I smiled and nodded, “that’s on a T-shirt, you know. ‘Loki’s not evil–he’s just misunderstood.’ There’s a whole section of the fandom out there behind it. But he still killed lots of people didn’t he?”
“Then define ‘evil.’ ” I challenged.
“Well,” my friend began, then stopped and a surprised grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Um, I’m not sure…”
The question was harder to answer than it appeared.
What began as a casual conversation about our favorite super-villain that warm spring evening in 2013, turned into a deep discussion about the nature of evil, the complex motivations of Loki, and why we root for him.
This post is a slightly updated review that I wrote back in 2015. It got stalled in the editing stage and was subsequently never published here. As Thor: Ragnarok prepares to hit theaters this November, I thought it would be a good time to drag this review out of the cellar and finally post it.
One of the reasons I love the Thor/Loki story arc is it’s propensity to provoke deep questions about the nature of evil. It is easier to define specific actions as right or wrong, sinful or righteous, than it is to define an entire character as good or evil. Loki defies the kind of black-hat, white-hate divisions we are accustomed to expect in action movies, especially, perhaps, in superhero flicks. The fact that Loki makes his fans rethink the identifying marks of a villain is strong evidence of the paradigm-shift. Is this a breakthrough in storytelling, an unshackling from traditional but inadequate stereotypes, or a subtle attack on Biblical divisions of morality?
When I watched Thor the first time I saw Loki with his silver-tongue and shape-shifting, his quest for power, and conviction of a supposed right to the throne, as indicating a powerful Lucifer figure, especially when contrasted with the trinitarian allusions in Odin All-Father, Thor the son and heir, and Mjolnir the power of both, but when I rewatched the film and as the story progressed, I saw him in a different light.
For one, unless you accept Milton’s casting Lucifer as originally equal to and jealous of the pre-incarnate Son of God, the analogy quickly breaks down because Loki’s desire for the throne is not based wholly on arrogant jealousy and presumption–though certainly partly–but based on the mistaken belief that he would indeed ascend a throne nor are Loki’s shenanigans entirely vindictive. At first he craves his father’s love and approval. He doesn’t even want the throne really, or to be greater than Thor, he just wants to be loved by his father like Thor is. Who can forget the scene in Thor when Loki first confronts Odin about the truth of his birth?
“Am I nothing but another stolen relic? ” These words haunt me. The pain, the turmoil, the bitterness of rejection, the despair of not having Odin’s love. Loki looks so much like a lost child in that scene, for such he is. The rest of the movie is Loki’s attempts to earn that love. By attempting to destroy a realm with a history of enmity with Asgard, by keeping hot-tempered, self-centered Thor off the throne of Asgard, and by staging a rescue of his father, Loki hopes to merit his father’s pleasure.
“My job is to find sympathy where society refuses to. People like Loki are often locked up and judged and reviled—and rightfully, kind of, chastised and castigated and lionised. My job is to find the humanity in him. Ultimately, underneath all of Loki’s hatefulness and spite is a lost child. I have to get underneath the skin of that.” – Tom Hiddleston on playing Loki.
There is a well-accepted place for villains who are absolutely evil. The Joker. Mr. Hyde. Lord Voldemort. Professor Moriarty. Morgana La Faye. Cruella De Vil. The Evil Queen of Snow White. Individuals who’s evil has descended so far that all glimmers of humanity are gone. They show us the destructiveness of sin and the distortion sin is to the face of humanity.
There is a place for villains who are a symbol of evil, with whom the possibility of a change of agenda is ruled out before they’ve even been introduced. Sauron. The White Witch. Hydra. Moby Dick. Grendel. Big Brother. IT (both in A Wrinkle in Time and the recently released horror film of that name). These larger-than-life symbols of Evil are not related to us. Despite appearances, even the human-like ones are not human and as far as we know, never were. There is nothing about them for us to identify with, though we can be mightily influenced by them. Their purpose is to speak to universal, cosmic, transcendental themes of good and evil.
Then there is a third class of villain: the sympathetic. These are villains that we can identify with in some way, even admire. Long John Silver. Macbeth. Captain Nemo. Captain Nero. Captain Ahab. The Count of Monte Cristo. Harvey Dent. Professor Severus Snape. Sir Lancelot. Frankenstein’s Monster. Gollum. Boromir. The royal murderess of Charles Augustus Milverton. John Milton’s Satan. Jean Valjean. Inspector Javert. Anakin Skywalker. The League of Shadows. Jefferson Hope. Maleficent. Mr. Freeze. Mystique. Doctor Octopus…and Loki.
