“Whosoever reads this article, should they read it in full, shall know the resilience of Thor.”
!!MAJOR ENDGAME SPOILERS ALERT!!
I’m a fan of the Marvel universe and have diligently watched the 20+ movies leading up to Endgame. At the same time, I have a big interest in understanding and building resilience in people – which is why I created Driven as a virtual resilience coach.
Hence, I found myself fascinated by the different resilience style of all the Avengers. The story of one particular Avenger stood out to me – the journey of Thor. Sure, all the heroes have their own style of resilience, but Thor’s – to me – is the most well rounded (up until Endgame, anyway). His character arc is full of nuanced struggles that highlight how resilience works in real time. PS, this article won't make much sense if you haven't seen the movies...
1. He’s the God of Suffering
Now, our buddy Thor has been through a lot. In Infinity War he gives a good summary himself, but of course there’s more, so let’s recap the list of Thor’s sufferings:
Exiled by his dad for being too arrogant
Lost all his powers, had to earn it back
Had to fight and imprison his own brother
Mother killed by a dark elf
Girlfriend almost died
Father died after being exiled
Lost his faithful fighting friends
Best friend stabbed through the heart
Brother died twice, turns out to be alive twice, then killed for real after finally reconciling
Finally found someone he loved, and then got dumped
Lost his hammer (comparable to losing a loved one)
Found out he has a long-lost sister
Eye gouged out by said sister
Had to cause the destruction of his homeworld
Had to kill his sister
Lost nearly all of his race (I mean, what, there was maybe 1 million Asgardians at the start, and now there’s maybe 100 left? Ouch!)
Made a mistake that resulted in the death of half of all life in the universe (double ouch!)
And that’s just in the last 10 to 20 years. For a guy that is about 1,500 years old, it’s a lot to handle. For the most part, he handles these tragedies with great resilience. But as we shall see, all this eventually takes a toll. Still, his ability to have kept it together for this long given what he's been through is enough to be our first reason for why he's the Resilient Avenger!
In our work at Driven, we help people understand themselves across six domains of resilience, each containing various skills. We’ll learn more about Thor’s resilience by exploring these domains, considering his journey up to Infinity Wars first before jumping into the events of Endgame.
2. He’s the Social Avenger
Resilience domain: Collaboration
Initially, Thor comes across as being fairly arrogant and self-aggrandising. He assumes that he’d be the new king of Asgard, until nearly causing a new war with the Frost Giants.
After a bout with mortality, Thor’s arrogance is tempered by humility – turning into a healthy level of confidence. He becomes a genuinely nice guy to be around. He’s got a good sense of humour, generally up-beat even in the face of major challenges, and he goes out of his way to befriend new people.
This is such an important characteristic of Thor that really helped set him apart from Avengers. Take Stark or Strange, who are both quite alienating when it comes to other people. Their own egos make it hard for them to really connect with anyone. Romanoff, Banner and others are often quite awkward. Meanwhile, Thor has old friends he’s been fighting alongside for probably centuries, deep and fulfilling friendships, yet he is quick to get to know new people and even to sign up to the Avengers.
In terms of resilience, having the willingness to build deep relationships with people who you can support and can support you as well is very important. Especially in our age now where technology seems to be isolating us more and more. It’s good to see this depiction of just being willing to talk to people, spend time with them, and quickly build new friendships. And as with Thor’s change, it is something that takes time and practice. No-one is super social from the start.
It’s just that some people started practicing earlier than others.
Be like Thor – have the courage to chat to new people!
3. Yeah, He Works Out
Resilience domain: Health
I’m fairly certain most of Asgard’s buildings were, in fact, supplement stores where they all filled up their protein shakers ahead of the fifth workout of the day. Of course, it’s a bit like hero code that you need to be in peak physical shape, but even the other heroes are a little jealous of Thor’s bod.
What’s interesting about good nutrition, exercise and quality sleeping patterns is that it’s not just about giving you a good body, but really about helping the brain work well and supporting you to do what’s most important to you. This means that your health is not the primary goal, but rather a means for you to achieve your goal.
