Avengers: Endgame gets so many things right when it comes to celebrating the first 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Peggy Carter isn’t one of them.
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. If you haven’t seen it yet, please proceed with caution.
Whenever anyone asks me who my favorite Marvel character is, I never hesitate to say Peggy Carter. Most times I get blank stares or “Who?” in response, to which I have to (unfortunately) elaborate with “Captain America’s girlfriend.” People who aren’t Agent Carter fans or devoted Captain America fans don’t know her as anything different.
They don’t see the badass she truly is throughout the MCU’s timeline. They were told a few times in passing that she founded S.H.I.E.L.D. with Howard Stark but nothing much was made of that (aside from a short appearance at the beginning of Ant-Man or the “looking through the blinds” moment in Endgame that I’ll get to in a minute).
Aside from those moments, Peggy has always been highlighted as Steve’s love interest in the Marvel movies. We watch him as he stares longingly at his compass that has her photo in it. Our hearts break when he sits at her bedside, telling her his woes but also thinking of the life he lost with her. We mourn with him as he accepts the role of pallbearer at her funeral, crying as he lays her body to rest. All of these scenes are incredibly effective and complete tearjerkers. I’m not debating that. (After all, they reduce me to a blubbering mess every time.) However, when strung together, a pattern emerges.
We never hear about all of the things Peggy does for S.H.I.E.L.D. Nat refers to her as “the girl” when she and Steve infiltrate the old S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters at Camp Lehigh, presumably not knowing who she is. There have been so many opportunities to expand on who Peggy is/was in these movies.
And thanks to the use of one of Peggy’s most affecting lines in the series as a voiceover for one of the Avengers: Endgame trailers, I thought that that moment may finally come.
Going into Avengers: Endgame, I was both excited and nervous about the prospect of seeing Peggy Carter on the big screen again. About a week before the movie’s premiere, one of our wonderful ReWatchable listeners shared with me a superb article by Alyssa Fikse over at Syfy Fangrrls that perfectly verbalized my thoughts and fears about Peggy’s potential inclusion in the movie. For the longest time, I’ve wanted to see Peggy and Steve get their happy ending, but the further I fell in love with Peg, the more I realized that that couldn’t happen without hurting her.
Nevertheless, I was excited. Peggy Carter is my personal hero and role model. I constantly ask myself “What would Peggy do?” on a daily basis and recently got my very first tattoo in her honor: the phrase “I Know My Value.” inked on the inside of my left forearm. She means everything to me and all I wanted was to see her one last time, getting the recognition she deserves.
And so the movie started and I waited.
But the moment I was waiting for, the moment where Peggy became more than just Steve’s love interest in these movies (post-Captain America: The First Avenger), never came.
Avengers: Endgame didn’t include Peggy as the character she grew to be. It didn’t do anything to further our love for or understanding of her. It merely included Peggy as the object of Steve’s affections. As a symbol of his happiness. As a prize to be won.
Now, I’m not a heartless monster. Steve’s constant longing looks at his compass struck me right in the feels. I’ve always loved his relationship with Peggy and how they perfectly complemented each other when they worked together in the 1940s. I also loved those little compass-longing moments because, again, they gave me hope that we’d see my personal heroine on screen, in the flesh, once more.
What I didn’t realize was that they were just a precursor to her treatment throughout Avengers: Endgame.
When Steve and Tony decide to return to Camp Lehigh in the 1970s, my Peggy senses immediately started tingling because I knew S.H.I.E.L.D. would’ve very much still been operating from there at that time. And so I braced myself for her gloriousness. I grabbed a tissue, slunk low in my seat, and waited.
As I watched Steve enter a random office to hide from the inquisitorial squad coming after him, the word “Carter” on the glass door behind him immediately caught my eye (quite a few moments before they or the frames on her desk drew Steve’s attention). This was the moment we’d see Peggy again. I waited for her to walk out of the shadows and ask “Steve?,” her voice trembling with emotion and disbelief. When that didn’t happen, I was confused. It was her office after all. They wouldn’t just dangle Peggy Carter in front of us viewers, going so far as to have Steve enter her personal space, without actually showing her, would they?
And then I saw her. In an office that wasn’t hers, separated from Steve (and us) by a wall of glass and blinds.
At this moment, we, along with Steve, become voyeurs. Though she’s working and probably handling some serious S.H.I.E.L.D. business, this physical separation reduces Peggy to an object of desire. We’re not allowed to connect with her, understand what she’s doing, or learn how she lives her life. Though she’s speaking to someone in this scene, we’re not really allowed to or even encouraged to try to listen to her. The sole purpose of the scene is to look at her and feel how much this separation pains Steve. She’s literally put in this scene to cause man-pain.
And though this is supposed to be an emotional moment, almost everyone in the packed theater I was in on opening night started laughing. Whether they were laughing at the situation or how creepy it feels to have Steve watching her through a set of dark blinds or perhaps how Peg’s hair looked (which, if that’s the case, I should’ve slugged them all because she looked amazing like always), it doesn’t matter. The fact that they were laughing and snickering at all just shows how completely this scene missed the mark.
Instead of showcasing Peggy and giving her the reverence she deserves for the role that she plays in the MCU (which is a big one that is not often talked about and I don’t have time to get into completely here), this scene just turns her into an IRL version of Steve’s compass.
But this moment pales in comparison to the ramifications the film’s ending has on Peggy Carter.
