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Captain America's MCU Story Explained

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now been around for more than a decade and spanned roughly two dozen different films starring dozens of characters on various worlds and in various time periods. It's an immensely complex shared universe full of stories — but even amid all that complexity, the story of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, is particularly complicated. 

Sure, Cap's story starts simply enough. He's a kid from Brooklyn who wants to do good in the world and keeps volunteering to join the army, but then he gets drafted into a program that makes him a super soldier, tangles with HYDRA, and then things get really complicated when he's frozen in ice for nearly 70 years. 

As the resident man out of time in the Avengers, Steve Rogers brings a unique perspective and a very different experience to the team as a whole, an experience that gets even more complex when you factor in his long-lost friend who's a brainwashed assassin, his decision to form a splinter team of Avengers, and the whole time travel thing. To make sense of it all, here's Captain America's whole twisty MCU story, explained.

A constant volunteer

Steve Rogers was born in New York City in 1918. By the time he reached adulthood he was an orphan, and relied instead on his chosen family — his best friend, James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes. By 1943, as World War II raged in Europe, both Steve and Bucky were trying to enlist in the U.S. Army, but while Bucky was accepted, Steve's multiple chronic illnesses and small stature led to constant rejection, even when he attempted to use fake names and addresses to enlist. 

Steve's luck changed when he met Dr. Abraham Erskine, the head scientist in an experimental program called "Project Rebirth," which aimed to create a "Super Soldier" to help turn the tide of the war for the Allies. Steve was accepted into the program on a trial basis, and his courage impressed one of the program's supervisors, a British officer in the Strategic Scientific Reserve named Peggy Carter. Others in the program remained unconvinced that Rogers was the man for the job. 

Then came the moment that put Rogers over the top. In an effort to prove that one of the stronger, bigger men would be better suited to the procedure, SSR Colonel Phillips threw a dummy grenade on the ground at camp. Rogers was the lone man who dove on it while everyone else fled, and that settled the matter. Steve Rogers would be the man to take Erskine's Super Soldier Serum.

Project Rebirth

Steve Rogers was driven back to New York City to take part in the Project Rebirth procedure under Erskine's supervision. The night before, Erskine warned him of previous attempts that hadn't gone well, including one on a German officer named Johann Schmidt who was at that very moment pursuing his own ambitions in Europe as the leader of the fascist organization known as HYDRA. Though extremely painful, Rogers' version of the procedure went smoothly; he emerged with a dramatic increase in height and muscle mass, boasting enhanced abilities and free of his previous chronic illnesses. 

Rogers' first encounter with HYDRA sadly arrived just moments after the procedure, as a HYDRA agent snuck into the room and gunned down Erskine. Steve was able to pursue and catch the agent, but he committed suicide before he could be questioned. 

Erskine's death changed the course of the SSR and Project Rebirth, as his formula apparently died with him. With only one super soldier at their disposal, the U.S. government pressed Steve Rogers into service immediately — but it wasn't the kind of service he wanted.

From war bonds to the front line

Captain America was viewed by Congress as more important to the war effort as a symbol than he was as a soldier, and so Steve Rogers was dressed in a colorful costume and sent on a tour throughout the United States to sell war bonds, followed by a tour of Europe to increase morale for the troops. After spending the rest of 1943 doing shows instead of fighting battles, Steve grew weary, and then saw his chance to fight. In Italy he learned that Bucky's unit was MIA, and opted to stage a one-man rescue mission for his friend. With the help of Carter and industrialist Howard Stark, he dropped behind enemy lines and rescued Bucky and a number of other troops, proving himself as a front line asset in the fight against HYDRA. He also met Schmidt, who revealed his own encounter with the super soldier process had transformed him into the Red Skull. 

In an effort to clear out HYDRA and disrupt its operations, Steve recruited a crack team of commandos, including Barnes and Dum Dum Dugan, and they begin a series of missions throughout 1944 to infiltrate HYDRA bases and rescue captured Allied soldiers. As Steve fought on, the legend of Captain America grew.

