Saturday, 27 July 2019

Being Worthy: My Complicated Relationship with Thor Odinson

"Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."

Consider this your only warning: SPOILERS for the whole MCU below.

I love Thor.

To be fair, I didn't always love him, although I always liked him. And this was before the revamp of his character. For instance, I've always defended Thor: The Dark World, which I actually find superior to the first Thor film despite its faults.

I also feel that Thor is quite funny in Avengers: Age of Ultron. No, seriously, rewatch that film and see how Whedon's second take on the character is far looser allowing Hemsworth to flex some of his comedic muscles and sets him up nicely for his third solo outing - Thor: Ragnarok.

Oh, Ragnarok. What a film. The soft reboot of Thor's characterisation. The film where I fell in love in with MCU Thor and Chris Hemsworth's revamped, wonderful portrayal of the seductive Lord God of Thunder. It is my favourite Marvel film. 

I absolutely love it. I have lots to say about Ragnarok and the fantastic work it does with both its themes of colonialism and Thor's character arc but we'll get to that.

I mean, just look at this shot. How could you not love this film?

So, it's been difficult to put in words my feelings and thoughts following the release of Avengers: Infinity War and now Avengers: Endgame. Particularly after Endgame.

And I'm sure if you've seen the film or read the plethora of think-pieces that followed its release, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't seen the film, I'm not sure why you're reading this but you do you do. But yes, you've probably guessed, I've spent a lot of time thinking, discussing, reevaluating my reaction to, not to mention reading a lot of varied opinions about, Fat Thor.

Ah, yes. Fat Thor. We're going to get into Fat Thor, don't you worry. However, there is something I want to focus on more than Thor being depressed and getting fat and how successful/problematic that decision may be. And that is Thor's arc over the course of all his MCU movies.

Because it's clear from watching Infinity War and Endgame multiple times that the writers and directors obviously did not like Thor's character development in Ragnarok since they regress his character to where he was at the end of The Dark World, ignoring all his growth in Taika Waitit's glorious film.

Unrelated, the writers of Infinity War and Endgame, Markus and McFeely, also did rewrites on The Dark World but I'm sure that has nothing to do with how they wrote Thor in Infinity War or Endgame and it is just a coincidence.

So, let's do this right by going through each Thor movie and examine how his character grows (or does not) and where his arc was taking him over the course of seven films spread across eight years.

Thor (2011)

Wow, this film. So many Dutch angles. Just all the Dutch angles. For no reason. It's like Kenneth Branagh just discovered tilting the camera for the first time and decide to run with it, inserting it into every other scene. Yet, despite all the lopsided angles going on, this is really solid origin story which had a lot of heavy lifting to do. And lift it did.

People often talk about the risk Marvel took with Iron Man (2008) and to be fair, that was a risk. The wider public didn't really know the character since he never became part of the cultural consciousness the same way Batman, Superman or even Spider-Man had. But at least, Iron Man was a relatively simple concept to grasp.

Genius inventor builds a suit of armor that can fly and shoot missiles after getting blasted by one of his own weapons and taken hostage. Relatively realistic, as far as superhero origins go. It also grounded the MCU in a sort of pseudo-realism with science (however questionable) as the basis for the super heroics.

But then comes Thor. Now, that is a risk. Honestly, just think about it for a second. A literal god from Norse mythology who wields a hammer that shoots lighting and lives in a golden palace on a flat world in space that is accessible by a rainbow bridge.

They had to sell all of that and still somehow get you invested in the Shakespearean melodrama that is familial story at the heart of the film? That is a tough ask, and yet, somehow they did it. Mostly.

"Oh, I'll get you to care about my familial drama, don't you worry."

But what about Thor himself? What is our introduction to Odin's firstborn? What is his arc?

First things first, it is a trip to rewatch this film eight years after it came out. Thor starts off the movie as such a whiny entitled frat boy, its almost like he's a completely different character. He's abrasive and arrogant, having never lost a battle or really experienced the horrors of war despite craving it.

Thor at this point is a boy play-acting at what he thinks manhood is like, not a man who is truly aware of the responsibilities that come with the privilege and power he has been granted.

Even after losing his Mjolnir and being stripped of his power on Earth, he is exceptionally confident that he will sort everything out, get his hammer and swing it to pull him off... the ground.

Look at this cocky bastard. 

But the utter despair he feels when he realises that he is no longer worthy and cannot lift Mjolnir is palatable. After breaking into the facility with such cocksure bravado, he passively allows himself to be captured by SHIELD without any resistance, or really even with much awareness of what is happening.

His conversation with Loki in the interrogation room later is the first indication of what a fantastic actor Chris Hemsworth is and how he would eventually grow into the role. His reaction to the (fake) news that Odin has died because of him is far too real, as is his sincere apology to Loki, undeserved though it is.

And from here on in the film, we see a new Thor, one who has been humbled and lacks direction, not knowing what he should do or who he should be. I especially love how the film shows this visually through cups and plates.

He goes from this meme...

To delicately serving breakfast.

That's some solid visual storytelling and leads nicely into what I like about Thor's development in this film. He is legitimately humbled by the experience and it leads him to question his path for the first time - if he is not worthy of wielding Mjolnir and is banished from the kingdom he was raised to rule, who is he?

I remember being initially underwhelmed that Thor undergoes his personal revelation over what is essentially a long weekend but on the rewatch it definitely feels more earned. Thor suffers a massive blow to his ego and sense of self, not to mention the first tinges of guilt which will fuel his character going forward, but he genuinely learns what it means to be worthy.

And to be honest, I don't think this film gets enough credit for setting up Thor's character in a way that will continued to be explored throughout the MCU.

We watch Thor come to grips with the fact that it is not flyboy heroics or glory that make someone worthy but their willingness to sacrifice themselves in order to save others. Hmm, this seems similar to a lesson that another hothead flyboy in a different Disney franchise has to learn. Can't put my finger on who though...

"I wonder who he could be thinking of."

All this leads to the final confrontation with Loki on the Bifrost Bridge which remains one of the more emotional and satsfying climaxes in a Marvel film. The resentment Loki feels as Thor's younger overlooked brother, Thor's sense of betrayal at Loki's actions and Odin's shitty parenting give some real melodramatic emotional weight to a story about Norse gods on a rainbow bridge. And I am here for it. 

This brings us to...

The Avengers (2012)

The first Avengers film had to do so many things right in order to work it's actually quite remarkable how it set the tone for all the crazy crossover superhero event films in the seven years since.

It had to juggle a billionaire playboy philanthropist in a flying armoured suit, a super-soldier from the 1940s with a shield that doesn't obey the laws of physics, and literal Norse gods all sharing the same scene. Not to mention it had to introduce a completely new version of the Hulk in addition to flesh out Black Widow and Hawkeye (who had the most inconsequential of cameos in Thor).

The fact it does this all with aplomb is a testament to Joss Whedon's direction and sense of character. The man is not perfect, either as a writer or personally, however he knows what makes familial dynamics and conflicts work on screen. Each character has an arc and is given at least one moment to shine. Although it is seeing them bounce off of each other that is the real treat. And this is something Whedon would only get better at but I'll discuss that when we get to Age of Ultron.

But what is Thor's journey in The Avengers? What does Whedon do with Thor's arc that he inherited from Kenneth Branagh in his first solo outing? An outing drenched in fantastical action, broad comedy, big emotion and high Shakespearean melodrama. He does exactly what Branagh did. He focused on the brotherly relationship between Loki and Thor.

"Why, hello there."

The Thor we see in The Avengers is a Thor burdened with his failure to redeem his brother and that failure fuels his motivation in the Avengers. All he wants is to take his brother home to Asgard and mend the damage done to their family in his solo outing.

And this is clear from the moment he swoops in to the film riding a thunderstorm and snapping Loki from Iron Man and Captain America. He immediately takes Loki to a mountain top and tries to convince him to give up his foolish dream of ruling Earth and to come home.