For Thor, his physical condition is a key enabler of how well he fights; and of course, if you’re an Avenger, then you’ll be fighting a lot. That means working out a lot and downing those godly protein shakes is super important for him. He shows that he’ll consistently put in the work to look after his own health, day in and day out for thousands of years – now that’s dedication! For the rest of us, luckily, our abs don’t need to be quite that ripped.
Though from what we saw, he does like drinking quite a bit, which is not quite the healthiest thing in the world. Eventually in Endgame we would see how this can quickly spiral out of control as the trauma takes its toll. More on that later.
4. He’s Persistent (“He Hasn’t Fought Me Twice”)
Resilience domain: Tenacity
Thor is a persistent fellow. Even though he got beaten by Thanos, Thor learns from what happens and figures out a way to try again so he can win the next time.
Persistence is actually more important than intelligence in reaching eventual success
Being able to bounce back from adversity is how we often think about resilience, which is why we consider it in the domain of Tenacity. This is how we keep ourselves motivated to try and try again, with Thor showing a great ability to not just persist, but also do it with a sense of humour and excitement of the challenge. I think this is something that sets him apart from other heroes – having a sense of excitement to keep trying until he eventually wins.
Interestingly, we see from research that persistence is actually more important than intelligence in reaching eventual success. This is something we see from Thor – he might not be the brainiest of the bunch, but he makes up for it with sheer courage to quickly jump into any challenge, having the confidence that eventually he’ll figure out how to win.
Later on in Ragnarok, we also see Thor develop what we call realistic optimism. Here, Thor is optimistic about being able to find a way to succeed, but he’s also realistic about what might go wrong. In particular, we see Thor being hopeful in bringing Loki along on the mission, but also planning ahead just in case Loki is up to his usual tricks again, which of course, he was.
Persistence is a fairly common quality in our heroes. Perhaps it’s one of the most important qualities that we want to see – what subconsciously draws us to hero movies. We want to see someone facing unbelievable odds, yet still keep going regardless and win in the end. It gives us hope, allowing us to take a bit of that inspiration into our own personality, helping us face whatever challenges lie in our path.
5. He’s Cool in a Crisis
Resilience domain: Composure
Early on we see Thor’s temper get the better of him, causing him to go off at Odin and run off to Jotunheim to start a fight. Then, as he starts to get more perspective on what his role is between everyone else, he becomes a lot less reactive and instead uses his emotions more constructively.
What does that mean? Well, imagine that there are a whole lot of dishes that need washing. Three emotions might pop up:
Sadness – you get sad at all the dishes to be washed. Being sad is a low intensity emotion, meaning it has little power to motivate, so instead the dishes stay unwashed.
Rage – you fly into a rage about there being so many to wash. Rage is uncontrolled anger, likely resulting in you smashing the dishes. Very destructive, and not helpful.
Anger – you get angry about the dishes, and since anger comes with a lot of energy, you can channel that energy into furiously washing the dishes. Success!
In the first Thor movie, we see him fly into rage now and then, resulting in his eventual exile. By the end of the movie, he has overcome that through his new understanding of what it means to eventually be a king.
From there, Thor uses the energy of anger constructively to help overcome the battles along the way, though quickly able to calm himself down afterwards. A lot of his power comes from harnessing the energy of anger. Meanwhile, Iron Man – who has no natural physical strength – draws his power from intelligence, so he needs to stay calm all the time to focus and win. This is interesting to see how different heroes must understand themselves, the origin of their power, and how to manage their own mental world to win.
Thor manages to stave off sadness, at least until Endgame when the cumulative trauma all becomes too much.
6. He’s Resourceful and Knows a Lot
Resilience domain: Reasoning
Though Thor might not be as smart as Stark or Strange, his tendency to reach for a joke belies the fact that he’s actually quite resourceful and strategic in his thinking.
Creativity, resourcefulness and strategic thinking is a crucial part of resilience
In Infinity Wars, he uses his knowledge of the whereabouts of the infinity stones to deduce clearly where Thanos will be next, and what the long game is to achieve victory. As the more impulsive members of the crew head to Knowhere (bad idea), Thor devises a plan to get a new weapon that can defeat Thanos.