A noble sacrifice

By 1945, Captain America and his "Howlin' Commandos" had succeeded in helping turn the tide of the war, but it came at great cost. During a mission to capture the Red Skull's chief aide Arnim Zola, Bucky fell to his apparent death, leaving Steve and the rest of the Commandos to gain the location of HYDRA's final stronghold from Zola. 

Steve then discovered Red Skull's endgame. Using a powerful artifact called the Tesseract (later revealed as an Infinity Stone), he engineered weapons of mass destruction which he planned to drop on America with the help of a long-distance bomber. Steve snuck onboard the plane and, in the ensuing confrontation, Red Skull seemingly died when the unshielded Tesseract pulled him through a wormhole. The Tesseract then fell into the ocean, to later be recovered by Howard Stark. 

With HYDRA defeated, Steve was left alone on the damaged plane, and realized he couldn't risk landing it because there was a chance the weapons would detonate and kill countless civilians. While radioing with Peggy — who he'd recently shared a first kiss with — Steve revealed his intention to crash the plane into the ocean and sacrifice himself. So, near the end of World War II, Steve Rogers flew a plane into the Arctic Ocean and passed into legend, becoming an American hero who, as far as the rest of the world knew, gave his life to save countless others.

Man Out of Time

In the years following his apparent death, Captain America became a national symbol of heroism, spawning everything from trading cards to museum exhibits. Peggy Carter went on to co-found S.H.I.E.L.D. and later married and started a family, with Steve always alive in her memory, and it was S.H.I.E.L.D. which continued to hold out hope to at least discover his body. 

At last, in the early 2010s, a breakthrough happened. S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists searching in the Arctic uncovered the aircraft and Rogers' intact, frozen body, then discovered to their amazement that Steve was somehow still alive, having been frozen in time by the ice. 

At first, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury tried to keep Steve unaware that he'd been in stasis for nearly seven decades, constructing a 1940s-era hospital room and even playing 1940s baseball games on the radio so Rogers would be deceived, until one day he heard a game on the radio that he knew had already been played. His deception revealed, Fury appeared to Steve and revealed the truth: It was 2011, and he would have to adjust to life in a new world, because he might need to save it again someday very soon.

The Battle of New York

In 2012, Rogers was called back into action when the resurfaced Tesseract, which had been in S.H.I.E.L.D. custody for years, fell into the hands of Loki, who planned to use it to open a wormhole and summon an alien army to Earth. At Fury's urging and working alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Captain America superfan Phil Coulson, Steve teamed up with Tony Stark/Iron Man, Bruce Banner/the Hulk, Thor, and S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow and Clint Barton/Hawkeye to form the Avengers. 

The team's relationship was rocky at first amid a clash of personalities, but Coulson's death at Loki's hand galvanized them, and Steve in particular took point as a field captain for the group. When Loki used Stark Tower to open his wormhole over New York City, the Avengers took to the streets to fight the ensuing Chitauri invasion, with Steve often taking point in getting civilians away from danger. In the chaos, the World Security Council opted to bomb New York rather than risk the invasion spreading, but Stark was able to divert the missile while Romanoff closed the wormhole. After Stark narrowly escaped death, the Avengers took Loki and the Tesseract into custody, sending both back to Asgard with Thor. Their mission complete, the Avengers went their separate ways, and Steve became a full-time S.H.I.E.L.D. field operative.

An old friend

Working closely with both Fury and Romanoff, Steve remained an active S.H.I.E.L.D. operative for the next two years, pouring himself into his work even as he tried to learn as much as he could about his new time. Everything changed when, after growing suspicious about data recovered by Romanoff on a mission, Fury was nearly killed by an assassin known as the Winter Soldier. 

Working while on the run from an internal faction seeking to destroy them, Steve and Romanoff uncovered the truth: HYDRA had managed to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. and had been working as a sleeper cell for years. Fury was attacked because he and Romanoff had found data that would compromise HYDRA's plan to use S.H.I.E.L.D. assets to kill millions. Then there was the bigger secret: Bucky had been kept in stasis for decades, brainwashed, and given his own super soldier treatment, making him the Winter Soldier. 