Are these perversions of the traditional villain archetype? Many choose to see them that way. Add good looks, a sharp wit, and a certain manly swagger and suddenly you’ve triggered the full alarm system of many culture-watchers who’s personal Boggart happens to take the form of perversions of manhood and Hollywood conspiracies. I’ve no doubt that many in “Hollywood” have a conscientiously anti-Christian agenda and that there are many well-calculated efforts to pervert manhood throughout our culture and especially in film but we are going to earn the title “fanatic” already pinned to our shirts if we see it in places it isn’t and fail to praise what is actually praiseworthy. (Remember Philippians 4:8)
The list above clearly demonstrates that the sympathetic or “tragic villain” is hardly a new phenomenon and is actually very common in the mystery/crime genre, starting with the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.What we often see in the sympathetic villain is a highly-skilled, well-respected storytelling device called “the guilty reader” (or viewer). The strategy of the “guilty reader” technique is to draw the reader into sympathizing with the villain, to feel what he feels, and give some measure of approval to his or her actions, thus including the reader in their guilt. Nathaniel Hawthorne employed this in The Scarlet Letter and John Milton in Paradise Lost. Both books are continually misinterpreted because of a failure to understand the rhetorical device.
Nathaniel Hawthorne shows his readers how they too are guilty of the errors of romanticism by bringing them to sympathize with the feminist heroine Hester Prynne and John Milton shows the depth of human depravity by bringing his readers to sympathize with Satan himself…for a time.
The guilty reader technique aims to “seduce all but the most attentive of readers into identifying initially with a point of view which seems sensible and, if not absolutely good, at least human and sympathetic. It is only with the unfolding of the action that we, along with the participants, come to understand that the original point of view was stupid, unimaginative, shabby, and evil. The readers as well as the characters have been involved in the evil and have been forced to recognize and to judge their involvement.” (In the words of 20th century literary critic Joseph Summers, describing the writing of the 19th century novelist Henry James.)
History too, is full of examples of “sympathetic villains” if we will but dig deeper into motives.
Adolf Hitler confessed to believe he was an agent of Christ Jesus destined to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth by massacring the Jews. I tremble at the horrific juxtaposition of such great evil and great glory, but it is true that he made these claims. Whether he actually believed them or whether it was manipulative political rhetoric I will leave to the history scholars to sort out. At the very least, others did take them at face-value and acted accordingly. Readers, take a look at some of Hitler’s lesser-known words:
“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before in the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice…. And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people…. When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom to-day this poor people is plundered and exploited.” –Adolf Hitler, in his speech on 12 April 1922
“I nearly imagined myself to be Jesus Christ when he came to his Father’s Temple and found the money changers.” Adolf Hitler’s close friend, Dietrich Eckart, reported him to have boasted to a lady.
In the autumn of 1941, at Wolfsschanze, Hitler said: “I am Fuhrer of a Reich that will last for a thousand years to come. No power can shake the German Reich now. Divine Providence has willed it that I carry the fulfillment of a Germanic task.”
Besides accomplishing some of the greatest widespread evil this world has known, Adolf Hitler also holds the record for being one of the most twisted individuals in the annals of history, not because he thought doing evil was good but because he thought the evil he was doing was actually good.
Adolf Hitler acted consistently on his beliefs but his beliefs were wrong. He misunderstood the character of Christ, the purpose of Christ’s atonement, the nature of the Kingdom of God, how the Kingdom was to be brought about, the role of Christians in it, the role of the Jews, and the true origins of evil.
Adolf Hitler’s first and chiefest error was neglecting the Guardians of Reputation. Before he made himself the supreme ruler of Germany, he made himself lord of the German church, silencing the voices of history, of truth confessed and proclaimed by the Church for nearly 2,000 years. The first victim of his lies was none other than himself. He was both deceiver and deceived.
And there are also an abundance of Biblical examples. You could actually cast many of those we normally consider Biblical “heroes” as “sympathetic villains” with “redemptive arcs.” The Patriarch Jacob and the Apostle Paul are obvious examples from the Old and New Testaments both.
Then there are ones like Absalom, the rebellious son who murdered the king’s heir, surreptitiously stirred up contention against his father, the King–after being granted pardon–forced his father to flee his own kingdom, and would have pursued his father to the death had his revolution not been abruptly cut short by his own death. All this evil and yet–how did it begin? With Absalom’s beloved sister Tamar being raped by his half-brother Amnon and his weak-hearted father turning a blind eye, refusing to have him punished because he was the heir. The first blood Absalom shed was in righteous anger unrighteously applied and the later pursuit of his father to death would appear to be vengeance for his father’s apathy.
Here, we see a man pursuing “good,” but by evil means.
Ultimately, as I’ve written elsewhere, Absalom’s story is about the inadequacy of judicial pardon apart from spiritual regeneration. It’s about the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice and the work of the Holy Spirit to transform a sinner’s heart.
