Thor and Failure
My theory is that Endgame is really about failure, and what failure means to how we see ourselves. At least the first half of it is. All of the principal heroes deal with the failure of the first film and the repeated failure at the beginning of the second.
No one feels this more than Thor. Infinity War begins with massive failure on his part, a failure that reaches back into Ragnarok. Most of his Infinity War arc is an attempt to atone for this failure, only to fuck it up again at the last second. Should have gone for the head, indeed.
It was no surprise that Thor deals with this failure by withdrawal, hiding and drinking and yelling at kids over the internet. He’s let himself go, in all the ways that one can. And we understand it. He has lost everything, almost, and most of it has been a result of his failures. He tried really hard, but through some pride and general bad luck he failed. My own failures, and dwelling on them, minor as they are in comparison to letting half of all life be destroyed, sometimes drive me to stay in bed and eat shitty food and try and ignore my responsibilities. I get where Thor is at.
The film often plays this for laughs, which is what one should expect. Most of these Marvel movies play it light when facing serious themes. They are, fundamentally, entertainment, not meditations on trauma, even though I wish sometimes they would be just a bit more serious when talking about these issues. And while I chuckled when Thor faced down his panic attack when overwhelmed with the possibility of confronting his ex while at the same time seeing his mother on the day she was going to be murdered, it was a chuckle born by recognition. That’s A LOT to deal with, even for a God of Thunder. Overwhelm is a real thing and running away is a natural reaction. Just say “fuck it” and hit the road.
No surprise, then, that one of my favorite parts of Endgame is the conversation between Thor and Frigga. Thor’s mother knows that something is wrong, even knows that this Thor is not her Thor, in a sense. Thor tries to explain to her how he has failed -- that he is a failure (an “idiot with an axe”) -- but she won’t have it. He has failed, absolutely, but he is not a failure. Everyone fails. Failure is a part of life.
What was most interesting to me is what Frigga says next. She does NOT offer the typical “dust yourself off and get back up and get in the ring” speech. Instead, she urges Thor to become who he IS, not who he thinks he is supposed to be. Failure, much of the time, comes from trying to live up to expectations that are not our own, in trying to be something we are not, in fitting some sort of self-image that we have pieced together from books and movies and advertising and others’ words.
That’s why this whole conversation was my second favorite part of the movie.
Did Thor fail to stop Thanos? Unquestionably. But the thing that drove him to exile and drink and playing Fortnite -- was the expectations caused in the placement of that failure alongside Thor’s own ideas of being the Strongest Avenger and King of Asgard. He was supposed to stop Thanos, save his people, and avenge his family. Because that’s what heroes and kings do. When that didn’t happen, he was broken.
Frigga’s words don’t immediately turn Thor around, nor should they. One conversation can start someone on the right path, but the path is often long and twisting. I found Thor’s pleading to wield the stones to reverse the snap almost heartbreaking to watch. “Damn it! Just let me do one thing right!” he effectively says, and we see the depths of his own regret and failure and what he thinks he needs to do to get past them.
I’ve been there too -- just let me do this one thing, this ONE THING, that will fix what I have fucked up. Even though I know, just like Thor knows deep down, that the failure wasn’t just because of something I did and there’s not one thing that will fix it.
(Yeah, I know, the second snap kinda did fix it. Sort of. But then Thanos shows up and destroys a lot of nice Hudson Valley parkland. And I don’t have an Infinity Gauntlet anyway).
Thor then fights the good fight against Thanos and certainly helps bring about Thanos’ end. It’s certainly a team effort. (More on that later. The film goes out of its way to show that everyone helps, but that’s another essay). Then, at the end of the film, we see Thor teaming up with The Guardians of the Galaxy, off to have some space adventure. I really liked this ending for Thor, not just because it sets him up to continue to be a character in the MCU, but because it shows he’s on that path to becoming who he is. He’s not a king. He is a hero, at least sometimes. But he’s a roguish one, bantering as he smacks things around with his hammer. We see a lot of this Thor in Ragnarok, which is one reason I like that movie so much.
The idea that the biggest struggle in one’s life is to become who one is, rather than who one wants to be or thinks they should be, resonates with me in many ways. I’ve seen it in a lot of my reading on Jesuit spirituality. I feel it in my Catholic faith. I see it highlighted and contrasted in the existentialism that enamored me as a student. It’s an idea with power that I feel I need to accept. I am working hard to do so. So it was really nice to see that Thor has to work through this stuff as well, often with the help of friends and loved ones.
Man, we really need Thor to be a big part of Guardians of the Galaxy 3, don’t we?