Superhero movies often have very clear-cut distinctions between good and evil, and who the protagonist and the antagonist are. After all, it is quite clear that Batman is on our side and the Joker isn’t. The Avengers, despite their internal fissures, are right when they band together to defeat Thanos. Heroes can mess up and make bad choices, but they usually learn from their mistakes and fight for the greater good.
But certain characters are more morally grey and sometimes pretty hard to classify. Case in point being Marvel’s Loki who’s finally getting his own show after nearly a decade’s worth of fans begging for it.
Loki’s always been selfish, mischievous and up to no good- yet despite all the chaos in him, he has also been occasionally heroic. The series is set to bring out the different sides of his complex character.
Yet, within the MCU itself, Loki’s character arc has gone through a number of revisions, some of which have angered the fans. In Thor (2011), we are introduced to him as Thor’s brother, who’s always been in the shadow of Asgard’s golden boy. Later when Thor is banished to Earth and Loki plays the acting ruler, he discovers that he never truly belonged to Asgard: he’s a Frost Giant who was left to die and adopted by Odin as a future bargaining chip. This realization tips him to the dark side, for by the end of the film, he’s hell-bent on committing genocide and defeating Thor in the misguided hope to win Odin’s approval.
By the time we meet him in Avengers, he’s become a formidable villain, ambitious for a realm to rule. We find out that he’s been colluding with Thanos (the Big Bad) and he brings an alien army to earth and feeds discord among the Avengers until he is stopped. Yet while Thor tries to reason with him mid-combat, the flicker in Loki’s eyes suggests he isn’t completely in control. Later, Marvel confirmed that Thanos was in fact influencing and guiding Loki’s violent behavior.
In Thor: The Dark World (2013), Loki gets significantly less screen-time but we finally see him getting a redemption arc. Thor breaks him out of prison, and to avenge the death of Frigga, Loki shares the knowledge of secret pathways, fights the dark elves alongside Thor, and even protects Jane Foster from harm. We are led to believe he dies a heroic death in Svartleheim until the very last scene where we find out he’s faked his death to impersonate Odin and rule the throne of Asgard.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017) explores his playful and mischievous side, and his sibling rivalry with Thor but at the cost of regressing his character arc. As a ruler, he seems to encourage theatre and the arts, but he’s slack and inattentive to the threats brewing in the galaxy. He’s up to the same usual tricks, betrays Thor at every opportunity, yet in the end, makes a dramatic heroic comeback to save Asgard. It directly leads to the opening of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) where Loki tries to unsuccessfully trick Thanos and sacrifices himself for his brother, bringing an unsatisfying end to his character arc.
Or did it?
In Avengers: Endgame (2019), when the Avengers travel back in time, a younger Loki makes off with the tesseract and ends up working for the mysterious Time Variance Authority (TVA). It is this new story that the Loki series is set to explore, which we hope will finally do his character justice.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been a more compelling character than Thor. Although pitched as a villain, he is more of an anti-hero, misguided, lonely, and forced to survive with his wits alone. He does terrible things to win his father’s love, and when he fails, he literally and figuratively let’s go. Yet his fall from the Bifrost doesn’t kill him- he is captured by Thanos and sent to earth on a mission, leading the viewer to question just how much agency and choice the character really has. Is Loki really culpable for his actions?
It’s not the first time Marvel has experimented with the reversal of the villain role. The Winter Soldier is clearly the antagonist in the second Captain America film, having been programmed by the HYDRA to kill. Yet, Steve never stops believing in Bucky, and in the following movies and most recently in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we watch Bucky heal from his trauma and make amends.
When Loki is free from Thanos’ control, we see him help Thor but only when it suits him. After avenging his mother’s death, he’s back to his obsession with ruling Asgard. Thor: Ragnarok suggests Loki was a bad ruler, whose mischief is predictable and whose combat and magical skills are severely downplayed to make room for Thor’s masculinity and heroism to shine. From being a formidable anti-hero, he becomes the butt of jokes. Loki who constantly stole the show from Thor in all the previous Thor movies appears deliberately dumbed-down as the scriptwriters seemed to not know what to do with him. In Avengers: Infinity War, they finally give him a hasty death so that he doesn’t steal the limelight from Thanos and the Avengers.
It is these inconsistencies in his character arc that point to a need for Loki to have his own show. He’s more than just a foil for Thor, and his character offers a wonderful opportunity to explore issues of trauma, identity, loyalty, agency, power, and marginalization.
Scholars have had endless debates whether Loki of the Norse myths was indeed a villain, or if he (as a trickster figure) subscribes to a different form of morality, by constantly trying to expose and put down those in power. Loki of the myths is marvelously fluid, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of his motivations: he gets the Aesir into trouble but also gets them out, thereby revealing their shortcomings. Similarly, Loki’s actions in the Marvel movies make the viewers question the heroism and morality of the Avengers themselves. As a trickster and an underdog, he subscribes to no higher ideal but himself. His victories make us admire his cunning and intelligence but his failures are equally important, serving as cautionary tales.
As such, Loki defies categorization and exemplifies chaos.
Perhaps the new series might finally tell Loki’s stories on his own terms (or at least, part of the story), reinstating the comic book character to his mythic roots, while also delving into his character growth. By having him explore different realities and timelines, it might allow one version (or variant) of Loki to finally confront his past actions and choices, leading to greater self-awareness and understanding. It might also return to him the agency that Odin and Thanos took away from him, and a chance to not be defined by his relationship to Thor- with a script that does his complex characterization justice.
Perhaps, this is the story where Loki finally gets to be a hero. (Or not).
Perhaps this is the story where Loki finally gets to be who he is- the God of Mischief- on his own terms.
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