This interaction serves as the model for how Thor approaches Loki throughout the film. Thor never attacks Loki first, instead he always tries to deescalate the situation by talking to him, to mend the damage to their relationship, to try convince him to give up his evil plot and come home where they can be brothers once more. A far cry from the battle hungry Thor we were first introduced to.

However, this doesn't mean that Thor has become a truly calm or measured person fully in control of his anger or sense of masculinity. He is still is brash and quick to anger. See his Shakespeare in the Park with Iron Man. While he gives him a warning, he also is the first to come to blows, easily annoyed by Tony Stark's intervention. Who is this petty human to interfere in the affairs of gods?

For a further example of how Thor has not fully learnt how to control his anger and the need to perform his masculinity in unnecessarily aggressive ways to seem powerful and 'serious', there is of course, the famous "You want me to put the hammer down?".

Clearly the actions of a calm and measured god who isn't quick to anger.

Obviously, although Thor has come a long way, he is not the fully developed God of Thunder that he will eventually become yet. Yes, he approaches certain situations more maturely than before and more fully understands the responsibility of what it means to be worthy but he is still brash and quick to anger.

He also has not shaken his Asgardian colonial biases at this point. I didn't really discuss it in Thor since it becomes far more relevant in Thor: Ragnarok but there are hints throughout the first two solo Thor films of Asgard's colonialist heritage - such as the Frost Giant Laufey's reference to Odin's lust for war and conquest or Odin's stating that Jane Foster "doesn't belong in Asgard any more than a goat does at a banquet table".

These colonialist views clearly shaped Thor's perspective, leading him to look down on humans. While he thinks they are deserving of protection and enjoys their company, his relationship with humanity is one of benevolent condescension, of seeing humans as creatures unable to look after themselves that he needs to watch over.

This is why he calls the Avengers petty and tiny when everyone is arguing on the helicarrier. He sees humanity as children lacking a parent. Naturally, he fails to see the hypocrisy of that statement when his family squabbles are just as childish and petty.

He would of course say that it's different since those are the affairs of gods and not mortal men.

Nope, no condescension detected.

After the Avengers are split up following the attack on the helicarrier and Thor escapes the glass cage built for the Hulk that Loki tricked him to run into, Thor crashes into the ground and drops Mjolnir.

And then there is a lovely little moment when Thor reaches to pick up Mjolnir but hesitates, as though he is not sure if he truly is worthy to wield it or is aware of the consequences that will follow - the battle that will commence.

Although it is small, this slight hesitation signals quite a bit of character growth for our young Thor Odinson. While still quick to anger, he is no longer is quick to war, knowing the damage it can cause. It is almost like he is resolving himself to the violence that will ensue, that he brings to Midgard.

But then it is suit up time!

What a glow up.

In the Battle of New York, it is clear once again how Thor's main objective is to convince Loki to "give up this madness" but it obviously doesn't work as he stabs him. 

However, we are treated to many a moment of Thor just being his best badass self, throwing hammers and shields with Captain America, casting the biggest lightning bolt in New York and taking down a couple Chitauri Leviathons with the Hulk, all that good stuff.

Talking about the Hulk, this is the film that introduces the dynamic between Thor and the "Strongest Avenger" which will later flourish in Ragnarok and Endgame. 

Naturally, the world is saved. Thor leaves Earth with Loki in chains, bringing us to...

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Like mentioned above, I liked The Dark World when I first saw it in cinemas and actually prefer it to the first Thor film. Don't me wrong, I do miss Brannagh's Shakespearean brand of melodrama and indulgent use of Dutch angles but The Dark World resonated with me far more, feeling closer to a fantasy epic draped in superhero clothing than the other way around.

I mean, it starts with Odin's "Galadriel-style" narration over a historic battle with Dark Elves. Dark Elves who speak actually elfish with subtitles! You can't get much more high fantasy than that. It's clear that this film is trying so hard to be The Lord of the Rings of the MCU.

One thing that is apparent from the beginning is that this film is gorgeous. Truly, the cinematography, lighting, costumes and special effects are superb and I am fully here for it. Just in case you haven't seen the film in a while, here's the opening prologue to highlight what I mean.



The design of the Dark Elves for instance. Just *chef's kiss*.

The high fantasy angle is also clear in how the film spends far more time on Asgard and far less time trying to explain magic away as advanced science like it did in the first film. However, it would take until Ragnarok for that element to truly be forgotten and for the magical elements to just be magic.

But we are here to talk about Thor and the arc of his character development across the MCU. So, how is he introduced in the film? How have the events of The Avengers impacted him or altered his behaviour? Well, Thor's first scene in the film is during a medieval battle on Vanaheim in which he makes a grand entrance befitting the God of Thunder...

And one which leaves quite the impression.

It is actually in this scene where we see the glimpses of the Thor that Hemsworth would eventually blossom into in Ragnarok, the confident brash facade that hides his sense of unworthiness behind a blind (and humorous) belief that despite the fact he "make[s] grave mistakes all the time, everything seems to work out".

And we are introduced to this more confident Thor, one who has been humbled by his experiences in the previous films but still is brash in battle. This dichotomy of a humble yet brash Thor is highlight in the difference between his behaviour in the battle and his moodiness on Asgard.

As soon as he arrives on Vanahiem, the tone of the battle shifts. Thor is now the focus, his hammer flying out of the Bifrost, his 'put the hammer' down moment above, all eyes are on him. In this brash side of Thor, we also see Hemsworth's comedic chops beginning to be utilised, if ever so slightly.

The first thing he says in the film is a joke. Sif says she "has things under control" and Thor retorts with a grin, "Is that why everything is on fire?". This comes through even more in his delivery of the "I accept your surrender" line when Korg's cousin confronts him. We laugh, the army of invaders laugh, everyone has a good time. Until Korg's cousin gets demolished, that is.

"Anyone else?"

And then we come to Thor at Asgard. Removed from the exhilaration of battle, we see the humbler side of Thor emerge, his "confused and distracted heart" as Odin puts it. He is broodier than we have ever seen him before this moment. Unable to enjoy himself or relax despite his victories.

Thor is no longer the entitled frat boy at the beginning of the first film and seems to mellowed out following the events of The Avengers. This Thor feels disconnected from the revelry his fellow Asgardians, celebrations he previously would have  engaged in with gusto.

He sees his friend Volstagg down his drink, throw it to the floor and shout out "Another!" just as he in his first film and looks discontented. He even says that "merriment can sometimes be a heavier burden than battle" to Heimdall at one point. This is a Thor burdened with contemplation and responsibility.

Which is maybe part of the reason why this film developed the reputation it now has as being dour or lacklustre. The muted colour palette couldn't have helped either (despite the exquisite cinematography, the film looks dark at some points).

Again, the costumes look fantastic and what a shot, but no wonder they called it the Dark World.

It is on Thor's return to Asgard and his conversation with his father that we also get introduced to one of the central conflicts for Thor in this film, one which the writers Markus & McFeely would return to in Endgame (ignoring his development in Ragnarok completely), Thor's struggle with being who he is supposed to be, king of Asgard, or succeed at who he is, a hero.

It's essentially his "with great power, comes great responsibility". What makes Thor worthy to wield Mjolnir? Is it his ability to fulfill his royal duty or is it his willingness to be a hero? Who should he be to be worthy? What does it mean to be worthy anyway?

"Could I brood any more handsomely?"

These are the questions that Thor's is grappling with internally and they are a big part of the appeal of the character to me. As someone who has a times struggled with my own sense of self-worth, who at times have felt like although I have tried my best and do the right thing that I am still lacking in some way or another, I find these questions fascinating and they resonate.

It's probably because he grappling with such questions that he is such a mope when not in action mode. Devoid of a battle to distract him, his mind spins such questions in his head, and hey. I've been there. You keep yourself busy so you don't have to think about the things that you don't want to think about or can't properly process because when you do think about them, you mope.

