The main cast of Thor: Love & Thunder walk in Omnipotent City

‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ Has a Terminal Case of Stage 4 ‘Movie Cancer’ Tropes

Give it to me straight, doc. How irritated am I gonna be?

***Major spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder***

Recommended Videos

Jane Foster is in the hospital. When we first see her she is pulled out of a CT machine. Next, she is in an infusion chair sitting beside a teenage boy. She is animated, almost manic, as she leans over and, using her IV arm, grabs his book and begins to tear pages out of it in order to physically demonstrate her argument about space-time theory. Flailing around as if she did not have a needle in her arm that could potentially rupture her vein. None of the machines, including the ones they are hooked up to, are on. Nothing beeps, nothing boops, nothing even lights up when she reaches up and squeezes her IV bag, trying to “jokingly” speed up her chemotherapy. 

This is when I, a person who has been battling cancer for the past six years, knew I was going to have some problems with Thor: Love and Thunder. 

You see, Jane Foster has cancer, but the film, as established in the very first minutes, seems to have no interest in what that actually means. Now, it might seem silly to get in a huff about how cancer is depicted in a Marvel movie. After all, it’s superheroes! And gods! And giant screaming goats that can fly on a rainbow bridge! Marvel movies are not known for being grounded in reality. It’s a comic book movie, so why expect more? 

Perhaps because the comics actually got it right. Not that there is one “right” cancer story, but they told a story that felt true to the character and was grounded in an emotional, specific reality. In the comics, Jane is diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, and her dilemma is that every time she uses Mjolnir and transforms into the Mighty Thor it purges all the toxins from her body, including the chemotherapy drug, leaving the cancer cells (which are made by her body) unharmed and intact. Jane’s dilemma is that she is forced to choose between helping people and saving her own life. And Jane, being a hero worthy of wielding Mjolnir, willingly sacrifices her life in order to save others. 

Thor: Love and Thunder decides to scrap most of that. Jane no longer specifically has breast cancer, she just has “cancer.” As if cancer is an illness that comes in a generic, all-encompassing form. And the reason that she is dying after she becomes the Mighty Thor is that Mjolnir is “sapping her of her mortal strength.” Which is not something I believe Mjolnir has ever done before? In fact, it feels counter-intuitive to the very premise of the weapon and its power! These are changes to an existing Marvel canon that make little sense. Why willingly make a story more vague? Why weaken a strong premise? I have many questions for Taika Waititi and most of them begin with “why?”

And then there is Jane’s behavior. As a cancer patient, I appreciate that Waititi wanted to avoid painting Jane as a fragile, bald, victim. That he did not want her to be an object of pity. She is not the martyr, lying in her hospital bed, as the protagonist weeps and is given his purpose. No! Instead, she is … the martyr, kicking a lot of ass and doling out sassy one-liners before collapsing in the protagonist’s arms as he weeps and is given his purpose. Ah well. At least she isn’t being pitied, I guess? The film pushed so hard against one cancer patient trope that it launched itself straight into another one. 

You see, just as there is no one, generic, “cancer” (cancer is actually an umbrella term for a mutation process that can affect different cells in a thousand different, harmful ways) there is no universal cancer patient. We exist in literally every demographic and age group. I have had infusions next to 90 year old veterans, middle aged soccer moms, custodians, corporate executives, grandmas, pizza delivery drivers, you name it. And we are all in different emotional stages of how we cope with the medical trauma of treating our disease. Unfortunately, entertainment has decided there are only three types of cancer patients. We can be: fragile, yet stoic, angry and destructive, or, the newest emerging trope (thanks to shows like Enlightened and The Big C) the tough, sassy white lady! To be fair, the majority of these tropes are also white ladies. Unless you’re the angry and destructive cancer patient in which case you are probably a grizzled white man! 

But the latter, the sassy trope, is the one that Jane Foster now finds herself in. This is a character who is so full of vim and vigor (and workshopped catchphrases) that you only know she is sick when she tells you. She brushes off every attempt at concern with a pithy joke. She is a woman of action and she does not have time for any of this medical nonsense! (Even though she is a scientist and probably should have a profound respect for and understanding of the work that goes into the medical and biological sciences). She doesn’t want to deal with her illness, and she doesn’t want those around her to deal with it either. The sassiness is, essentially, another form of stoicism, a trope deployed to lessen the discomfort of the audience. If she is laughing and cracking jokes, then it must not be that bad right? (I write this as someone who deploys jokes as my go to defense mechanism, laughing into the void and what have you.)

They eventually slap some greying, sick person makeup on her near the end of the film, but for someone who has been in chemo for 6 months, she has no other side effects. She doesn’t suffer from hair loss, or neuropathy, or nausea, or brain fog, or even any side effects from the cancer cells spreading throughout her body. And as a result, Natalie Portman’s performance of Jane feels unmoored and shallow. There is no interiority. There is no sense of any illness or weakness living in this character’s body when she is not in her Thor drag. We get one brief moment where she smashes a sink in frustration and then the film brushes past it, back to the action. We never see her drop the mask and wrestle with her mortality. We never see that her sassiness is a shield meant to protect herself and her loved ones. That inside her there is fear and anger and pain. 

Natalie Portman as Jane Foster in 'Thor: Love and Thunder'.

And that ties back to not giving her an actual cancer. When someone has, say, breast cancer, there are go-to chemos with known side effects. There is usually a mastectomy. There is most likely going to be hair loss. And nausea, and debilitating pain and fatigue. These are all actable symptoms, even for—especially for—a character that is trying her best to avoid them. I mean, they couldn’t even stick a fake port on her chest, or a bandage where one would be (something that even that Grey’s Anatomy writer could manage!) There are no physical or emotional guide posts in the script for Portman to use and so she floats through the movie like a two dimensional paper doll. When Thor tries to offer her a platitude about her illness, she quips “Spoken like a Thor who doesn’t have cancer” and the irony of that line being delivered in this movie that is using its cancer plot so poorly nearly caused me to ascend straight to Valhalla. I felt like I had been slain in battle.

Because the film has only a superficial interest in Jane’s cancer, Jane herself feels superficial. Even her final decision to go help Thor, knowing it will kill her, feels underwhelming. She’s sassy and strong, and the only indication that she is sick and dying is that occasionally she falls down. Which I think speaks to the problem at the heart of the film. It wants to be a silly comedy, but it also wants to juggle heavier themes like death and grief and duty, and it doesn’t know how to merge them together. Which is surprising because I have seen both Marvel and Waititi successfully walk that tightrope (Marvel just recently with Spider-Man: No Way Home and Waititi with Hunt for the Wilder People and even Thor: Ragnarok.)

I think, really, that Waititi just wasn’t that interested. He wanted to make a film about finding purpose in fatherhood and all the rest of it was just the Marvel required chaff he had to slice through before he got to his main goal. There is no interest in Jane’s arc (or Valkyrie’s for that matter) and so there is no time for her to actually be sick, for her to grapple with the consequences of using Mjolnir, for her to do anything other than die so that her ex-boyfriend can be a single dad. 

(Image: Marvel)

The Mary Sue is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy
Image of Brittany Knupper
Brittany Knupper
Brittany is a lifelong Californian (it's a big state, she can't find her way out!) who currently resides in sunny Los Angeles with her gigantic, vaguely cat-shaped companion Gus. If you stumble upon her she might begin proselytizing about Survivor, but give her an iced coffee and she will calm down.