Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Devil on the Shoulder: Loki and Impossible Redemption

After a long absence in which I moved my entire life across the Pacific Ocean, I'm finally back with an overblown ramble.  Today's topic?  Loki.  We all knew it was coming.

Quick note on spoilers: Any mention of the Journey into Mystery comic series will be spoiler-free.  I won't bring up or discuss any aspect of the story that ruins its final act.  However, all Marvel movies will be discussed under the assumption that everybody seen that shit already!

So, ever since the release of the first Thor: The Dark World trailer, the name on everyone's lips is Loki, Thor's adopted brother and the God of Tumblr.  Will Loki aid Thor in the new movie?  Will he turn traitor?  Can Loki even be redeemed?  That's what I'm here to talk about.  I recently wound up diving into (and became totally addicted to) the Kid Loki saga of Journey into Mystery.  While I was reading the series, I found a lot of parallels between the character of Kid Loki, and the film character he was loosely based on.

First things first, for those of you who don't know who Kid Loki is, or why he's a "kid," let's introduce the adorable little rascal.  In the world of Marvel comics, Kid Loki is the reincarnation of the deceased adult Loki, and an overly enthusiastic rider of demons and maker of rude hand gestures:

Here's what happened in as much of a spoiler-free manner as possible: prior to Kid Loki's run in Journey into Mystery, evil adult Loki staged one of his usual, villainous blowouts: banish Thor, become the new king's councilman, destroy all of Asgard  - y'know, a typical Tuesday for Loki.  At the last minute, however, Loki had a change of heart for unknown reasons and sacrificed himself to save Thor and the Avengers and (what was left of) Asgard.  So... that was pretty much unexpected.  Even though Loki died a hero's death, very few mourned his passing - besides Thor, who couldn't cope with the loss of his brother - even if his brother was a known fucktwit.  In an unexpected and totally inexplicable twist, Thor decided to resurrect Loki from the dead (which was only possible because, as it turned out, the trickster had taken certain precautions before his death that allowed his soul to be reincarnated).  Anyways, Loki's soul - or whatever the hell Norse gods are made of (rainbows and Pantene?) - was reincarnated into a French preteen boy.

No, I'm serious.
Thor sought out the little French Loki and restored him to his, er... former glory (yes, that's an MCU Loki reference, shut up).  In almost every way that counts, Kid Loki is Loki, just a... reduced Loki.  He has no memories from beyond childhood, and he's been reset to a time before he became evil.  You could go so far as to say he was reborn with "original sin," and Loki is literally given a second chance to redeem himself.  Unfortunately, everyone in the known universe still remembers Loki as an insufferable, cocky asshole, and the fact that he's now a cute, cuddly little boy with an internet addiction isn't going to change their view of him.  All the innate building blocks that turned Loki into a fucking asshole are still there... the question is: will Loki use them?

The fact that everyone except Loki remembers Loki's evil deeds makes his attempts at redemption extremely difficult.  His memories are wiped clean, but there's no escaping what he's done.  In other words, Loki doesn't get a free pass just because he's born again.  In fact, Loki can't escape who he was at all.  His run in the Journey into Mystery comic series starts off with Kid Loki having a confrontation with the remnant spirit of none other than adult Loki himself, wearing his finest furs and his most disgusted expression.
"I mean, really, kid?!  A hoodie?!  I thought I taught you better than this!"
Kid Loki has no choice but to face his bitter past.  Ultimately, he decides he wants to be the one and only Loki, and that he wishes to banish away the evil temptations of his former self.  To put it simply: Loki wants to be good.  At his core, free from the suspicious glares of others, Loki has no desire to be evil.  In the end, Kid Loki reduces his adult spirit into the body of a magpie and names the bird Ikol (Loki backwards, obviously).  Ikol's job is to share adult Loki's knowledge and wisdom with Kid Loki and guide him through his new life (yeah, that can't possibly go wrong).  In other words, Loki has a literal devil on his shoulder - and that devil is Loki himself.

