It's no secret that comic books have an obsession with chiseled physiques. Along with laser vision, adamantium claws and telepathy, the ability to grow muscles in places muscles shouldn't exist seems to be a mutant power that most male mutants possess. And for the most part, depictions of male superheroes on screen have only gotten more muscular. This obsession with muscularity and hypermasculinity felt even pronounced during my viewing of Avengers: Endgame, which included several depictions of fatness that left my audience laughing and me squirming.
Spoiler alert: Plot details for Avengers: Endgame ahead.
Five years after Thor cuts off Thanos' head as revenge for snapping half of the universe out of existence, the next time we see the Norse god, he's a beer-guzzling gamer with no real purpose who has gained weight. And that's where the jokes begin. When Hulk and Rocket Raccoon venture to New Asgard to fetch Thor, he's at first only a disembodied voice asking whether they've come to fix his cable. The disembodied voice is followed by a backshot of Thor and then finally he turns around to reveal Chris Hemsworth in a shiny, sweaty fat suit.
My theatre erupted laughing when he came on screen. I guess for some people Fat Thor is funny. The sheer idea is cognitive dissonance to some: why would a superhero -- or a Norse god for that matter -- be fat? Within a few moments of the reveal, Rocket Raccoon tells Thor that his body looks like "melted ice cream."
This is anti-fatness played for laughs, plain and simple. The jokes about Thor's weight persist. The person who is usually deemed the "strongest Avenger" becomes a mere punching bag because of his weight. His mother, who he meets in the past, tells him to "eat a salad," while Robert Downey, Jr. calls him "Lebowski" due to his size and alcohol consumption. Rocket Raccoon says he has "crumbs in his beard" -- you know, because all fat people are slobs. When tasked with talking to his fellow Avengers about finding an infinity stone on Asgard, Thor is played up for laughs. He's a shell of his former self who breaks down crying about his former glory and his ex-girlfriend Jane. The visual cues are there for laughs, as well. While another Avenger discusses finding a stone, Thor is slumped in a chair, his shirt barely covering his belly. (P.S. that moment was very hot.)
All these jokes underline an idea that fat people are told again and again: fat people cannot be heroes. Thor may be the strongest Avenger -- and a Norse god -- but his belly undercuts everything else about his greatness. Rather than a hero, Thor spends most of Endgame being a joke. While Thor is usually poised as part of the main trio behind the franchise -- the other two being Captain America and Iron Man -- Thor is mostly sidelined in the final fight in favor of the other two. (The suggestion at the end of Endgame that Thor will jump franchises is mostly a wink to the audience saying "Don't worry! The Thor we know and love will come back!)
Endgame is a film about grief, loss and -- most importantly -- trauma. After the snap, the heroes are all seen as going through their own responses to the trauma. Captain America runs a support group to help others, including Marvel's first gay character, get through their own trauma. Tony Stark is still processing the loss of a son-like Spider-Man while raising his baby girl Morgan. But Thor's trauma begins and ends with -- "Well, he got fat." Thor is seen unable to hear the name Thanos without standing stone still. He is told he is too emotional to wield the infinity stones when the gang finally travels through time and gathers all five. To Endgame, the fat body only exists as a site of trauma. And yet, rather than process that trauma, Endgame wants us to laugh at Thor's body -- and his PTSD.
This isn't a problem that begins or ends with Endgame. From comic books, to films, to video games, fatness is inherently tied to villainy. A short list of fat villains includes Batman's Penguin, X-Men's the Blob (who exists just to be a fat slob), Kingpin. Even Sonic has Dr. Robotnik, always depicted as a portly, stationary man who moves around with the help of a new-fangled steel invention. Disney, now the parent company that owns Marvel, is the worst offender when it comes to fat villains. Ursula, Governor Ratcliffe, the Queen of Hearts -- they all have one thing in common!
In his book Fat Gay Men, Jason Whitesel writes that fat bodies in general are often gendered and read as feminine bodies and that "fat amounts to degradable femininity."
"Fat feminizes male features, threatening masculinity and departing from the archetype of the disciplined hard body," Whitesel writes, referencing how men with hips or breasts are often feminized and therefore desexualized and sent up for laughs. This is why the phrase "no fats, no fems" often pairs the two up together: both are seen as deviating from traditional masculinity. To have a superhero do so, according to Endgame, is a violation of superhero rules.
What's most disheartening about Endgame's fat jokes is that, in a time when the comic book cinematic universe is heading toward greater hero diversity and making sure that people of all races, genders and sexual orientations can see themselves represented on screen, that dream may still be far off for fat people. We can infer from Endgame that, if there is a fat hero depicted on screen, they will only be the butt of a joke. Their body will be labelled wrong and they will be depicted as the one who has to be saved rather than the one to save the day.