Welcome to Fatness In Film, a monthly column analysing examples of fat representation and body diversity on screen.
[Spoilers ahead for ‘Avengers: Endgame’]
April 2019 gave us the movie we’d all been waiting for. The culmination of 11 years of cinematic world-building, origin stories and rainbow coloured MacGuffins, Avengers: Endgame saw Marvel deliver an epic three hour conclusion to the Infinity Saga.
Maybe a third of the way in, we find Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the rest of Thor’s people in New Asgard, their new settlement on Earth. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) have gone in search of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to recruit him for the Time Heist. Valkyrie warns that they don’t see him often; only when he comes to get ‘supplies’, as the camera pans to barrels of beer.
When Thor is finally revealed, he’s almost unrecognisable. His beard has grown long and wild; his hair too, hanging in dreadlocks. He stumbles drunk and shirtless around a creaky wooden house, feigning bravado at the sight of his friends from work. The camera pans down to show his full torso, basked in the sunlight from the window. In place of Hemsworth’s usual ridiculously ripped abs and biceps were soft, squishy arms, an undefined chest and a significant, though not enormous, curved belly.
By making Thor naked from the waist up in our reintroduction to him, it’s as if the Russos (as directors) were going for maximum exposure of his body, and maximum impact in terms of the implied hilarity that comes with his new figure. To add to the frustration, Hemsworth did not undergo an actual physical transformation to match that of his character. Thor’s bigger body is instead achieved through the use of a fatsuit.
Fatsuits have a history on film and television as one of the most hurtful ways weight stigma presents itself in our culture. There’s Fat Monica on Friends, who not only gains some chins when we see her in flashbacks, but also a whole new set of character traits – plus the inability to get up off a beanbag and the mantle of being a 30 year old virgin. Other examples include: plus size Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, a movie with an inherently fatphobic storyline, and Fat Bastard in Austin Powers, the literal embodiment of fatness as evil, gross and disgusting.
The very use of a fatsuit is complex and dehumanising. Instead of hiring an actor of that actual body type to play the part, we see people who often embody the ideals of Western beauty zipping themselves into a marginalised and stigmatised identity that so many people have to live through every day, but that the actor can take off once they’ve finished their scene.
Watching the incredibly muscular and athletic Hemsworth become fat by being buried under layers of prosthetics and CGI, instead of actually having that flesh on his bones, means that there’s no stakes. The insults hurled at him don’t have the impact that they would if they landed on a truly fat actor, because every single person in the audience knows that his body is not real. Not only is Endgame making fun of fat people, but it’s not even including them in the joke. The film gets all the payoff from the supposed hilarity of a fat superhero, but conveys none of the jeopardy of what it really feels like to receive those remarks as an actual fat person – one that doesn’t get to take off a suit.
Fat Thor is, admittedly, not completely negative. Whilst the majority of his depiction reinforces fat stereotypes and goes for cheap laughs at fat peoples’ expense, the fact that his body doesn’t change back to his old one at any point is something positive to hold on to.
When he goes back in time through the quantum realm, he’s still fat. When he holds out his hand in 2013 Asgard and Mjolnir flies into it, he’s still fat – and euphoric at the fact that he is still worthy. In the final battle, when lightning builds in his eyes, his hair is tied back and his beard forms into a braid, yet his belly stays exactly the same size. We get to see the God of Thunder in action, swinging both his hammer and Stormbreaker, working with Cap and Iron Man to bring Thanos down, and we get to see him do it in a fat body. Despite all the negativity from the rest of the film, there’s certainly vindication in that.
There was much discourse on this subject upon the release of Avengers: Endgame, with many showing support for Thor’s character arc in this movie. A lot of men in particular have vocalised that they feel seen by this film, that Thor’s pain and gain mirrors their own. Whilst that is valid, it doesn’t make Endgame a win for fat representation. Although Thor’s arc ends positively overall, it doesn’t mean his part in this film isn’t fatphobic and massively stigmatising.
It all boils down to one thing: Fat Thor may come from an intention to tell a story about the trauma that the character has experienced, but the use of a fatsuit, the insults and microaggressions in the script, and the fact his body is played for laughs, means that the ultimate message is one we’ve been hearing for decades. The message is that fat is bad, and that being happy and fat is nothing but a fantasy.
April 2019 arrived, and Avengers: Endgame became the biggest movie in box office history. It gave Cap his happy ending, let Tony Stark finally find peace, and Thanos was defeated. It gave us everything we wanted and more. However, it’s intensely disappointing that for many, the lasting memory they will have of the film is shame washing over them as a character with a body like theirs was made into a punchline. Again.
Do better, Marvel. Maybe in the next phase, give us a fat superhero who never doubts their worthiness, no matter what their body looks like.
Images courtesy of Marvel Studios, Warner Bros Television, and People