One of the big problems with the Avengers movies in general is that they can’t accommodate all the arcs of the individual characters. Trying to cram six or more characters into three-ish hours and give them all their due is already impossible, and then there’s the added complication that these movies are often being written while their immediate predecessors are still being filmed. It can’t really be helped, but it is to the detriment of the larger continuity that they sold us on when we first started this journey. The Infinity War/Endgame script was being written while Thor: Ragnarok was in filming, so I expected to see some similar conflicts.
But I did not expect what they did to Thor.
Of everyone, Thor lost the most in Infinity War, especially because he had already lost so much in Ragnarok. His conversation with Rocket on the journey to Nidavellir was one of the most moving moments of Infinity War, and I knew the emotional fallout of failing to kill Thanos, making the sloppy tactical mistake of stopping to gloat instead of finishing the job, would take an even heavier toll on him. Thor never considered that he could fail and still live. And not only was Fate not on his side after all, but it turns out that he also did have something left to lose.
His mental health.
Endgame wasn’t prepared to handle such a difficult theme; it wasn’t prepared to handle many of the difficult themes it created for itself. But while a lot of those other themes are either ignored or hand-waved away, Thor and his very understandable struggle with grief, depression, and post-traumatic stress becomes a weird, ongoing series of comic relief moments.
When Rocket and Banner-Hulk find Thor in New Asgard, he’s holed up in a house with Korg and Miek, playing video games, threatening teenagers online, and drinking himself into a stupor. Not all of this is a bad narrative choice, mind you. It makes perfect sense that Korg and Miek are the only people he feels comfortable being around anymore, both because of their personalities as well as because they are basically the only people Thor knows who he doesn’t feel like he completely failed. It makes perfect sense that Thor would fall apart, that he would hide in drinking and darkness. But while Hemsworth gets a few moments to play this seriously, these are largely overshadowed by how the camera likes to zero-in on his big CGI gut.
I had a hard enough time with Thor threatening to rip a teenager’s arms off and stuff them up his butt over a video game. Because the way people threaten each other with violence over the internet is funny, right? An alien man who has slaughtered, in his own estimation, over 3,000 people threatening some teenager—who has zero chance of not having his own trauma from snap-related losses—with extreme violence is funny, right?
And you know what else is funny? According to this film, all fat people.
It was bad enough when Peter Quill’s friends hassled him over his weight in Infinity War. I let that pass as being more about Quill’s personal insecurities and shallowness than being an important assessment of his body, but it has sure come back to haunt us now. And as much as I cringed while people tittered and grinned at Thor yelling at that teenager over the headset, I pretty much fell apart when Thor turned, and the camera panned down over his bare torso and ratty pajama pants, and the audience laughed.
They laughed at him.
And they laughed at me.
A little over four years ago, I fell into a really deep depression. At my lowest, I shut down almost completely, losing the ability to share my thoughts with those closest to me. I struggled to do much more than watch mindless TV or play games on my phone, letting my life fall into disrepair. I also did a lot of comfort eating, as it was one of the few things that made me feel even a little bit good. I gained about thirty-five pounds, which made a big difference in how I looked and felt.
I’m not saying there’s objectively anything wrong with that amount of weight. But for me it was a big change, and now that I’m coming out the other side of that depression and slowly starting to piece my life back together again, those extra pounds have in some ways become a symbol of all the things that I’m still struggling to overcome. I’ve been going to the gym regularly for a year, but I haven’t been able to shed the weight—partially because of some medication I was taking for anxiety, partially because I still struggle with the impulse to comfort myself with food.
I’ve always struggled with body image for other reasons, including society’s general unrealistic beauty standards, and the fact that I’m a transgender person who suffers from pretty intense body dysphoria. But although I’ve experienced seeing myself as bigger than I am, I’ve never before existed in the category of people who are frequently shamed by others for their size and weight. But when the audience laughed at Thor in that moment, vulnerable and shirtless on screen, when I saw that even Bruce and Rocket, his friends who were being so gentle and compassionate with him, grimace in disgust… they might as well have been grimacing at me.
Look, Thor’s not handsome anymore. Look, Thor’s grief made him weak, and a joke, and we can see that because he has a belly, and a messy beard, and clearly doesn’t bathe regularly. But it’s funny! The camera tells you its funny, because it made a point of panning past his midsection continuously throughout the movie. And each time, people tittered.
In the course of these movies, I have looked to Thor often as an inspiration. Thor began his journey selfish, and short sighted, and blinded by his own too-big emotions. But then he grew to be someone who understood the price of his own power, both in the strength of his beefy arms and in the history of his family and his people. He is a man whose propensity towards violence and cruelty was bred in him through the patriarchal and imperial aspects of his culture, and who, in learning to unpack those aspects, discovered that in his core he was just a big marshmallow, full of love and humor, who also really wants to be a hero and do the right thing.
To have a character like Thor confront that past and choose to dismantle it is huge. To have him realize that loving someone (in this case, his brother Loki) means allowing them to be their own person is beautiful. I was actually planning to get a tattoo to immortalize for myself Thor’s mantra in Ragnarok—“That’s what heroes do”—because as I struggle personally with what it means to be a man, messages like these are much-needed guides. Messages like the importance of having a healthy relationship with your emotions. Of taking responsibility for your past and your mistakes and yet still moving forward. Of having courage and being stalwart in the face of hard choices, rather than focusing on a petty rivalry with Peter Quill, of all people.
I’m not saying that heroes have to be perfect. Far from it. Marvel, in particular, likes to tell the stories of heroes who are tremendously flawed, and that’s beautiful. But part of talking about characters’ flaws is showing how they grapple with them, how they confront their fears and foibles and do their best to rise above them.
Even without the body-shaming fat phobia that follows him around on screen, Thor is never treated with respect in this entire film. No other character gets a chorus of rolling eyes when they start talking about what they lost, as Thor does when he’s explaining the ether and gets distracted thinking about Jane. The fact that Thor is too drunk (alcoholism, also hilarious, right?) to speak clearly is treated with as much derision as his beer belly or his dirty clothes, equal parts joke and annoyance that his friends have to deal with while they’re all putting their pain aside to get things done. Even his mother—in a moment that the movie apparently intends to heal Thor’s wounds not only from Endgame, but also Ragnarok and The Dark World—can’t resist a departing potshot about salads. In the end, we need Mjolnir to fly in to show us that Thor is worthy, because the movie sure isn’t telling us that he is.
But I do believe he is. At the end of the movie, Thor is part of something greater, an epic battle in which everyone is an Avenger, and everyone is needed. The brash, angry young god we met in the first Thor might not have settled for being part of a whole that didn’t still revolve around him. And while I don’t love his decision to leave New Asgard at the end of the film, perhaps what his mother was really trying to tell him is that it’s okay not to be the one shouldering the heaviest burden, the central responsibility. That there is value in him even if he never understands the truth of ruling, as he has claimed he does not. I imagine he will soon return to his old pirate-angel looks, but whether he does or not, I hope the story allows him the dignity he deserves.
And I really hope that he and Quill don’t make their next competition all about dieting.
Sylas K Barrett is an actor, writer, and literary analyst. You can find him on twitter as @inland_sailor and read his other writing here on Tor.com, including his weekly series Reading the Wheel of Time.