We see as well that Thor has a wide knowledge of what’s happening in the universe, perhaps because he’s rather old! Still, he also bothered to learn different languages, like Groot, showing an interest in learning new skills that may prove handy down the track.
He’s even quick to think out of the box. Like, way out the box. Like, let’s create Vision, or destroy my own homeworld to beat Hela out of the box. This kind of creativity, resourcefulness and strategic thinking is a crucial part of resilience.
This is what a lot of people don’t realise – resilience is not just about bouncing back, but also about anticipating challenges and solving problems in new ways. Thor shows that just being strong isn’t enough – taking time to understand the world you are in and learning new skills will help you solve problems with unexpected solutions.
7. “I Run Towards My Problems”
Resilience skill: Momentum
I love this quote from Ragnarok, where Thor talks to Valkyrie about how she’s been hiding from Asgard after her last ordeal there. It’s a great quote because it speaks to the heart of a concept we call Momentum, where we look at approach and avoidance motivation. It’s a comedic moment in the film – but a great piece of psychological insight from Thor, showing a profound awareness of what keeps you motivated through so many challenges.
I choose to run towards my problems, not away from them
After all, if we choose to avoid our problems, then soon there are so many problems piling up that we are trapped. After a while, there may be so many things we’re trying to avoid, there’s nowhere left to go, and we shut ourselves off from the world instead.
The full quote is “I choose to run towards my problems, not away from them. Because that's what heroes do.”
I’d say this is not just what movie heroes do, but something we should all do, from the smallest to the largest problems we face. In a way, it is a heroic thing to do. Facing your problems head-on takes courage. But the more you do it, the stronger you become, and the better ability you develop to manage problems. This is how you become your own hero.
An Endgame of PTSD
After killing Thanos, we find out the years since weren’t kind to him. Thor shuts himself off from other people, withdrawing into his house, only to emerge when he needs more alcohol. He lets his hygiene go – a common sign of depression. He apparently forgoes physical exercise and starts putting on weight as he lives off pizza and beer. He self-medicates with alcohol to drown out the memories of the past, and the role of his own failure.
We see Thor getting triggered by the word “Thanos”, causing him to relive the experience. He has already told others in his house to never mention the name, showing clear patterns of avoidance. A big change from who he used to be. He also has a panic attack when he went back in time. He blames himself for what went wrong. In short, we see a lot of signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Even for the strongest people, eventually a hard life can become too much
And to be fair, it’s quite expected after all the things he’s been through. As we often see with people with distressing jobs (police, firefighters, healthcare workers), there doesn’t seem to be any real mental health support in the Avengers. Getting shawarma after a fight is not therapy. The team members face harrowing situations regularly, and afterwards everyone just goes back on their merry ways trying to deal in silence with what they’ve been through.
We like to think these type of people are just as strong mentally as they are physically, but constant exposure to the most horrible events in life takes a toll. Even for the strongest people, eventually a hard life can become too much. This is where we see even Thor, who is perhaps mightier than Thanos himself, succumb to the mental traps of thought distortions that have taken root.
What Went Wrong?
How did we end up with PTSD Thor? It’s an interesting question, and worth exploring a little as there are some important lessons here for all of us.
First, of course, is the cumulative effect of all the tragedies he’s been through. By anyone’s standards, it’s a lot. The weight of all that trauma could crush Odin himself. So, we have that to contend with.
Then, in Infinity War we see Thor’s primary mechanism to deal with everything that’s happening is to set a goal to kill Thanos and stop the snappening from happening. This singular goal does two things:
In the face of tremendous loss, it gives him a sense of purpose – motivation to keep going and help save the universe
It also serves as a way to start avoiding what he’s been through. Here we see the first signs of avoidance patterns forming, where he uses his anger for Thanos to ‘focus his mind’, meaning it helps him not think about everything he’s lost
This is a precarious position to be in, since placing his personal sense of value in the accomplishment of a single goal is problematic. If you fail, then your own self-worth can crumble with that failure.
