From Entitled Jerk to Loving Father: Thor’s Hero Journey

[Warning: spoilers for every Thor movie]

We have now had four “Thor” movies, as well as all the “Avengers” movies in which Thor shows up, and it’s time to talk about the key character arc that has been building to this point. I’m not sure that the various writers and directors meant for this arc to unfold as it has; I suspect that, as often happens in fiction, the character itself has come to life in a way that may not have been intended, but was inevitable. Basically, what we’ve witnessed is just how much Thor has been challenged to grow up and away from his own worst tendencies and become a good man. It’s not an easy road.

When we first meet Thor, he is arrogant and narcissistic, eating up the adulation of the crowd and clowning around when he’s supposed to be serious. It’s all about him, and he feels he has the right to do whatever he wants—including starting a war on another planet, for he doesn’t care about what will happen to the inhabitants, he just wants to get his own back for a perceived slight. For this hubris, his father Odin takes back Thor’s powers, represented by the hammer Mjolnir, throws him out of Asgard, and forces him to live as a mortal on a human world. As I wrote years ago in “Superlovers,” here Thor comes to love the human Jane Foster, not just for her beauty but for her intelligence, and through this love, to care for humans as a group, to the point that he is willing to sacrifice his life for them. But then he has to make another sacrifice: he has to destroy the Bifrost, his only route back to Jane, to prevent his adopted brother Loki from using the Bifrost as a weapon.

In the next movie, Thor manages to return to Earth where he joins the Avengers to defend the planet against an alien invasion led by Loki. Thor assures himself that Jane is safe, but then engages in a pissing match with Tony Stark, the Iron Man, and Captain America as to who is the most powerful. [Turns out they’re pretty equal; it’s the Hulk who wins Most Powerful Avenger. For now.] Clearly Thor has not evolved completely beyond his earlier adolescent hubris. At the end, once again, Thor has to use the only energy that will allow travel between the realms for a greater cause, to return Loki to Asgard for judgment and leave Jane behind.

In “Thor: The Dark World,” we see Thor pining for Jane, constantly asking Heimdall, the all-seeing god, how she is doing. When Jane disappears from Heimdall’s sight, Thor risks Odin’s disapproval and uses the restored Bifrost to go to Earth. He discovers that Jane is carrying a dangerous energy and brings her back to Asgard in hopes that she can be freed of it. Odin recognizes the energy as one of the Infinity Stones that his father took from the Dark Elves. Unable to get it out of Jane, his solution is to lock Jane up. The Dark Elves attack and Thor’s mother Frigga is killed defending Jane. Playing on their mutual grief for their mother, Thor frees Loki in return for his help rescuing Jane and taking her offworld. There Loki and Thor battle the Dark Elves, but Loki is apparently killed and the Dark Elves recover the Infinity Stone and take it to Earth. In my post on “Brainy Women and Big-Hearted Men,” I talk about how the pairing of Jane’s scientific knowledge and Thor’s brute power help save the world. At the end of the movie, Thor gives up the kingship of Asgard that his father is ready to hand over to him, choosing instead to go live on Earth with Jane.

At the beginning of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Thor brags about how smart Jane is (another pissing match with Tony Stark, who advocates for his lover Pepper), but we don’t see either woman. In subsequent movies we learn that Jane has broken up with Thor, who is clearly not happy about it. And we also see Thor devolving from the thoughtful and kind man he became with Jane to someone pretending he doesn’t care.

Thor distracts himself from his loss by doing what he does best: destroying the bad guys. In “Thor: Ragnarok” he starts out by defeating Surtur, a fire giant who is prophesied to destroy Asgard one day. He returns to Asgard to find that Loki is not only alive, but has supplanted Odin as the ruler of Asgard. He hauls Loki to Earth, where Loki has left Odin in an old people’s home. But when they find their father, Odin announces that he is dying and that when he does, his firstborn child, Hela, Goddess of Death, will be freed from the prison Odin trapped her in and will unleash death upon the Nine Realms. Odin dies, Hela does return and immediately destroys Mjolnir. Thor and Loki have to work together to defeat Hela. During the battle Thor realizes that Mjolnir is not the source of his powers, just a tool that focused them. Thor accesses the lightning by himself, but realizes Hela can only be destroyed by freeing Surtur and allowing him to consume Asgard, the source of Hela’s powers. Once again Thor makes the necessary sacrifice. He and Loki flee Asgard with the last of their people and head for Earth.

But they are overtaken by Thanos, who is searching for the Infinity Stones. Thanos wants them so he can build a device, a gauntlet that will allow him to kill off half the living things in the universe, which he believes has become overpopulated, causing harm to all the worlds. Thanos kills most of the Asgardians, including Loki, in front of Thor, and leaves Thor to die.

Thor is rescued by the Guardians of the Galaxy just in time. They join up with the Avengers in “Avengers: Infinity War” to try to prevent Thanos from getting the rest of the Stones. Thor goes off with two of the Guardians to find the Dwarf who can build a new weapon for Thor, the axe Stormbreaker, which can create its own Bifrost. They return to Earth in time to fight Thanos’s army, but the Avengers fail to stop Thanos from getting the last of the Stones. And then Thor fails in a more personal and traumatic way: he has the chance to kill Thanos, and he misses his shot, hitting Thanos in the chest with Stormbreaker instead of in the head. As Thor looks on in horror, Thanos uses the gauntlet and snaps his fingers, and half the people around them dissolve into ashes.

Jane is one of those who lost in what comes to be called “the Snap.”

