Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame follow below.
The mega-hit Avengers: Endgame is a film full of cheer-out-loud moments for audiences, but one of the biggest crowd responses comes during the climactic battle, in a moment of payoff that’s been building for years. When Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is on the ropes and about to be pummeled by Thanos (Josh Brolin), his hammer Mjolnir comes whooshing by. But it doesn’t fly into Thor’s hands. Instead, it flies into Captain America’s (Chris Evans). And the crowd. goes. wild.
Thor’s magic hammer Mjolnir only comes to those who are worthy, and until now that has been only Thor. But longtime MCU fans will remember a humorous bit from Avengers: Age of Ultron in which all the Avengers are trying to lift the hammer, and Cap ever-so-slightly moves it. If that was the setup, this moment in Endgame is the payoff.
During a spoiler-filled interview on Josh Horowitz’s Happy Sad Confused podcast, directors Joe and Anthony Russo shed some light on this moment, with Joe Russo noting that the inspiration for it goes back to that bit in Age of Ultron:
“I think it goes all the way back to Ultron. I think everyone who’s a Marvel fan, in that moment where Cap tested the hammer, felt deep down in their heart that he was worthy and that he could potentially lift that, and boy wouldn’t it be special one day if he did. And obviously if you create drama around the circumstances of him wielding the hammer, and then kicking Thanos’ ass for 30 seconds after that, we felt like we could create a risible moment for the audience.”
But why was Captain America only now able to wield Thor’s hammer? What makes him worthy in Endgame and not before? According to Anthony Russo, he’s always been worthy, and during that moment in Age of Ultron, he stopped himself from lifting the hammer fully out of deference to Thor:
“In our heads he was able to wield it, and he didn’t know that until that moment Ultron when he tried to pick it up. But Cap’s sense of character and his sense of humility, sort of out of deference to Thor’s ego, you know Cap in that moment realizing he can move the hammer decides not to.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another is that he wasn’t truly worthy until he was honest with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about the fact that Bucky killed his parents—a secret he kept until the events of Captain America: Civil War. Whichever reasoning you prefer, the moment works tremendously in Avengers: Endgame and provided one of the most memorable theater-going experiences I’ve had in a long while.
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