A lot of people seem to have Marvel movie fatigue right now; I know I do. (The exception, of course, is the freshness of the recent Oscar nominations and wins of Black Panther. Let me just go on a rabbit trail for a second and say that as a movie music geek, I was excited to see the baby-faced 34-year-old Ludwig Goransson accept the Best Original Score award for that film. We need some fresh blood in that category, and Goransson’s musically eclectic and emotionally on-point score deserved the win.) Anyway, although many of us are getting tired of keeping track of who has what stone and why, I’ve noticed that my students’ eyes still light up when I mention my favorite Marvel character, Loki (and I mention him more often than is strictly necessary in any college English class). So I trust I will not try your patience if I use this post to test out some ideas on a paper about Loki that I am editing for presentation at a conference this Friday. I originally wrote the paper a few years ago as a chapter, which was ultimately not selected, for an edited collection. It’s 15 pages long, and I need to cut it to almost half that length–while also including some observations on Thor: Ragnarok, which hadn’t been released when I wrote the chapter. So in the next few paragraphs, I’m going to see if I can sketch out my main points briefly and interestingly. Any feedback would be appreciated.
My primary premise is that Loki, as he appears in the Marvel movies (not in traditional Norse myths, where he is quite a different character), is motivated primarily by his desire for respect–or, at bare minimum, attention–from Odin, the adoptive father whom he claims to hate but whose opinion he clearly cares about. My secondary premise is that Loki’s craving for attention manifests itself in his performative behavior. This is where the Marvel character does align with the Norse sort-of-deity: Loki is a shape-shifter, and in the movies, his shape-shifting demonstrates that he will try anything in order to gain an audience. (And although Odin is his primary desired audience, any audience can fulfill his need to some extent.)
This relational dynamic is established in the first film Loki appears in, Thor, which draws from the quasi-Shakespearean world of the classic The Mighty Thor comics and plays to the strengths of director Kenneth Branagh. In its storytelling and staging, this film establishes what I call a Shakespearean inheritance triangle, in which Thor–even during his period of exile on Earth–is consistently portrayed as the biological, legitimate, and/or older son, to whom the kingship legally belongs, while Loki is consistently portrayed as the adopted, illegitimate, and/or younger son. Literally, in terms of the story, it’s unclear which brother is older, and Loki isn’t actually illegitimate, but all of these tropes come into play in the character’s portrayal. With his sardonic humor, intellectual arrogance, and dread of humiliation, Loki fits perfectly within the tradition of the Shakespearean bastard. At the end of this movie, the “triangle” is broken when Loki lets go of Thor’s hand and falls into the abyss, and from this point on, he is “out” as an antagonist.
And he plays this antagonist role with great relish in his next film, The Avengers, in which director Joss Whedon clearly sets up Loki in the role of the supervillain even as he blurs the line between good guys and bad guys. This is the film in which Tony Stark refers to Loki as “a full-tilt diva,” and if I had time I could offer a detailed analysis of the ways in which Loki uses New York City and even the world as his stage (hey! another Shakespeare reference).
I’m going to stop here because this post is getting really long. I may do a Part 2 later this week. I just this moment had a great thought about the scene at the end of Thor: The Dark World in which Loki takes on the form of Odin. And I have some thoughts about the poignant scene in Thor: Ragnarok in which Odin passes from this world with equally loving words for both of his sons. But more on that later. Tell me your thoughts so I can steal your ideas! (just kidding about the stealing)