First: if you haven’t seen the movie, feel free to read Sean’s spoiler-free review. What follows below is filled with spoilers and you should stay the heck away.
As many of you know, I am generally not a big fan of super hero movies. I think they contribute to the dumbing-down of culture. That movies and comic books meant for boys are being consumed by men. That some of these men turn positively vitriolic over the most trivial deviations, which often represent change in the world that they themselves are not comfortable with and don’t want to see reflected in their little comic book bubbles. And now the extreme serialization of the MCU is shouldering independent cinema out of theatres and onto Netflix, which feels like a loss.
But Marvel has also given us something to feel passionate about. In a world that often chastises men for expressing excitement, glee, and attachment, Marvel’s shared universe has given them something that they can vocally and publicly acclaim. Which is not to say that women aren’t also fans of the MCU, just that it’s always been more socially acceptable for them to cry at a screening of Titanic than it has been for men.
But for the most part, it just wasn’t for me. And that’s okay. I still see every single one of them because I’m married to a little boy trapped inside a handsome, strapping body. He read this stuff as a kid and it’s fully exciting for him to see it come to life on the big screen (Spider-man in particular, it seems) – and then to share it with his brother and nephews, who are discovering it for themselves. And I dutifully fill in the seat beside him, very occasionally surprising myself by liking one of them (Black Panther. That’s the one. I also really liked Wonder Woman, but I do know that’s not Marvel, thankyouverymuch. Both these movies were cultural touchstones that transcended the comics. Both studios were careful to do things right, to get exactly the right actors and the right script and the right directors – to serve more than just the fans. Perhaps even to serve history).
Until: Taika Waititi. Waititi has been my favourite director for as long as he’s been directing movies. When I met Sean about a decade ago, I made him watch Eagle vs. Shark as a litmus test: was he cool enough and funny enough and subversive enough? He was. Barely. But he has a big penis so I let it slide.
As you may know, Taika Waititi came on board to direct Thor: Ragnarok and is largely responsible for turning an arrogant god into a thoughtful and affable leader. Thor was transformed. Thor is fun! Plus Waititi gave Thor a haircut and suddenly I was thinking: Thor is hot?
So Thor has since been my favourite character, which is why I was so sad to see his trajectory in Endgame. Thor is suffering from (is it too much to say?) PTSD. He’s been at constant war for years and has somehow internalized the Snap, blaming himself for failing to “aim for the head,” taking responsibility for Thanos’ humanity-shearing snap. Five years later, the movie finds Thor hidden away with his Ragnarok friends Korg and Miek, playing video games and inciting trolls, drinking too much and letting himself go. His physical self reflects his internal turmoil: he isn’t caring for himself anymore. Which is really sad, and surprisingly realistic for Marvel, but then they ruin the whole thing by playing it for a laugh. As Thor walks into the room, the camera goes to his beer-bloated belly. The audience laughs. He is shirtless so we can see the extent of his mortification. This man is hurting and Marvel wants us to laugh.
So it dilutes the very worthy and valid message about mental health and how we all struggle with it. If we took away the fat suit punch line, we’re left with a deeply conflicted man who is really suffering. He lost his family twice now – The Avengers were his family, and not only are half of them turned to dust, but he has exiled himself from the rest. And when he finally does rejoin them, Tony Stark doesn’t ask him how he’s doing, he makes a joke about his appearance (he calls him Lebowski). True enough: often even our close friends and family miss the signs of depression. And who would think of it of such a strong man? And yet we are all fallible. Pain and trauma are the great equalizers of men.
Let’s remember for a moment that Thor’s other family, his real family, are also dead, but every single one of them – mother, father, brother Loki, that pesky half-sister Hela, even his best pal Heimdall – died before the Snap. So they’re not coming back no matter what happens in Endgame. And he’s lost his home, Asgard literally blown to smithereens, along with much of the population, which is then halved again during the Snap, which also took Valkyrie, his one remaining link to home and past.
So it’s nice that Thor gets a moment with his mother, who immediately knows that she is being blessed with a visit from a future-version of her son. She doesn’t waste time asking about his appearance or about her own safety, she wants to know about his pain. They talk about the true nature of a hero. She gives him strength. He begins to heal.
Chris Hemsworth brings a lot to a role that he’s had to stretch and adapt over the 8 years that he’s played him. You wouldn’t expect a comic book hero to be the role that shows an actor’s versatility, and yet here we are. Hemsworth has compassion for Thor. Even while the audience is invited to laugh on him, Hemsworth doesn’t want to make him the joke. Thor puts on a show for his friends, unwilling to let the mask slip and show his true vulnerability. But we see it. Sometimes just in the pain the flashes across his eyes, or the defeated slump of his shoulders, formally so square and erect.
This is a movie, so Thor’s arc movies quickly, as it must. But it’s not shown to be a quick fix, nor complete. These wounds take time to heal but they can heal, even if Thor will never be the cocky god we knew before. Not that we’d want him to be. This new Thor may be fat, but he’s also grown so much. He knows that other people’s worthiness does not take away from his own. He can share in the heroics comfortably, and even pass the torch. And that’s why I liked the scene as he’s preparing to fight Thanos: he calls on the gods to ready him for battle. They do, but not by restoring him to his former glory. They outfit his new body. They braid his unkempt beard. It is THIS Thor who defeats Thanos when the old one could not, so let’s not laugh at his body, let’s celebrate his accomplishments, let’s shore up his mental health, let’s rejoice in his triumphs and share in his loss. He is finding his way through trauma. Thor is a god, but he’s having a very human response, and I wish ours in turn could be just a little more humane.