On the flip side, there are so many hints that Thor is a franchise that is meant to be a comedy. The humour in the film is great, however the tone and colour palate is so dour they don't really stand out that much. I won't go into detail but just post a couple of gifs which I think illustrate my point.






I can't believe I've written this much about Thor: The Dark World of all movies. And I've barely gotten into the plot or even mentioned the big bad elf himself, Malekith.

Mainly because that's not my focus with this piece but also because I realised that I had far more to say about how Thor's arc is set up in this film than I had anticipated.

But let's turn our attention to Malekith for a second.

This guy!

Now, my boy Malekith is often maligned as the weakest villain in the entire MCU and it's not an unfair criticism. The normally expressive Christopher Eccleston is hidden under white make-up and, although I do appreciate that they committed to the Dark Elves speaking in elvish, it does mean that it is hard to relate to his motivations when he's speaking in a made-up language constantly.

Furthermore, Malekith is quite bland as villains go with a generic "destroy the universe because reasons" vibe. No, justified anger and empathetic portrayal like Killmonger or mysterious backstory and sense of chaos like the Joker. Rather, Malekith is simply an antagonistic force.

However, all that said, I am not one who is opposed to purely antagonistic villains who are evil just because they're evil and the protagonist needs someone to fight. This can often give the protagonist a more internal struggle to deal with that the antagonist is merely a physical obstacle for them to work out that internal struggle through.

And this is what we see with Malekith. I'm never going to argue that he is a great or even good villain but he is somewhat adequate for the needs of the film. Since Malekith is a villain in the same way Sauron is, simply a means to counter the 'goodness' of our protagonist.

However, Malekith serves another function. He shows Thor the dark side of his father and the weight of certain decisions he would have to make as king. Thor even calls out Odin on his warmongering, asking how is he different from Malekith if he is also willing to sacrifice Asgardian lives to wipe out his enemy. Odin does not provide an adequate answer because he has none.

So yes, Malekith is a bland villain but he fulfils an important purpose in Thor's arc, he is another small chip in Thor's idealisation of Odin and the throne. He serves to highlight, albeit not overtly, the conquering imperialism of Asgard that Taika Waititi would eviscerate in Raganarok.

But this is the key focus of McFeely and Markus' Thor - to be king or to be a hero. A focus which is made abundantly clear in the last line Thor speaks in the film.

"I'd rather be a good man than a great king."

In fact, this final scene says a lot about how McFeely and Markus perceive Thor as a character. Their Thor sees the throne as a prison, something that would mean giving up his ability to actively help others and change him due to the power and burden of kingship. That is who he supposed to be as Odin's heir but is it not who he is. Their Thor is the roaming self-sacrificing hero who cannot be tied to the throne or accept its responsibilities. No wonder they didn't like the end of Ragnarok...

Now, it's been a surprise to me as much as it may be to you that I could actually say more about Thor: The Dark World. I seriously had no idea that I had this many thoughts about the film, and one which is (wrongly) considered among the lesser of the MCU, but here we are.

I haven't really touched on the wonderful action set-pieces (from the attack on Asgard to the escape from Asgard, or even the final multi-realm climatic battle which I actually think is fantastic despite the lack of personal connection between Thor and Malekith), Brian Tyler's effecting fantasy inspired score, Tom Hiddleston's nuance portrayal of Loki, or Rene Russo's touching turn as Queen Frigga and her relationship with her sons (her subsequent fridging).

But we should really move on. Which brings us to...

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Okay, I know that I have already expressed some hot takes in this piece already but that just means you're primed for another - I firmly believe that Age of Ultron is better than The Avengers. There are various reasons for this, most of which are handily covered in this video by Filmento so I don't have to.



Additionally, my goal here is not to rank these films or review them but rather to hone in and examine Thor's character development across them. So, how is Thor in Age of Ultron? Having saved the day several times now and learned some valuable lessons about himself along the way, what does he get up to in the second Avengers' film?

Well, the general consensus is... not much. And they're not wrong exactly but we'll get into that.

What I found particularly interesting on a rewatch of the film is just how funny Thor is. People act as though Thor only got funny in Ragnarok and had been boorish and stiff-lipped until then but it's just not true. Granted, Ragnarok is a comedy and lets Hemsworth's natural charisma and improvisational comic timing truly shine but he had a number of choice moments in previous films and especially in Age of Ultron.

Thor has grown so much from the first Avengers' film. I mentioned how in The Avengers, he was still blinded by his Asgardian colonialist bias, seeing humans as lesser beings. However, his love for Jane Foster and his experiences saving Earth, not to mention his father's outright bigotry, have changed his perspective.

Thor is still burden with contemplation and prone to brooding out of battle but when fighting alongside the Avengers he is far looser and, you know, funny. And the way Thor is funny is when you get him to say something unexpected or ridiculous completely straight and sincerely.

For instance, it is clear that Thor now sees the Avengers as comrades in arms. This is conveyed through humorous moments such as when Black Widow asks him to report on the Hulk during their first battle to help Banner calm down.

First, being an Asgardian, he says what he believes a fellow warrior would want to hear and find encouraging. However, when he picks up that what he said is upsetting to Banner, he tries to comfort him, failing hilariously. This shows his growth from the god who thought humans were petty and tiny not too long ago.


The way he now regards his fellow Avengers is further showcased in the party scene, the one unanimously celebrated scene from the film. Thor is reveling in celebrations, a far cry from the moping Thor in The Dark World who found merriment on Asgard more burdensome than battle.

As Chris Hemsworth expressed in an interview prior to the release of Age of Ultron, Thor is "off Asgard so he doesn’t have to be as regal and kingly as he is in that world". Thor in Age of Ultron begins the film relishing in the fact that he can be looser and less restricted by the expectation placed upon him as a prince of Asgard. It's almost like there's a recurring conflict between who he is supposed to be and who he is or something.

That said, his braggadocios mockery of their attempts to lift Mjolnir does highlight how he doesn't believe they could be worthy. We see that Thor still keeps up a facade around his friends, always confident and in control, not letting them see him vulnerable or unsure.

Until America's good, sweet boy, Steve Rogers give it the old college try, that is.

Thor's reaction though.

Of course, Cap, being the cinnamon roll of perfection he is, naturally realises lifting the hammer will embarrass Thor. Therefore, he pretends like he can't actually lift it, though we all knew he could and then he did in Endgame and it was amazing.

So, Thor immediately returns to his confident mockery after this since he still feels the need to maintain the appearance of confidence even if he is filled with doubt inside.

And I know I'm skipping ahead and moving around a lot, but I just want to highlight how Thor stalls Ultron in the final battle because to me it is one of the clearest examples that Thor is far funnier in Age of Ultron than people give him credit for.


Now, Whedon gets a lot of shit for this film but the man knew how to write Thor and use Hemsworth's comedic talents to great effect. Similarly, he also knew how to maximise Thor's brooding nature with purpose.

As Filmento points out in his video linked above, "Thor is afraid that he brings only destruction and that he's not good enough to protect the people his duty it is to protect". This is shown visually by stepping on the Lego house in Hawkeye's farm and the vision he sees of Asgard's doom when mind-blasted by Scarlet Witch.

This is the insecurity that fuels his need to maintain an overly confident facade, the fear that he is not enough. He cannot allow his friends to see his weakness or doubt, only his strength because if he allows them to see under the facade, it means that he will also need to grapple with his insecurities.

Although, it is interesting to me that the way Thor's fear of failure manifests in his vision is exactly
how his true power expresses itself in Ragnarok once he realises his own self-worth..

People complain that Thor's arc in Age of Ultron is reduced to merely setting up later MCU films and often are confused about the pool scene. I'm not going to argue that they aren't setting up later films however, I disagree that Thor is reduced to a plot device in the film.

