Editor’s Note: There are major spoilers ahead.
Avengers: Endgame is an epic movie finishing up a decade year-long character arc for several heroes. By the end of the movie, two major heroes went into retirement. Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man, gave up his life to stop Thanos and his conquering hoard when he snapped them out of existence. Steve Rogers finally settled down and lived a life his friends and colleagues urged him to experience. He stayed with Peggy Carter, finally getting that dance he promised her back in Captain America: The First Avenger. What exactly happened when he stayed in the past remains a mystery, but we know he was happy with the decision. His final act as Captain America was to pass the shield onto the soul worthy being the next Captain America. With Bucky’s nod of approval, Sam Wilson gladly took the shield and the mantle.
Throughout comic book history, many people wielded the patriotic vibranium shield. Both Bucky Barnes, and Sam Wilson took on the name Captain America. There was even a brief moment in time when Hawkeye was a contender. On the surface, this gravity-defying, physics-breaking discus is a symbol of Captain America. When the villain sees that white star crash through the door or window they know they are in trouble. The shield is iconic, but it does not necessarily make the hero. Tony Stark understood the responsibility when he took Peter Parker’s suit back in Spider-Man: Homecoming when he boldly scolded him: “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” The same goes for the shield. It can’t simply go to any random person with the proper skills. It has to be passed down to someone worthy of it.
James “Bucky” Buchanan Barnes, aka The Winter Solider
Who better to wield the shield than James Buchanan Barnes, Steve Rogers’ best friend, and the closest person he has to family. Bucky, the Winter Soldier, is a cybernetic, genetic amplified warrior. He has increased strength and durability, allowing him to fight longer and harder than a normal human. He proved he could fight when he took on Cap in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. His black-ops training allows him to infiltrate any organization and wipe them out with ease. He grew up opposing evil entities like the Nazis and Hydra, and having Steve Rogers’ optimism around him is definitely a benefit. From a purely technical point of view, Bucky Barnes does seem like the logical choice. In the comics, he did become the new Captain America after Steve Rogers was assassinated at the end of the Civil War comic book series. During his reign, Bucky was a little more aggressive and direct. This is shown when he donned a darker costume and used firearms as his primary mode of attack. He is a perfect soldier, but he lacks the key component of being Captain America: his heart. In the MCU, he was brainwashed, abused, and tortured to become the Winter Soldier. He committed atrocities that stay with him, and later he asked to go into rehab under the care of Wakandian science. He was only asked to come back by Captain America when the arrival of Thanos was on the horizon. After he is gifted a new arm, he sighs and says “Where’s the fight?” He is very self-aware of what he has become, and how he is not yet ready to be the symbol of Captain America.
Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye
In the comics, Clint Barton has always been “the dude with the bow”. He started out as a villain, and after his heel-face-turn has gone through many different identities, even using the Pym Particles to became Goliath. He is a capable leader when he ran a team of villain-turned heroes called the Thunderbolts. Clint Barton has always been the renegade, a snarky, down to earth hero, surrounded by gods and monsters. In Avengers: Age of Ultron he encouraged Scarlet Witch to get out and fight
“Are you up for this? […] I just need to know cuz the city is flying, […] we’re fighting an army of robots, I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense. But I’m going out there because it’s my job. […] Doesn’t matter what you did or where you were. If you go out there to fight, you fight to kill, staying here you’re good. […] But if you step out that door, you are an Avenger”
Like Bucky, he is adept at infiltration, assassinations, and various secret ops. He can face off against beings of greater power, and understands what it’s like to be the weak one. Unlike Bucky, he has the ability to inspire hope, which is a key component to be Captain America. After Captain America’s death in the comic Civil War, Iron Man approached him, and proposed he be the new symbol of hope, primarily for his relationship with Steve, and being the only person not to break his arm throwing the shield. Unfortunately, after a single mission, he declined, realizing he’s not properly honouring the mantle. In the MCU, not only did it never interest him, but his time going on a murderous rampage after his family was “killed” had a huge effect on his mental state. He is willing to risk it all, even his own life but his attitude may come off as selfless, and in the end, it’s a death wish. With the loss of Black Widow, and guilt coursing through his veins, he too needs time to rest with his family. The shield was never meant for him.
Sam Wilson aka The Falcon
In 2014, right when Captain America: The Winter Soldier was in theatres, the comics came out with a different Captain America story. Steve Rogers aged, and he appointed The Falcon as the new Captain America.
In the MCU he’s a special pararescueman who uses submachine guns and a jetpack. Unlike the comics, Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers were never long-time friends and only met on a morning run. In the movies, however, there is not enough to prove that they have a close friendship, and it has to be assumed that during the time between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, their friendship was reinforced. Though he is not as strong as The Winter Soldier, or as skilled as Hawkeye, he has two components that make him the ideal candidate. His goal in pararescue is to get in, save people, and get out. This type of personality coincides with what Captain America should be: a protector. When he comes in, people know they’re in good hands. Captain America is not meant to be frightening or violent, but designed to inspire. Bucky Barnes and Clint Barton lack the other component and that’s the proper attitude. Sam Wilson is not guilt-ridden or trying to recover from some form of shameful past. He understands the difficulty of the job, and spends time counselling soldiers suffering from PTSD. Out of the majority of the candidates, he is the one who lost the least and gained the most. He might not be the best person at that moment, but he definitely has the potential.
Honorable Mention: Scott Lang aka Ant-Man
Captain America is a symbol of hope like Superman. He’s meant to inspire, stay positive, and help anyone in need. Scott Lang is the only character in the MCU that faced a problem he couldn’t solve or a dangerous situation too terrifying to overcome. Even in desperation, he kept a smile on his face and worked hard to raise people’s spirits up. If he wasn’t such a goofball, he would be perfect.
Being Captain America isn’t just about skill. It’s about fighting bullies, stopping dangers, and inspiring people with dramatic speeches. He needs the willpower to hold the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bucky Barnes and Hawkeye have the skills, but not the mentality. To them, their heart isn’t in it, and they understand that the shield has responsibility. Sam Wilson’s reluctance to accept the gift and his willingness to protect everyone makes him the perfect person. Steve Rogers didn’t want to be a super-soldier, he wanted to stop evil. Though Sam Wilson may have a hard time fighting, he definitely has the heart to carry the shield.