By going back in time and making the past his future, Steve effectively erases a lot of Peggy Carter’s hard-won character development (and not to mention her family). Sure, the Peggy Carter he goes back to be with may not necessarily be the same one that was alive in the timeline/reality that the rest of the Avengers are in (because confusing Endgame time travel rules), but does that matter? She may not be the exact same Peggy, but he still takes agency and family away from *a* Peggy in order to give them both the happy ending he wants.
Now, there’s no doubt that she would love seeing him again and that they’d make a fantastic couple. As we saw throughout The First Avenger and Agent Carter, her love for Steve runs deep. The Peggy he went back in time for would’ve been overjoyed to see him and to hold him once more. We see a glimpse of that joy as they sway to “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” in their(?) living room.
But isn’t that joy then ignorant of what could’ve been and what she loses out on because he came back?
Logically (and by looking at the cars parked along the street outside of the house where we find Steve and Peggy or by just looking at her fabulous hair-do), Steve must’ve gone back in time to meet Peggy somewhere in the late 1940s or early 1950s. If he would’ve gone back any later in time, she would already have (most likely) been involved with her husband (who may or may not be Daniel Sousa), if not married. And Steve Rogers is many things, but a homewrecker isn’t one of them.
So that also means that he would’ve gone back while she was still working as an agent for the SSR or right as she and Howard decided to found S.H.I.E.L.D. This is significant because in the time between Steve’s sacrifice and her helping start S.H.I.E.L.D., Peggy undergoes some serious character-building. As we saw in Agent Carter, she faced sexism in the workplace (in addition to the wider world in general) on an hourly basis, so her gaining her colleagues’ respect and admiration was a huge deal for her.
Also a huge part of her character arc was her being able to let Steve go and move on with her life. The entirety of season one saw her grieving his death while also being held back by it. The season one finale, “Valediction,” wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without her admission that it was time to move on and her bidding goodbye to Steve by pouring his blood from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Peggy Carter was inspired by Steve Rogers in her life, but, in time, moved on and became known for being her own badass self. She also became a wife and a mother and, as she says in The Winter Soldier, “lived a life.”
But if Steve were to come back to her before she embarked on her character arc, what then? Would she have become as fierce and independent and amazing as she had originally? Would she have founded S.H.I.E.L.D.?
Her relationship with Steve is wonderful, but it’s not worth potentially losing her character arc or her agency.
This is why Steve’s returning to a past Peggy is so troubling and problematic. By performing perhaps the first selfish act in his life by doing something to grant himself happiness, Steve takes away a Peggy’s agency and she’s none the wiser.
That’s not to say that she couldn’t have become a badass in her own right or perhaps founded S.H.I.E.L.D. with Steve as her supportive partner, but it’s highly improbable that she would’ve grown to the same extent. Her involvement in starting S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly would’ve been different as she probably wouldn’t have spent as much personal bonding time with Howard.
She never would’ve become the exact Peggy Carter we all know and love.
All this scene tells us about this new Peggy is that she’s in love with Steve and happy to see him. Or, well, that’s what we’re meant to believe because she doesn’t actually speak at all during the scene.
Once again, Peggy is relegated to object status.
Consider the way the scene is shot.
The camera pans down a typical American street and then moves through the window of a typical American house. Once again, we as the audience are set up to be voyeurs. We’re peeping in on whoever is in the house, not meant to interact with them. We’re just there to watch.
Then we’re faced with the image of Steve and Peggy happily dancing together to “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” We can feel their happiness and the sense that they’ve waited a long time for this moment, but neither actually says anything.
Now, that’s fine when it comes to Steve as we just had a full movie of memorable quotes and interactions from him. But Peggy didn’t say a word (of consequence) throughout the entire film, even though she was consistently present. That’s not okay.
To be fair, we’re meant to come at this scene from the point of view that Steve is getting his happy ending and finally retiring. But with that view comes a similar set of issues. By viewing the scene through that lens, Peggy’s humanity is once again stripped away as she’s just positioned as a means to an end for his happiness. As a crucial element, sure, but an element nonetheless. Her happiness is shown but never really addressed in this scene whereas we very explicitly know that living out the rest of his days in the past brought Steve happiness.
Or, well, again, so we assume because he never actually mentions Peggy’s name to Sam or Bucky, who knew Peggy, and yet remains yards away from his best friend after he returns. Nobody asks about Peggy specifically. Sam asks if Steve wants to talk about her, but he declines. The focus is just that Steve achieved his good life. The “how” of his achievement doesn’t really matter.
Suffice it to say, Peggy Carter did not survive World War II, deal with sexist workplace bullshit, overcome crippling heartbreak and guilt, establish one of the world’s largest intelligence organizations, and inspire women around the world to rise above other people’s expectations of them to be treated as simply an object and the physical embodiment of Steve’s happiness.
Without Peggy, the MCU as we know it would not have existed. Steve Rogers, Howard Stark, Tony Stark, Natasha Romanoff, Nick Fury, Carol Danvers… All of these characters’ lives were directly impacted by Peggy Carter and the work she did for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the improvement of treatment of women in the workplace.
Avengers: Endgame beautifully paid tribute to so many characters we’ve come to know and love over the past 10 years, both crucial and secondary, but, for some reason, decided to shortchange one of the best characters in the universe.
Peggy Carter deserved so much better than her treatment in Avengers: Endgame. But, while her treatment in the film will certainly continue to bother me for the rest of my days, I know what she’d say about the situation: “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”
And I guess, in the end, that’s all that really does matter.