April 2019 – this is it. The movie we’ve all been waiting for. The culmination of 11 years of cinematic world-building, origin stories and rainbow coloured MacGuffins, Avengers: Endgame sees Marvel deliver an epic three hour conclusion to the Infinity Saga.
If you haven’t seen Endgame yet, look away now; spoilers incoming.
Maybe a third of the way in, we find Valkyrie and the rest of Thor’s people in New Asgard, their new settlement on Earth. Bruce Banner and Rocket have gone in search of Thor to recruit him for the Time Heist, but Valkyrie warns that they don’t see him often; only when he comes to get ‘supplies’, as the camera pans to barrels of beer.
When we finally see the Thor of five years after the snap, he’s almost unrecognisable. His beard has grown long and wild, and his hair too, hanging in dreadlocks. He stumbles drunk and shirtless around a creaky wooden house, feigning bravado at the sight of his friends from work – and then the camera pans down to show his full torso, basked in the sunlight from the window. In place of Hemsworth’s usual ridiculously ripped abs and biceps are soft, squishy arms, an undefined chest and a significant, though not enormous, curved belly.
Cue a sold out cinema audience of hundreds of people bursting into laughter – and me, wishing my slightly too-small seat would swallow me whole.
By making Thor naked from the waist up in our reintroduction to him, it’s as if the Russos were going for maximum exposure of his body, and maximum impact in terms of the implied hilarity that comes with his new figure.
To an extent, we can understand the change in Thor’s size and character. After all, he’s been through a lot – both his parents are dead, he lost Asgard and a lot of his people, he watched Thanos squeeze the life out of his brother Loki, and he made a mistake that allowed Thanos to snap those fingers and vanish half the universe when he didn’t go for the head. The way his face drops and the tension in the room rises when Bruce dares to mention The Big Purple Guy is enough to show that he is struggling with some kind of PTSD, and his bigger body (and descent into what is presented as alcoholism) is a very intentionally chosen way for them to visually signify this.
With this choice, Endgame is recycling a much overused trope that ties fatness and trauma together, implying that the latter is what causes the former. This isn’t just something we see on screen – it’s a rhetoric around weight that is constantly used in everyday life.
There are many reasons as to why someone might be fat. They might indeed have suffered from a trauma that they have used food as a coping mechanism for (which, by the way, is not the problem that diet culture tells us it is) and their weight reflects that; but, they might also have a health condition that impacts their weight, have struggled with weight cycling thanks to a lifetime of diets, genetics that affect their body size, a socioeconomic status that impacts their overall health and the way they eat…the list goes on. Or hey – they might just be fat. And that’s okay. Body diversity is real, and sometimes people are fat just because that’s what they are, just like some people are tall or short or white, or have a big nose, or can dance.
The point is, Thor’s journey from ripped, to traumatised, to fat, perpetuates the cycle that a body like mine only exists as a result and a symbol of pain and negativity, and that to maintain a plus size shape is to continue to wallow in that pain. It makes fatness appear as a symptom of unresolved issues – with food or otherwise.
Too often, fat bodies are considered a ‘before’; the rags that you stop at on your way to thin riches, or the ‘after’. We see thinness as the light at the end of the tunnel, the ultimate sign of discipline, of finally having your shit together. Fatness, however, tends to be interpreted as lack of willpower, being out of control, and ‘letting yourself go’. When it comes to trauma and the narrative that diet culture applies to weight, we assume that to be of a higher weight is to be in the midst of a hard time, and that to lose weight is to recover from it – but this is reductive, harmful and simply not true.
“to have a son who is not a King would be okay, but to have a son who is not a King but is also fat is pushing the boundaries of motherly love one step too far”
When Thor goes back in time to 2013 Asgard with Rocket in order to steal the Reality stone, we see a cathartic and emotional reunion between him and his mother on the day she is destined to die. This comes right at Thor’s most vulnerable point in the film. He has a mission – to charm Jane so as to give Rocket the opportunity to extract the Aether – but being back in his world and seeing the loved ones of his past that he has lost in the present, as well as the pain he was already carrying with him, completely knocks him for six. He aborts the mission, abandons Rocket, and goes in search of his mother, Frigga. They have a touching conversation and, unsurprisingly, Frigga recognises this is the not the Thor of her time.