"Caw-caw, motherfuckers."
Kid Loki's internal conflict over whether or not to become evil is depicted in an external fashion.  His past sits on his shoulder - a constant reminder of what he used to be.  There are many times, in fact, in which Loki is forced to choose between Ikol's cruel wisdom and Loki's own desire to do the right thing.  For example, there's scene in the comics in which Loki is ordered to kill a vicious puppy from a litter of Hel-dogs.  While Loki stands above the World Tree preparing to toss the (fire-breathing and perpetually-swearing) puppy into the abyss, Ikol perches nearby, encouraging Loki to do it.

Says the eyeless, talking bird.
What's interesting about this scenario is that Ikol (who is really just adult Loki) echoes the sentiments of all the other people in Loki's life.  While it may seem evil to throw a puppy into an abyss, Ikol is telling Kid Loki to do exactly what everyone else considers the right thing.  In fact, it's one of the rulers of Asgard who tells Loki to kill the puppy because...

To her credit, this is the puppy:

Such a good boy!  Yes he is!  Who's a shmoopy whoopy cutie pie?!
Loki's defense of the Hel-dog shows that, at his center, Loki is sometimes more good than the "good people" around him - or at least more righteous.  If we peer even deeper into this rabbit hole, those "good people" may have actually led to Loki's corruption in the first place... which is where the parallels between Kid Loki and movie Loki begin to show.  If we think of Ikol as the echo of adult Loki's inner thoughts, there are some very interesting things that can be observed.  For example, there are times when Ikol discourages Kid Loki's reformed behavior because Ikol simply can't accept that Loki might actually have an innate capacity for goodness.

You're stupid!

At times, the echo of Ikol's jealousy towards Thor is so strong that it continues to rear its ugly head even from beyond the grave - and, thus, threatens to corrupt young Loki with the same darkness that led Loki to become his brother's arch-nemesis in the first place.  When Loki attempts to do good, Ikol doesn't even see it as worth the effort because, deep down, he bitterly believes Thor could do it better.

What starts to become clear here is that Loki internalized his own self-hatred so deeply, it follows him into death.  Now, he projects that self-loathing onto his own reincarnation.  Loki creates his own cyclical corruption.  So where did all this self-hatred stem from?  Well, everyone in Loki's life believes it's "inevitable" that Loki will become evil.  If that sounds a little off, well, it is.  I should point out that the comics tells us adult Loki was not originally evil, even when he was older than Kid Loki.  The very same people who mistrust Kid Loki  openly admit to a time when the original Loki was older than Kid Loki and not evil.  Volstagg - who completely mistrusts Kid Loki - has no problem admitting to a time when Loki was still a good man:

He has a name, you know.  Gawd, no wonder he grew up to hate you.
Even the normally reasonable Sif goes so far as to say she's sure Kid Loki will grow up to become the same evil man he was before he died, even though Kid Loki's done absolutely nothing wrong that she knows of.

So what does any of this have to do to do with the Loki of the Marvel movies?  Well, I think Loki's descent into evil actually mirrors Kid Loki's story in several ways.  Movie Loki doesn't seem particularly evil when the film opens - I mean, yes, he let the Frost Giants into the weapons vault, but it doesn't seem like that level of trickery is a normal activity for him.  No one else in the film ever speaks of any previously evils deeds that he's done.  It's possible the film failed to develop Loki's past due to lack of time or focus, but considering the fact that Thor and his friends don't seem the slightest bit concerned about having Loki join them on dangerous missions leads me to believe that Loki hasn't done anything yet to earn extreme mistrust.  In other words, just like in the comics, we're led to believe that a teenage-to-early-adult Loki isn't necessarily evil.  Yet, just like in the comic books, there's an assumption on the part of virtually everyone that Loki will go the way of douchebaggery.  There are many moments in the Thor movie in which Loki is convicted of wrongdoing for seemingly no reason.  For example...

#1: Loki tries to convince Thor and his friends not to go to Jotunheim, yet Hogun doesn't even hesitate to point a finger at Loki when they talk about who let the Frost Giants into the weapons vault.

