As early news for 2012’s The Avengers began to spread, we learned (much like in the comics) the villain who would unite these heroes for the first time was a familiar face. Loki Laufeyson had survived his self-imposed fall from the Bifrost at the end of 2011’s Thor and would be leading a Chitauri invasion force to take Earth as his own. This had two major implications for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First, most obviously, it gave the Avengers a reason to form. Second, it showed the MCU was finally ready to depart from the default/cliché ending to almost every superhero movie ever. A villain had lived! This would be a game changer. In allowing Loki’s character to evolve (over the course of five films by the time Avengers: Infinity War hits), fans have been able to embrace him as Tom Hiddleston has built an engaging, complicated, and evolving character.
I don’t know if it’s more often the result of lack of imagination on the part of the screenwriter or something dark buried deep within audiences that makes us long for this sort of conclusion, but so many of the superhero movies we’ve had through the years end with the death of the main villain. In addition to conveying a bleak meta-message (good can only triumph by destroying that which opposes it), it dismisses one of the fundamental tropes of comic books. The villains survive so they can battle the hero again and again and again. This is just the way comics work. It allows talented writers to continue the evolution of a villain over the years…and it also keeps them from having to constantly invent new adversaries in a medium that is expected to put out a new story every month for decades.
This was something the DC/WB people (or at least Christopher Nolan and David Goyer) managed to understand before Marvel Studios. As Jon Favreau had Iron Man battling Obadiah Stain’s Iron Monger to the death in 2008’s Iron Man, Christopher Nolan left the Joker dangling from a building in The Dark Knight where he promised the Batman, “You and I are destined to do this forever.” With the tragic death of Heath Ledger, we’d never see more of his iconic take on the character. But the potential was there. With Loki, Marvel decided to give this a try too…and I feel I can safely speak for the majority of fans when I say I’m glad they did!
Obviously, part of the reason we all love Loki so much is because of Tom Hiddleston. He is a charismatic and talented actor who balances Loki’s conniving, ruthlessness, and raw ambition with his wit, charm, and snark in a way that makes it pretty impossible not to like him. He’s also, to be direct about it, a pretty good lookin’ dude. I’ll never forget the opening night of Thor: The Dark World. My brother and I have been to the first showing on opening night of every Marvel movie and it was David who pointed out the difference in the crowd in our theatre for Thor: The Dark World to me. It was obvious – from the t-shirts/merch being worn and showcased to the conversations we heard or participated in in line and in the theatre – this crowd wasn’t made up entirely (or even primarily) of comic fans. The bulk of the crowd was there because they loved Chris Hemsworth AND Tom Hiddleston. It was the actors and their roles, more than the allure of a comic book coming to life, that was pulling the majority of these people in.
This was a testament to their acting (as well as their gorgeousness) but it was also a testament to how these movies were continuing to grow far beyond their comic roots. There were an increasing number of Marvel movie fans who may never have read a comic. But it was more than the attractiveness of Hemsworth and Hiddleston that earned them such a devoted following. It was the characters they had created. People didn’t just want more Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. They wanted more Thor and Loki!
It makes sense too. If we look at Loki’s trajectory over the course of the MCU so far, we see he’s far from a one note character, just another cackling villain. In Thor, tired of always living in Thor’s shadow, he looks to upset his brother’s big day…mostly for funsies. With Loki’s help, during Thor’s would-be coronation as the new King of Asgard, Frost Giants invade and chaos breaks loose. He goads his brother into invading Jotunheim, learning he is not really Loki Odinson but rather Loki Laufeyson – the abandoned child of the Frost Giant king – in the process. Using Thor’s exile and the sudden onset of the Odin Sleep, he makes a bid for the thrown. When it fails, he seeks to “take the world [Thor] loves as recompense” in The Avengers.
The Avengers doesn’t end with Loki dead but in chains, allowing for his return in Thor: The Dark World. Now, I know this isn’t seen as one of the MCU’s strongest entries. And, for the most part, I’d agree. But Tom Hiddleston provides rich layers to the God of Mischief and Lies. We see Loki honestly hurt by the death of his mother. We see him willingly aid Thor in saving Jane, attempting to destroy the Aether, and taking the battle to Malekith. Sure, he fakes his own death and makes another (successful) move for the throne of Asgard but even here we see development.