But if we do not sympathize with the sinner, we do not need his salvation. Therefore, the sympathetic villain archetype is not merely compatible with the Christian Faith, but necessary. When we are alarmed by the presence of sympathetic villains (notice I said “villains” not wrongly praised “heroes”) we reveal our underestimation of the attractiveness of evil. Portraying evil as attractive is not necessarily the same as portraying evil as good.
To quote Tom Hiddleston, the actor for Loki in Thor 1 & 2 and The Avengers, “every villain is a hero in his own mind.”
Hitler and Absalom both were heroes in their own minds though most clearly villains in ours and by the true law of God.
As C. S. Lewis explains evil: “The badness consists in pursuing [good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. I do not mean, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness.” – Mere Christianity, pg. 44
This is why I love the character of Loki in the Thor series because he is simultaneously evil and relatable; repulsive yet pitiable. You see him ruthlessly assault a planet he has no quarrel with, arrogantly require all to kneel to him as a god, and kill without mercy or remorse. And yet you also see him torn with grief by the rejection of his father whom he dearly wants to please yet doesn’t know how.
Loki’s story is sharply contrasted with Thor’s character arc: unlike Loki, Thor presumes upon his father’s love and by his foolishness puts the entire kingdom at risk and is, as a result, stripped of his regal clothes, his title and his power, and is exiled to earth. The great hammer Mjolnir stuck fast in the ground like King Arthur’s sword of old, Excalibur, and only he who is worthy is able to lift it. We would naturally think that it is the strongest man, the man with a warrior’s bold bravado, the man ready to take charge and who knows what he is to be about is the man most worthy of this power. But through his exile on earth, Thor learns that it is only when you realize you are weak, when you realize you are foolish, when you realize you don’t deserve the love you were given, when you realize you are unworthy–it is then that you are worthy.
You don’t earn love, you accept it.
Where once Thor went into battle thinking only of his own person, he now gladly lays down his life for his friends.
The falling action of Loki’s arc in Thor comes when Odin awakes, sees the great evil Loki has done, and casts him out. By striving to earn his father’s love, Loki actually loses it. Now no longer caring to gain his father’s love, convincing himself that he was denied something he deserved, Loki goes on a rampage. If he cannot be loved, he must be feared.
Enter: The Avengers.
Thor: The Dark World begins directly after The Avengers ends, with Thor taking Loki back to Asgard as a prisoner. In a surreptitious meeting with his mother in his solitary cell, Loki haughtily defends his actions. Loki refuses to accept defeat, still hotly denying his guilt, shrugging off his actions as no more heinous than Odin has done.
Frigga: You know full well it was your actions that brought you here.
Loki: My actions? I was merely giving truth to the lie that I had been fed my entire life…that I was born to be a king.
Frigga: A king? A true king admits his faults. What of the lives you took on Earth?
Loki: A mere handful compared to the number that Odin has taken himself.
Frigga: Your father—
Loki: He’s not my father!
Frigga: Then am I not your mother?
Loki: You’re not.
Frigga: [looks hurt but chuckles] You’re always so perceptive about everyone but yourself. [Loki looks sorry and reaches for her but she disappears]
Tom Hiddleston, when asked what he would say to Loki if he could (courtesy of Tumblr):
Odin, Frigga, and Thor have all expressed their love for Loki in various ways but Loki doesn’t believe them. Loki is deceived, but he is self-deceived. Like Hitler, he believed wrongly and like Absalom, he pursued good things with wrong means.
The tragedy of Loki’s story is that the love he seeks he had all along. Of all the people Loki deceived, none did he deceive more completely and thoroughly than himself. And we do the same thing. We convince ourselves of all kinds of wrong things all the time. That is why we need community. This is why we need to be continually confronted with truth, to be held to the standard of historical orthodoxy–that Guardian of Reputation–and have a healthy self-skepticism. Adolf Hitler could have received correction on his doctrine from the pastors of his time. Absalom had both the law and promises of God handed down by Moses. Loki had the truth right in front of him. And yet these means for combatting lies were rejected. They are responsible for the lies they believed.
“Be true to yourself.”
This is the mantra of our post-modern, narcissistic, individualistic culture, but what does it even mean?
Young Buddy, from the the Disney-Pixar superhero film “The Incredibles,” is on to something when he tells his hero, Mr. Incredible, “You always, always say ‘Be true to yourself,’ but you never say which part of yourself to be true to! Well, I finally figured out who I am: I am your ward. IncrediBoy!”
Like a true post-modernist, Buddy arbitrarily self-determined his own identity then turned around and demanded that the world honor it. When identity is self-determined, being “true to yourself” and “believing in yourself” is left for you to interpret.