I'm confused why people make such a big deal of the impact Scarlet Witch's illusion/vision has on Tony Stark in regards to fueling his motivations and his desire to "build a suit of armour around the world" but don't extend that courtesy to Thor's actions in the film.

While Thor doesn't have as big a role in the film as Stark, his motivations are just as clearly articulated and impacted by the vision he sees. He sees the destruction of his home and that he is the source of its destruction since it is "where his power leads" as vision Heimdall tells him.

This is what prompts him to find out more, to seek out answers that hopefully will prevent his vision from coming true. And yeah, this sets up Ragnarok and Infinity War but it also provides the rationale for why Thor brings Vision to life. Thor recognises the threat Ultron poses and believes he needs to create Vision in order to counter the destruction that Ultron will bring, using an infinity stone for good to right Stark's mistake.

But yes, his actions in Age of Ultron also sets up later films in the MCU. Films like...

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

This is my favourite MCU film. For me, it is everything I could have wanted from a Thor story and features the best version of Thor with perfect supporting characters, from Valkyrie and Hulk/Bruce Banner to Grandmaster and Skurge. Hela is a fantastic villain in the scene-chewing mold. It is also utterly hilarious with such a strong sense of identity and purpose in its storytelling.

There is so much I could say about Ragnarok, that I almost don't know where to begin. So, let's start where we left off at the end of Age of Ultron before we get lost in the weeds, and there are a lot of weeds to get lost in with this film. At the end of Ultron, Thor leaves Earth to seek answers for his vision, searching for infinity stones and a way to stop the destruction of Asgard, the destruction he feels will be his doing.

And this is where we find Thor at the beginning of Ragnarok, having failed to locate any infinity stones, he turned his attention to stopping the destruction of Asgard, putting an end to Ragnarok. Which how he ends up captured by Surtur.


What's great about this scene (the video cuts out before the conversation with Surtur but you make do with what you have) is that it immediately establishes the tone of the film and that this is a different Thor to who we've seen before.

This Thor is far looser than even how he was in Age of Ultron. He no longer has the sense of self-importance or rigid Asgardian regality that under-pinned a lot of his behaviour in the previous films. This is a Thor who has become more comfortable with who he is, not who he is supposed to be.

Although he still deals with doubt and can brashly rush into things, over the course of the film he learns from his past mistakes and experiences, realising that his performance of masculinity is what is holding him back from achieving true self-understanding but put a pin in that for now since we'll get back to it in a moment.

Far from the Thor of past films who was unable to face his insecurities or was uncertain of what path to take, Thor in Ragnarok runs towards his problems with conviction and has learnt, as he tells Loki, that "life is about growth, it's about change".

For instance, Thor repeatedly claims in the film that he does certain noble actions...


It is interesting that despite all his talk about heroism in the film, as noted by The TakeRagnarok is where Thor becomes a worthy king. On the surface, this seems to contradict the recurring theme of who he is supposed to be vs succeeding at who he is.

However, this is only if we accept the premise that there is only one way to be king, the way he is supposed to, but in Ragnarok, Thor learns to be a wise king by accepting who he is. This is because he finally masters all three traits of a good king, namely:
  1. Humility
  2. To Build instead of Destroy
  3. Self-Understanding. 

I've linked the full video below since it is definitely worth a watch, but I'll recap here. In his first solo film and in The Avengers, Thor gains humility after being stripped of his powers and learning the value of self-sacrifice, not to mention how to work in a team of equals. In The Dark World and Age of Ultron, he learns to build instead of destroy, creating Vision and fearing the destruction he might cause. So naturally it is in Ragnarok that he achieves self-understanding and realises his best self.

The film does this in two ways. Firstly by deconstructing Thor's false facade of bravado and secondly by stripping Thor of everything he holds dear so he can find new purpose and what it means to be a wise king.

At the start of the film, Thor still has his facade of confidence and macho bravado but has actually internalised it into how he sees himself. He cannot allow anyone to see his doubt, including himself., so he has covered it up with blind arrogance. So, the film spends the rest of its run-time constantly undermining this facade, giving lie to this performance of masculinity.

For instance, Thor is repeatedly brought down a peg due to the disconnect between the self-importance with which he holds himself and how others in the film regard him. Valkyrie mocking calls him, "your Highness" when he says he is a prince of Asgard. Thor introduces himself as the God of Thunder on Sakaar but the Grandmaster immediately deflates him, calling him "Sparkles" and mishearing his title as the "Lord of Thunder".

These moments are not mere comedic beats, they are deliberately serving to puncture the illusion of false bravado Thor is using as a shield from his insecurities. He needs the world to see him as strong, as mighty, as a hero who will always triumph. They cannot see his fear or doubts because that would mean he would need to confront them too.

Consider how he tries to unlock the Quinjet by stating all the ways he wants to be seen.





He is denied access each time he tries to assert his macho facade or rely on his titles. He repeats "Strongest Avenger" a couple of times even, as though he trying to force this image of himself on reality. He is only allowed access once he humbles himself by recognising how Stark sees him and understanding the friendly joke at his expense.

This builds on the way Thor learned humility in previous films, that although he has learnt how to empathise with others and no longer see himself as the centre of the universe, he still needs to learn to let go of his false perception of himself and succeed at who he truly is. We'll get to that in a minute.

The second way Thor gains self-understanding is by being stripped of all he holds dear so he can find new purpose. This is not dissimilar to how he is stripped of his power in the first film but is done on a far more emotional level than simply 'I lost my power because I was an angry warmongering twat".

So, what does Thor lose in Ragnarok? First, his father dies. His hammer Mjolnir, the external representation of his worthiness and strength, is destroyed. He is furthermore cast out from Asgard, stranded on Sakaar. At the end, he loses Asgard itself.

He even loses an eye (just FYI, in Norse mythology, Odin sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom).

"Dammit! I really hope wisdom is worth this." - Thor, probably.

And what is the wisdom that Thor learns? That his father was not the benevolent ruler he thought he was and that Asgard's prosperity is rooted in the conquest and colonial exploitation of the other realms. As Hela tells Thor, she and Odin “drowned entire civilizations in blood and tears” to gain the wealth of Asgard, point-blank asks him, “Where do you think all this gold came from?”.

This challenges Thor's conceptions of his father and of his home, of what Asgard really is. This is symbolised in how Hela, as an embodiment of nationalistic colonial conquest literally draws her strength from the land, from Asgard the place. 

However, over the course of the film, Thor realises that he shouldn't try to save Asgard the place for it is tainted with the bloodshed of its colonial past. Rather, he learns that Asgard is not a place, it is a peopleThis revelation utterly shifts his priorities and also allows him to realise two things: 
  1. That his vision from Age of Ultron was not about him destroying his people but rather bringing about the fall of Asgard's colonial lineage. 
  2. It allows him to realise his true strength, to gain self-understanding. 

Thor says to Odin's space ghost that he cannot defeat Hela since she is too strong and without his hammer, he can't. To which that sassy All-Father replies,




Odin rightly guides Thor to his own self-understanding. He never needed the hammer and in the end, it had become a crutch for him, an external validation that limited him from achieving his true power.

Also, when Thor says he's not as strong as him, Odin touchingly says, "No. You're stronger.". These affirming words from his father are what Thor needs to access his inner strength and become the best version of himself.

The version of himself who no longer has to maintain a facade of arrogance but rather is confident in who he is and acknowledges that he is not perfect but that doesn't make him any less worthy.

The version of himself who can admit that he is not the strongest and cannot win every battle but is still more powerful than any foe because he can learn from his failings to become better.

The version of himself who no longer relies on external symbols of power, such as his hammer or titles, but instead recognises his own inner strength and doesn't need to prove anything to anyone.

No hammer of the gods required.

This is why Thor doesn't beat Hela in a fight. He realises that he can't overpower her but has to remove the source of her power, to end the cycle of colonialism, the source of his royal title.

In order to be a true king for his people, he needs to destroy the tainted foundation of their kingdom to rebuild a new one focused on people, not land. He no longer runs from his fear of destruction but accepts what he needs to do to save his people and to rebuild.

