“We know each other! He’s a friend from work!” Those lines from the new Thor: Ragnarok trailer have already entered the pop culture canon. Chris Hemsworth as Thor just looks so darn excited and cheerful to discover that his gladiator death-battle is with his good buddy, the Incredible Hulk. And when he realizes Hulk is in fact going to try to beat him up, his response isn’t anger or fear, but just resigned exasperation: “Oh, come on,” he says in his blokey Australian accent. Bested by Goth Cate Blanchett as the evil Hela, his home destroyed, forced to battle the most powerful creature in the universe while wearing a goofy helmet, Hemsworth reacts with a kind of incredulous bonhomie. Surely the universe wouldn’t do that? He’s so hopeful. It’s charming.
That adorableness is a big part of Hemsworth’s unique appeal. Oh, sure, the giant biceps and world class physique haven’t hurt his popularity. But what makes him the most enjoyable male superhero who isn’t Robert Downey, Jr. isn’t primarily the good looks. It’s the way he carries the good looks alongside a winning, imperturbable self-confidence, which is half oblivious and half intentional self-parody. He’s the Marilyn Monroe of superdudes — just exactly as aware of how hot he is as you want him to be. This is why the 2016 Ghostbusters casting of Hemsworth as vacuous secretary Kevin was so pitch perfect. Even when he’s pretending to be too dumb to figure out the hold button on the phone, Hemsworth radiates self-deprecating intelligence. He’s so utterly assured of his likeability he can cheerfully let himself be the dunderheaded foil for the women leads. Again, it’s adorable. Also hot. Every creature on the sexuality spectrum can recognize this as being attractive, point blank.
Affable swagger seems like a natural manly fit for actors playing superheroes. But almost no one these days but Hemsworth even tries to pull it off. Instead, most superhero guys are presented as wounded assholes, who charm, supposedly, through neediness, rather than self-sufficiency. Robert Downey, Jr.’s bluster and braggadocio as Iron Man is supposed to be a cover for guilt, uncertainty, and feelings of inadequacy. Chris Pratt’s bluster and braggadocio as Star Lord is supposed to be a cover for…well, being Chris Pratt. You know the drill.
The recent Spider-Man: Homecoming trailers provides a straightforward blueprint for the archetype. The first trailer opens with Tom Holland as Spidey declaring, “This is my chance to prove myself!” The second trailer has lots of angst about whether Peter Parker saved people in the requisite fashion. He quips, he whines, he quips, he whines, he states: “I’ve just gotta do this on my own.” Paul Rudd in Ant Man or Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr. Strange or the soulfully morose Henry Cavill as Superman could all relate. Everybody has to learn life lessons; everybody has to self-actualize. Everybody has to become a man. It’s what superheroes do.
Watching whiny jerks become men is meant to be engaging, sexy and/or exciting. You’re encouraged to root for those inadequate doofuses to become adequate. And given the success of the formula at the box office, it seems clear many people do in fact enjoy rooting for the inadequate doofuses. It can get kind of repetitive, though — enough so that Hemsworth’s Thor, throughout his films, is a breath of fresh thunder-godding.
What’s different, though, is Hemsworth, who just never actually seems like he’s inadequate, even for a moment.
Naturally, Thor has his own tragic backstories and sad failings to overcome of course. He’s got daddy issues with Odin and a troubled past with his brother Loki. The Asgardian as a character isn’t really written that differently than all the other heroes with their wounds and their whining.
What’s different, though, is Hemsworth, who just never actually seems like he’s inadequate, even for a moment. The Ragnarok trailer opens with a gratuitous and obvious castration scene; Thor throws his mighty hammer/penis substitute at Hela, who catches it and then crushes it, as Hemsworth looks on with disbelief and concern. Having the source of your power casually destroyed, by a woman no less, might make some dudes check themselves…at least momentarily. But in basically the next scene in the trailer we see Thor, cheerful as ever, walk up to a group of unknown entities with a friendly, “Hi there!” as if he’s got nothing to fear in the world. (Spoiler: He does.)
Note that, in a lot of ways, Hemsworth is a throwback to an era of less self-doubting superheroes. Adam West as Batman in the 1968 TV series was never at a loss whether fending sharks off his Batcopter or engaging in an improbable surf-off with the Joker. Christopher Reeve as Superman also projected amused self-certainty, even when stumbling about as Clark Kent.
It’s no coincidence that both West and Reeve were sex symbols in their own day, notwithstanding West’s noticeable paunch and very un-Hemsworth-like physique. Superguys who are trying to prove themselves are fragile and need constant reassurance and pats on the head: for example, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) has to spend all her time in Ant-Man trying to convince Paul Rudd he’s good enough to be a hero, rather than getting to be a hero herself. Adam West’s Batman, though, has all his own Batgear in place — which is presumably why all the Bat villainesses keep throwing themselves at him.
Like the 1968 Batman, Thor’s assurance can be a little overdone, as when he smashes his coffee mug to the floor in the first film and demands another. (“This drink, I like it. Another! Crash!”) But when Jane (Natalie Portman) tells him he is violating earth social etiquette, he doesn’t get cranky or mad or defensive. He just tells her he won’t do it again, like you’d expect from a more-or-less functional adult. He even seems pleased at the chance to help her out. He may be the only one of the DC/Marvel cast you might actually want to hang out with — and not mind if your girlfriend has a crush on, because you honestly kind of do, too. Which makes you human.
In playing Thor, Hemsworth almost always seems pleased. Not in a smug, I’m-better-than-you, Cumberbatch-as-Sherlock way, but in a, being-in-movies-and-doing-super-stuff-or-even-just-smashing-a-coffee-cup-is-really-a-blast way. Destroy his hammer, drop him on a prison planet, give him a bad hair cut; Thor’s still happy with himself. Hemsworth doesn’t need to self-actualize; in his bluff, bumbling way, he’s self-actualized already. That’s why, hammer or not, he’s still the hunk of man to watch.