Captain America ending explained: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger started it all for Steve Rogers. Let's break down the movie's ending, its place in the MCU timeline, and how it sets up the stories that come next.
Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures
Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures /

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest franchise in Hollywood today. But it wasn't always like that; back at the beginning of the 2010s, Marvel Studios was working hard to launch its franchise with origin stories focusing on its biggest Avengers. Released in 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger was the fifth movie in the franchise, but chronologically it was the first, taking place during World War II and introducing us to Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America.

If you've been keeping up with the MCU, you'll know that Cap goes on to become a major player in the franchise (heck, if you haven't been keeping up with it, you probably know that too!). Chris Evans' Star-Spangled Man With A Plan is one of the core Avengers and the character's story began all the way back in the 1940s.

The timeline and the lore has been known to leave audiences with some questions, so if you've just watched the movie and would like some explanations about that ending (or it's been a while and you just need a recap of what went down), let's dive into the events of Captain America: The First Avenger.

How Captain America survived being frozen (and made it to the present)

The ending sequence of Captain America: The First Avenger gives us answers to the mystery posed in the film's opening moments. For when a mysterious ship is discovered in the Arctic in the present day, a frozen Steve Rogers is pulled from it. The same Steve Rogers who we learn battled Nazis and Hydra in the 1940s. So how did he survive? Why, he's a super-soldier of course.

After defeating the Red Skull, Steve crashes the plane full of Tesseract-powered weapons into the Arctic, seemingly dying in the crash. However, the ship didn't explode and it mostly remained intact. Steve was then frozen in suspended animation for 70 years. While a normal human would obviously freeze to death, the super soldier serum allowed Cap to survive the ordeal. With his cells in a constant state of regeneration and enhanced levels of strength and endurance, his blood never froze and thus, he remained alive - albeit frozen.

When he awoke in what is probably 2012, he was greeted by Nick Fury, who told him what had happened. Steve, heartbroken that the life he knew had been robbed of him, told Fury that he "had a date". Though we would find out in sequel Captain America: The First Avenger that Peggy Carter was still alive, they never got that dance they had promised each other in the '40s. At least not yet.

The post-credits scene sets up The Avengers

It's the question anyone who watches the MCU movies has: Does this one have a post-credits scene? The answer to that is, yes, Captain America: The First Avenger does indeed have a reason for you to stick around after the credits. But it's not your typical post-credits scene that we've come to expect from these movies nowadays. See, way back in The Infinity Saga, Marvel would sometimes use a clip from a yet-to-be-released film to entice fans back to movie theaters when it came out. So this is actually a clip from the next installment in the franchise, The Avengers (before featuring a brief trailer for the 2012 film).

Captain America: The First Avenger ending explained, Nick Fury
Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures /

Steve Rogers is taking out the frustration he still feels after missing out on the life he could have had on a punching bag until he is approached by Nick Fury. The S.H.I.E.L.D. director asks him if he's ready to take on a mission that has worldwide ramifications. While the clip cuts off before we see Steve answer, I think we all already know his answer (and that's including all of y'all who haven't seen The Avengers).

In the 2012 film, Loki arrives on Earth in search of the Tesseract, resulting in Fury assembling a team of Earth's Mightiest Heroes to stop him. Captain America is joined by Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Incredible Hulk, and Loki's brother Thor as they seek to stop him from destroying the planet with his army of alien invaders.

What happened to the Red Skull?

Johann Shmidt, a.k.a. The Red Skull, was the big bad of Captain America: The First Avenger and Hugo Weaving was very convincing with his devilish performance. The villain longed for the power of the Gods and he found that in the Tesseract, which he used to power all of Hydra's weapons. But as every bad guy who wants raw unadulterated power soon learns, some powers just can't be handled by mortal men - not even unhinged super soldiers.

Captain America: The First Avenger, Red Skull
Hugo Weaving in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) © 2011 - Paramount Pictures /

The film implies that the Red Skull is killed by the very power he was hoping to harness as the Tesseract seemingly burns him alive after showing him the cosmos. Steve confirms this to Peggy and Colonel Chester Phillips on the plane. What he doesn't know is that there was more ambitious things happening in that moment that he couldn't explain. Be warned this next paragraph will feature SPOILERS about the Red Skull's fate, and when we get that information.

