[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Disney+’s Loki.]
For a character who was introduced as a villain, Loki has been an unexpectedly huge draw since he first appeared in 2011’s Thor. He is consistently featured in lists of popular characters, as Empire and WatchMojo would attest. Loki is also apparently one of the most popular Marvel names for dogs, a survey by Embrace Pet Insurance revealed. The character has died more times than we can count in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he’s returned every time because Loki survives. As we head into the finale of the Disney+ spin-off Loki, we can’t help but marvel (pardon the pun) at how Loki has gained an immense fan-following.
What makes Loki so appealing? There’s the obvious answer – he’s played by Tom Hiddleston, who, let’s be honest, is phenomenally attractive. He’s also extremely talented and has successfully imbued Loki with tons of charm, all while convincing us that the God of Mischief can never be trusted. When posters of Hiddleston as the Marvel character were initially released, he looked like he’d stepped right off the comic book page. That was the first sign that this character was destined to be special. Hiddleston’s chemistry with his on-screen brother Chris Hemsworth also played a part in cementing his status as the hot new favorite. But effortless charisma and perfect costuming alone don’t make a memorable character. Marvel and the many creators on their roster have propelled Loki from being a one-film villain to one of the best MCU characters.
Loki continues to be a scene-stealer because he has been written to both play into and subvert regular tropes about antagonists in popular culture. Due to the Shakespearean nature of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, Loki is an archetypal Magician character. He’s powerful but arrogant and corruptible. And yet, Hiddleston himself has said that every villain believes he’s the hero of his story – Loki believes he is Asgard’s true hero. That’s what makes Loki a nuanced villain. He is always on the cusp of redemption, which keeps audiences interested in the character. Shakespeare was a master of creating characters with layers and motivations. It’s no wonder that the same approach has driven Loki’s popularity.
Loki’s introduction in the MCU was as a fickle young god vying for his family’s attention. That’s before we realised that Loki had always felt like an outsider in his home, all because Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had adopted him as an infant and raised Loki to believe he was Asgardian, not Jotun. Odin’s plans for Loki to eventually take over as the rightful heir of Jotunheim clouded his ability to treat Loki as his son. When Loki confronted Odin about being “another stolen relic, locked up here until you might have use of me,” Odin conveniently fell into the Odinsleep, leaving Loki without answers. Can you blame the Trickster for acting out?
Like most Marvel villains, Loki’s initial innocent actions soon turned violent. By the end of Thor, Loki was decimating Jotunheim, and attempting to assassinate his brother. But then, the character sacrificed himself after being rejected by Odin once again, and it was heartbreaking. Loki continues to break hearts a decade later. Much of Loki’s success lies in how layered his characterization was in the first Thor film. He’s an antagonist who we can empathize with — the neglected little brother who wants to be as loved and as powerful as the favorite. No wonder he’s motivated to ruin his brother’s ‘big day’ and destroy Jotunheim; Loki doesn’t want to be sent to live in a realm he has no connection to. He’s in the mold of Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter’s nemesis and the school bully. Malfoy too acts out because of his cold home life. Loki is similar. Marvel is no stranger to sympathetic villains – we don’t agree with Killmonger and Vulture’s actions, just like we don’t agree with many of Loki’s actions, but we understand where they’re coming from.
Marvel knows how to toy with our feelings for Loki. Loki isn’t diabolical like some supervillains — he’s no Thanos or Joker — which leaves the door open for forgiveness, from both the characters in the MCU and the audience. Loki certainly isn’t innocent. He killed 80 people even before the final battle in Avengers. He’s tried to kill Thor numerous times, be it in the first film, or in the second, when he showed the Dark Elves the way to his brother in Thor: The Dark World. He also, albeit accidentally, allowed Hela’s (Cate Blanchett) return to Asgard and she destroyed their home. But each time Loki’s villainy has cost him — Loki unintentionally led the Dark Elves to his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) and they killed her. On the Disney+ show, the Loki variant admitted to hurting the people he loved and has been genuinely remorseful for his past actions. The real Loki also came through for his people battling Hela to give the Asgardians time to evacuate. He flirts with villainy but he’s not evil. Despite all his attempts to kill Thor, the two of them ended up fighting side-by-side and in the end, became brothers again. What is truly surprising is that when Loki finally got what he wanted, the Asgardian throne, he turned into a benevolent ruler and a patron of the arts. Hideous golden statue of himself aside, Asgard flourished under Loki’s reign. Did you see how happy the people looked in Thor: Ragnarok? Loki craves attention more than anything.
As soon as Loki was well and truly redeemed, he was killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. And now we have a Loki variant from an alternate timeline on Loki grasping with his insecurities and flaws. We’re invested in Loki because, despite being a Jotun prince living the Asgardian life, his struggles are relatable. The Disney+ show has placed Loki’s humanity front-and-center. Loki is afraid, especially since he can’t be 10 steps ahead of the Time Variance Authority, or whatever else awaits him at the end of time. Suddenly, Loki’s life is put in perspective, and he has regrets. Loki is faced with the possibility that he is a loser; how many people have asked themselves the same question? But Loki fights on – in every episode, the character has beguiled his way out of prison, and made friends and enemies along the way, growing in character during the process.
Barring Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame, the character has ‘died’ in every other appearance. And every time, we want Loki to return, because he’s always almost about to turn good; almost always ready to accept that he loves his brother and his family. Loki’s final chapter – be it redemption or death – is the carrot dangled in front of fans.
We “get” Loki because he’s aspirational, even when he stumbles. He’s an unconventional underdog, and we’re cheering him on from the ticket line. Loki represents us in some way (not the villainous murderous part). When he asked Thor to ‘trust my rage’ in Thor: The Dark World, it resonated, because sometimes it’s your anger that fuels you. We understand Loki’s struggle with being second best to his brute of a brother, his inability to belong, his regrets, his insecurities, his lack of connection with other people, maybe even his narcissism or acting out. We want him to win, whatever that win looks like, because that’s a win for us too.
KEEP READING: ‘Loki’ Episode 5 Recap: “This Is a Nightmare”
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