Avengers: Endgame was undoubtedly the pop culture event of the entire decade. After Game of Thrones ended with a lot of controversy (is George even finishing the books?) and JK Rowling has taken to twitter to continually embarrass Harry Potter fans, the conclusion of the Infinity Saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will be hailed as the bar for nerd franchises for a very long time.
Perhaps one of the most captivating scenes that audiences everywhere went crazy for was when Steve Rogers/Captain America wielded Mjolnir, the hammer that was only meant to be lifted by those deemed worthy by Asgardian King Odin himself. When paired with the scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron, where multiple Avengers try to lift the hammer and Steve moves it ever-so-slightly, the internet immediately started asking the question I will be addressing in this piece:
“Could Steve always lift Mjolnir? Or did he become more worthy overtime?”
Kevin Feige, my personal idol in the industry, responded to this question in a reddit AMA with this answer:
Anthony and Joe Russo, whom I have been big fans of for a long time now (#sixseasonsandamovie), responded in basically the same manner:
Apparently those working on the movie seem to interpret all of this as Steve always being able to lift the hammer, but he didn’t want to (quite literally) steal Thor’s thunder.
As a day-one MCU fan, and as a person who has come to value Captain America as their absolute favorite Superhero (sorry Batsy, Cap won in the end after all)…I gotta say, I fundamentally disagree with this take on every level.
Now at least let me justify myself before the nerd rage begins:
- I can have great admiration & love for these creators and still disagree with them.
- Notice that their language in answering this question emphasizes “our interpretation” and “we like to think”, meaning that there is room for fans to have their own headcanon, which can be done with many other moments/themes in the MCU.
- It’s so boring to simply accept Steve as consistently perfect. He has the greatest heart in the universe and its always in the right place…but having those qualities doesn’t mean that a person can’t be misguided, lost, or even wrong sometimes.
It is much more interesting for Steve’s character arc if Mjolnir was something he couldn’t quite do until he went through some catharsis. This piece will provide my interpretation of this iconic moment in movie history, and even provide some insight into what I take away from Captain America’s journey.
Before we go into movies specifically, I want to point out how Steve deals with conflict. Despite all their differences, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark both want the same thing: to defend the earth and all of its people from those who would harm it. When things happen to Tony, we see it very visibly (mostly through his anxiety attacks). When things happen to Steve, he…doesn’t exactly address them properly. The conflict in Captain America: Civil War was never about politics because, (let’s be real here) if this was an actual real-life scenario we would all want some answers from heroes for the collateral damage. The conflict is moreso about Tony projecting his guilt from Ultron and his previous arms dealings, and Steve trying desperately to hold onto the only things that give him a purpose. Hold this thought. Now, we can go into the movies.
THE FIRST AVENGER
We are introduced to a sick, physically weak, and timid Steve Rogers trying to enlist in the army. Its admirable enough to keep trying after being rejected, but you truly see Steve’s passion and heart in an interaction he has with his best friend
Steve: “Bucky, come on! There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them. That’s what you don’t understand. This isn’t about me.”
Bucky: “Right, because you’ve got nothing to prove?”
This isn’t exactly selfish behavior, but we see that Steve himself is tired of being passed off as weak, especially when stronger men than him seem to be failing (he got beat up by some jock disrespecting the army in a theater, if you recall). After continuing to show his heart in conversations with Dr. Abraham Erskine and Peggy Carter, he is eventually chosen to receive the super-soldier serum. Before he does, there is an incredible moment that defines Steve’s entire character arc that often gets overlooked.
Similar to when Ho Yensin told Tony Stark (in a cave, with a box of scraps) not to “waste his life”, Dr. Erskine gave Steve similar advice as a mentor. Re-read and remember this, as it’s the basis for my entire point:
“Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. You will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Bucky also reminds Steve of this later in the movie, by telling Steve that he isn’t following “Captain America”, rather he is following the stupid kid from Brooklyn who would always lose fights because he wouldn’t run from them. For the rest of the movie, Steve is who he is and lives up to what he promised Erskine…and then he wakes up 70 years later.
