'Avengers: Endgame's Mixed Messages About Body Diversity
At their core, superhero movies are power fantasies. Audiences get to enjoy the vicarious thrill of what it’d be like to have superpowers by following along as Spider-Man swings through Manhattan skyscrapers, Iron Man rockets to the rescue, or Hulk smashes a trickster God into submission. A visual cue of these powers are the super buff bods that have become part of the iconography of the superhero genre. The camera cruises in close-ups over brawny biceps, broad shoulders, and rock-hard abs, relishing this physical sign of strength. The MCU took a step further by wedging in lusty shots of a shirtless male superhero in most of their movies, inviting audiences to awe over Thor, Captain America, Star-Lord, Ant-Man, Black Panther and more. But the power of a hero doesn’t lie in their glistening pecs or even America’s Ass! In Avengers: Endgame the MCU made that clear with a radical makeover of one of Earth’s Mightiest Beefcakes, and in doing so offered a powerful message about body diversity.
Spoilers below for Avengers: Endgame.
Yeah, we’re talking “fat Thor,” as the internet has dubbed the Asgardian’s second act look. When the plot leaps to five years after Thor slew Thanos, all of the Avengers are re-introduced with different looks. Captain America has shaved his beard. Hawkeye has gotten tattoos and an edgy hairdo, while Hulk went full Daddy. But the most surprising reveal was when typically ripped Thor turned around and brandished a bulging beer belly complete with love handles. The reveal itself plays like a jolting joke. But just as Black Widow’s long grown-in roots show she’s not taking time for herself in the wake of the world-shattering snap, Thor’s new look speaks to his rattled state of mind. He’s put on weight. His gold locks have grown long and matted. His beard is unkempt. This instantly suggests how hard the last five years have been on the god who failed. Just like we mere mortals might turn to a bag of cookies or a pint of ice cream after a bad day, Thor turned to food for comfort. And considering his lousy day led to half the universe being wiped out, his reaction is pretty understandable! But in eating his feelings, he’s lost a bit of his identity.
Thor’s journey has recurringly been about figuring out who he is beneath the godly persona. In his first outing, he was an arrogant prince stripped of his standing and pitched into a fish-out-of-water scenario where he had to learn about humility and honor. In Thor: Ragnarok, he had to learn who he was when stripped of his identifiers: his hair, his hammer, his powers. In Endgame, Thor discovers who he is when faced with failure. And he learns that his power is not defined by a build like a stereotypical superhero. Yes, he’s heavier than he was. But he’s no less worthy. There was no weight-training/makeover montage where Thor had to conform to the cookie-cutter superhero standard to prove he was one. Mjolnir still comes when called. Thor can still swing his hammer or his battle-ax with enough might to challenge Thanos. He can still throw himself into the fray and rain lightning down on his enemies. In short, fat Thor is no less super. No matter how many dumb fat jokes were thrown his way.
Ugh, the fat jokes. They flat-out suck. They’re all cheap, not all that funny, and offensive. Rocket says Thor looks like “melted ice cream.” His mother Frigga entreats him to eat a salad. But the most galling comes when he offers to sacrifice himself to the gauntlet, saying, “Do you know what runs in these veins?” He means lightning. But Rhodey snarks, “Cheez Whiz?” Each of these undermines the body positive message within this Thor arc.
However, Thor’s weight does not seem to be why Tony talks him out of putting on the gauntlet. It’s because Thor is so torn up by grief and guilt they don’t know if he has the emotional strength to deal with this snap. Still, when the chips are down—which is to say Thanos has just bombed Avengers HQ into a hellscape—Thor doesn’t crumble, he stands. In a flash, he has a battle-ready makeover. It doesn’t vanish away his belly; it braids his beard and gives him a warrior updo! It’s a small sign to show he’s got his confidence back. And notably, his waistline has nothing to do with that. For all the cheap jokes, Thor never seems bothered by them or his weight. In the performance. Chris Hemsworth happily leans into the Big Lebowski vibe of Thor’s new look. And though Thor is emotionally fragile, he’s always very comfortable in his body. The shame he carries has nothing to do with his weight, just where he feared he failed in Infinity War. Basically, his size does not determine his worth. His actions do.
Thor is not the only MCU hero bringing an inspiring message about body diversity. Rhodey and Nebula’s arcs offered positive representation for people with disabilities. Since his catastrophic Captain America: Civil War crash, Rhodey’s been wearing leg braces to aid him in walking. Through years of Thanos’s abuse and brutal battles, Nebula has seen her body ripped apart with surgeries and her left arm amputated then replaced by a bionic prosthetic. These difficulties do not make them less than the other heroes. When Nebula and Rhodey travel to Morag to secure the Power Stone, her prosthetic proves crucial to their success. To pluck it free, she must reach through a magma-like barrier, which scorches away the flesh-like exterior, leaving only the metal wirework beneath. As she looks at it self-consciously for a moment, Rhodey offers comfort, saying, “We work with what we got.” It’s a simple statement, but one that affirms her, just as she is.
Later, when the HQ has been razed, Rocket Raccoon is being crushed by debris. Rhodey’s War Machine suit has been damaged to disuse by the fall, but that won’t stop him from saving the day. Rhodey ejects himself from the suit—and seemingly his braces—and army-crawls over to Rocket to pry him free. The mech suit doesn’t make Rhodey a hero, and his disability doesn’t keep him from being one.
The MCU built its brand on a line of cookie-cutter heroes who were straight white males with enviably buff bods. But as the series has grown, it’s begun to explore stories outside of this default mode, long dominant in action movies. Black Panther finally gave us a lead hero of color. Captain Marvel finally gave us a female-fronted MCU offering. And while Marvel Studios has a ways to go when it comes to LGBTQA+ representation, Avengers: Endgame opened wide the door for body diversity representation.
Sure, Nebula and Rhodey have been around and thriving before. But here she’s outright a hero instead of a shaky ally. Rhodey steps out of Iron Man’s shadow. And together, they have a brief but meaningful exchange about their shared struggle and strength. And in Avengers: Endgame the strongest Avenger turned up fat and unashamed. Thor’s weight gain was a visual cue to his vulnerability. But being fat didn’t mean he was weak. He still suited up for the time heist, dealt with his mental block, or threw down the hammer in an epic fight scene. Within the film, these three heroes’ worth is measured by their actions, not by how they may not meet the body standards we commonly associate with superheroes. They are heroes because they might get knocked down, but they won’t stay down. They will rise and fight, be it Thanos or bullshit body standards.
Header Image Source: Disney
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