Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
*The following contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.*
It should be no secret by now that Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is not only a rousing success, but a bittersweet conclusion to what has become known as the Infinity Saga. Poised (as of the writing of this article) to overtake Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time, Endgame owes much of its success to the fact that it digs deep into serious contemplation of the human condition. With comic book flair, the Russo brothers crafted a movie that wrestles primarily with grief and trauma and how people respond to failure. Part of this is acknowledging that not everyone gets a tidy resolution; not everyone gets to move on, and some literally cannot. Some people just move forward, but moving forward is itself a special type of heroism.
Thor isn’t given much to do in Endgame other than to demonstrate to us the heroism of what it takes to go through a devastation of mind, body, and spirit and to come out the other end and move forward putting one weary foot in front of the other.In a movie packed with loss, grief, and sacrifice, what is for me one of the most tragic scenes comes within the first half hour when the Avengers travel to Thanos’s garden planet and Thor cuts off his head. The decapitation of Thanos (Josh Brolin) comes on the heels of the discovery that Thanos has used the Infinity Stones against themselves—destroying them, and eliminating the possibility of undoing the snap that wiped out half of all life in the universe. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) reacts without warning, removing Thanos’s head mid-sentence. “I went for the head,” he says, echoing the sentiment Thanos taunted him with at the end of Avengers: Infinity War when Thor failed to kill him to prevent the snap. What could have been a victorious moment over a vanquished foe is reduced to a shocking act of violence. In the stunned silence that follows, Thor exits Thanos’s garden hut alone, fading into an unnerving ray of sunshine, a shot that both visualizes the loss of his current self, and foreshadows the lonely path onto which he has set himself.
In the popular Netflix Marvel show Daredevil (Season 3), villain Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) the archnemesis of the show’s namesake (Charlie Cox), baits Daredevil with the temptation to give in to his carnal self. The relationship between Thor and Thanos reminds me of this relationship between Fisk and Daredevil, especially as Thanos taunted Thor at the end of Infinity War, “You should have gone for the head.” In the finale of Daredevil Season 3, Fisk similarly taunts Daredevil to kill him, but when Daredevil has the opportunity to do so, he does not. In a gut-wrenching display of self-control, he lets Fisk go and shouts, “You don’t get to destroy who I am!”
Unfortunately, in Endgame, when Thor finds himself once again with Thanos at his mercy, he does not display such self-control, and the true tragedy of the scene is not the death of Thanos, but the destruction of Thor.
Of all the main cast of Avengers, Thor has arguably lost the most. When we first met him in Thor, he was a young prince being groomed for the throne of Asgard. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), told him he was “born to be a king,” and his destiny—both as an Asgardian warrior and as Asgardian royalty—was to be a protector of the Nine Realms, including humanity. Asgard “[shines] out as a beacon of hope across the galaxy,” Odin told him. Despite these expectations (or perhaps because of them), Thor grows into a headstrong and arrogant prince, and Odin declares him unworthy not only to rule Asgard, but also to have any powers or place in Asgard at all. Casting him down to Earth, Odin speaks the fateful words over his hammer, Mjolnir—“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor!”—and casts the hammer down after him. This first movie sets up the character of Thor, from his (literal) fall from glory to his utter devastation of realizing he’s not worthy, to his restoration to fellowship in Asgard at the end. Worthiness in his father’s sight, worthiness to wield Mjolnir, comes from self-sacrifice, when he lays himself down to die for a small New Mexico town.
This is a far cry from the Thor we find in Thanos’s hut near the beginning of Avengers: Endgame. Between Thor and Endgame, Thor loses everyone close to him to death or broken relationships. Jane Foster, his mother, his father, his brother, his best friend. He even has to allow the destruction of Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok. By Endgame, not only is he a person without home or family, but he is someone who tried, and failed, to prevent the genocide of half the universe because he didn’t “aim for the head.”
It is not that Thor doesn’t know what it is to be a hero, but by the time he finds Thanos vulnerable in that hut, he’s just broken enough not to care anymore. The tragedy of Thor is that he became so bent on revenge as the means of destroying evil that he let it warp him into an instrument of violence and vengeance. We know who Thor used to be, and we know he’s capable of self-sacrifice—as he voluntarily laid down his life to save that town in New Mexico from his brother’s devastation back in Thor, and we can remember how he gave up Asgard to defeat the Goddess of Death and save his people in Ragnarok, but trauma has changed him. The trauma Thor carries with him into that garden in Endgame pushes him over the edge with Thanos, and he gives in to his carnal need for revenge.
There is no true satisfaction in revenge. If there were, we would all be in a lot of trouble, but God didn’t design us to find satisfaction that way. Enacting unlawful retributive justice—especially in the form of capital punishment—can eat at a person like a cancer of the soul. Few would argue that Thanos didn’t deserve to die for his genocidal crimes against the universe, or that Thor would have been wrong for killing him on the battlefield in Infinity War, but executing him—injured and unarmed in his garden hut as he was—does not smack of justice, and it doesn’t even hint at heroism. Even as he strikes the deadly blow, Thor knows that Thanos’s execution will not change what he has done—it will not restore the people lost to the snap. His execution is deeply unsettling, not out of grief for Thanos, but out of grief for Thor. Thor makes the opposite decision Daredevil made—he allows his enemy to destroy who he is.