In the ensuing battle, Steve, Romanoff, and Fury — with an assist from soldier Sam Wilson/Falcon and his experimental flight pack — were able to expose HYDRA and stop its planned attack at the last moment. Bucky escaped in the chaos after Steve refused to kill him, but not before saving Steve's life and gaining a new curiosity about who he really was.

From HYDRA to Ultron

With S.H.I.E.L.D. in ruins following the HYDRA discovery, Rogers re-teamed with the Avengers to take out the remaining HYDRA cells now under the command of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. While infiltrating the last HYDRA stronghold in Europe, the team discovered two new metahumans — Pietro and Wanda Maximoff — who'd gained their abilities through Strucker's experiments. 

After defeating Strucker, the Avengers faced a new threat when Stark's experimental AI technology known as Ultron gained sentience and began formulating a plan to wipe out humanity. After Ultron crippled the Avengers in a fight, a rift formed between Stark and Rogers as Steve questioned Tony's motives in trying to build "a suit of armor around the world." 

The Avengers regrouped in Sokovia, where Ultron attempted to launch an entire city into the sky before dropping it back to Earth like an asteroid. With the help of the Maximoffs and Ultron's own android creation Vision, and with Rogers again acting as field commander, the team was able to defeat Ultron's robotic army and prevent the city from impacting Earth, losing Pietro in the process. 

With Ultron defeated, the original Avengers went their separate ways, so much so that Hulk fled the planet in a Quinjet. Rogers took command at the team's new upstate New York facility, and prepared to train a new team of Avengers with Romanoff including Wanda, Sam, James "Rhodey" Rhodes/War Machine, and Vision.

Civil War

In 2016, Steve met two new challenges. The first came after an operation by his new Avengers team caused civilian casualties, leading a number of nations to come together and establish the Sokovia Accords, a new system of regulations to keep superpowered heroes in check. Stark, believing the Accords were a necessary way to save innocent lives, stood by the new policy, while Rogers stood in opposition, believing "the safest hands are still our own." The conflict was complicated by the re-emergence of Bucky Barnes, who remained triggered by various brainwashing codewords. These codewords fell into the hands of Helmut Zemo, who launched a plan to bring down the Avengers from the inside, using Barnes' assassination of Howard and Maria Stark in 1991 as the fulcrum point. 

Tensions rose and culminated in a physical battle between Stark and his loyal Avengers and Rogers and his Avengers squad. The battle continued at a secret HYDRA facility in Siberia, where Stark learned that Barnes had killed his parents. Bucky and Steve fought Tony to a stalemate before escaping, permanently fracturing the Avengers. Steve took Bucky to Wakanda in an effort to finally remove his Winter Soldier conditioning, and began performing covert operations with Natasha, Wanda, and Sam as a fugitive from the U.S. government. In an act of friendship, Steve left behind a letter and a cell phone so Tony could call him if the need ever arose.

The Battle of Wakanda

More than a year passed as Steve and his team continued to carry out covert operations around the world, but their time in hiding was interrupted when they had to rescue Wanda and Vision (the pair were quietly dating at the time) from a pair of alien invaders in Scotland. This was followed by a call from a returned Bruce Banner, who revealed to Steve that Thanos had begun his final push for the Infinity Stones, threatening all life in the universe. Vision, who held the Mind Stone in his head, offered his life if it meant the stone would be destroyed and Thanos would be stopped, but Steve refused. 

While Tony carried out his own fight with Thanos off-planet, Steve called in a favor to King T'Challa of Wakanda, and the two prepared for a pitched battle in the tiny African nation. Thanos' army arrived in a push to get the Mind Stone, and Steve led the charge to hold them off while Wakandan scientist Shuri tried to remove the Stone from Vision so it could be destroyed. Though Thor, Groot, and Rocket arrived to reinforce their fight, Thanos himself later appeared to take the Stone. Wanda used her power to destroy it, but Thanos used the Time Stone to rewind time and take the Mind Stone from Vision's head. Though Thor nearly killed Thanos, Thanos snapped his fingers wielding all six Infinity Stones, wiping out half of all life in the universe.