When Thor comes to Odin (who’s really Loki in disguise) at the end of the film, he tells his father he is unwilling to take the throne. Instead, he will continue to protect the Nine Realms but only as their champion, not their king. Thor wants to return to Earth to be with Jane (and, presumably, the Avengers). Odin (who’s really Loki) supports his son and says he’s proud of him for who he’s become. Now, did Loki want Thor out of the way? Sure. But he could’ve easily been a huge dick about it. Odin (real Odin) often is! Instead, he gave his brother praise as their less-than-warm-and-fuzzy-father. And when Thor offers Odin (who, again, is really Loki) Mjölnir since he won’t be staying in Asgard, Odin (who’s really Loki) turns it down. I mean, Loki couldn’t lift it. That goes without saying. But he could’ve had Thor put it in Asgard’s weapons vault or something and then he’d’ve stripped Thor of one of the universe’s most powerful weapons AND he’d have his brother out of his hair. Instead, he tells Thor to keep the hammer and reaffirms his worthiness. All of this is to underscore that he was nicer than he had to be (or maybe even nicer than Odin would have been) in regard to Thor. He resents Thor. He envies Thor. Yet he willingly maintains a relationship with him, even helping him (in his own way).
We see this in Thor: Ragnarök too! Loki comes to Thor when he’s imprisoned on Sakaar and outlines a plan to ingratiate Thor with the Grandmaster (as he himself has done) and then they can slowly bide their time until an escape opportunity presents itself. Thor rejects it (obviously) because it focuses on their survival at the expense of Asgard. But it’s important to note that Loki was already in the Grandmaster’s favor and he looked to help his brother too. Loki could’ve just left Thor! But he went to his brother to try and help him escape (again, in his own way). Did he try to betray him? Well, he is Loki after all :). But, in the end, he made his choice to stand with The, um, Revengers Thor, Valkyrie, and the Hulk and fight for Asgard. Yay!
Now, I know in the one trailer for Avengers: Infinity War it LOOKS like Loki is handing Thanos the Tesseract (or the Space Stone, to start getting used to the Infinity Stone lingo). And I know we’ve seen Loki do some pretty shady shit in the name of self-preservation before. But I don’t care. As I read the Harry Potter series, I always, always, always, always believed in Severus Snape. I feel the same about Loki!
But, at the end of the day, these questions – Is Loki good? Is he bad? – are sort of missing the bigger picture. We want to know a character’s moral orientation so we can root for them, especially if we love that character (or the actor who portrays them). That’s why we, as fans, sometimes root for redemption when it’s clear it won’t happen/it would be a perversion of the nature of the character if it did (think Kylo Ren). So we as fans are eager to see if Loki’s “good” or “bad” but, more than anything, he is a complex and dynamic character. He’s more than just good or bad. We all are! That’s what makes him so compelling; we can see a bit of ourselves in him. And he’s only been able to grow and evolve because Marvel Studios has had the foresight not to kill him off. This illustrates the wisdom in comic books not killing the villains after every major battle. We get to see them grow just as we see the heroes grow! In so doing, we find more and more to connect/resonate with, more to explore and ponder, in these characters.
As the MCU has grown, the complexity of their villains has grown too. And the more complex they are, the more fascinating they are to behold! For me, the two most brilliant villains the MCU has given us so far are Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes (the Vulture) and Black Panther’s N’Jadaka (Erik Killmonger). They were brutal in their actions but I could completely understand their motivations. Here were men who’ve resorted to the only means they see available to them for a better life. My heart ached for them while I simultaneously feared them. Michael Keaton’s Toomes was the most incredibly crafted part of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka was a stirring and central piece of Black Panther, a breathtaking movie that redefined what a superhero film could be and what one could do. They are a far cry from Tim Roth’s hey-I-want-to-be-able-to-punch-more-things-harder-too Abomination from The Incredible Hulk or Jeff Bridges’ hey-I-like-money-and-don’t-care-if-people-die-as-long-as-I-get-more-of-it Iron Monger in the original Iron Man.
With greater and greater weight being added to both the characterizations and the performances behind these villains, the wisdom in letting the MCU’s approach to Loki become the rule and not the exception is clear. I’m not saying every villain should have the potential for redemption in their story arc. Nor am I saying every villain should live to menace another day. But can you imagine what Michael Keaton or Michael B. Jordan could create with Vulture or Killmonger if they had the chance to play them across five films, as Tom Hiddleston has done with Loki? My heart beats faster just thinking about it!
Personally, my favorite villain the MCU’s given us so far is Karen Gillan’s Nebula. She dominated my attention in every scene she had in Guardians Of The Galaxy and then Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 did so much by way of developing her character. She was one of my favorite parts of the movie! We began to see the real hurt and pain her relationship with both Thanos and Gamora have caused her. And we see how those scars have helped shape her. There is SO MUCH to explore in her character. I am beyond excited to see what Avengers: Infinity War holds for Nebula and Gamora and I hope we still have much more of her to see in Avengers 4 and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3!
The reason I can hope for at least five films with Nebula, the reason I can dream about more development with the Vulture or any of the villains Marvel’s introduced, is because Tom Hiddleston’s proven how effective an approach this can be with Loki. He was given the chance to come back and I don’t think The Avengers could have worked half as well without him. In fact, I can’t imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe without him. Nor would I want to and, thankfully, we don’t have to.