Believe it or not, Shmidt was actually alive; just no longer on planet Earth. He resurfaces much, much later in Avengers: Infinity War (which is set in 2018) on the planet Vormir as something of a messenger doomed to spend an eternity watching people attempt to get the seemingly impossible to retrieve Soul Stone. Though no longer a threat, he was punished by the universe for misusing an Infinity Stone with eternal life to watch others perhaps do the same.

Peggy Carter's story was far from over

The First Avenger is also where we first met Peggy Carter. Portrayed by Hayley Atwell, the character would go on to become one of the most pivotal in the whole franchise (even though she didn't appear all that often). We'll not spoil what goes down in her other appearances in the franchise (yet), but Peggy is a revered presence due to the fact that she went on to found S.H.I.E.L.D., which is a major player in the modern day MCU overseen by Nick Fury himself.

Peggy faced a lot of adversity as an agent due to the outrageous sexism at the time, and she continued to deal with it even after her involvement in the defeat of Hydra and the Red Skull. Nevertheless, she never allowed that to prevent her from proving all of the naysayers wrong, quickly outshining them as an agent and ultimately in what she goes on to achieve.

Agent Carter
MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER – “Bridge and Tunnel” – Howard Stark’s deadliest weapon has fallen into enemy hands, and only Agent Carter can recover it. But can she do so before her undercover mission is discovered by SSR Chief Dooley and Agent Thompson? “Marvel’s Agent Carter” airs TUESDAY, JANUARY 6 (9:00-10:00 p.m., ET), on ABC. (ABC/Michael Desmond) HAYLEY ATWELL /

If you'd like to continue Peggy's story, you can go about doing that in two ways. First, there is the Agent Carter short, which shows us how she is continuing to persevere after Steve's apparent death, longing for a mission that her sexist peers won't allow her to have - until she stands up to them and takes it for herself. However, if you'd prefer a longer story, the Agent Carter TV series retells the same story over the course of an eight-episode season, setting her up for a different adventure in season 2. Though it only ran for two seasons, it was a beloved cult classic that fans are still hoping will get a third season to conclude its storyline.

That's not the last you see of Agent Carter, either, as Peggy resurfaces in the MCU movies from time-to-time. And given how awesome Hayley Atwell was in Captain America, that's most certainly a good thing.

What to watch after Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. in The Avengers (2012) ©Marvel 2012 /

If you have sat down to watch Captain America: The First Avenger and would like to continue the stories that began in it, there are a number of routes you can take. Of course, if you're watching the MCU in order, the next step is The Avengers, but that's only if you have already seen the other Phase One movies. If you haven't, it's best to start with them.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the titles you could (and/or should) watch after the 2011 film:

The Avengers: Naturally, The Avengers is chronologically the next film in the MCU saga, so it would make sense to move onto that one after the post-credits scene set it up. Chris Evans returns as Cap, alongside other Phase One heroes Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Incredible Hulk.

Any other Phase One movie: If Captain America: The First Avenger is your entry point into the MCU and you'd like to continue on with the saga, you might want to go back and watch the other Phase One movies that came out before this one. Those movies are Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), and Thor (2011). You can really watch them in any order (with the exception of Iron Man 2 which should obviously come after its predecessor) as they all introduce new heroes which become imperative on the road to setting up The Avengers.

Agent Carter (Marvel One-Shot short film): If you'd like to catch-up with Peggy Carter, the 2013 Agent Carter short is set one year after the events of the film. Peggy is now working at the Strategic Scientific Reserve but has to deal with sexism in the workplace. When a mission presents itself, she grabs it with both hands, showcasing just how efficient she is. The short is a quick and enjoyable watch that lays the foundations for Peggy's future as the founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agent Carter (ABC TV series): The short was so successful that it was expanded into a TV series that aired for two seasons on ABC. Hayley Atwell returns (and she's not the only actor from Captain America: The First Avenger to reprise their role) as the series showcases why Peggy is such a beloved character within the MCU. The first season covers some of the same ground that the short does but it's worth it just to see Hayley Atwell shine, and the second begins to edge into the more supernatural vein of the MCU, too.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: If you're not one for crossovers and multiverses and simply care about continuing Steve Rogers' story, there is a direct sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger that might be more up your street. Set in the present day, Captain America: The Winter Soldier sees Steve battle new enemies and threats, while haunted by ghosts and missed opportunities from his past. The mysterious Winter Soldier proves to be a formidable foe and that results in the 2014 sequel having some of the best action sequences in the MCU. I'd still recommend watching The Avengers before this one as it takes place after the events of that film (and features some of the characters from that movie), but if you only care about Cap's more linear stories, then this one is probably for you.

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