Confronting the Titan

Three weeks after the battle in Wakanda, Steve and a team of Avengers were shocked by the return of Tony Stark and the appearance of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Together they learned that Thanos had used the Stones again on a distant planet, and Steve led a team to go there and take the Stones back. When they arrived, they found that Thanos had used the Stones to destroy the Stones, rendering their effort useless. Thor beheaded Thanos in a rage, and the team returned home. 

Five years passed, during which time Steve did his best to be a help to others in a world decimated by Thanos. While Natasha led field operations for the remaining Avengers, Steve spent much of his time in New York City, attending support groups for survivors and trying to keep up morale while acknowledging that he himself was having trouble moving on from defeat. 

Everything changed when Scott Lang re-emerged after being lost in the Quantum Realm, and revealed to Steve and Natasha that time travel could be a possible solution to undoing Thanos' harm. They approached Stark, who was at first reluctant to help but, after cracking the time travel problem, returned to the Avengers facility to launch a mission to retrieve the Stones.

Into the timestream

Using Pym Particles as their time travel fuel, the Avengers split into teams to journey back to previous encounters with the Infinity Stones in order to steal them and form a Gauntlet of their own that would undo Thanos' snap. Steve journeyed with Stark, Banner, and Lang to New York in 2012, and successfully recovered the Mind Stone after a battle with his own past self. When the Space Stone was lost after it fell into Loki's hands, Tony and Steve launched an unplanned journey to 1970 New Jersey to recover it at a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. While there, Steve stole Pym Particles to facilitate the trip home. 

Though Natasha was lost during her mission to capture the Mind Stone, the Avengers succeeded in getting all six Infinity Stones, and Banner (now in permanent Hulk form) snapped to undo the decimation. It worked, but moments later a past version of Thanos arrived, having learned of the Avengers' plan via Nebula's memory banks. A battle ensued in upstate New York, and at one point Steve was the last soldier standing. He proved himself worthy of wielding Mjolnir and led the reformed Avengers in a massive fight which culminated in Tony sacrificing himself by wielding the Stones and using them to kill Thanos and his entire army, ending the Infinity War once and for all.

A second chance

With Thanos defeated, it was important that the Avengers return the Infinity Stones to the exact places where they took them to prevent disastrous alternate timelines from continuing and disrupting the flow of time in general. Steve took this responsibility on himself, and had a conversation with Bucky about his plans before leaving. After Tony's funeral, Steve stepped back on the time platform and went back through the various points of origin of the Stones. This took him to Earth in 2012 and 1970, Asgard in 2013, and the planets Morag and Vormir in 2014. Steve was only supposed to gone a matter of seconds for the Avengers in 2023, but he missed his timestamp. 

Steve had saved extra Pym Particles to use after returning the Stones, and used them to travel back to the 1940s to reunite with Peggy Carter and live out the rest of his life in peace with her. He didn't reveal himself to the Avengers again until moments after he left them in 2023, appearing on a bench by the lake at the Avengers' upstate facility to reveal what he'd done. Now an old man who'd spent the last half of his life happily married, he handed over his shield to Sam Wilson, making him the next Captain America while also declining to reveal any details about his married life.

Dancing with Peggy

Avengers: Endgame, and by extension Steve Rogers himself, doesn't shed a lot of light on what exactly Steve did with the intervening decades he finally got to spend time in after previously "living" through them while frozen in ice. That's left a lot of room for speculation by fans, and the most prominent question is whether he actually created an alternate timeline by refusing to return to the present. Apparently, the answer to that is no. 

"We are not experts on time travel, but the Ancient One specifically states that when you take an Infinity Stone out of a timeline it creates a new timeline. So Steve going back and just being there would not create a new timeline," Endgame co-writer Christopher Markus said

That just means there were two versions of Steve Rogers who existed between the 1940s and the 2020s, though one of them spent most of that time frozen. It's quite possible, then, that Steve is now the father of Peggy's children who were referenced in past MCU installments, and it's also possible those children have some super soldier blood. Whether that adds to Steve Rogers' legacy in the future remains to be seen.