Thor pays dearly for his choice. The fallout of Thanos’s actions remain unchanged for five years, and in those five years, Thor gives in to the destruction of his soul. While the other Avengers try to move on with their lives post-snap, with varying degrees of success (and failure), Thor shuts himself off from the world inside a hut in New Asgard, Norway, where he establishes the remaining refugees from Asgard. Crippled by his grief and failure, he resorts to isolation, a sort of self-punishment in exile. The Asgardian prince who was born to be king, who saved a remnant of his people from the destruction of Ragnarok, has come to the end of all hope. His self-imposed exile from the community following his murder of Thanos is understandable, but disastrous for his soul. He needs to be put back together, and that is a work for which he needs the love and support of his community.
But when the Avengers call on Thor to help them enact a plan to restore the snapped people to life, Thor doesn’t want to help or return to community. He believes he is worthless—without redemption. Having become an alcoholic, he has to be baited onto the ship to return to the Avengers with the promise of beer. And his trauma isn’t magically erased when he steps back into his role as the God of Thunder; he carries it with him always and slowly learns to fight through it and with it. Trauma and grief don’t heal overnight, or over five years, or even over a lifetime. It’s just that the way in which we grieve changes over time. Trauma impacts the mind, the body, and the spirit, and the writers of Endgame allow Thor to sit in his grief in this film, to go through stages of gradual healing—to mourn and struggle and be broken.
One thing Thor has to come to accept is that he cannot go back to the person he was before—before he lost his family and friends, before his failures, before he murdered Thanos. His former self is a person he cannot reclaim, not after all his loss, his failures, and his grief—things that leave indelible marks on a person and their soul. In Endgame, when he time-travels back to Asgard and meets his mother, she sees him in his broken state and offers him a pearl of wisdom that he should “stop trying to be who he is supposed to be and start being who he is.” It is advice that starts to bring him back from the brink, and for the first time in five years, he summons Mjolnir—overjoyed to find that he is still worthy.
But his mother’s advice doesn’t “tie up” Thor’s crisis of self in a neat little package. If he’s supposed to “be who he is”—who, then, is he? He still has to grapple with the devastation of his soul. He killed Thanos out of rage-and-grief-fueled revenge. What if, in his heart, that is who he is? Or perhaps, that is who he’s become after so much loss. His trauma had been building inside him for a long time—a dam that finally burst in Thanos’s hut. Thor will never move on from everything he’s lost; what he can do is move forward.
His conversation with his mother and subsequent summoning of Mjolnir is a huge healing step. When Odin cast Thor out of Asgard in Thor, he did so because of his son’s arrogance and pride. He had no way of knowing, then, what trials and losses his son would go on to suffer, but he did know that his son’s worth would always be determined by his heart, not his power, strength, or valor. Brokenness and humility and what we might call a contrite spirit—these things make Thor worthy to wield the hammer.
In striving to move forward and figure out who he is, Thor feels the need to atone for his past failures. But doing good doesn’t erase trauma, or sin; there are no cosmic scales balancing out good and evil. When the Avengers create a new Infinity Gauntlet to snap the dead people back to life, Thor begs to be allowed to be the one to wear the Gauntlet and snap his fingers to bring everyone back. “Just let me do something right—just let me do something good!” he says. He argues that there’s lightning coursing through his veins—that he’s powerful enough to wield it. But he is denied the task. He’s desperate to fix his failures, but it seems as if he thinks it’s a matter of striving—to do something to fix the hole inside him.
Bringing back everyone will restore life to the universe, but it wouldn’t have alleviated Thor’s guilt, or erased his trauma. As tragic as it is to see his fellow Avengers deny him the opportunity to undo the outward effects of his failure, it is important, also, that he isn’t allowed to do so. When our good works fail to fulfill our inner longings, it is then that we can fall the hardest. In this story, it is important for Thor to allow others’ sacrifices to not just bring everyone back, but later to destroy Thanos—the specter of death—for good. For Thor, these sacrifices are as personal as they are universal.
The most heroic thing Thor really does in Endgame is that, after the dam bursts, he stays alive. He withdraws and isolates himself, devastated in his soul, but he doesn’t end himself, and that is crucial. We’re not told why he hangs on—perhaps his own self-loathing won’t let him go, and death would be too easy an out—but above all, he stays. Thor isn’t given much to do in Endgame other than to demonstrate to us the heroism of what it takes to go through a devastation of mind, body, and spirit and to come out the other end and move forward putting one weary foot in front of the other. This is a heroism of accepting help in weakness. A heroism of survival.
Although I would have liked to see Thor return to the hero he once was—the hero who laid down his life for that small town in New Mexico, the one who confidently cheered, “He’s a friend from work!” when he faced off against Hulk in Ragnarok, and who arrived in glory on the battlefield in Infinity War—at the end of Endgame, I understood that Thor was on a different trajectory. And although the writers are being a little coy about Thor’s involvement in remaining films, I think we all have a feeling that the MCU isn’t done with him yet.
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