Viewers often forget that Steve absolutely doesn’t belong in the 2010s, and that loss of time is what he’s mostly dealing with internally. We saw that in the previous movie he was looking for purpose, and after being gone for 70 years it makes sense that he would be trying to look for some semblance of that again. “Luckily” for Steve, he is immediately thrown back onto the front lines against Loki’s invasion of New York. With the urgent need of a soldier, and the fact that everyone in 2012 only knows him as a war hero, he falls into this role with ease. After this is where things start to get more complicated.
THE WINTER SOLDIER
We’re introduced to a Steve that’s trying to adjust to the time, but is moreso looking for things that remind him of the past for him to hold on to. Not only do we see him advance significantly as a martial artist and SHIELD operative, we see him reminiscing in his own museum exhibit and even see that he’s found Peggy again.
What stings for Steve is that this whole thing is getting harder. He’s trying to find new things to be excited about (his friendship with Sam Wilson and his crush on then-undercover Sharon Carter) but it’s not working. SHIELD has ideas for dangerous plans to essentially control society, Peggy has Alzheimer’s in her old age, Bucky is back and is being mind-controlled, and then he finds out that he’s been living a huge lie: HYDRA has been growing inside SHIELD for decades.
A great scene that gets us inside Steve’s head is when he is seemingly less stressed out talking to Natasha when HYDRA is revealed. He has an enemy, he has a purpose again. This gets further amplified when he decides that he’s going to look for Bucky and get his best friend back.
However, all of this is leading to Steve getting used to a life of constant conflict, rarely taking any time for himself to address his own issues. At this point, being a soldier is a necessary coping mechanism for Steve.
AGE OF ULTRON
This movie is an interesting one, because if you get into the details then you notice that a lot of Steve’s flaws are starting to show (obviously we need some hindsight after knowing the events that take place after…but that’s a lot of this movie in a nutshell as, upon rewatch, it’s basically “Phase 3: The Set-Up Chapter”).
For one thing, many fans speculate/assume that this is where he begins to lie to Tony about the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark at the hands of Bucky. Even with that detail aside, we really get more when we get to the first real encounter with Ultron (where Wanda Maximoff is present as well after Ultron stole Vibranium from Ulysses Klaue. Wanda is super important here).
Ultron hits Steve with an incredibly personal attack here: “Ah, Captain America. God’s righteous man, pretending you could live without a war. I can’t physically throw up in my mouth, but…”
Ultron wasn’t a very well developed villain, but he hits the nail on the head here. At this point, Steve has based his entire identity off of a few things that give him something to fight for. It’s almost as if he’s becoming somewhat desensitized after living in the 2010s (and who can blame him?). We see this emphasized more in the nightmare-sequence induced by Wanda’s powers, where Peggy is trying to tell him “the war is over…we can go home” and then immediately disappears, leaving Steve alone in a dance hall. The realization that, as much as he might want to, Steve can’t go home? That’s haunting, and that would do a number on someone mentally.
The movie ends with him insisting to Tony that being an Avenger and training the newcomers is “home” for him, so we know he’s trying. For the most part, he does seem to find some semblance of peace with the Avengers…and then…well…
This is where it can get fairly obvious that Steve is lowkey losing it. The Avengers’ very existence is threatened by the Sokovia Accords, Peggy passes away, Bucky is in the public eye, and he’s disagreeing with his own friends (Tony and Natasha).
As mentioned, a lot of Steve’s determination and drive seems to be stemming from him wanting to hold on to what makes him comfortable. What makes this worse this time around is that he has to pick and choose between Bucky, Tony, the Avengers, etc. The situation with Zemo happens to work out so that he has to apprehend Zemo regardless, but after Steve and Tony both played right into his hands…Steve has to finally tell Tony the truth.
