rhoda_rants: (loki)
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Unpopular opinion time: I do not like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Finally watching the Starz adaptation that began airing this week confirmed all my previous feelings about it: while the ideas and imagery are arresting and will get your mind spinning in a good way, the delivery and characterizations left me cold. Also Shadow Moon is a very passive protagonist, the kind of character things happen to, rather than the kind who takes charge of his own storyline. I will say that Ricky Whittle does a fantastic job bringing pathos and empathy to very little meat in the way of action or dialogue, and I already like him better onscreen than I did on the page. It’s an original story with a black lead character and a substantial amount of media buzz. We should be glad it exists. Also I can’t WAIT to see Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, who is my favorite character in the book and so awesome he got his own spin-off novel, Anansi Boys. So at the same time I’m fascinated by it and want to watch / read it again? I dunno, it’s weird, and it’ll probably always feel that way to me.

Why even bring this up? Well, the central conflict in American Gods is one that stuck with me, regardless of how distancing I find the source material: the idea that gods need belief and regular worship to exist. The old gods of ancient civilizations are dying out because people either don’t believe in them anymore, or don’t even know about them anymore. The gods of old need believers much more than the general populace needs them, and the general populace needs to see themselves in their icons if they're going to invest any spiritual energy into them.

As you can probably tell, I’m revisiting that “evolution of hero worship” post I hinted at here. But I’m not here to talk about American Gods. Not yet. Instead I’m talking about the Thor movies again, Norse mythology in general, and Loki in particular.

GIF of Loki taking over Hall H at Comic Con
w text reading “Say My Name”


A bit of background: We have this pervasive, Puritanical culture in the US with the idea of God or “gods” as infallible beings who have a “plan” for everyone and impossibly high standards. He/she/they are all-knowing, all-powerful, and never make mistakes. At least that’s how it was sold to me as a kid. Not only that, but the frustrating insistence that yes, bad things happen in the world, but also yes, God is always in control, and furthermore God is good. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this without making myself sound anti-Christian, but there’s a reason I walked away from that path and didn’t turn back.

What I’m getting at here is the characters in the Norse pantheon are fallible. These guys are flawed in a uniquely human way that doesn’t stack up with how I’m used to thinking about entities referred to as “gods.” There’s something oddly comforting about that. Thor, Odin, Loki, and all the others are incredibly flawed. They’re short-sighted. They hold grudges. They make plans that blow up in their faces. Most importantly, they have the ability to learn and grow from their mistakes, which is much easier for this fragile, messy, awkward human to relate to. Building on that idea, which of the Norse gods you get attached to depends on which of them you can see most in yourself.

Mine, surprising no one, is the most flawed and messy of them all: the Trickster.

First, I need to talk about Thor a little bit. Asgard's golden son, the wielder of Mjolnir, chosen successor to Odin's throne, comes from a brand of heroism predicated on superiority. His culture defines a hero as someone much larger, stronger, and overall better than the average human. Heroes of this type are a kind of mascot around whom rest of the populace rallies. They are literally worshipped as gods, beings the human population can trust with their lives. They are to be admired and revered, not necessarily emulated. Loki is the polar opposite of all that. Not only is he physically weaker, he's overlooked and dismissed by almost everyone around him. He's scrappy, brilliant, desperate, and constantly searching for validation and respect. At the very least he wants to be treated as Thor's equal. And let's agree that he definitely goes pretty far off the handle in trying to achieve that, but it's also a lot easier for me to empathize with his situation.

It’s difficult for us Westerners to embrace a hero who never changes or learns anything. That’s why Thor, even though he stays a stubborn, arrogant, self-involved brat throughout the Norse myths, was given an arc and a quest to prove himself worthy as a ruler in his modernized incarnation. It’s why Captain America is shown as a victim of bullying and passed over as not good enough for years before he gets an injection of super-serum. It’s why Tony Stark has to get kidnapped and put together his first suit from spare parts in a POW camp instead of starting out with access to his millions. It’s why the designated villain gets a sympathetic backstory and a chance to potentially redeem himself.

No I will NOT stop posting this clip. But before I unpack this further, read this thread about villains, then this thread about monsters, both talking about why queer people so often imprint on the designated “bad guys” in a given story. Even before I jumped fully on-board the MCU train, I was captivated by Loki. I felt sorry for him, given how clearly his father and all the other Asgardians favored Thor, how glibly dismissive Sif and the Warriors Three are of his abilities. Jibes like, “What’s the matter, silver tongue turned to lead?” and “Some of us do battle, others just do tricks,” are so common you get the feeling it’s been happening for years. Asgard has a culture that values brutish displays of strength over intellectual ability or intuition, and there’s a gendered connotation attached to it. Sif is praised for becoming a fierce warrior despite being a “fair maiden,” and Loki is mocked for mastering a skill that he learned from his mother. All of which is part of the backdrop before he finds out he’s a Frost Giant.