While it's later revealed that Loki actually did let the Frost Giants into the vault, there's absolutely no reason why anyone should've suspected him.  When Thor wanted to go to Jotunheim, it was Loki who urged him not to.  Thor and his friends had no problem breaking the law, while Loki was the one trying to do the right thing.  Then, when Thor and his friends ignored Loki's advice and went to Jotunheim anyways, they started a goddamn war.  This, after Loki continually said they should leave before the crisis escalated.  During the battle with the Frost Giants, Loki even saved Fandral's life and helped assist everyone to safety, and yet the moment they're back home treating their wounds, Hogun doesn't waste even a goddamn second before accusing Loki of letting the Frost Giants into the vault.  Even the word "treason" is thrown around!  Um, 'scuse me, Hogun?  I was just wondering, um... isn't accusing a prince of Asgard without any evidence technically treason?!

#2: Heimdall assumes Loki's committing evil behind his back for no reason.

Heimdall can't see Loki with his magical long-distance pervert vision, so that automatically means Loki's doing something evil, right?  That seems to be Heimdall's logic, at least.  Did Heimdall ever stop to consider the possibility that Loki was off boning someone and didn't want to be watched?  Or that Loki secretly likes to crochet in his spare time?  There are about five billion other things Loki may not want Heimdall to see him doing, yet Heimdall just automatically thinks, "the son of my king who has never acted against the crown in any way has got to be committing treason."

He was actually off modeling for Garnier Fructis.  Duh.
#3: When Loki rightfully takes the throne, everyone in the movie acts as though he staged a coup.

Which is, of course, ridiculous.  In fact, unlike #1 and #2 above, Loki actually, really, truly is innocent of this offense.  There was no reason for people to suspect he'd taken the throne by force or deception.  Odin falls into the Odinsleep all the damn time, and with Thor banished, who the hell else was going to sit on the throne?!  No one in the film knows that Loki is adopted or a Frost Giant - not even Thor.  As far as anyone knows, Loki is Odin's younger son and the next in line for the throne.  It's not like Loki killed Queen Frigga either, so unless she was imprisoned - which someone would've heard about - she obviously okay-ed the entire thing.  In fact, there's a deleted scene from Thor in which Frigga literally tells Loki he has to be king and forces the scepter on him.  He doesn't even want to be king.  In the deleted scene, this is the face Loki makes when his mother tells him he has to take the throne:

You... you mean I have to wear an even stupider hat now...?
Ultimately, both comic book Loki and movie Loki's corruption becomes a chicken and the egg conundrum.  Did Loki become evil because everyone around him assumed he would, or did everyone assume he would become evil because he would?  If no one assumed Loki was evil as a child, would he become evil nonetheless?  Or did the people around him hand him an evil crown, and the innocent child grew to fit it?  There's no easy or correct answer to that question because we'll never really know.  Even in the Kid Loki series, it's impossible to say for sure what Loki would've become in a pure environment, because the people around him still continue to suspect him of wrongdoing at every turn.  Worst of all, the magpie on his shoulder - the Loki who was led to believe himself evil by the exact same people in his former life - now starts to convince Kid Loki that the words of the others must be true.  It's kind of a mindfuck, but it's like Ikol internalized the words of the other Asgardians and came to believe he was inherently evil - thus, he can't help but encourage his reincarnation to believe that there's no other possible outcome.  We end up with two wheels of corruption turning against each other.  After all, if Loki internalizes the words of the Asgardians and starts to act out their expectations, the Asgardians become justified when they start pointing fingers.  The cycle just goes on and on, until we have ourselves a super-villain.

So all of this leads to the question: can Loki be redeemed?  Not will, but can.  How can a character be redeemed if those around him don't allow for the possibility of redemption?  Even Kid Loki himself is aware of the problem:


The same can be said of movie Loki.  No one in Loki's life trusts him.  Loki's schemes always seem to fail, but it's not because he's the "bad guy" that he fails, it's that he's always set up to fail by those who expect the worst of him.  In the comic books, Loki's way of doing battle appears "deceptive" instead of brave, so even when he succeeds at doing something good, he doesn't succeed the way others think he should, so he fails by default.  Take a look at the following story from The Mighty Thor #12.1.  When Thor, Loki, and Sif were still in their youth, Sif got her ass captured by a giant, and Thor and Loki had to come to her rescue.  Loki set up a trap that allowed Thor to easily kill the giant, thus saving Sif's life and setting her free.  Here's the thanks Loki gets for his good deed when Sif retells the tale as an adult:

Wow.  Talk about ungrateful.  Loki saves Sif's fucking ass from a giant birdcage, and all she does is talk about what an evil monster he is because she didn't like the way he rescued her.  The way he saved her life wasn't good enough.  Wow.  I can't think of anything bitchier.  Loki did absolutely nothing wrong, but he didn't do things the way Asgard thinks they should be done, and thus he was condemned for his efforts.  Why would someone like Loki even bother doing good if that's the way he always gets treated for it?

