Tricksters That Change: An Analysis of Loki in Thor: Ragnorak
Thor: Ragnarok talks about life-changing endings. These endings include the loss of loved ones, or precious objects, and of old relationships. The titular hero fights for his home, and for his people. His brother Loki in the meantime has to come along for the ride, and has to figure out where he stands. Whether as an ally, a hero, or a villain, the ground is shaky for the trickster.
The Man in the Myth
Loki has always been a tragic figure in mythology and in the Marvel films. We won’t comment on the comics and the various animated adaptations, because Loki tends to slide from one end to the other. As the god of mischief, he is either a help or a hindrance; some sagas have him losing Thor’s hammer or Idunn, the goddess of youth, and having to work to get them back.
Odin decides Loki’s fate, and places him on the villain side. Loki bears some responsibility, but his punishment was disproportionate. Odin’s wife Frigga had a vision that her son Baldr would die; she then obtained promises from every living creature and plant to not harm him, except for the floppy mistletoe. Baldr completely missed the point and decided he was invincible. Loki got wind of this, getting a crafty idea. Baldr decided to let the other gods use him as target practice. In the meantime his older brother fashioned a mistletoe weapon, and encouraged the blind god Hodr to use it. The weapon hit Baldr and killed him instantly. Hodr was then executed, and Loki faced worse punishment. Odin had Loki’s sons by his wife Sigyn torn apart, and used to bind their father to a rock. A snake from above would drip venom into Loki’s eyes, causing them to smart in pain. His wife Sigyn would alleviate the punishment, to catch the venom in a bowl. Even so, Loki didn’t forget.
Ragnarok happens because of Loki’s children. He slept with a Frost Giant, and they had three children: the half-dead girl Hel, the wolf Fenrir, and the giant serpents Jormungandr. Odin received a vision that these children would end the world. Instead of considering that you sometimes can’t fight fate, he had his men take the kids and imprison them. Hel ended up as queen of the Underworld, Fenrir was muzzled and took off the god Tyr’s hand, and Jormungandr found himself wrapped around the world, Loki couldn’t do a thing, as he was cheating on his wife. Rather, he could not act until Ragnarok.
A Kinder Odin
Unsurprisingly, Odin in the Marvel films has less of the warlike vengeful attitude that we see in mythology. Marvel comics readers and new viewers wouldn’t want the blood sacrifices or the disproportionate attitude. Instead we get the Disneyfied Odin, who won’t be demanding human sacrifice. He is a king that believes in peace after war, and only resorting to fighting as a last resort. While Thor and Loki knew that he once fought, Odin focuses more on brokering peace and planning for the future. The viewers can forgive his mistakes, like lying to Loki about his origins and Thor about their older sister, because the writers intended for Odin to be fallible but reasonable. At least, he’s reasonable most of the time.
Even with the kindness, Odin’s mistakes come back to haunt him. Loki screams his pain on learning he is an adopted Frost Giant, an abandoned baby who is the “monster” of Asgard’s fairy tales. Thor also finds out that they have an imprisoned sister, who returns as soon as Odin passes away in Norway. He is hurt to find out that he wasn’t father’s first and favorite, and more so to learn that once Odin conquered the realms and exploited their resources to turn Asgard into a divine paradise. What’s more, Odin leaves his surviving children with his burden.
Loki above all wants his father to love him. While he does play a few jokes as amusement, his tragedy lies in how his family already loves him for who he is but doesn’t know how to ease his pain. He has all the reason to hate that his father and mother lied to him, and made him believe he was special when he wasn’t. Odin faints in the middle of their argument, where Loki demands to know where he stands in the family if he is a monster and a Jotun pawn, and Frigga can only appoint Loki as his father’s regent. She loves him, and constantly vouches for him, but Loki needs more than love. He needs to know his place, and his sense of belonging. Frigga cannot provide that, because her baby boy is no longer an easily comforted child.
Thor, no matter what happens, no matter how many times Loki shapeshifts and stabs him in the gut, loves his brother and tells him as much. Loki for his part takes Thor’s love for granted because he believes he can do anything. He doesn’t think highly of his brother, though he regrets setting the events in motion that lead to Thor’s exile. Even so, he needs Thor’s love in his life, much as he needs love from Frigga and Odin.
Thor, Hela and Loki are Odin’s only children that we see. There is no Baldr for Loki to murder with a proxy, and thus no reason for Loki to cross that line of fratricide. He has only one brother to target, and that brother he loves and who loves him deeply. Loki does try to kill Thor, and betray him, but ultimately he never wants to cross the line into direct murder. He always sends proxies, or creates circumstances for Thor’s death or exile. Thor can still forgive Loki for hurting him, and for attempting to hurt others.