And this is exactly what happens. In the final moment where, after pumping himself up so much, Stormbreaker in hand and finally stronger than the fully gauntlet-ed Thanos, his own desire to rub in his victory results in the death of half the universe. “You should have aimed for the head”
For a while, he still holds hope – Thanos is out there and so is the gauntlet – things can be undone. When this turns out to be a false hope, Thor kills Thanos in an empty victory and his own failure sets in. All the loss he’s faced is final, hope is gone, and there’s no do-over.
This is where Thor becomes trapped by his patterns of avoidance, and now with no pressing goal to ‘focus his mind’, the symptoms of PTSD manifests and he declines.
Cap Might Want a Say
Resilience domain: Vision
Despite all the loss Thor has faced up to this time, I think there was still a way to face this situation with resilience. And I think that ol’ Captain America could have helped here.
In our resilience training, we talk about setting a ‘resilient purpose’, which is a way to design your own sense of purpose in a way that is not easily invalidated by external forces. For example with Thor, if his own self-worth is connected to the achievement of killing Thanos in time, then there is of course the possibility that he’d fail, and therefore causing very deep psychological damage.
Imagine setting the purpose of your life to winning the gold at the Olympics. You practice all your prime years to win, only to fall short. Not just that, but suddenly you’re too old to compete further, your goal now forever out of your reach, forever a failure. See how precarious this position is? There could be so many things that happen to prevent you from achieving this, which is why having a singular goal like this is problematic.
Design your own sense of purpose in a way that is not easily invalidated by external forces
Instead, you should recognise the possibility that you might not make it, and therefore ahead of time plan for the chance of failure. This is why many athletes study something else on the side – like science or engineering. They know eventually their careers will be over, and then they need to do something else. Or maybe they could get an injury – it happens to many people.
Having a sense of purpose that you can keep pursuing regardless of other people or what happens in the world makes you deeply resilient, since nothing can stop you. This is what Thor in his traumatised state forgot. And it’s something that I think Captain America remembered – that his purpose is to help and protect the people, and that’s why he fights. Meaning that, whoever is left, there’s still a reason for Cap to keep going and do whatever he can to help people. This is a resilient sense of purpose.
Meanwhile, Thor wanted to fight because of all he lost, and the hope to bring people back. This is not resilient, because failure would invalidate his sense of purpose. Even though there are still Asgardians left who needs him, Thor withdraws from them as his mental state declines.
Beyond the Unsnappening
After using alcohol to bribe Thor to join the mission (“There’s beer on the ship” “What kind?”), he sets off with a new hope to right what went wrong. Thor clearly isn’t who he used to be, as his PTSD muddles his thinking and his unconditioned physical state means he’s not nearly the fighter he used to be.
Better knowledge of how resilience works can help us understand when we might be at risk, and how to strengthen ourselves mentally
Using the magic of alternate universe time travel, the Avengers eventually beat Thanos #2, and Iron Man’s unsnappening restores the lost half of the universe. Since Thanos eliminated half of the remaining Asgardians while they were in space, I’m assuming the unsnap now caused them to re-appear where they were, meaning they are now floating in space waiting to be rescued. At least they can breathe in space, apparently? Umm, anyway...
Of course, most people that experience trauma don’t get a chance for a do-over, so let’s not try to cure PTSD with Pym particles and time travel. Instead, let’s seek help from those who can help (psychologists can really help!), and for everyone else, better knowledge of how resilience works can help us understand when we might be at risk, and how to strengthen ourselves mentally.
Still, we see some glimmers of hope for Thor as he begins facing the world again and joins Peter & co. By the end of the movie we haven’t seen yet that he’s built a new sense of purpose, other than to set out on a new adventure and see what’s out there – showing a change back to his old approach style – run towards your problems.
We’ll see more in the new Asgardians of the Galaxy where his journey takes him, and how he deals with what he’s been through. After all, it doesn’t need to be everyone’s purpose to save the universe.
When you’ve been through this much, sometimes just having the courage to face a new day head on, is meaningful enough.
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All the best,