Many have praised Avengers: Endgame for a range of accomplishments: its spectacular special effects; its light touch in being so spectacular; its deft use of cameos; its fast and loose, serious and ridiculous, forays into the logical binds of time travel; its narrative economy in wrapping up a franchise with story lines mind-bogglingly diverse and intertwined; and the list goes on. My response has been curiously personal and “off topic.” An unexpected reunion scene amidst the frenzy of the endgame struck me deeply and oddly, articulating for me something larger and more dramatic and more complex than the intense storylines of the Avenger franchise—namely, the power of what it means to be a parent. I was left nodding, yes, yes—easily and gratefully and tearfully—if those things can exist side-by-side—for a depiction of love and grief and transcendence, and all their resonance and possibility, distilled to a stolen moment, out of time and eternal.
How does one serve up such a poignant moment? Recipe: Start with an archetypal relationship—here, a mother and son. Put them in a difficult, relatable situation involving loss, separation, a reunion after drastic changes, a stolen chance for intimacy, and an effortless “moment” of being together, without frenzy, without agendas, without judgments, without urgencies. Next, enact the moment with perfect pitch, as though there had been no separation. Pack in several archetypal dynamics—parental advice, childish submission, a mother’s acceptance, a child’s need for the mother’s recognition—and through it all maintain the effortlessness of just being together. Make it lighthearted and comical. Deliver it in a rush amidst chaos, in a slow calm so it can be what it is, so it can transcend the rush and rise into the realm of truth and beauty. Fold in a lot of setup.
Parenting and good storytelling are all about setup. Telescoped into each moment is all of its past, all the drama, disappointments, joys—all the history that makes the moment a universe of its own.
This reunion is between Thor and his mother, Frigga. Thor has come from the future, and he has a chance to see his mother, on the day he knows she will die, no less. He sees her, but he cannot speak to her. Thor is a time traveler, and there are some strict rules here. You can’t interfere with the past to change the future, etc., etc. So Thor has to keep his cover, not attempt to save his mother, or change her fate. But all the rules get thrown out the window when Frigga sees Thor. She knows him and loves him instantaneously, and registers no surprise or fear or confusion whatsoever, despite his extremely unusual appearance. Her ease of encountering him is the most magical moment of this blockbuster film, with all its special effects. The acting by Rene Russo as Thor’s mother puts to shame all the CGI flight and fight and thunder, even Thor’s, that fill most other moments with unrelenting action and crisis. This is the acting of a “parent’s transcendence of all the mess,” and just knowing, and being grateful for, and being sublimely calm about this chance to connect in the most uncertain of circumstances.
A little more on the setup: The actor who plays Thor is Chris Hemsworth, an apt candidate to embody the Scandinavian God of Thunder. His portrayal was built over several previous movies, and we have come to know him as a boyish, lovable, good-hearted kind of god, prone to rash acts at times, though always with good intentions. Above all, he was so powerful and beautiful, and completely without ego, this god among humans, just breezily being godly. And the voice—a god’s voice, with something of a slur, deep and resonant, and completely unpretentious. Hemsworth originally had to get completely buff to play the role, adding 30 pounds of chiseled muscle to ripple and pop when he held the mighty hammer and channeled the lightning of the universe to show his power and achieve his ends.
But that was all in better days. The current Thor in Endgame—and this is a true spoiler for those who love the godly Thor—has put on a few pounds (70?), as an effect of his, and the earth’s, loss after Thanos’s finger snap had obliterated half of the universe’s population at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Thor has let himself go, in beer drinking, video-gaming, and general bro behavior. He’s somehow managed to keep his jaunty, comical demeanor through the devastation of both his chiseled body and the general universe. And that is why we are struck at Frigga’s no-surprise reaction to seeing Thor.
While unfazed, Frigga does notice something is wrong with Thor’s right eye. We know it had been put out in an earlier movie, and then restored completely in a later movie. Of all the changes in this broken god, she has zeroed in on the one that is all-but invisible. But the eye is the window to the soul, and his mother knows. She looks at him lovingly and says, “You’re not the Thor I know at all, are you…? The future has not been kind to you, has it?”
Our hearts break, for at once she recognizes what her son has been through, and it doesn’t matter, and her broken heart, if it is broken, is healed by the love she feels, and this opportunity, after so much loss and grief, to look upon, yet once again, the son she lost and had to learn would have such a difficult path ahead. Of course, it’s only we who know all that, but now she knows it too, and we feel her grief and joy, all the more accentuated by the other knowledge we have—that this is her end—and this is Thor’s final chance to be with his mother, a fact he knows all too well.
Thor denies that he’s from the future. This god has powers, and he puts up a good front—for about a second, till he breaks down and confesses, like an errant teen, “I’m totally from the future.” Hemsworth’s comic delivery never lapses here or elsewhere, as he completely avoids the self-pity or loathing that might stem from his fallen nature. But it’s not Hemsworth that brings the emotional focus or magic to this unexpected scene.
It’s the acting of Rene Russo, as Frigga looks so lovingly into Thor’s eyes, without judgment, without worry, without anxiety, and just drinks in this chance to be his mom and talk with him and hold him, in a kind of serene acceptance of what the moment could afford. Despite the transcendence here, she keeps it real, asking “what are you wearing?” She cuts through the nonsense of her child’s excuses saying she was raised by witches; she injects sibling dynamics into the exchange saying he should leave the sneaking to his brother Loki—and on it goes, with a little slapstick humor thrown in. But none of it registers beyond the calm union here, the manifestation of parent-child love, in circumstances that, if absurd, are irrelevant. Love does conquer all—be it death, disappointment, fear, grief, uncertainty, time travel confusions, and the rest. And this subdued scene of love displayed in such a serene and automatic way, despite such distractions, is enough to make Endgame, as a movie, a true “marvel,” all on its own.