Rumor has it that Chris Evans may return to the role of Captain America.
It may or may not be accurate. Regardless, the reports make it clear that Evans would not be stepping back into the role full-time for Captain America 4. Instead, there is some suggestion that Evans could reprise the role in a minor way for a couple films (or even, presumably, a streaming series) like his cameo appearances in Thor: The Dark World or Spider-Man: Homecoming. Theoretically, this should be good news. After all, with no disrespect to Matt Salinger, Evans is the defining live-action Steve Rogers.
However, it’s hard not to react to the news with some sense of trepidation. After all, Evans got his big “goodbye” sequence in Avengers: Endgame, and the departure of both Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) served to draw a definitive line under the stretch of 22 movies (23, if Spider-Man: Far From Home is considered an epilogue) that constituted the “Infinity Saga.” One stage of the MCU was over, and a new one was set to begin.
Endings are important, particularly in the context of a popular culture that has grown increasingly fixated on nostalgia. So much of modern pop culture is built upon established brands and known intellectual property being constantly recycled that it feels harder and harder for pop culture to move forward. So much media is built around rehashing familiar concepts and resurrecting beloved characters, often played by veteran actors, that there’s little sense of growth and progress.
It is no longer enough to just keep making new Batman and Spider-Man movies. Now new versions need to tether themselves to older iterations to feed fandom’s nostalgia centers. It doesn’t matter that the DC Extended Universe is unlikely to produce anything as weird as Tim Burton’s Batman or as horny as Batman Returns, only that fans recognize Michael Keaton. It doesn’t matter that the MCU is not as earnest or heightened as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, only that people remember Tobey Maguire.
It seems natural that this debate should occur in the context of superhero movies, because it reflects a tension that has been simmering through superhero comics for decades. A quote often credited to Stan Lee, whether fairly or not, suggested that comic books were designed to offer readers “the illusion of change” rather than change itself. Once a particularly iconic iteration of a character imprints itself upon comic book fans, that version is unlikely to change.
There have been cases where characters and concepts have changed dramatically in superhero comics. In the 1950s and 1960s, new iterations of 1940s superheroes like the Flash and Green Lantern hit the stands. The concepts were reinvented for the new era, pushing towards science fiction rather than folklore and mythology. While the older iterations of the heroes like Jay Garrick or Alan Scott still hang around today, they’ve largely been supplanted by Barry Allen and Hal Jordan.
Over time, it seemed like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan might themselves be supplanted and that the comic book legacies of The Flash and Green Lantern might evolve. Barry Allen died in Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 in November 1985. Hal Jordan had a breakdown and turned evil due to the destruction of his home city in The Death of Superman. Both were replaced by younger and newer heroes. Barry Allen was replaced by Wally West, and Hal Jordan gave way to Kyle Rayner. It felt like change.
Inevitably, nostalgia was too strong a pull. As writers, editors, and artists who had grown up with Barry Allen and Hal Jordan filtered back into the industry, they pushed the intellectual properties back to their older configurations. Writer Geoff Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver worked on two miniseries — Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth — that reset this status quo, never mind that many readers were too young to remember the continuity being restored.
For a while, it seemed like comic book movies and the live-action shared universes that they perpetuated might be spared this sort of nostalgic distortion. After all, films and television operated by a different set of constraints than comic art. Characters on the page remain frozen in time forever, through the wonders of “comic book time.” In contrast, actors might lose interest, become unavailable, or even pass away. In doing so, the cinematic universe would have to evolve.
Indeed, the existence of a shared universe like the MCU pushes this idea to its logical extreme. While Warner Bros. and Sony could simply reboot and recast properties like Batman or Spider-Man, that option is not available to Marvel Studios. If the company wants to create new films or shows without Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr., then that means making those movies or series without Steve Rogers or Tony Stark. That means deepening the roster and pushing new characters to the fore.
Announcements from Marvel Studios suggest the company understands this. Natalie Portman will take center stage in Thor: Love and Thunder, mirroring Jane Foster’s ascension to the role of Thor in the comics. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will find Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) grappling with the weight of becoming Captain America, as in the comics. Even the announced streaming series Ironheart suggests that the MCU will be introducing Riri Williams as Tony Stark’s successor.
Of course, the nature of comics means that these reinventions and reconceptualizations were inevitably reverted to the status quo: Jane Foster surrendered Mjolnir to Thor, Sam Wilson returned the shield to Steve Rogers, Riri Williams retired into the background when Tony Stark returned. However, without actors like Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., that option would not be open to Marvel Studios. Sam Wilson would be Captain America for an entire generation.
This is important. Shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Ironheart will reach much larger audiences than monthly Captain America and Iron Man comics, and so they can shape how a generation of fans see these characters. Many fans see John Stewart as the default Green Lantern because of his role in the DC Animated Universe, and Harley Quinn is one of the most important new Batman characters of the past three decades because she originated on television rather than in comics.
However, the return of Chris Evans suggests that this forward momentum cannot be taken for granted. Even if Evans is unlikely to return as Steve Rogers in a headline role, the return of Steve Rogers as an ongoing concern of the MCU would inevitably cast a shadow over Sam Wilson’s move to the fore. It suggests that Chris Evans and Steve Rogers will always be the “real” Captain America, rather than treating the departure of the actor and character in Endgame as a definitive ending.
There is value in closing the book on particular characters, in moving on and trying new things, even if it’s easier to bask in nostalgia. Watching The Rise of Skywalker, it’s hard not to get the sense that Star Wars would do well to “grow beyond” the Skywalkers and established characters. Modern franchises could learn from how Star Trek: The Next Generation distanced itself from Star Trek in its middle years; even having characters say the name “Spock” sparked arguments in the writers’ room.
This becomes an even greater concern in an era where actors can be de-aged through technology and even completely computer-generated. After all, one can’t help but imagine that studios like Disney would be very interested in a future where computer-generated versions of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. could be licensed out from the actors or their estates in perpetuity. These sorts of changes would freeze superhero movies in time like their comics counterparts. It’s hard not to feel the dial edging in that direction.
Chris Evans had a tremendous tenure as Captain America. It’s time to let somebody else wield the shield. Maybe some stars and stripes shouldn’t be forever.