We’re three episodes into Loki, the latest entry in the juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming on Disney+, and already a side storyline is emerging. Besides the obvious (female!) Loki trying to… bomb time? Alright, maybe it’s not so obvious, but that is the main plot. I think. It’s hard to say with a god(dess) of mischief. But the side story is glaringly obvious. We’re examining Loki as a villain, and the nature of free will, and whether a god of mischief is capable of being a hero. “No one bad is ever truly bad, and no one good is ever truly good.” Loki says in one of many scenes of him being his manipulative self in Episode 2: “The Variant.”
It’s familiar territory for Loki, of course, though not the one we’re following in this series. Proper MCU film Loki had a long journey of self-discovery, where he went from a serious threat and capital V Villain to a self-sacrificing anti-hero who died on behalf of his brother Thor. Loki’s main Loki hasn’t experienced that journey, teleporting out of The Avengers (2012) debacle during Endgame before being picked up by the Time Variance Authority and locked up in time jail. There he was treated to a greatest hits of the moments that led prime Loki to his end at the hand of Thanos in Infinity War.
At first glance, this highlight recap seems to have led to the same result: Loki wanting to be heroic as part of the “glorious purpose” of which he has always been burdened. But does a CliffsNotes version of life really have the same impact as actually living it? Mobius (Owen Wilson) and the other members of the TVA certainly don’t seem to think so, and I’m inclined to agree with them, no matter how doe-eyed and sad Tom Hiddleston made himself look at the end of Episode 1 (“Glorious Purpose”).
But Episode 3, “Lamentis” introduces Lady Loki (Sylvie, played by Sophia di Martino) in full, and presumably she hasn’t received the same clipshow of morality. She’s very similar to the first movie’s Thor, quick to violence and not as big on subterfuge. Even her powers, while seemingly geared towards subtlety, are explained as more or less mentally hammering someone into submission. This, again, follows the side story I mentioned at the beginning. Sylvie says she was aware she was adopted from a young age, and has no memories of Loki’s adopted mother Frigga (Rene Russo). It’s a subtle nature vs nurture question that I’m looking forward to the series exploring more. Less subtle, and typical for the MCU as a whole, is the flip from Loki the attempted Godking of New York, and Loki, literal uniformed member of the TVA.
At one point in Episode 2, Mobius and Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are discussing whether Loki is capable of change. Renslayer says “Not unless the Time-Keepers decree it. And then, it will be so,” which is sadly the level of consequences some redemptions in the MCU have aspired to so far. Recently, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) kidnapped and tortured an entire town’s worth of people in WandaVision. But because it was an accidental act of grief and a literal cackling witch showed up, no harm no foul, she’s still on the side of angels. (Though maybe not, she was looking pretty sinister reading out of the literal book of the damned to a soundtrack of her own children screaming at the end of the season, but we’ll leave that to Dr. Strange to figure out.)
John Walker (Wyatt Russell) spent the latter episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as a secondary antagonist consumed by anger and post traumatic stress, until he suddenly decided that actually he didn’t want to be mean anymore and threw down his fake Captain America shield and helped the titular characters save the day, which totally makes up for him beating a man to death in broad daylight? Tony Stark, the closest thing the MCU has to a central protagonist, created every villain he faced in his own films and directly led to the inception of at least three other villains. But because he was the one who snapped Thanos to death at the end of Endgame, he’s seen as the ultimate hero by a grateful world post-mortem.
It goes without saying, of course, that this kind of easy character flip is part and parcel with the world of comic books. A new writer comes in, or a character has become incredibly popular, and suddenly a villain is a hero (or anti-hero, more often, to keep that edge that made them pop in the first place). Loki himself has had this happen before, spending a good portion of the 2010s in comics as a child version of himself doing his best to avoid becoming the evil adult version probably more familiar to viewers of the MCU (comics, of course, are weird). It doesn’t stick, as these things often don’t, because just as often a writer likes the character to be Evil, and brings back the classic version once the redemption run has finished.
As I said, it seems suspicious that a Loki who (from his perspective) just finished attempting to conquer the Earth is suddenly willing to change because of a decree from a group of “space lizards” he openly disdains and a video of things happening to a version of himself that he’s aware isn’t really him. Flipping his morality, particularly if Loki is angling for long-term redemption for its central trickster, with just a slideshow is weak storytelling. It’s a jarring shift in character dynamic prompted by the easiest of narrative solutions. This is why I feel like it probably won’t stick. Recall in “Glorious Purpose”, when Loki discovered a drawer full of Infinity Stones, and grabbed one to make a run for it. It wasn’t the Space stone he carried around, or the Mind stone, both of which Loki is familiar with and has used before. It was the Time stone, which he’s had no previous connection to.
What if Loki is playing the long con, and created Sylvie as a means to advance his meeting with the Time Keepers and gain Mobius’ trust? That would be far more in line with the God of Mischief we’ve always known, even on his good days.