Love and Thunder: the evolution of Thor’s masculinity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

by John quinn

Gage Skid­more


SPOILER ALERT: this arti­cle con­tains plot ref­er­ences to Thor: Love and Thunder.

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor often refers to him­self as the “strongest Avenger” – an ide­al­is­tic man­i­fes­ta­tion of mas­culin­i­ty beyond the reach of ordi­nary mor­tal men.

Sure, this is most­ly played for laughs, but if we look beyond the com­e­dy, there is an inter­est­ing mes­sage about what it means to be a man under­pin­ning the Thor fran­chise. It’s a mes­sage that has shift­ed and changed over the last decade, and not always for the better.

In the lat­est instal­ment, Thor: Love and Thun­der, there is not one Thor but two: step for­ward the Mighty Thor, in the guise of the original’s one-time love, Jane Fos­ter, played by Natal­ie Portman.

The Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse (MCU) is a mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar mul­ti­verse fran­chise that unites a range of super­heroes adapt­ed from Mar­vel Comics. Hemsworth’s “space Viking” first appeared in the MCU in Ken­neth Branagh’s 2011 movie Thor.

Even though this incar­na­tion of Thor is a pas­tiche of mas­cu­line super­heroes, the cues of stereo­typ­i­cal “nor­mal” hyper­mas­culin­i­ty were still at the core of the film. Yes, the audi­ence were encour­aged to laugh at Thor’s arro­gance and roll their eyes at his insuf­fer­able hubris. But, in the end, it was his supe­ri­or strength and aggres­sion, com­bined with the love of a “good woman” – Jane Fos­ter – that won the day in a cel­e­bra­tion of hyper­mas­cu­line prowess.

Playing with masculinity

It was all stan­dard Hol­ly­wood action hero fare, and this con­tin­ued into the sec­ond instal­ment in the fran­chise, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World (2013), as well as Joss Whedon’s cross-fran­chise The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

It wasn’t until New Zealand actor/director Tai­ka Wait­i­ti took the helm for the third instal­ment, Thor: Rag­narok (2017), that we began to see a real shift in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Thor’s mas­culin­i­ty. Here, it is cel­e­brat­ed for its ridicu­lous­ness not its effec­tive­ness, plant­i­ng the seeds for a new inter­pre­ta­tion of how the hyper­mas­cu­line can be under­stood in every­day culture.

In the Rus­so broth­ers’ Avengers: Endgame (2019), the reimag­in­ing of Thor’s mas­culin­i­ty took a poten­tial­ly prob­lem­at­ic turn. Hav­ing failed to pre­vent Josh Brolin’s Thanos – the ulti­mate bad guy in the MCU – from eras­ing half of life in the uni­verse in Avengers: Infin­i­ty War (2018), Thor slips into depression.

In his depres­sive state, he is stripped of his mas­cu­line prowess. Now inhab­it­ing a fat body that is exposed for comedic effect, Thor’s depres­sion is cor­re­lat­ed with lazi­ness, a lack of per­son­al hygiene and emo­tion­al instability.

In this new guise, he is dimin­ished as a mem­ber of the Avengers, with his role as peak mas­culin­i­ty now tak­en by Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk char­ac­ter who has become Pro­fes­sor Hulk – a com­bi­na­tion of the brute strength of the Hulk and supe­ri­or intel­lect of Bruce Ban­ner. “Fat” Thor is a jokey fig­ure – the inverse of hypermasculinity.

The new ideal (spoiler alert!)

Things are dif­fer­ent in Tai­ka Waititi’s lat­est Thor: Love and Thun­der (2022). In the open­ing mon­tage of the movie, Thor returns his body to the hyper­mas­cu­line form. Again it is ridicu­lous – as ridicu­lous as the gigan­tic scream­ing goats that car­ry his space boat across the universe.

He is still an exag­ger­at­ed uber-mus­cled mas­cu­line pres­ence, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a fig­ure of ridicule and spec­ta­cle. He is to be con­sumed or scoffed at depend­ing on your pref­er­ence. Or maybe even both.

Jane Foster’s reimag­in­ing as the Mighty Thor intro­duces a new gen­der dynam­ic into the fran­chise. The Mighty Thor is just as pow­er­ful as Thor, or maybe even more so, as she comes to his res­cue on sev­er­al occa­sions. Yet Thor’s mas­culin­i­ty does not col­lapse or enter cri­sis in the face of pow­er­ful femininity.

In the end he works with the Mighty Thor as an equal to save the day. The arrival of this female Thor incar­na­tion in the sto­ry ampli­fies the absur­di­ty of Thor’s mas­cu­line hubris, but it does so in a way that still allows the audi­ence to enjoy Thor’s laugh­able excesses.

Even though the cen­tral rela­tion­ship explored in the movie is het­ero­sex­u­al, Thor’s mas­culin­i­ty is not rigid­ly het­ero­sex­u­al, as demon­strat­ed in an amus­ing scene where he gazes into the eyes of Chris Pratt’s Star Lord, when asked about peo­ple he loves.

In Love and Thun­der, Thor’s hyper­mas­culin­i­ty is com­plex: arro­gant and hubris­tic, but also car­ing. His super­nat­ur­al strength caus­es and solves prob­lems. It is is framed as aspi­ra­tional and child­like, such as when, near the end of the movie, he shares his pow­ers (tem­porar­i­ly) with the chil­dren he has set out to res­cue. He is both a sav­iour and in need of saving.

Waititi’s Thors live in a rec­i­p­ro­cal dynam­ic. We dis­cov­er in flash­back that it was Hemsworth’s Thor, in ask­ing his ham­mer Mjöl­nir to pro­tect Jane, who inad­ver­tent­ly caused her to become the Mighty Thor. Lat­er, when it is revealed that Jane’s con­tin­ued use of Mjöl­nir will lead to her death, she choos­es to sac­ri­fice her­self to save Thor.

Ulti­mate­ly, when Thor agrees to care for the orphaned daugh­ter of the van­quished God Butch­er played by Chris­t­ian Bale, he becomes a new and ide­alised ver­sion of mas­culin­i­ty – one that is not only focused on the body, strength and phys­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty, but also on car­ing, nur­tur­ing and domes­tic life.
The new hyper­mas­cu­line ide­al realised by Hemsworth in Thor: Love and Thun­der is flu­id, con­tra­dic­to­ry and sub­ject to change and inter­pre­ta­tion, which seems a per­fect fit for our chang­ing times.

John Quinn, Lec­tur­er in Screen & Per­for­mance, School of Busi­ness and Cre­ative Indus­tries, Uni­ver­si­ty of the West of Scot­land
This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.