Thor's change in "Avengers: Endgame" isn't offensive. If anything, he should stay this way

Spoilers! Thor is different in "Endgame" than when fans left him last, and that's good!

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 1, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Endgame" (Marvel Studios)
Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Endgame" (Marvel Studios)

Spoilers ahead for "Avengers: Endgame." You have been warned! You can read a spoiler-free review of the movie here.

When I first saw Thor in "Avengers: Endgame," I was mildly offended. Like others who have commented on the character, I thought that it was "anti-fatness played for laughs, plain and simple" and that its prominence in the plot "became uncomfortable and slightly alienating." I initially felt that the only purpose of that plot development was for the audience to mock him.

Yet the second time I saw the movie, I got the joke — and the deeper meaning behind it. In fact, I hope Thor stays fat in the future.

To fully understand the beauty of Fat Thor, place this new stage for his character in the context of the entire "Thor" series. When we meet the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) in Kenneth Branagh's first chapter, the 2011 movie "Thor," he is a straightforward comic book deity — strong, good-looking, athletic, self-important. The story around him has Shakespearean overtones (it's no coincidence that Branagh has directed five Shakespeare adaptations), but the central character arc is orthodox: An anointed one has to become worthy of his destiny by overcoming his sense of entitlement, save the world and find true love (Natalie Portman's Jane Foster). There is some comic relief, but no more so than one would expect from any other film in this genre. If anything, the central appeal of Thor in the movie was his relationship with adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Their love-hate dynamic takes on epic proportions and is an engine that fuels other important parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe story while remaining compelling in its own right.

This traditional hero's journey was the template for Thor's storylines in both "Thor" and its three sequels (in terms of this character's story): 2012's "The Avengers," helmed by Joss Whedon, 2013's "Thor: The Dark World," as directed by Alan Taylor (a "Game of Thrones" alum) and 2015's "Avengers: Age of Ultron," also directed by Whedon (and sans Loki).

Then the Thor series got subversive. The starting point was the brilliant 2017 "Thor: Ragnarok," directed by the fantastic Taika Waititi. The Loki storyline is still central to the story, and Loki gets a fittingly redemptive closing chapter (he dies shortly into the next movie, "Avengers: Infinity War," and stays dead in "Avengers: Endgame"). Yet something interesting happens to Thor in this movie — he gets humiliated, repeatedly and in ways that one doesn't usually see in superhero movies, and stays humiliated at the end of the story. During the course of "Thor: Ragnarok" he loses his iconic hammer Mjolnir (a phallic symbol if there ever was one) after it is crushed in sublimely Freudian fashion by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), has his luscious blond locks lopped off while he pitifully begs his barber (a Stan Lee cameo) for mercy, loses an eye (which he later regains from a version presumably hidden in another character's anus)... and, most devastating of all, has to allow Asgard, the kingdom he has sworn to protect, to be destroyed in an apocalypse while his people become permanent refugees. We even learn that Jane Foster dumped him offscreen, never to return to his life.

Tremendous credit goes to Chris Hemsworth here for his performance here. He is one of those actors so skilled at comedy that it feels effortless, and he is particular adept at doing so in storylines that find the laughably pathetic in the most tragic forms of pathos. There is a combination of perfectly timed physical comedy and an ability to self-deprecatingly downplay his indignities that becomes endearing. Thor has a lust for life and desperately wants to fulfill his god/king/superhero mission, but things stubbornly aren't working out for him. Every feature of the destiny he's felt was assigned him since the first movie — the signature weapon, the love of his life, the very kingdom he was supposed to rule — have been taken away from him by the end of "Thor: Ragnarok."

It seems like he can't fall any further, but Thor loses even more in "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame" (both directed by Joe and Anthony Russo). Half of the surviving Asgardians are killed off because of his failure to think of aiming for the head of Thanos (Josh Brolin) instead of his chest. Indeed, half of the universe is dead because of his failure, and a case could be made that if he had simply aimed his axe a little higher, Thanos would have been stopped right there and Thor would have prevented five years of misery through all known existence and trillions of lives being temporarily lost. (Although the prophecy by Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange suggests otherwise.) Thor makes up for this somewhat by killing Thanos in the beginning of "Avengers: Endgame," but it's a meaningless gesture at that point . . . and he knows it.

This is where fat Thor enters the picture. The self-important god of "Thor" has been replaced by a man who indulges his appetites while wallowing in self-pity. There is something endearing about how Hemsworth's Thor handles his failure: He drinks to jolly excess, binges on junk food, plays video games with his friends and gets into petty squabbles with strangers. All but the last of these are actually quite fun in real life (and some in the comments section of articles like this one might begrudgingly admit to the charms of petty squabbling), and it says something about Thor that he is living it up in an extremely human way while he is emotionally down.