From here, take where we had Steve in the 40’s vs now. The world he’s been trying to adjust to has finally beat him down into the loss of Peggy, Bucky (under containment in Wakanda), Tony, the Avengers, SHIELD, his public identity as a hero, and his own shield. There is nothing else left for Steve but the only thing that has given him peace in the entire time he un-froze: becoming a perfect soldier.
Steve didn’t get much screen time in this movie, but I like to think of that a good director’s choice that is indicative of what he’s going through at the moment. I personally don’t mind the cliche of “character goes through physical change to signify emotional change” because I’m just dramatic like that too, so obviously we can start with Steve clearly looking edgy in appearance (Spider-Man 3, anyone?). However there are some other tell-tale signs of Steve being less-than-himself here
If we start with his persona, he’s less talkative and outwardly expressive. Most of his lines are, in some way, giving out orders or only related to the conflict at hand. Piggybacking off of how he was in Civil War, he makes this grand gambit with the mind-stone to save Vision because of how much he cares about the Avengers, and because he doesn’t want Wanda to go through the same thing Peggy did all those years ago. After all, the Avengers always win…right?
Because I’m an MMA nerd, I can also make the case of Steve being much more of an aggressive fighter than we’ve ever seen him before. I guess that’s what happens when T’Challa gives you two shields that work better as punching mechanisms than defensive weapons, but I do think Steve’s fighting prowess went up even more here. Even Thanos was impressed!…right up until the point where he knocked Steve out cold.
At this point you’re probably wondering “well majority of his arc is this ‘perfect soldier’ thing, then when does he ever become ‘worthy’ of Mjolnir?”. I’m getting there, but the most important detail of Infinity War/the start of Endgame is that after losing previous parts of his life, he’s now simply just lost. All he had left was defending the Earth, and he couldn’t even do that. Worse, half of the entire universe suffered because he couldn’t live up to what he always told himself his purpose was, and that stings. Especially when Tony calls him out and airs out all of their dirty laundry from Ultron/Civil War. So what now?
Five years in the future, and the first thing we see is Steve isn’t defending, but uplifting others instead. Being close friends with Sam must have taught him something, because he took a page out of Sam’s book and is providing grief-counseling for victims. After that, we see him specifically visit a friend to console her as well. I personally don’t think Steve is holding it together very well and is internalizing again, but he’s doing certain things differently and we see him less eager to “punch his way out of a situation”. Also, he shaved.
There’s more! Steve is rarely ever a part of the “science-scenes” in these movies but he is there the first time the team attempts time-travel. He’s smarter about avoiding fights when he doesn’t need to have them (“Hail Hydra”). He’s capable of laughing at himself with his own doppelganger saying “I could do this all day”. Finally, he trusts Tony to retrieve the Tesseract.
The absence of a war taught Steve there was more to being himself. Slowly the idea started to plant in his mind that maybe he could just “go home” when the fighting is done and be something more than a soldier. In every scene in the five-year-time-skip, you can see the subtle differences in Steve’s behavior. He’s starting to be himself again, he’s starting to once again become a simple and good man. I don’t think this should be the story of a guy that was always right, nor do I think it’s the story of an okay-ish guy that got better. I think it’s the story of someone lost, who had to go through a lot regarding his identity so that he could find his way again. I think that a lot of this clicked for Steve himself when he got to see Peggy again while Tony was trying to grab the Tesseract, and I also think this is where he made the decision that he would return the Infinity Stones and return to Peggy. Upon their return, the only thing standing in his way was Thanos, and suddenly the possibility of losing all that he found again was present. Not this time, however. This time Steve remembered his greatest strength, and who he really was. When the time came, and he called on Mjolnir, it was all his personal growth that unlocked his true potential. He was always worthy, he just had to be reminded of what made him worthy in Erskine’s eyes in the first place.
That, I think, is a pretty cool interpretation of the Captain and his hammer. One I think everyone can learn from and be inspired by. After all, Steve is a hero, and shouldn’t inspiring others to believe in the good in themselves be a big part of heroism?