Feeling like a stranger in your own family is scathingly familiar to me. And here’s what I’ve been thinking a long time but haven’t quite been able to say--that reveal? It feels like a Coming Out scene in reverse. Loki spends his entire childhood being indoctrinated to think of his true heritage as something monstrous and horrible, a heritage that’s not only hidden from him but that Odin makes every attempt to stamp out. So he won’t feel “different.” So he will feel like part of the “family.” At least until such time as Odin finds it convenient to pull the rug out from under him. All the while, it’s made clear that he is not the favorite son. Thor is ridiculously popular and successful, and while he has worked for that place somewhat and needs to learn humility before he can ascend to the throne, Loki’s constantly reminded that no matter how hard he tries, he’s never going to be good enough for Odin.

An extra slice of complexity in this case is the fact that Loki *is* queer. Not just in a subtextual "you could read this into it if you want" way, but actually, both in the comics and the original mythology. Some details about his background changed--in the myths he's Odin's brother rather than Thor's, Laufey was his mother rather than his father, and no one quite knows where he came from or why but the Asgardians keep him around because he's useful in a pinch. Still, in all incarnations, he is a pansexual, gender-bending shapeshifter. And Hiddles is totally okay with that!

He's also had to watch all his attempts at conquest and power-grabbing repeatedly, publicly, embarrassingly fail. You guys remember my first Star Wars retrospective, right? About the Hero's Journey and the midpoint of the adventure highlighting failure and adversity? Here's a quote for the new kids in the room:

”Let me emphasize again that the hero's failure at this point is essential. Experiencing failure and overcoming it is what separates the Hero from the Villain. How does this character handle hardship? When the world turns against them and it looks like hope is lost, what do they do next? How do they deal with it? The answer makes all the difference.”

GIF of Loki in Asgard prison looking all sad and tousled.

In The Dark World, Loki is at his lowest. He tried to destroy Jotenheim and failed. He tried to impress his father and failed. He wound up in service to an older, darker power that is very disappointed in him for failing to deliver the Tesseract--a failure for which he was threatened with a fate worse than death that Thanos has yet to cash in. And now, he's lost the only person he believed still cared about him: Frigga. (Side-note: we’re not talking about fridging today, but I definitely noticed and it definitely pissed me off. I chose to compartmentalize it. Moving on.)

I've seen some speculation that Loki planned to be almost killed by the Dark Elves, but I kinda doubt that. I’m starting to doubt he's killable at all, except maybe by Thanos once he finally joins the party. The thing is I don't think he quite knows that, and I also don't think (as others have further speculated) that the Loki that "dies" in Thor's arms is an illusion he wove on purpose in order to throw them off. His illusions don't work like that. They aren't solid. Once someone touches them, they disintegrate. I’m thinking he eventually just got up and walked it off.

What we don't know is how exactly Odin reacted to finding out Loki was “dead.” We don’t know what Loki did to him or how he ended up on that throne. We don't know how Thor figured out his brother was (again) still alive, AND apparently trustworthy enough for them to be working together, although that's implied in the stinger at the end of Doctor Strange.

Here’s the thing: I need to believe that he's capable of redeeming himself. So many fans of this franchise love this character, not just as an interesting villain, but as a fascinating representation of the Other who is fighting for his place in the universe. I'm sure you don’t need me to remind you yet again that we still haven’t seen a single canon LGBT character in the MCU so far. (Although Jessica Jones has some rad, kick-ass lesbians if you haven’t seen it yet.) Loki is the only one so far who *could* be if anyone chooses to acknowledge it. It’s also very likely he’s going to get killed off in the next movie. But right now, I’m at the point where I both expect it, and kind of want him to win despite all the objectively terrible things he’s done.

I don’t know how the Ragnarok arc of the comics went. I don’t know whether the MCU will stick to it regardless. I do know that in the myth, everyone dies, and I mean EVERYONE, and Loki and Heimdall are the last ones standing. But then they come back. Ragnarok is not the end of all things, but the end of one era that eventually gives way to another, less war-ravaged, more hopeful one. That’s an end-of-the-world scenario I would like to see.
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