So it’s been a while and I promised that I’d do a non-DC villain, so let’s take a look at the MCU’s Loki.
I’ve been stalling on doing this one for a while because, well, Marvel film villains tend to be less complicated than their DC counterparts. Anyone who disagrees with this is welcome to tell me so; after they go and re-watch Thor the Dark World. When you have an otherwise excellent movie with a villain whose entire motivation is literally ‘it’s too damn bright in here’, you may need to take a step back and review writing characters 101.
But if there is one MCU villain who bucks this trend (to be fair, Ultron does as well, but I’ll cover him once I’ve got the DVD to review) it’s Thor’s step brother. What makes Loki so popular amongst audiences (besides Tom Hiddlestone’s charisma) is that his initial motivation and his enduring hang-ups are relatable. He also functions as a surprisingly powerful piece of social commentary on a certain mind-set that causes a great deal of harm in society, but we’ll get to that later.
First of all, let’s take a look at Loki’s background. Odin raised his two sons in a way that only benefitted Thor. Early on, Odin tells the two of them that only one of them can take the throne of Asgard. Loki isn’t exactly built to thrive in the boisterous warrior culture of Asgard. You could compare it to an introverted, chess playing kid in an extroverted, sports loving family. In fact, that’s almost exactly what Loki’s situation is. While Loki may be strong enough to throw Captain America around, he’s pretty scrawny by Asgardian standards and has no innate love of direct combat. He is hugely gifted at the illusionary powers he learns from Freya, but lacks the combat skill that she also has in spades.
It’s not simply that he’s being raised in a culture that doesn’t suit him; Thor is clearly the favourite of both Odin and Freya. While they genuinely love their adoptive son, there’s no doubt that Thor takes a higher priority. The only contention between Thor and Odin is Thor’s growing ego and even this isn’t a major issue until he breaks the truce with the frost giants. Meanwhile, Freya’s preference is made clear at the climax of the film when Thor breaks his banishment and accuses Loki of treason, deception and being a general troublemaker. As far as Freya knows, Loki has been a dutiful and responsible son and has just saved Odin’s life. Meanwhile, Thor was banished after almost starting a war and throwing a massive tantrum. In spite of having no sound reason to believe Thor over Loki, she starts seriously questioning the latter.
So Loki is already insecure about his position in his family and has been presented with a future that sees him in his brother’s shadow forever. The tipping point is when Loki discovers that he’s adopted from Asgard’s ancient enemies no less. All of a sudden, everything makes sense; no wonder they love his egotistical oafish brother more than him.
What you need to understand about Loki, is that he’s come to identify himself as the wronged victim. It becomes a core part of his personality and it influences all of his actions throughout the films. This relates to the social commentary I mentioned above; it’s a dynamic you see all around the world in all sorts of cultures. A person who is suffering can come to identify themselves as the victim or the ‘good guy’. This identification becomes so ingrained that it becomes ‘who they are’. And when you believe yourself to be the good guy by default, then whatever you choose to do is automatically the right thing to do.
Loki is desperate to surpass Thor and escape his shadow and it is his unwavering belief that what he does is justified, that causes his motive decay. He becomes obsessed with Asgard’s throne because getting to sit on it symbolises having surpassed Thor. His plan to murder his biological father to save his adoptive one allows him to sever ties with his unwanted past. It also has the added benefit of (in his mind) beating Thor by achieving what he couldn’t.
Of course, that plan fails and does so in the worst possible way for the prospect of redeeming Loki. Odin gently rejects Loki’s scheme which, to Loki, signals ultimate betrayal. Still viewing himself as the victim, he interprets this as rejecting him, rather than what he was trying to do. So he lets himself fall; an event he reinterprets in his memory as being thrown.
So a deeply embittered Loki forges a deal with Thanos to conquer the Earth in exchange for the Tesseract. This, once again, shows how warped Loki’s perception has become by his 24/7 victim filter; Thor denied him his ‘right’ to be Asgard’s ruler, so it’s only ‘fair’ that he conquers the world Thor loves so much.
His showdown with the Avengers shows that Loki isn’t quite as good at manipulating people when he doesn’t have pre-existing emotional ties to work with. Black Widow tricks him into spilling his plan for the Hulk by playing off the ego that he doesn’t know he has because he’s too egotistical. To be fair, that’s an over-simplification. Loki can be manipulated because, while he’s adept at spotting the weak points that let him manipulate others, he’s entirely blind to his own.
And so we come to Loki’s final MCU appearance to date, where see what Loki has become; a man who still cares for his family to some degree. But, to whom, such feelings come a distant second to his own ambitions. To Loki, such emotional ties are most important as ways he can manipulate his family.
Loki is a villain, not because he doesn’t have a moral compass, but because of the distorted lens he views it through.
Loki is a villain because of his unshakable belief that he’s the victim.