There is so much more I could go into, like how Hulk hides his fear of how he feels hated on Earth behind his role as a champion on Sakaar, the development of Thor and Loki's relationship, everything Taika Watitit's Korg says, or how Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is just the best.

However, we are focusing solely on Thor's arc across the MCU, so I'll leave it there.

Seeing as Ragnarok is my favourite MCU film and made me truly fall in love with Hemsworth's portrayal of Thor, I was excited to see how he would grow into his role as King of Asgard and how his newfound self-understanding would shape the character going into...

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Yeah, so this film starts by shitting all over the uplifting end of Ragnarok. Maybe that's not fair but it truly feels that way. And I understand why they did it. I do. It does truly set the stakes for this cosmic franchise-spanning event to have big hitters Thor and Hulk get taken out by Genocidal Grimace with relative ease and half the Asgardians wiped out but it's just upsetting.

I'm being honest here. I find the opening to this film truly upsetting. It feels like such a gut-punch after the sure joy of Ragnarok and also it is just mean-spirited. As in the story-telling approach is mean-spirited, designed to sap the goodwill and love people have towards these characters.

This is not a film that is trying to build these characters up. It is all about destroying them. And I know that this was the point. I know why they did it. However, I don't believe it was necessary but merely a choice that the writers made. Maybe it was the best one for the type of story they wanted to tell but this mean-spirited nature is why I have such conflicted feelings about Infinity War despite all the great things it does and that they made such an interweaving narrative work.

"That they managed to juggle over two dozen characters and keep the story easy to follow makes no sense." - Mantis, probably.

But back to my first point, this film really wanted set the tone early on by shitting all over the end of Ragnarok. Let me clarify what I mean.

One of the key lessons Thor learns in Ragnarok is that Asgard is not a place, it is a people. It's repeated like three times in the final act. It is through realising that it is by saving the people, not the land that Thor becomes a wise king.

So, what do they do in the opening of Infinity War? Unceremoniously kill half the people... off-screen. The first thing we hear in the film is a radio transmission letting us know, "This is the Asgardian refugee vessel Statesman", "We have families and very few soldiers", "This is not a war-craft. I repeat, this is not a war-craft", all while people are whimpering and screaming in the background. They are refugees under assault. As if, we needed even more of an emotional gut punch.

While we do not see the assault itself, we see the aftermath and we see Heimdall stabbed, Thor tortured and Loki strangled, all quite brutally I might add. The reason why they do this isn't that subtle. They needed a reason for Thor to be adrift from the Asgardians, to not be tied to the throne or his responsibilities as king.

So they killed half of the Asgardians and leave Thor to die so he will be separated and later found by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Not before inflicted Thor which the failure and trauma he will have to deal with for the remainder of the film, as well as Endgame.

"I'm 1500 years old. Which is 1450 years too old for this drama."

Since this is Infinity War's jam - destroying everything that Thor learned or gained in Ragnarok. The goal is to stripped him of everything (yet again), only to rebuild him the way Markus and McFeely want him to be. To regress his character growth in order to explore the avenues they wanted to explore instead of the ones made available by his self-actualisation in Ragnarok - progression through regression.

In Ragnarok, Thor learns that Asgard is a people and that saving his people is the most important thing. So, his people are slaughtered and he is separated from them.

In Ragnarok, Thor loses his eye, a symbol of the wisdom he has gained. So, Rocket gives him an eye to replace the one he lost (I know this is supposed to show the bond developing between Thor and Rocket but my larger point remains).

In Ragnarok, Mjolnir is destroyed and Thor realises his own inner power, no longer reliant on external symbols of worthiness or strength. So, his main goal in Infinity War is to craft a new hammer, the Thanos-killing kind instead of one which can be used to build.

Thor is stripped of all the visual symbols of the wisdom he gained and is reduced to a man driven by vengeance. A vengeance fueled by rage that masks his trauma and serves to obscure his grief and despair. How does Thor express this vengeance? By reverting fully into his old arrogant facade of desperate bravado, unable to admit his failings  or emotions to himself, let alone to others.


In the emotionally wrenching scene above, Thor details all the loved ones he has lost. Hemsworth's performance is fantastic here. You feel the pain these losses have had on Thor, the utter heartbreak conveyed through the slight catch in his voice, his eye tearing up but refusing to cry.

This is the only moment in the film where Thor allows himself to be emotionally vulnerable, even partially, but look what happens when Rocket asks him if he is up to the mission. Thor immediately throws up his facade of arrogance, stating that vengeance and loss are great motivators, brazenly asserting he will kill Thanos. This is despite the fact that Thanos is demonstrably stronger than him and has already wiped the floor with him, as Rocker points out:
Rocket Raccoon: This is Thanos we're talking about. He's the toughest there is
Thor: Well, he's never fought me.
Rocket Raccoon: Yeah, he has.
Thor: He's never fought me twice.
Thor's assertion he will kill Thanos is not mere arrogance, it is his inadequate emotional response to trauma, the only thing he feels he has left. As he tells Rocket, "What more could I lose?". He cannot allow himself to be vulnerable or process his grief because he needs to believe he can save the day.

He needs to believe that he will enact righteous vengeance on Thanos, that he is strong and invincible. That he is the mighty Thor - God of Thunder. He cannot let down the facade because that would mean actually dealing with his trauma, something he clearly is emotionally unwilling to do.

"I'm smiling like this because I'm getting a new hammer. No, it's not to cover my unbearable grief.
That's ridiculous. I'm smiling, see? So I can't be sad. I'm good. No, really, I'm fine."

An interesting thing about MCU Thor I haven't really discussed is that he is a big believer in fate. In The Dark World, he says that it was fate which brought Jane Foster and him together. In Ragnarok, he states how everything seems to work out, as I mentioned previously.

However, this is made most stark in Infinity War during the scene above, where he tells Rocket that Thanos will feel his vengeance because fate wills it so. It's actually quite revealing to see the quote in its entirety:
"You know, I'm 1500 years old. I've killed twice as many enemies as that. And every one of them would have rather killed me than not succeeded. I'm only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest of a long line of bastards, and he'll be the latest to feel my vengeance - fate wills it so."
This blind belief in fate ties neatly into Thor's facade of arrogance and bravado. Of course, he will defeat the bad guy, he is Thor, the God of Thunder, and Thor, the God of Thunder, is favoured by fate and never loses.

Within this framework, his self-confidence is not arrogance to cover up his insecurities but a simple recognition that he is predetermined to succeed because fate wills it so. His deep belief in fate is yet another way for Thor to ignore his pain since it support his false facade.

So, instead of a Thor who is able to prioritise what is important and do what is necessary to save his people, we have a Thor who is blinded by vengeance and arrogance.

That said, you will never hear me argue that this doesn't look completely awesome.

However, what does his arrogance bring him? Only sight-sightedness and failure, resulting in further grief and unbearable guilt. Blinded by his desire for vengeance and his regression into arrogance, Thor is obsessed not only by killing Thanos but taunting him before landing the killing blow.

His facade of bravado can't allow him to not get in a callback to earlier in the film when he told Thanos he was "going to die for that [killing Loki]". Instead of doing what is necessary, he had to arrogantly taunt Thanos in order to satisfy his own ego. Which leads to his greatest failure as Thanos snaps half of the universe's population out of existence. All because of Thor's arrogance.

Thor in Infinity War is a broken man whose unwillingness to be vulnerable or process his emotions results in machismo arrogance that causes untold harm to those around him. It's almost like a comment on the damage caused by toxic masculinity or something. Nah, it's probably nothing and I'm sure everything will be right as rain in...

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Whew, we have finally made it. To the film that inspired this unwieldy overlong piece in the first place. The film that somehow provided a rather satisfying end to the Infinity Saga of the MCU and gave both Robert Downey's Iron Man and Chris Evan's Captain America appropriately emotional exits from the franchise.