Unfortunately, movie Loki is subjected to similar treatment.  He failed at being a king because everyone expected him to fail.  When Loki schemed to get Thor in trouble with their father, he probably didn't expect Thor to start a damn war.  However, since Thor went and did that anyways, Loki had to set things right once he was king.  He was actually cleaning up Thor's intergalactic mess.  Loki's attempted genocide of the Frost Giants is usually considered his most evil act in the movies - and it totally is - but one must also bear in mind that Laufey was the one who declared war on Asgard, and Loki had a duty to protect Asgard from that threat now that he was king.  If the scenario is look at from that perspective, Loki technically succeeded.  He killed Laufey and ended the war with Jotunheim without spilling a single drop of Asgardian blood.  The problem is that he did so through trickery, so it was viewed as an act of evil by both the Asgardians and the movie's audience.  In other words, we were told the movie's story the same way Sif told her story above, and we were goaded into sharing the Asgardian bias.  While I would never say Loki isn't a villain - I mean, seriously, genocide?!  Talk about an overreaction - I would still argue that the audience is tricked into vilifying Loki.  Just as history is told by the victors, the film's story is told to us by the heroes.  Obviously, the perspective is somewhat skewed.  I mean, Loki's the villain, right?  So anything he does must be evil... right?

Basically, the point of this entire ramble is to say: some villains are born, and others are made.  Loki may be the so-called God of Mischief, but it seems to me he was created from the ignorance of "good" people.  What makes it rather creepy in movie Loki's case, however, is that the audience becomes an active participant in this transformation.  When Thor's friends come to Loki to ask that he free Thor, we automatically take their side.  The audience is tricked into forgetting that Thor was banished for good reason, and that Loki would be breaking his own father's decree if he took it back.  We don't question Sif and the Warriors Three when they betray their king (both Loki and Odin) to return Thor to Asgard, and we don't question the fact that Heimdall betrays Loki as king either.  We just say, "oh, but they're the heroes and Loki's the bad guy" without really thinking about what's happening right in front of us.  Just like the Asgardians, we point fingers based on the role Loki was supposedly born into.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it's like the audience helps to create the monster.

Which brings us right back to Thor: The Dark World.  Let's face it, we're all waiting for Loki to betray Thor.  It's not even up for debate.  Thor says, "when you betray me, I'll kill you."  Not if, when.  And who could blame him?  We all know Loki will turn out to be an asshole.  We all say, "it's just Loki's nature" or "Loki's the bad guy" and that automatically means Loki will turn evil.  Trust me, I'm no different.  I'm gonna spend the entire movie waiting for Loki to shout "jk!" and go evil, and I'm gonna facepalm if Thor doesn't see it coming from a mile away.  After all, Loki's the bad guy.  That's the role he's been molded into for three films, and it might be too late to take it back.

The ultimate plot twist would be if Loki didn't betray Thor at all.

Could it happen?  Probably not.  He's the villain, after all, and that's the role that was made for him by mythology, Marvel comics, and the script writers of the movies.  Thus, it's the role the audience expects of him.  When Loki turns evil in Thor: The Dark World - and we know he will - our expectations will be met and justified, just as they are for the heroes.  Loki knows it, and he'll probably play with that sentiment for his own amusement.

His face in the trailer alone says it all:

Tee hee, you all so effed.
And that's my rambling food for thought.  It's a bit of an extreme view - one that I don't even fully believe, but I love to play devil's advocate.  Either way, I hope I was able to offer a slightly new perspective on what's become a very popular villain.

Comments?  Opinions?  Anything to add?  I'm pretty new to comic books, so if anyone has any interesting or in-depth info that I haven't mentioned, I'd love to hear it.  I'd also love to hear any counter-arguments or new takes on the situation.  Feel free to speak below!