But this is not originally what the phrase meant. The phase originates in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Polonius takes his son Laertes and gives him this fatherly advice:
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
What is Polonius saying? He is saying that the first step in deceiving others is deceiving yourself and the surest guard against putting a false face to others is an honest look in the mirror.
So is there a chance Loki’s self-deception can be undone?
When Malekith, Lord of the Dark Elves, attacks Asgard to reclaim the aether hosted in Jane Foster, freeing all the prisoners of Asgard but the prodigal prince, Loki directs Malekith’s servant, Kurse, to the stairway leading to his mother’s chamber where Jane was being cared for. Frigga plants herself between Jane and the invaders and dies a heroine’s death.
Thor visits Loki afterwards with a plan to remove Jane from Asgard and have vengeance on Malekith, their mother’s murderer. Loki appears cooly composed and nonchalant, even a little haughty. But Thor sees through the facade and commands Loki “no more illusions.”
Loki’s proud chin lifts and he sighs, the mirage he had created slowly dispersing to reveal a bloodied and disheveled Loki sitting against the back wall of his cell surrounded by overturned furniture, scuffed walls, and pages from the books his mother gave him in his imprisonment ripped and scattered in heaps on the floor.
“Now you see me as I am, brother.” he sighs.
As my friend Abby Jones points out, there is a difference between angst and agony: angst is emotional pain at a supposed slight that may or may not be real, of insecurity, a feeing of mistreatment, while agony is objective suffering, the confusing of these two resulting in bitterness, anger and vindictiveness. All of Loki’s troubles have been angst up until the point of his imprisonment, it’s not until his mother’s death that he experiences true agony. For all his denial and self-deception, Frigga was the one person he really loved, the one person who’s death could pull him out of his angst-saturated ego-centricity, and her death was at his hands because he showed the murderers the way.
For the first time in his life, Loki has to face the consequences of his actions, experiencing not merely grief but knowledge of his guilt.
“In more sophisticated modern works of literature, we encounter characters who become embittered because someone they love has met with a senseless, meaningless death. The characters are victimized by unpredictable diseases, arbitrary acts of violence, and grotesque accidents dents totally out of anyone’s control. The very randomness of such calamities is a manifestation of the absurdity of life. Dante would consider such melodramas, sentimental songs, and absurdist literature to be tragedies, inasmuch as they have happy beginnings and sad endings, but Aristotle would not. For him, the catastrophe must be caused by character, not by accident. The tragic hero’s choices and actions must trigger the catastrophe, making the hero personally responsible for everything that happens. In fact, the hero’s complicity in the disaster and the guilt that overwhelms him is a large part of why we feel so much pity and fear. If the hero is purely a passive victim of circumstances beyond his control, there is no true tragedy.”
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr.. Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (p. 108).
“Tragedy forces us to consider our own flawed, hubris-ridden lives, centered around our own pleasures and our pride. It confronts us with our mortality, our limitations, and our human condition under the curse of God’s righteous judgment. Gazing upon this truth, oddly enough, can awaken in us feelings of compassion for others and humility for ourselves. We come away from a tragedy feeling chastened, emotionally drained, and yet not depressed (as we may be by the meaningless suffering of melodrama). In tragedy we sense that life, despite its sufferings, is profoundly and mysteriously meaningful and, in an austere yet compelling way, beautiful.”
Veith, Gene Edward, Jr.. Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (pp. 110-111).
Loki agrees to join Thor on his quest and the two brothers journey with Jane to the Dark World. Here is how I described my reaction to the film’s climax and resolution to another friend in typical teenaged fangirl fashion (I was 18 when the movie came out in 2013):
“I loved all the twists. It was like “nuh-uh this is fake, he wouldn’t really turn on Thor at the end would he? Wait, what if it isn’t. Loki NOooooo!!! Oh, ok, it was all planned–I knew that…of course I did. Go Loki! Awww…look at him shielding Jane! What? No. This isn’t happening. This totally is not happening. LOOO-KIIIII!!!!! 😳😱😭😭😭 –then feeling sullen through the whole ending until *gasp* HE’S ALIVE?!!! May I please hug you? Oh wait, you just did what?! *credits* *screams*”
And thus the filmmakers leave us on the edge of our seats screaming for more Loki–why?
Because Loki could be me. Loki could be you. We want him to be redeemed because we see a reflection of ourselves in him.
We want the shackles and blinders of self-deception to break and fall at last and Loki to experience the true love we ourselves desire. We’ve been given a redemption scene for Loki and we want to believe it’s real but can’t know for sure yet–it wouldn’t be the first time he deceived us but one can always hope it was the last. Loki has a choice to make, and so do we because…