Lost in the Avengers
Then we get to Loki’s overlord tendencies in The Avengers. Far from the tragic villain we saw before, Loki has decided to conquer Earth and bring an army courtesy of Thanos. He brainwashes Hawkeye and Professor Selvig, while stealing the blue cube tesseract to build a portal for alien invaders. When Nick Fury assembles the Avengers to fight, Loki seems to anticipate the challenge and prepares to tear them apart from the inside.
Thor appears by grabbing Loki from the SHIELD plane, tossing him to the ground, and demanding the tesseract’s location. He needs the cube so that they both can return home. Then he says he and Asgard had mourned Loki, thinking he had died plunging off the destroyed Bifrost. Loki through all this tries to be mocking and childish, even denying that Odin is his father and Thor is his brother. He rants about seeing other worlds, and claims to have seen the tesseract’s power. Thor immediately realizes this isn’t his resentful brother talking. No, a higher, darker power is at work. We will get to that later. We will say, however, that Thor never restrains Loki at any point during this interaction. He still loves his brother and tries to reason with him.
Loki’s treatment of Bruce Banner and the Hulk reveals his inner loathing about being a Norse “monster” of myth and a sworn enemy of his adopted people. Banner in this film is hired to study the gamma radiation that the tesseract produces; SHIELD makes it clear that they don’t want the Hulk to appear and prefer Banner’s intellect. Loki uses Hulk as a physical and a psychological weapon, baiting Natasha about using Banner as a weapon and having a brainwashed Hawkeye cause a crisis on the airship, so that Banner unwillingly changes and endangers everyone. Hawkeye offscreen told him about the Avengers Initiative, so Loki proactively traps them to tear them apart before the Chitauri Invasion. He thinks to use the Hulk, a “mindless beast,” because Hulk has only destroyed, not saved people, in SHIELD’s mind. Ross covered up what happened in New York, after all. Loki underestimates Hulk’s compassion and responses to friendship, however; he doesn’t anticipate that Tony would befriend Banner and comfort him about the Big Guy, as everyone calls the Hulk. He also thinks he can talk down a beast with anger issues in the climax; Hulk in response beats him to a pulp and calls him a “puny god”. This takes Loki out of the fight, and the Avengers can focus on the Chitauri.
Working for Thanos
It’s highly possible that Thanos has influenced Loki’s behavior. We can see Loki brainwashing SHIELD associates, so that they still act like themselves but obey him, through Hawkeye and Professor Selvig. Thanos could have performed similar brainwashing on Loki, to serve as a guinea pig and test the Earth’s resolve to resist. The evidence lies in Loki telling Thor it’s too late for him, and trying to claim that he can’t go home. Loki takes a few minutes to gulp some air and respond, like he’s about to tear up, when Thor begs him to come back to Asgard and give up the world-conquering. We can interpret his response as being unable to refuse; Thanos has been shown to manipulate his daughters into fighting to the death; he can restrain Loki from taking the rational course of action, which would be to forfeit the invasion and go to Asgard, where his adoptive family awaits.
Thor seems to believe that Loki is brainwashed, while the rest of the Avengers assume that Loki acts of his own volition. Thor keeps trying to talk his brother down, and doesn’t have a rational explanation for how Loki has killed “eighty people in two days” according to Black Widow. He only says offhand that his brother is adopted. Thor hasn’t seen the effects of brainwashing, as seen when he’s confused by Nick Fury saying Loki turned two of his men into “trained monkeys”. Thus, he lacks the words for why his brother has become a mass murderer. Captain America and Iron Man meanwhile first encounter the Norse god when he attacks Germany and nearly strikes down a Holocaust survivor. As the two men discuss later on, Loki was deliberately putting on a show.
If Thanos had brainwashed Loki, Hulk’s brutal beatdown snapped him out of it. Loki gives up the fight immediately after being pounded into the ground, despite having Thor’s invulnerable qualities and a formidable arsenal. Instead of getting back up, he lies down with a bewildered look and gives a moan. By the time the Avengers catch up to him, he’s struggling towards Tony’s bar and asks for the drink Tony offered. Black Widow establishes that if you tap one of Loki’s brainwashed victims, and knock them out, they wake up restored to free will. She does this with Hawkeye and Selvig, and it’s possible Hulk inadvertently did the same to Loki.
A Dark World
Loki after attempting to dominate Earth ends up in shackles on Asgard. Odin expresses anger and disappointment, while Loki simply reacts to imprisonment with disgust, lashing out anger, and resignation. Loki snarks about why he hasn’t been executed, and shows no remorse. He tells his mother that he doesn’t love her, only to grieve when his advice to invading Dark Elves leads to her death. If brainwashing happened, Loki doesn’t want to fall back on that excuse. There is no proof, and he has some pride.
In the second film, Loki is trying to find his place. He knows Asgard can never trust him again, and Thor will never trust him except in the direst of circumstances. Odin cannot tolerate a mass-murderer, especially one that went after innocent humans. Frigga can love her son but cannot even see her in person. Loki decides the best thing to do is to seek what he considers his birthright — the king’s throne — and enchants Odin, exiling him to Earth, to impersonate him. With this, he gives Thor a blessing to go to Earth and protect the people there, the humans that Loki once threatened with his scepter.