I'm just saying the fact that I ugly cried ugly when Iron Man died despite only ever liking, but not really loving, the character, says a lot about the emotional heft of the film.

But what about Thor? Well, Thor starts this film the same as he ended Infinity War, broken and burden by overwhelming guilt at his failure to kill Thanos when he had the chance.

This is not a happy god.

Thor is clearly suffering from PTSD and is in shock. This is made blatant when the Avengers find Thanos and Thor chops off his head with a swing of Stormbreaker. Asked why he did it, Thor replies distantly in a voice wracked with emotion, "I went for the head", a reference to his failure due to ego and Thanos' taunt. He then exits the hut and that version of Thor is gone.

Five Years Later...

We come to the controversial choice that split people on Endgame, or at least Thor's arc in it. Following the five year jump, we are re-introduced to Thor but he is not how we remember him. Like all of the Avengers, he has been affected by his experiences. Which is fitting since one of the themes in Endgame is response to trauma. Each of the Avengers responds differently to the trauma they suffered following their failure to stop Thanos.

Iron Man finds new purpose in his young family. Captain America supports others to create new lives and work through their traum but is unable to move on himself. Black Widow similarly cannot allow herself to move on but takes on the role of leader for the team, acting strong to hide her sense of purposelessness. Hawkeye descends into destructive behaviour and cruel violence in pursuit of senseless vengeance due to the loss of his family.

Interestingly, Bruce Banner is the only one who is able to truly move from his trauma. Instead of falling into destructive behaviour or depression, he reconciles the two aspects of his identity, Banner and the Hulk, to live his best life despite the guilt he feels for failing to stop Thanos.


And Thor? He is suffering from serious depression and is fundamentally traumatised by the events of Infinity War. He cannot even hear Thanos' name without it triggering an anxiety panic attack. He lives as a recluse, neglecting his responsibilities as King of New Asgard, drowning himself in alcohol. He is unwilling or unable to clean up or take care of himself and surrounds himself with enablers like Korg, who are happy to indulge in his unhealthy lifestyle for a bit of Fortnite and pizza.

However, all of Thor's pain is unfortunately obscured by one glaring, physical, affect of his trauma - his weight gain. The reveal that Thor had developed a beer gut is framed as humorous in the film. And I will freely admit that I laughed the first time I saw Fat Thor.

It was so unexpected and surprising, especially since Hemsworth's Thor was known for his perfect physic (probably tied with Chris Evan's Captain America for most chiseled body in the MCU). At the same time, I recognised the fantastic depth to Hemsworth's performance in the scene, the tragedy of Thor's trauma was real in his eyes and the catch in his voice was almost too much to bear.

But still I laughed the first time I saw him in a fat suit.

As Stonie Williams at Nerd Bastards notes:
"From the first moment on, Thor was a joke. Yelling at teenagers on Fortnite, only answering the call of his fellow Avengers when beer is mentioned. 'What kind?' Iron Man pops off Big Lebowski jokes because of Thor’s Dad Bod, beard and unkempt hair. And we laugh. When Thor has had a shirtless scene in nearly every movie he’s been in, his abs should have their own credit next to Chris Hemsworth himself, seeing him with a beer gut is humorous. 'Finally, I can cosplay as Thor!' a lot of snickered self-deprecatingly."
Exhibit A.

This is where things get a bit messy. Because there seems to be a disconnect between how Thor was written and Hemsworth's performance, and how he was framed by the camera. Where the writers and Hemsworth's performance suggest a tragedy, the camera frames his weight gain as a comedy. This was not helped by audience reaction, which was to find his beer gut funny. Especially on initially reveal.

This is not to blame anyone who found the revelation that Thor had a beer gut funny or to say they're a bad person or fatphobic. Remember, I laughed too. But rather I am trying to highlight how the way Thor's body was framed as humorous and the audience continued laughter at his body undermined the real trauma the writers and Hemsworth were conveying through Thor's arc in Endgame.

There are several moments in the film where Thor is obviously suffering from depression and PTSD  but his friends seem unable to see this or even recognise that he is in dire emotional pain. Rather they resort to jokes, because this is a Marvel movie and Marvel movies need the funny.

"He slapped him, that's hilarious."
Fun fact: Some people (though not all) who suffer panic attacks do require a short physical shock to snap them out of it.

Naturally, there have been numerous responses to the way Thor's fatness is framed as humorous, from being seen as fat-shaming to detracting from the depiction of his PTSD. Personally, I found some of the jokes about his body gratuitous , most notably War Machine's line about Cheese-Wiz running through Thor's veins since it completely undercut the drama of the scene and was utterly unwarranted.

That said, I found this Reddit post by u/im_not_juicing on the nature of the jokes made by Thor's fellow Avengers about his body quite revealing. As u/im not juicing says,
“I have seen comments of people disgusted by all the ‘fat Thor jokes’, I wish they realized that those were not ‘jokes’ those were hurtful comments that can destroy real people dealing with real depression. That those ‘jokes’ came from those who were supposed to be Thor’s friends, and they mocked him in a moment of need. And that this happens in real life too.”
This response and others like it complicated my feelings after reading reactions to Endgame condemning the film for fat-shaming Thor and reducing him to a joke or not treating his PTSD seriously. The thing about mental illness is that it is not the same for everyone. One person's experience of depression can manifest in different ways to another's.

I mean, look how happy he is to see the Hulk.

Unlike the stereotypical image of depression where a sad person is sad all the time, when we first see Thor he is smiling and playing video games. Apparently, he is now a man who doesn't care about anything and denies there is a problem. A man who hides his crippling pain behind a facade... oh, wait this is just what he has been doing the whole time, isn't it?

Yet again, Thor has built a facade to hide his true feelings from himself and others. However, due the trauma he's experienced, that facade is incredibly fragile and tenuous, ready to break at a moment's notice or trigger a panic attack. Thor's psyche is no longer strong enough to keep up such a facade.

Which is why in this film, Thor's facade and ego finally collapses. This happens when Thor breaks down and cries in front of his mom. This scene was heart-wrenching, as Thor finally allowed himself to be vulnerable with the only person in nine realms he felt he could be vulnerable with, his mother. It is the first time across eight films that we truly see Thor let his guard down and be vulnerable.

This is also the scene where his mother Frigga delivers the line which defines Thor for McFeely and Markus - "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." Essentially, Thor needs to stop trying to be the person people expect him to be and recognise his inner strength, much like he did at the end of Ragnarok.

The moment Thor calls Mjolnir and realises he is still worthy was a truly touching moment, perhaps one of the best across the whole of the MCU. Actually, I will take it further. I think that this is a truly powerful moment, one that makes the problematic elements of Fat Thor worth it (although I will never discount the hurt this depiction caused some people), one that teachers a valuable lesson we need more of, and one that made me realise just how much I related to the mighty God of Thunder.

And this is why - the fact Thor doesn't need to be perfect or the strongest Avenger to be worthy, he just needs to be himself.

This reaction had me in tears.

Just a couple more things about Endgame and then we'll wrap this monster up.

The scene when they are discussing who should use the infinity stones to bring everyone back and Thor pleads with his fellow Avengers to let him do it might have broken me. I was moved by the sense of duty and desperation he felt to do something, anything, to no longer feel unworthy.
Thor: Look, sitting there staring at that going is not going to bring everybody back. I’m the strongest avenger, okay, so this responsibility falls upon me. It’s my duty.
Tony Stark: No, no, listen …
Thor: Let me! Let me do it. Let me do something good, something right.
The fact this is completely undercut by the Cheese-Wiz line I mentioned earlier is unforgivably to me. Although I will give Iron Man credit, he seems to be the only one in the scene who recognised Thor's pain and that he is not in the right head-space to take on such a task was a nice touch.

The other thing is that I think Thor's glow-up in the final fight with Thanos is great. I love the braids. I love his cape. I love the fact he is wielding two hammers. And I love that he doesn't magically lose the weight. I just think its awesome.