Of course a man living like this is going to lose his godly physique. He's constantly buzzed and has let his grooming go, too. These are relatable vices held by good people, and in Thor's case, outright charming in their human scale. When Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) jokingly refers to him as Jeff Lebowski, he does indeed conjure up images of Jeff Bridges' legendary layabout from the Coen Brothers' 1998 classic "The Big Lebowski" (one wonders if Stark noticed the remarkable resemblance between Lebowski and his old nemesis Iron Monger/Obadiah Stane). There are elements of every kind-hearted slacker, every beer-swigging party boy, every basement dwelling pothead in this version of Thor. (And the very Dude-like beard/hair/sweater combo doesn't hurt.)

Notice the benignity in those examples, because — quite importantly — Thor does not become malicious. He does not become a bully. He never sinks so low that he is beyond redemption because he remains, at heart, a good person. In the process, the larger arc from 2011's "Thor" to 2019's "Avengers: Endgame" becomes crystal clear. The joke the movie is making about fat Thor isn't that he should be ashamed of being fat — on the contrary, Thor does not seem bothered by his physical condition, even when he manages to conquer the feelings of helplessness that led him there. The joke is making Thor, the physical embodiment of perfection, so weirdly relatable — so human in his failure to keep up his god act in the face of a defeat so cosmic and huge, how can it even be processed? We aren't meant to laugh at fat Thor; the film is giving us an opportunity to share a self-deprecating laugh with him, and at ourselves.

And we are also celebrating his hedonism, both because it is fun to watch him indulge and because it is fun for us when we indulge.

Perhaps the best scene in "Avengers: Endgame" is when Thor revisits his mother Frigga (Rene Russo). She died in 2013's "Thor: The Dark World," but a plot point from that movie becomes relevant in this one when Thor has to return home to steal one of the MacGuffins (ironically forcing him to confront his feelings of rejection from Jane). When Thor goes back in time to the plot of that film, he runs into Frigga before she dies and has a heart-to-heart with her. During that time, she says not one but two immensely wise things to him:

1. She points out that it's OK to fail, since everyone fails.

2. She tells him that it's OK to not become the person that you're "supposed to be" as long as you're the best possible version of the person that you are.

These lessons make sense in the broader context of Thor's storyline, and it makes as much sense for Thor to be fat while learning these lessons as it does for him to be drunk, scraggly, slovenly and prone to anxiety attacks.

I say this, by the way, as a fat man myself (I'll plead the fifth on whether I possess any of those other traits). This is written not in an attempt to fish for compliments — my fatness is a fact and I accept responsibility for it — but to establish that I empathize with those who are offended by some of the hackier gags (cringe-inducers included Rocket Raccoon grimacing as he's accidentally rubbed against Thor's gut or a character snidely joking that Thor is full of Cheese Whiz). I do not defend these jokes, although they are hardly the only problematic content in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and certainly not the most egregious. Yet they serve a larger purpose in the storytelling. As "Avengers: Endgame" points out, Thor is still worthy of Mjolnir, even after he has failed many times, because he has learned that worthiness isn't determined solely by success. That's his story arc, and it's one with a lesson that everyone who feels unworthy of their own Mjolnirs can benefit from watching.

Thor is the only main character in "Avengers: Endgame" whose story is executed in this way. Stark and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) die at the end of "Avengers: Endgame" while Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) have storylines that end in unequivocal triumph. Thor falls somewhere in the middle, proving his worth in battle and wielding both his old weapon Mjolnir and his new one Stormbreaker to great effect (he even delights in sharing Mjolin with Captain America, a prospect that made him nervous when it was hinted at in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"). He becomes happy, still full of that lust for life and badass swagger that was evident even in the first few movies and has become more pronounced during his downfall. He also makes new friends (the remaining central characters from the "Guardians of the Galaxy" franchise), feels good about himself for giving power to a worthy successor Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, with whom Hemsworth will also co-star in the upcoming "Men in Black: International") and has redeemed himself for not decapitating Thanos at the end of "Avengers: Infinity War" (the Mad Titan's taunt during that scene clearly haunted him).

At the same time, not all of Thor's past failures have been reversed. He still looks like Jeff Lebowski with a dad bod at the end of the running time. Asgard is still no more, and the destiny he believed was his at the end of the first "Thor" movie is gone for good. Fat Thor has to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life, a level of uncertainty spared the deceased Iron Man and Black Widow and the fulfilled Hulk, Ant-Man, War Machine, Hawkeye, Nebula and Rocket Raccoon.

Given all of this plot that resulted in Thor being fat, and how it says so much about his character, I'd like to see Hemsworth keep Thor fat in his next film appearance (whether in "Thor 4" or "Guardians of the Galaxy 3"). Hemsworth has shown himself to be a bold comedic actor, from his underrated performance in Paul Feig's 2016 "Ghostbusters" reboot to the aforementioned "Thor: Ragnarok" and, of course, this film. This is a chance for Marvel studios to break new ground by having a fat superhero with whom audiences already identify and in a way that is empathetic even if it doesn't always stay on the right side of good taste. Hemsworth is more than talented enough to do interesting and compelling things with that character and the accompanying struggles.

Do I think this will happen? I'm cynical about Hollywood's attitudes toward the less-than-physically perfect, so probably not. But even if fat Thor is abandoned in the future, it was nice to have him around in this movie.

After all, more of us are more like fat Thor than traditional Thor.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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