In the wake of Avengers: Endgame dominating both the box office and our conversation in the last few weeks, a lot has been made of the Fat Thor storyline and how it addressed or didn’t address, handled well or handled poorly his clear PTSD, depression and anxiety. I myself have gone back and forth with my own feelings about it, ultimately landing on that I can definitely appreciate what they were trying to do and address, they just didn’t have the bandwidth to give it the exploration or nuance a storyline like that deserved. It’s understandable. They were juggling a lot of moving parts with Endgame and it didn’t diminish my love of the movie any.
One criticism I’ve seen circulating throughout social media, however, is that the other Avengers weren’t compassionate enough or understanding enough of what Thor was going through. And this, I’d argue, is entirely on the audience and not the screenwriters or directors. Because Thor was clearly not the only one struggling, not by an inch, not by a mile. The rest of them were broken in their own ways and clearly signaling it. The signs were all there – if you paid attention.
Hollywood has traditionally been bad at translating mental illness to the big screen, including depression. The reality is depression manifests itself in a number of ways. It doesn’t always look the same on the surface; there is no standard set of outward manifestations to check off a list. I know this because since I was about 20 years old, depression and I have been close acquaintances. In some ways, I’m lucky. Mine’s seasonal depression, so it kicks in roughly the same time every year and relents the same time every year. I am equipped with the tools to deal with it. It’s something I’ve learned to navigate around, like having to use a pair of crutches while a broken leg heals. I’m not unable to function but I definitely have to adjust things in my life to get around that dumb depression cast until it’s ready to come off. But even though I am still able to function in my day-to-day, I’m still depressed and I have my tells if you know me and know what to look for. So do the Avengers.
Let’s look at the leader of the Avengers, Steve Rogers. Here’s a fun one! Did you know that often, depression manifests itself as irritation or anger rather than sadness? It does. It was great to hear the straight-laced Steve swear multiple times throughout the movie in exasperation; I laughed quite a bit. But the God-fearing golden boy openly letting loose with the cursing shows just how far off his moorings he’s come. His frustration thrums through him; you can practically see the pressure building in him, the hopelessness. He’s going through the motions and nothing gives him meaning. You could always count on Captain America to be a source of optimism, it was his core foundation as he always knew God would guide him. But what happens when he realizes maybe that God doesn’t exist? When the man who always had a mission no longer has a direction in which to point? It’s not in his nature for depression to present itself as listlessness, but it sure would be for it to present as his anger being ever-present.
As for Clint Barton, well…his grief manifests itself in a darker way; his trauma turned outward with murderous intent rather than inward like Thor. The other Avengers want to put him down. Natasha, as close to Clint as she is, is the only one to see it for what it is. It’s the coping mechanism of a man who doesn’t have the tools to process the depth of his grief or even begin to accept the enormity of his loss. Some people lash out when they’re struggling, pushing everything away. Clint goes about as far down that path as one can and still find his way back.
Bruce Banner seems to be the one coping the best with everything they’ve lost. Though one could argue that spending years pushing himself to find a way to merge his Banner and Hulk halves is the action of a man desperate to control something, anything, when he feels everything else spinning out of control. Same for Tony and hiding from the world; it’s not acceptance, it’s a retreat.
Which brings us to Natasha Romanoff. More specifically, Natasha’s hair. Let’s jump to the scene at Avengers compound. There Nat sits, still valiantly trying to run the team and keep some semblance of normality churning, handing out directives and collecting mission reports. She may be grieving, but at least she’s functioning, right? Nothing breaks Nat.
Except…she is broken. And her hair is the biggest tell.
See, women, we’re vain about our hair. Most of us, anyway. Our hair is a weathervane that indicates which way our emotional weather is blowing. Drastic hair changes usually indicate some upheaval in life or a major new direction. I’ve often joked with my straight male friends that if they’re experiencing relationship issues and their girlfriend or wife chops off all her hair or undergoes a drastic color change, be prepared to get dumped or experience some turbulence. Likewise, when women are going through a tough time or depressed, neglect of our hair is often the indicator that inside, we’re quietly waving the white flag. The formerly always put together, flawless Natasha letting her hair go to seed is as much a sign of depression as Thor’s beer gut. The first time I watched that scene, I thought, Oh, girl, no… you are so not okay, are you? I got it. I’ve been there.
Throughout the years, Nat has opened up to her teammates, but she is always still Black Widow: calm, cool, unbothered, able to deal and perfectly put together. Hell, even when she had gone underground and was on the run in Infinity War, she managed to keep her platinum blonde fresh. In Endgame, however, she not only isn’t able to deal, she doesn’t even bother to put on the front that she can. Her makeup, gone. Her hair, unkempt. Her stoicism, destroyed. Why bother being Black Widow, femme fatale assassin, when it just…doesn’t…matter? It’s impossible for her to maintain her polished looks, previously the first tool in her considerable arsenal. She’s barely keeping it together to begin with.
Here’s the other thing about depression: Very often, you lack the ability to be there for others going through the same damn thing; not because you don’t want to but because you just can’t. You don’t have the emotional capacity. You’re too fragile to carry the emotional weight of someone else while barely able to hold yourself up. Unfortunately, just as often, you lack the capacity to explain that in a nuanced and compassionate way. It manifests itself as snapping at people: “I’m sorry, I can’t deal with this right now.” It manifests as pulling away from friends. It manifests as irritation at your friend who is asking you to do emotional labor because holy crap, I’m busy barely dealing with my own stuff over here, can you please just handle your shit for once? Please? When Rocket tells Thor to snap out of it and yells in frustration that they’ve all lost people, I related to that. I related to that hard.
The other Avengers are just as lost and just as fragile as Thor, but, at least on the internet, there has been very little compassion for them. Yeah, the sniping at Thor bothered me on one level. Yet, I got it. Surface bad behavior from a group of human beings frayed down to the rawest nerves masking the fact that, quite frankly, they are doing the best they can. Sometimes the best you can do doesn’t include having the capacity or the time to be someone else’s emotional crutch, even when you’re experiencing the same thing.
In Endgame, the Avengers are all broken. So why is Thor’s behavior the only one that gets a pass?