I'm sorry but no one could ever convince me that this is not an unbelievably cool look.

And that's that on Endgame from me.

So, what have I learned after this deep-dive into Thor's arc across the MCU? Well, I was surprised to realise just how much the central struggle of Thor's character resonated with me. This internal conflict of who he is supposed to be versus who he is and the facade of bravado he puts up to hide his vulnerability and insecurity felt more personal and human than I anticipated.

While I complained about his character regression after Ragnarok because it seemed like McFeely and Markus didn't know what to do with Thor as King of Asgard, I'm conflicted because I feel like they did some really interesting things exploring trauma with his arc in Infinity War and Endgame. They also did some problematic things, or at least the framing did.

So, I am conflicted about Thor. Which is maybe the only way to feel about a character who has had so many different ups and downs across eight films. I understand that this conclusion might not be entirely satisfying to you, the imagined reader who managed to reach the end of this piece. However, I hope this overlong dissertation at least provided some insight about Thor's character progression.

If I could leave you with one thing Thor has taught me from these films, it is that we should all strive to be worthy, to not pretend to be who we are supposed to be but rather succeed at being who we are.

Because that's what heroes do.



References:

Thor: Becoming Worthy

Chris Hemsworth Reveals Why Thor Loses Hope in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Asgard's bloody history refuses to stay buried in 'Thor: Ragnarok'

Thor: Ragnarok | Multiframe

Thor Ragnarok: A Very Indigenous Film

Thor: Ragnarok Takes on Masculine Stereotypes and Shows Us a Better Way

Thor’s Arc Is Still the Best and Worst Thing About Infinity War

Endgame Corrected One of Thor: The Dark World’s Biggest Mistakes

‘Avengers: Endgame’ writers on Thor-Lebowski, Black Widow and reviving ‘Agent Carter’

‘Avengers: Endgame’ Writers on ‘Fat Thor’ and What That Mjolnir Scene Means for Captain America

Endgame And Mental Illness – Thunderously Appropriate Or Fallen Flat?

In Praise of Prof. Hulk and Fat Thor, the “Endgame” Daddies We Deserve

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Lessons from the Spider-Verse: All Spideys are Valid

We all have in our heads what we want from Spider-Man.

We all know his backstory, the death of Uncle Ben, how his life is a perpetual cycle of struggle and loss. We all know the words, "With great power comes great responsibility". We all know the costume and the importance of a well-timed quip.

Never forget the hyphen.

Let's zoom in on the quips for a second since this is something I think that people misinterpret: why Spider-Man quips. Spidey wisecracks to mask his fears and insecurities, not to show off how great he is. He is not really trying to be funny or drop a witty one-liner, although he does at times. Rather, this is his response to high-pressure situations, his coping mechanism.

On this note, I can see why Garfield's Spidey didn't resonate with some people. His wisecracks are just a tad too snarky and sarcastic. They feel mean-spirited and he seems arrogant. Of course, this has a lot to do with tone and delivery but still that feeling remains.

Don't get me wrong, I do like Garfield's version of Spider-Man and the major theme of this piece will be getting into the joy of appreciating all Spider-Men. However, it's clear why the stark sincerity of Maguire and wide-eyed wonder of Holland resonates far more with people.

Actually, let's get into it. The reason I wanted to write this. The power of embracing all versions of Spider-Man, even if they are not perfect or fit exactly the idea of Spider-Man in your head.

Wait, what? I can enjoy different versions of Spider-Man?

*Before we go any further there will be SPOILERS for pretty much every Spider-Man movie made in the last 20 years so either go watch them or proceed having been warned. Spoilers ahead.*

One of the great joys of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is recognising that each version of Spider-Man (or Spider-Persona to be inclusive) has their own strengths and brings something unique to the concept of "person bit by radioactive spider and burden with responsibility following the death of a loved one (usually an uncle)".

And it got me thinking about how we determine certain versions Spider-Man as superior or more in line with the general idea of who Spider-Man is as a hero and what he stands for.

So who is Spider-Man? What defines him as a character or anyone who takes on a Spider-Persona? Because unlike Iron Man, who is Tony Stark, Spider-Man is not Peter Parker. Peter Parker is the original Spider-Man of course but the great conceit with Spider-Man is that once the costume is on, it could be anyone under it.

"I could be anyone under this mask. Anyone..."
"Interesting. Tell me more."

Superman's face is fully visible, we can all see Batman's Caucasian jaw-line but Spider-Man's costume covers his whole body and face. He could be any race, age, or nationality. And if his name wasn't literally Spider-Man, any gender. Anyone could be Spider-Man.

But wait, doesn't Iron Man's armour covers his whole body and face. Yes, yes, it does. However, Iron Man's entire thing revolves around Tony Stark. Iron Man isn't a symbol for people to emulate. Iron Man's heroism is about Tony Stark saving the day, not about him inspiring others.

I mean, the whole arc of Iron Man 3 (the best Iron Man movie by the way) is Tony realising that he is Iron Man, with or without the armour. The armour does not make the Iron Man. Tony does.

This is why the first Iron Man film ends with this declaration:

Note the lack of armour.

Now you might be yelling in the back, "The first Raimi Spider-Man movie ends with him declaring he is Spider-Man so you just don't know what you're talking about". Yes, Peter Parker does end that movie by saying he is Spider-Man. In his head. In an inner monologue. To the audience.

This isn't Peter declaring to the world that he is a hero to satisfy his ego. This is Peter internally acknowledging his responsibility and choosing to be a hero. Peter chooses to become Spider-Man in that moment. To sacrifice his own personal happiness in order to do the right thing.

On while we're on the subject, I want to discuss the Raimi trilogy for a bit. Since this leads back nicely to a discussion about what sort of hero Spider-Man is.

Now you can make fun of the campy elements of the Raimi trilogy but those movies were achingly sincere about what made Spider-Man a hero - someone who was willing to give up his dreams to do what's right.

Maguire's Spidey might not have been as quipy as other movie versions but he was one of the purest distillations of Spider-Man's heroism. His Spider-Man always tried to do what was right, even when it made his life more difficult, even when it cost him the things he wanted most.

"It's almost like the Raimi films had a central thesis. Something about there being a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams... Nah, that's silly."

Because the thing that makes Spider-Man a hero is his humanity, not his super-heroism.

To quote Film Crit Hulk on Spider-Man 2 (both his and my favourite superhero film), "It's about the way adults come together to support each other in the nobler pursuits. It's about establishing all the reasons that the world is worth fighting for. And in its pursuit of this theme, Sam Raimi did not make me feel empowered, he made me feel human."

This is what makes Spider-Man 'Spider-Man' regardless of who is under the mask. His responsibility as a hero negatively impacts his personal life constantly in a way it often doesn't for other super heroes.

And I will say, this is something that Spider-Man: Homecoming understood expertly. Holland's Peter regularly has to decide between doing normal teenage stuff with his friends or being Spider-Man.

He goes to a party at Liz's house where he intends to later swing in as Spider-Man to impress her but instead decides to investigate a giant blue explosion. He plans to track the Vulture's crew to their base but Liz asks him to join their academic decathlon team as they sneak to the pool and we literally see Peter looking through the skylight at the fulfilling teenage experience he is deciding to miss out on.

Unrelated but I sincerely loved this moment in the film. Just putting it out there.

There is some criticism that Holland's Spider-Man is just Tony Stark's surrogate son or Iron Man Jr. but actually I think this allows for some interesting storytelling aspects in regards to both their characters. Tony recognises something of himself in Peter but also wants him to be better. And the reason that Peter can be better is because he has the same selflessness in him that MCU Captain America has.