In “Avengers; Endgame,” set five years after the Snap, Thor has lost it entirely. He is obese from sitting on the couch drinking beer and playing online games all day. He’s given up destroying the bad guys in real life and does it only in virtual reality. Although the director, Taika Waititi, plays this scene for laughs, it’s clear that Thor suffers from PTSD and has built up defenses against being reminded of his past traumas. Then Captain Marvel shows up with her powers that outstrip all of the Avengers put together and offers to go after Thanos. This is all he wants right now, so Thor is immediately in. They find Thanos and Captain Marvel holds him helpless while Thor chops off his head. But it doesn’t fix anything; Thanos has destroyed the Stones, so they can’t be used to undo the Snap. Thor loses all hope and walks away.

But then the scientists in the group (Tony Stark, Bruce Banner the Hulk, and Scott Lang the Ant-man) figure out how to go back in time and retrieve the Infinity Stones, with the aim of preventing Thanos from ever getting them in the first place. Thor’s task is to go back in time to Asgard and retrieve the Infinity Stone from Jane when she possessed it. This is doubly hard for Thor as he has to encounter the two lost loves of his life, his mother and Jane. He manages to avoid being seen by Jane but Frigga feels his energy and finds him. She knows this is not her son of the present moment, but of the future, and in her wisdom she helps him find some ease from his guilt over her death—adding, gently, “eat a salad” as she looks at his swollen belly.

The Avengers succeed in retrieving all the Stones and build another gauntlet. Bruce Banner convinces the others that only he can use the Stones and live, so in his Hulk form he uses the gauntlet to undo the Snap. He survives, but his right arm is severely damaged. But their actions in the past have come to the attention of Thanos in the past, who figures out what is going on and manages to come forward in time and get the gauntlet. He is about to snap them all out of existence, but Tony Stark forestalls him; Tony has built in a way to get the Stones to shift to another gauntlet that he is wearing. Tony Snaps Thanos and all his army out of existence but is killed by the unleashed power of the Stones.

The latest movie, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” starts out with Thor getting back in shape and returning to his save-the-world persona, fighting alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy as they answer call after call for help. But Thor is now questioning who he really is, and chooses to leave the Guardians. This part of the movie, once again, is played mostly for laughs; Thor comes off as oblivious to most of the people around him, even dismissive as he accidentally destroys the temple sacred to the people he is supposed to be helping.

Then the citizens of New Asgard are attacked, and Thor travels there, only to find another superhero fighting the bad guys while wielding Thor’s old hammer Mjolnir. Thor is gobsmacked when the new hero unmasks and reveals herself to be Jane—a very buff, much taller, and blonder Jane, who now wields the Power of Thor. We get a flashback that shows us how Jane’s and Thor’s relationship became problematical. Both had so many calls on their time that it was hard to find time for each other, and Jane ended it before she was dissolved in the Snap. And we learn that Jane now has Stage IV cancer. She heard Mjolnir calling to her, so she traveled to New Asgard to find the shards of it in hopes that it could restore her to health—never expecting that Mjolnir wanted her to become the new Thor. When she wields Mjolnir, she has all the power of Thor, but as soon as she puts it down, her cancer returns and is worse, because the Power of Thor undoes all the effects of her chemotherapy.

The creatures attacking New Asgard have been sent by Gor, a man who feels betrayed by the gods who didn’t answer his prayers when his daughter was dying. He has acquired a weapon that can kill gods and is on a vendetta to destroy them all. The weapon is also killing Gor, slowly—a nice metaphor for what living only for hate and revenge does to a person’s soul.

Thor pretends that he no longer has feelings for Jane, but their mutual attraction is too powerful to withstand. Thor and Jane rekindle their love as they travel to find Gor. When Thor realizes what Mjolnir is doing to Jane, he pleads with her to stop using it and instead pursue her only chance at life, the chemotherapy. She agrees, but later she realizes that Thor is heading into a trap, that Gor needs Stonebreaker to open the door to Eternity, a divine being at the center of the Universe who will grant one wish to the first person to reach it. Gor is going to use his wish to destroy all the gods at once. Jane flies after Thor and flings Stonebreaker into the heavens, but Gor traps Jane in tendrils that are slowly squeezing the life out of her until Thor, unable to watch her die, calls Stormbreaker back. Gor opens the door to Eternity, and Thor and Jane are sucked through the door as well.

Jane drops Mjolnir and is dying. Thor turns away from Gor. He no longer cares what Gor will do, even if it means his own death; all he wants now is to be with Jane in her last moments. But he also tells Gor that he could use his wish to get his daughter back, and wouldn’t that be better? Gor, who is also dying, says “but she will be alone.” Jane and Thor exchange a look, and Jane says “she won’t be alone.” With this promise, Gor brings back his daughter and says a loving farewell to her, as Thor does with Jane. In the last scene, Thor is now being a protective and instructive father to Gor’s daughter.

Thor grows up during these movies. He goes from being a hard-partying, hard-fighting, arrogant jerk to a man who has learned not just how to love but how to bear the loss of love. He has made the hard journey out of addiction—numbing himself against pain through alcohol and using incessant online gaming as a distraction—and learned how to live with that pain. He has learned that feelings, especially feelings that are “shitty,” are not something to be avoided, but embraced. As a friend of mine put it who has seen her share of hard times and loss, both good and bad contribute to the richness of life. A life that is easy, where everything goes your way, where you get everything you want, tends to turn people into assholes—which is what happens to most of the gods, and we can certainly find many, many examples among the rich and powerful in real life. Suffering is the gateway to compassion and empathy; it is a necessary part of becoming truly adult, truly able to care for another. The soul grows through suffering. Thor has suffered and has learned how to live with it. He had a wise and loving father himself, but having that role model was not enough. He had to experience the full range of life’s possibilities; he had to learn how to let himself feel shitty, to be equipped to be a wise and loving father himself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s