Thousands of moviegoers left the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers demanding more of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, and Thor: the Dark World has not disappointed these fans. Loki steals every scene in which he appears. I think there’s a pun in that last sentence.
The family dynamic between Thor and Loki reminds me of another famous sibling rivalry, Jacob and Esau. Esau and Thor are the older brothers, Jacob and Loki the younger. Thor and Esau enjoy the love of their fathers, while their mothers favor Loki and Jacob. Thor is a hairy brute. Esau is a hairy brute. Loki is a trickster attempting to steal his brother’s birthright. Jacob is a trickster who steals his brother’s birthright. Esau marries a woman that his parents don’t approve of. Thor spends his time chasing a woman Odin disapproves of. Jacob impersonates his brother. Loki impersonates everyone.
Whom should we pull for as we watch Thor: the Dark World? The Bible endorses Jacob, so I guess that means that we ought to embrace Loki. But isn’t he a bad guy? Well, yeah, but even Thor admits that he’s got more of a head for governing than Thor does. Let everyone do what they’re good at.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love the Thor character. But when he’s at odds with his little brother, I can’t help but pull for Loki. Hiddleston’s portrayal of the trickster “fascinates” in the archaic sense of the word.
Loki’s appeal comes from his complexity. I spent the entire movie asking, “Is this the real Loki?” After the movie’s ending, I pondered the scene in which Thor visits Loki in prison. At first Loki projects composure, and he mocks his brother. Thor says, “Enough,” and the illusion disappears. We see the true Loki, disheveled and disconsolate, sitting on the floor. It was an excellent scene in which we see Loki devastated by the choices that he’d made.
But was he really devastated? Was that the real Loki? After the movie, I started to wonder. What if the scene contained a double illusion? What if Loki showed Thor what Thor wished to see, in order to get out of prison. Since Loki is the trickster, each and every one of his scenes is open to question. One might despair of ever seeing the real Loki.
I’ve settled on an alternate way to interpret Loki’s character. I’ve decided that Loki’s genius is that none of it is illusion. It’s all real. His disdain for Thor, real. His love for Thor, real. His desperate need for Odin’s approval, real. His disregard for his father, real. His self-sacrifice, real. His self-serving nature, real. His arrogance, his bravado, his penitence, his pain, it’s all real. Loki is the ultimate trickster because he believes every one of his own illusions. He’s not deceiving others so much as he lets his heart deceive himself. Loki’s the most complex character I’ve ever seen in a superhero film (although Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man ranks an exceedingly close second).
I find it easier to relate to Loki than I do Thor. Thor’s a hero. I wish I were a hero. Loki wishes he were a hero too. Loki and I both realize that a gap exists between what we are and what we aspire to be. Sometimes we fake it. Sometimes the recognition of the gap causes destructive actions that actually widen the gap. Loki and I both have complex, wicked hearts. We both sometimes believe our own lies. Loki merely wants to be loved, but if he can’t get that, then he’ll settle for being feared. That pretty much sums up my relationship with my students.
So for the time being, I’m on Team Loki. I look forward to seeing what he does next, and I hope the next movie contains enough grace to free him from his own illusions. Neither Loki nor I can free ourselves from our own deceptive hearts.
That’s my Augustinian take on a superhero movie, for what it’s worth.