As this wonderful video by Reality Punch Studios puts it, "Peter is an almost perfect mix between Steve and Tony. He's got Tony's guilt due to the death of his uncle but he's also got this unbreakable moral code that motivates him to do everything he can to help people as long as he has the power to." And because Tony sees something in Peter, he gives him consequences for making the same mistakes that Tony himself would, consequences like putting him in training wheels, making Happy his handler, and taking away the suit.

In this way, Earthling Cinema notes, Homecoming inverts the traditional interpretation of "With great power, comes great responsibility" - that if you have power you have a responsibility to us it for the utmost good - by "questioning whether the young Peter is responsible enough to wield great power".

Peter starts the film out as impulsive and never thinks through the consequences of his actions. It's because of him that his favourite sandwich shop is blown up. It's because of him that his team nearly dies because of the Chitauri power core he gives to Ned blows up the Washington Monument. It's because of him that the Straten Island Ferry splits in half.

"Maybe I'm not really ready to wield this great power responsibly yet."

That's why at the end of the film Tony tries to give Peter what he (Tony) would have wanted - fame, recognition, a cool new suit. However, Peter rejects it because he sees being Spider-Man as a duty and a responsibility, something that he painstaking learns through the course of his mistakes in the film.

Cycling back to my earlier point, Spider-Man, in whatever iteration or reboot will always have to learn how to navigate his personal and superhero lives. This is not unique to Spider-Man since other heroes have similar struggles but it is an essential aspect of the character.

I mean, Superman's battles with Lex Luthor don't result in him missing a date with Louis Lane. Batman literally uses Bruce Wayne as a false face to the world, playing up the billionaire playboy. Steve Rogers is a man out of time and doesn't really have a life outside of being Captain America.

But Spider-Man's personal life is just as important to him as his superhero life. It is a sacrifice for him to be Spider-Man. Both Peter and Miles at the start of their superhero careers needed to juggle both their responsibilities at school with their responsibilities as Spider-Man.

From the get-go, becoming Spider-Man comes into conflict with Miles' ability to live a normal life.

This is what defines a Spider-Persona as much as cool spider powers. The struggle to manage their private and superhero lives, not to mention losing a loved one who teaches them the importance of using their powers responsibly to do the right thing, even if it means giving up what they want.

Which brings me back to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Firstly, everyone needs to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Honestly one of the most thrilling and engaging cinematic experiences I've ever had. It looks like nothing else. It's like reading the very best comic book but a film. Just unbelievably inventive and colourful visuals with a truly human story to match.

And while there are a lot of Spider-People in the film, it truly is Miles Morales' story. Right from his introduction singing badly along to Post Malone's "Sunflower", we understand what type of person Miles is and the internal struggle he is going through. He is artistic and bright, as well as empathetic but feels he doesn't belong. He wants to please his parents but at the same time wants to break free.

He's a sweet kid with a good heart, who is rudderless and trying to find his place. Pulled in two different directions by the two male role models in his life, his uptight cop father with whom he has a strained relationship and his loose, easy-going (and unbeknownst to Miles, criminal) uncle, Aaron who he looks up to. He is desperate for a mentor, someone to guide him, which is why he latches onto Peter B. Parker when he gets sucked into Miles' dimension.

However, the whole thrust of Miles' arc is letting go of his own self-imposed limitations and being better than either of his male role models or his mentor, Peter B. He becomes his own person who learns from his mistakes and overcomes his self-doubt by fulfilling the promise he made to a dying Peter Parker and learning to use his powers responsibly.

All of which leads to the most thrilling scene in the film as Miles fulfills his character arc by taking a leap of faith and becoming Spider-Man - his version of Spider-Man, one who strives to be better.


But more relevant to my overall point, as I said earlier each Spider-Persona in Spider-Verse brings something new or interesting to the concept of Spider-Man. However, here's the thing: each Spider-Persona is valid.

Peter B. Parker presents us with a tragic older Spider-Man burnt out from too many years of constantly saving the city again and again, stunted and unable or unwilling to grow, afraid of moving into the next phase of his life. Gwen Stacey shows us another side of the emotional toil of being a Spider-Person, following the death of her Peter, she refused to allow herself to make personal connections, saying she doesn't do friends.

Peni Parker loses SP//dr (her psychically-powered mech suit) in the climax and it is treated like a legitimately sad moment with pathos. Noir Spider-Man is a heavy drinker who wrestles with the moral ambiguity of his violent actions.

Hell, even Spider-Ham is treated seriously in the film despite the fact he is a literal cartoon.

"Miles, the hardest thing about this job is you can’t always save everybody."
This is something Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham says in the film.

From this, I started thinking about how we categorise the 'best' version of Spider-Man. Things like:
  • Maguire was the best Peter Parker but his Spider-Man didn't quip or feel like the comic book.
  • Andrew Garfield was a great Spider-Man because he quipped a lot but his Peter Parker felt arrogant and too cool. 
  • Tom Holland felt like a teenage Peter Parker/Spider-Man but his story didn't have the same dramatic weight as Maguire or even Garfield. 
  • Or whatever your critique might be.

There are arguments and counter-arguments for each of those statements of course, and I don't even believe each one, but my point is to highlight how even if there are criticism for each portrayal, they all have something to offer to the concept of Spider-Man.

Although I know The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been relegated to the trash heap of superhero movies, let's cycle back to it since the triumphant score and cinematography of the web-slinging scenes are actually fantastic?



Now, it does takes seven and half minutes in the film for Spider-Man to show up but when he does, wow, what an entrance does he make. Even the movie seems happy he's here, using body-cam footage to show us what it's like to be Spider-Man and the score is just so joyous, you guys.

Like, some of these shots are truly gorgeous and seamlessly fluid in motion, just, ah - *chef's kiss*.

Also, I really like how Garfield's Spidey is a Spider-Man who tries to talk down his opponents before the inevitable fight. When he first meets Electro in Times Square, he spends a while trying to deescalate the situation, relating to Electro about how he is feeling and attempts to get him away from the crowds. It doesn't work due to a trigger-happy police sniper but the effort is still appreciated.

This in what is generally considered to be the worst Spider-Man film, and with good reason since there is a lot wrong going on structurally and thematically. Plot threads and character motivations are introduced but seem to have no real impact on Peter's arc, such as his promise to ghost Captain Stacey. However, even with its flaws there is quite a bit of Spidey stuff to love.

I mean, that film had the utterly sizzling chemistry between Peter and Gwen.



So I ask, is there any worth in debating who is the best version of Spider-Man? Or arguing about the best anything, really? We position 'best' as though it is somehow an objective descriptor when it is actually the most subjective thing.

Because we often conflate our favourite with best. If something is our favourite, surely it must be the best or why else would it be our favourite. But that's not how it works. Your favourite whatever can be your favourite for a multitude of factors, half of which you may not even be fully conscious of.

I think we need to take a step back and reason that favourite does not mean best, it just means favourite. i.e. the one which resonates with you the best. 'Best' doesn't even mean best in the way people tend to use it.

Best for what puprose? Best in what way? Since very few things are the best in every way but some might be perfect in some ways or in ways which resonate the most with certain people. I think 'best' is at best subjective, at worst unhelpful.

Rather than trying to quantify which is the 'best' and relegating the rest to the 'worst' pile, which is already a false dichotomy, we should recognise that sometimes things have worth even if they are not perfect. To understand that different versions might not be good in each aspect and still have aspects which work.

There are a number of coherent, concise themes in Spider-Verse but one that stands out is that “Anyone can wear the mask”. There’s room for so many Spider-Personas. The universe isn’t one thing. It’s many.

When we look at different versions of Spider-Man to see what each brings to the concept, we should break down what works and what doesn't, not to determine some objective 'best' but rather to gain a better understanding of what makes Spider-Man the hero he is, the humanity underneath the costume.

Since it just might helps us better understand the humanity within us all.

And I repeat - Never forget the hyphen.

References:

Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Spider-Man & The Marvel Fatal Flaw

Steve & Tony - Marvel's Big Picture Storytelling

Alien's Guide to Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse screenplay PDF