Validation is hard to come by in life. Am I on the right path? Am I living to my fullest potential? Doubt clouds our minds daily and can sometimes prevent us from accomplishing the littlest of tasks, let alone the great big challenging monuments that undoubtedly present themselves along our journey. The idea that a person could discover their worth through a mystical tool is an appealing concept and one that populates many mythologies. If only my ability to lift my trusty Swear Trek coffee mug to my face every day confirmed my baller status, then I could vanquish any nefarious co-worker or dastardly financial obstacle. Alas, that ceramic cup was not forged by dwarves looking to impress the All-Father.
Mjölnir, the short-handled hammer born in the heart of a dying star, comes complete with instructions inscribed on its surface. “Whosoever holds this hammer,” it reads. “If he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” The enchantment was placed there by Odin as a means to keep his unruly, hot-tempered son in line. Stray from my wisdom, and I’ll strip you of your supposed well-earned gifts. To follow in my footsteps, you must be more than rage and bluster.
Thor’s first solo adventure was a crucial outing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Kenneth Branagh established the magic of gods into a realm occupied by billionaire scientists and selfless super soldiers. The film addressed Odin’s disgust for Thor as he charged into battle against the Frost Giants with no thought of the hellish consequence such an action might mean for the people of Asgard. Labeled unworthy, Thor plummets to Midgard (Earth) with nothing but his looks and alien charm to guide him. He can only wield Mjölnir again after he places his life before others and accepts an end in exchange for humanity’s continuation. With hammer in hand, he saves the day from his step-brother’s treacherous jealousy, banishing him to the hateful acceptance of Thanos.
As long as Mjölnir is in his grip, Thor knows his place in the universe. The hammer’s approval is a warm embrace from Odin and a symbol of parental approval, which is most definitely conditional. Therefore, only the God of Thunder should be able to sling that sledge’, right? Well, no. There are a few other individuals noble enough for the honor. Why is that?
Say what you will about Age of Ultron (it’s great), Joss Whedon cleverly establishes the blind trust of The Vision by elevating his status above the other Avengers when he effortlessly passes Mjölnir to Thor as they ready for Sokovian war. Earlier in the movie, we see the team struggle with the Asgardian party trick. None can lift the spellbound object, although Steve Rogers gives it a little budge, much to Thor’s concern. They play off their inability to raise the hammer from the coffee table, and they certainly scoff at the notion of Thor’s worthiness. Point Break has a pretty mean swing, but the self-proclaimed god is no better than them. Except Mjölnir’s willingness to travel in his hand actually confirms that ego.
In witnessing The Vision hoist Mjölnir, the Avengers cease their bickering over Stark’s second attempt at a benevolent A.I. As Odin decrees, The Vision is one of the good guys. Please assemble next to us, Mr. Robot. He is a pure creature; a newborn synthetic being that instantly calculates the value of humanity and chooses our salvation as his first action in life. Selfless. Worthy.
Are the other Avengers not selfless? Tony Stark has probably struggled with ego since his inception. He made great personal strides throughout the first two Iron Man films and even accomplished the sacrifice play when he guided a nuclear warhead away from New York City and into a wormhole at the end of The Avengers. Still, many of his brilliant fixes led to further heartache. His “I got this” attitude bore Ultron which led to catastrophic doubt, a desperate desire for oversight, and mistrust in his cohorts. Stark takes on the burden of the world, drawing the origin of all its ills back to himself. The one-time war profiteer can never shake the shame of the misdeeds that set him on this path in the first place.
Bruce Banner is not a whole person. He boiled his rage into the Hulk, and every waking thought is put to controlling that dark half of his personality. His arc revolves around understanding the monster within and finding a purpose for the emotion rather than dominance. Harmony between brain and brawn brings Banner closer to nirvana, but his chief desire will always revolve around understanding this relationship, therefore forbidding him from a life of altruism.
Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton have a lot of red in their ledger. God knows how many corpses are stacked beneath them. “Whatever it takes” was their mantra well before Avengers: Endgame kicked off, and such cold logic stems from a willingness to damn themselves. They’re not worthy of the life they’ve been given, and you’re sure as hell not either. Their quick draw ability is fate’s ultimate condemnation. You’re dead, I’m alive, I win.
Steve Rogers seems like the definition of selflessness. Unable to cope with the idea that other Americans were laying down their lives while he rested on his laurels prompted him to volunteer for the super soldier program. He idolized his parents for devoting their lives to one of service, and he had no right to do any less. He put his life and his love for Peggy Carter second to everyone else when he piloted the Red Skull’s flying wing into the Arctic Ocean. So, why does Mjölnir budge but not lift in Age of Ultron?
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rogers learns that his only friend in the world, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, survived his fall from Arnim Zola’s train. While Cap was dozing in the ice, Bucky was operating as a brainwashed tool of the Cold War, killing on behalf of Hydra or whatever evil organization could afford his services. For the patriotic G.I. Joe, it’s a fate worse than death, and one Rogers cannot allow to stand. Going forward, Rogers’ mission becomes a person, not all people.
↓Avengers: Endgame Spoilers Below↓
So, what changes between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Endgame? When Thanos begins to drive Stormbreaker into Thor’s chest, and a Titanic victory seems inevitable, why does the time-displaced Mjölnir respond to the will of Steve Rogers? Does the Uru hammer simply appreciate the opportunity for a One Perfect Shot, or has there been an actual shift in the character of Captain America?
The events of Captain America: Civil War expose a great sin. When Rogers learned that mind-controlled Bucky was responsible for the assassination of Howard and Maria Stark, he buried that knowledge from teammate Stark. Rogers can act high and mighty regarding the Sokovian accords, calling them a slippery slope to the theft of human rights, but the fact that he would put Bucky’s freedom above others indicates a deep distrust and a selfish desire to maintain his childhood friendship.
The dark revelation tears Rogers and Stark apart, disbanding The Avengers and dividing their potential might by the time Thanos returns to New York City in Avengers: Infinity War. This pain only festers inside Rogers during his tour underground. The feeling is mutual from Stark’s point of view.
The Snap changes everything. Upon Stark’s return to Earth, he rips his nano-armor from his chest, forces it into Rogers’ hand and tells him to put it on and hide. “No trust,” he spits. “Liar.” Five years later, a lifetime is lived on a cabin by a lake. Stark and Pepper Potts have a child. In that little one’s life, Stark finds rejuvenation and realizes that resentment is only corrosive. He is now able to forgive Rogers for the truth he withheld, and in that forgiveness, Rogers is freed as well.
The big three are united on the battlefield: Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America. All of creation is on the line as Thanos reevaluates his original plan of halving sentient life. The Avengers attack him, bashing him with shield, hammer, and repulsors. With the cosmos threatened, Tony Stark knocked unconscious, and Thor inches from death, Mjölnir judges Captain America as worthy and answers to the star-spangled man with a plan. At that moment, Steve Rogers is utterly selfless, his only worry is the restoration of life. He is not acting out of vanity or vengeance. He is an agent of Eternity. You’re damn right Odin approves.