Loki at this point has suffered two major losses: his status and his mother. He also has caused these losses. Loki very well knows this, and that no illusion can erase the pain that he caused. Instead of learning from his mistakes, he can only deceive his brother, and obtain power through deceit. His fatal flaw is taking his brother for granted, and not believing honesty will do the trick. Once again he digs a grave that takes effect in the third film.
Loss Changes the Trickster
The third Thor movie starts with Loki posing as his father, having exiled Odin to Earth in a nursing home. He apologizes in play form to his brother for all the terrible things he did, and insists that his father loved him. Thor quickly outs Loki as an impostor and demands to see their father. Loki takes him to a retirement home in New York, but they locate their father on a Norway cliff, enjoying the view. Odin greets them kindly.
Loki starts to change when Odin calls him son, and one of his boys. He has to tell Thor that his father is not acting more mellow due to a spell; Odin’s words and emotions are genuine. Unfortunately, Loki only reached this point to lose his father again, for real this time. Odin gives them a few minutes’ warning about Hela before fading into sparkles of gold. Thor blames Loki for unwittingly causing their father’s death and freeing Hela. The god of thunder is unfortunately correct; just like in the myths, the trickster god has started the events that necessitate Thor destroying Asgard. Loki then makes things worse on demanding to be returned home. This provides the entrance Hela needs to return to Asgard and conquer it.
Loki in the myths did not fear Hel, his daughter. It’s possible that he loved her and gave her Baldr on purpose, so she would have a paramour in the Underworld. Film Loki with his sister Hela is a different matter; he panics on seeing the woman destroy Thor’s hammer. This is the only time we see Loki run from a fight; in other cases he has surrendered, deceived his opponent, or fake his death. We can interpret this to mean that Loki fears true death, that isn’t a hologram or falling into an abyss. He can handle meeting Thanos, and pretending to join the Dark Elves, but cessation of existence is too much.
The Green Guy Returns
Banner had to return to complete Lokis’s journey. By coincidence, Hulk, Thor and Loki all end up on the garbage planet Sarkaar. They need each other, plus the lone surviving Valkyrie, to complete their mission and character journeys.
Loki still thinks of Hulk as a dreaded monster. He reacts with terror on seeing him in the arena, facing Thor in gladiator combat. This is understandable; the green guy clobbered him badly during their last encounter. Still, he keeps his cool even when Valkyrie ties him up and Loki encounters Banner, who changes back by miracle.
Hulk needs proof that he is more than a monster. He receives fame, adulation, and a home on Sarkaar; the Other Guy also wants a friend in Thor. Banner is scared that if he goes green, he can’t become human again. When Hulk takes on the wolf Fenrir, it’s Banner accepting that the monster is a part of him, and not to be feared. Eventually, Loki reaches that point. as well.
Ultimately, Loki losing Thor’s love makes him change for the better. As Loki is coerced into helping Thor escape the garbage planet of Sarkaar and steal a ship that can enter a neutron star, Thor admits that their paths have diverged. Once, he wanted to fight side by side with his brother, but Loki never wanted that. At this point, they can’t work as a team because Loki will always betray him, and seek to fulfill an ulterior motive. He wanted to be alone with his pain, and Loki will ultimately find that as the Grandmaster’s court member. Loki sadly agrees, and fails to betray his brother for a last time because Thor anticipates the actions. He cannot handle that blow to his pride.
Loki also loses his strength: deception. The Grandmaster tells him off for letting Thor “seduce”and run off with Hulk. Valkyrie ties him up before persuading him to help. Thor also manages to deceive Loki and incapacitate him. He tells off Loki for being a predictable traitor and god of mischief, while saying that he could be more. The darkhaired man is left thrashing on the floor, battling mundane technology.
To grow, Loki has to face his sister, the living representation of death. Loki, having nowhere else to go, joins a troupe of fleeing gladiators and brings their ship to Asgard, to save his people. We don’t know if he does it to earn back Thor’s love, or to rise to his brother’s challenge. Whatever the reason, while he cannot save his home, another loss to add to his long list, he manages to save his brother’s love. We don’t know where they will go from here.
Possible Projections for the Future
Ultimately, we don’t know where Loki will stand in Infinity War. Once a prince, he is now a refugee like his brother. Thanos also wants him dead for failing to conquer Earth. No one on Earth can trust the trickster due to his massacre and botched invasion.
Loki both has more and less sympathy than he does in mythology. Modern times and values demand that for the audience to like Loki, despite his misdeeds, he has to suffer losses, and cause his own pain. As a result, heroes and villains alike toss him around like a rag doll. I am rooting for him to stay heroic, and love his brother.