Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
What happens to a person when they fail to save the world? That’s the existential question plaguing Thor in Avengers: Endgame, a film that opens with the God of Thunder in a state of crippling regret and raw self-hatred. At the end of Infinity War, he failed to “aim for the head” in his duel with Thanos, a decision that ultimately led to the deaths of half the galaxy’s living population. None of this was Thor’s fault—it was still the evil Thanos who snapped his finger, igniting the Infinity Stones to enact his destructive plan—but Thor’s brain doesn’t process the moment that pragmatically. Humans are programmed to self-destruct in moments of fallibility; so are gods, it appears.
Thor’s journey in Endgame is already one of the film’s more controversial elements. Much of that has to do with what comes after he encounters Thanos for the second time. “I aimed for the head,” he explains to his fellow Avengers when they ask why he spontaneously strikes Thanos down. But killing Thanos doesn’t heal Thor, it only deepens his wound. In the years that follow, the damaged, reflective Thor retreads to New Asgard, a mockup settlement of his destroyed home planet in Norway, where he lives out his days in isolation, drinking beer and gaining weight. The first time we see him after the five-year jump, Chris Hemsworth is donning a fat suit; Thor’s once “perfect” body is now soft, his stomach distended from alcohol bloat. The moment is played for laughs.
There are jokes that don’t land, and assertions of the film’s fat-phobia are nothing to scoff at. But Thor’s weight gain and subsequent trauma are more than the sum of those laughs. There’s a depth to his storyline in Endgame that transcends the problematic elements, even if it doesn’t erase them. The shell-shocked, vacant-eyed Thor we meet at the beginning of Endgame is so foreign to the Asgardian god we’ve always known that it immediately orients the audience in the film’s post-snap reality. This isn’t just some minor blip our characters need to fix. It’s an event that has profoundly impacted them on a personal, interior level. Thor is the most illusive showcase of that fallout.
When we meet Thor in New Asgard, he’s closed off from the world. He spends his days playing Fortnite with Korg and Miek and arguing with internet trolls. He puts on a show when Bruce, Rhodey, and Rocket come to recruit him for their time travel mission. He’s OK, just having some fun. He brushes off their concerns. But when Bruce says the name Thanos, everything changes. The lights in Thor’s eyes go out. It’s a clear sign of PTSD; the shockwaves of the name disorient him, and trigger an anger response. This is a Thor significantly changed by his perceived failures. He agrees to help only because Rocket baits him to the ship with beer, but it’s clear his heart isn’t in the clean-up job. He’s going through the motions, waiting for life to happen to him instead of actively navigating the waters of his trauma.
Thor’s isolation from the core Avengers and their constant nags at his body and disposition are played for laughs, yes, but Hemsworth doesn’t let their commentary detract from the important character work he’s doing. The way he handles the role really nails how grueling mental illness can feel to those who live with it daily, and how even close friends can ignore the warning signs. The well-meaning Tony jokingly calls Thor “Lebowski” due to his haggard, casual appearance, but never asks what’s really going on in his friend’s brain. Thor puts on a show, afraid to betray his vulnerability. But it catches up to him, as pain always does, sneaking through in an important encounter with his mother, Frigga, during the time heist portion of the film.
Thor returns to the events of Thor: The Dark World just before his mother’s death to retrieve the reality stone. He sees Frigga strolling through the halls of their Asgardian palace and tries to avoid her, but in his drunken stupor he fails. She immediately recognizes that this is her son from the future—she was raised by witches, after all—but instead of fearing him or fretting over her death, she recognizes her son’s pain and prioritizes his comfort. Their encounter is one of the film’s many beautiful emotional payoffs. Thor not only gets closure with a parent he tragically lost, but Frigga’s words about the true meaning of heroism help restore Thor’s self-worth. Renewed with a sense of purpose, he calls for his hammer Mjölnir, which flies into his hands (after a comedic lag). He isn’t fully healed in this moment, but progress is in motion. Trauma wounds, but it doesn’t have to shatter a person (not even a god) irreparably.
Thor’s journey from damaged goods to confident hero is quick—this is, at the end of the day, a comic book movie—but not insignificant. There’s hope in the final act of the film, much of it put forward by Thor’s self-acceptance. The film even partially subverts its “walking fat joke” trope. In the final fight against Thanos, Thor, equipped with both Mjölnir and Stormbreaker, calls to the gods to ready him for battle. Instead of restoring his body to its former physical prowess or shaving him clean, the gods braid Thor’s unkempt hair and stylize his new body. It’s a moment of ownership of his new physical form, of the scars he’s acquired, of the pain he is about to challenge, and it reverberates through the finale. The God of Thunder gets to quite literally conquer his demon. And he does it without shame of what he’s become.
Avengers: Endgame may not satisfy every fan, and those with larger concerns about its portrayal of body image and mental illness should be heard. Any read on the film is a worthy one. But it’s very clear that Hemsworth has put a lot of care and compassion into this character. When Thor is thrilled that his friend Steve Rogers can wield Mjölnir, and when he passes the torch to Valkyrie in the film’s closing moments and takes to the sky with the Guardians, his progress is felt. It means something, this evolution from all-powerful, arrogant god to a selfless hero whose new purpose is inner-peace. It’s an important message to send in a film that so many people will see. Trauma is a part of you, but it doesn’t own you, and it doesn’t have to dictate your future. Thor is a sigil of hope for those who live with the pain of the past. His scars only make him stronger. So do yours.
Images: Disney, Marvel