually figured out and embraced.
Looking back to the big screen, Cap Sam is going to need a partner, much like the role Sam has served alongside Steve the past several years. It’s a perfect opportunity to allow Bucky and Sam to team up, with Bucky stepping fully into that sidekick role as Sam steps into Captain America’s shoes. We’ll almost certainly see some of that set-up in the upcoming Falcon and Winter Soldier series coming to Disney+ (though we’re still not sure exactly where that series fits in the MCU timeline).
The next phase or two of Marvel movies have plenty of recent comics history to mine for ideas in how to pull off a Sam Wilson: Captain America movie. Much like The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War all served as very different flavors of the same character, this passing of the shield presents the greatest opportunity yet to tell a different kind of story within the framework of a Captain America movie. The MCU has thrived on moving forward and constantly evolving by introducing new heroes such as Black Panther and Captain Marvel to keep propelling this world onward.
Now, it’s finally time for Sam Wilson to strap on the shield and step into the spotlight. It should be one hell of a ride.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.