She gives him some great advice, the most valuable being ‘Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.’ This frees Thor from the expectations he’s always had for himself as the King of Asgard, and gives him the confidence to pick himself up and keep fighting, but what if this applied to more than just his birthright? What if who he is supposed to be, is fat? The last thing Frigga says to her son is ‘eat a salad’. That tells me that to have a son who is not a King would be okay, but to have a son who is not a King but is also fat is pushing the boundaries of motherly love one step too far. It’s the cheapest of cheap fat jokes, and completely undercuts the emotion in the scene we just watched.
And guess what, fat people eat salad too. Shock.
The digs, the jokes, the stereotypes; they’re all enough to make fat Marvel fans feel like they’re the punchline of this most epic cinematic event. But the real insult? It’s the fatsuit itself.
“The insults hurled at him don’t have the impact that they would if they landed on a truly fat actor, because every single person in the audience knows that his body is not real.”
Fatsuits have a history on film and TV that is one of the most hurtful ways weight stigma presents itself in our culture. There’s Fat Monica on Friends, who not only gains some chins when we see her in flashbacks but also a whole new set of character traits, plus the inability to get up off a beanbag, and the mantle of being a 30 year old virgin – because who’d want to fuck a fattie? Other examples include plus size Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, a movie with an inherently fatphobic storyline, and Fat Bastard in Austin Powers, the literal embodiment of fatness as evil, gross and disgusting.
The very use of a fatsuit is complex and dehumanising. Instead of hiring an actor of that actual body size to play the part, we watch people who often embody the Western beauty ideal literally zipping themselves into a marginalised and stigmatised identity that so many people have to live through every day, but that the actor can take off once they’ve finished their scene.
Watching the incredibly muscular and athletic Hemsworth become fat by being buried under layers of prosthetics and CGI, instead of actually having that flesh on his bones, means that there’s no stakes. The insults hurled at him don’t have the impact that they would if they landed on a truly fat actor, because every single person in the audience knows that his body is not real. Not only is Endgame making fun of fat people, but it’s not even including them in the joke. They get all the payoff from the supposed hilarity of a fat superhero, but none of the jeopardy of what it really feels like to receive those remarks as an actual fat person – one that doesn’t get to take off a suit.
Fat Thor is, admittedly, not 100% negative. Whilst the majority of his depiction reinforces fat stereotypes and goes for cheap laughs at fat peoples’ expense, the fact that his body doesn’t change back to his old one at any point is something positive to hold on to.
When he goes back in time through the quantum realm, he’s still fat. When he holds out his hand in 2013 Asgard and Mjolnir flies into it, he’s still fat – and euphoric at the fact that he is still worthy. And in the final battle, when lightning builds in his eyes, his hair is tied back and his beard forms into a braid, his belly stays exactly the same size. We get to see the God of Thunder in action, swinging both his hammer and Stormbreaker, working with Cap and Iron Man to bring Thanos down, and we get to see him do it in a fat body. Despite all the negativity from the rest of the film, there’s certainly vindication in that.
There’s been much discourse on this subject since the release of Avengers: Endgame, with many showing support for Thor’s character arc in this movie. A lot of men in particular have vocalised that they feel seen by this film, that Thor’s pain and gain mirrors their own, and that it means a lot to them as fans.
“the fact his body is played for laughs means that the ultimate message is one we’ve been hearing for decades. It’s that fat is bad.”
Whilst that is valid, it doesn’t make Endgame a win for fat representation. And whilst Thor’s arc ends positively overall, it doesn’t mean his part in this film isn’t fatphobic and massively stigmatising.
It all boils down to one thing. Fat Thor may come from an intention to tell a story about trauma, and maybe it does – but the use of a fatsuit, the insults and micro-aggressions in the script and the fact his body is played for laughs means that the ultimate message is one we’ve been hearing for decades. It’s that fat is bad. That being fat is bad. And that being happy and fat is nothing but a fantasy.
April 2019 arrived, and I got to see the film that I have probably been the most excited for in my whole life. I watched Cap get his happy ending, and Tony Stark finally find peace, and Thanos be defeated. I got everything I ever wanted from Avengers: Endgame, and more. It’s just disappointing that the lasting memory I have of this film is shame washing over me, as a character with a body like mine was made into a punchline. Again.
I’d hoped for better from you, Marvel. Maybe in the next phase, we’ll see a fat superhero who never doubts their worthiness, no matter what their body looks like.