(Note: This review contains spoilers.)
As I waited in line to watch “Star Trek: Into Darkness” a while back, a fellow nerd informed me that she “didn’t think Benedict Cumberbatch was sexy until he played Khan.”
While I was more than a little horrified, I wasn’t too shocked, since I know people have found evil characters attractive for a very long time. Two hundred years ago, Percy Shelley said of Milton’s Satan that “Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in ‘Paradise Lost.’” Villains may be quite popular nowadays, but they have been at least since the early 19th century.
Yet this is not meant to be a lament for the lost heroes, or a lecture on bad guys and the girls who love them. I assume that most of BreakPoint’s readership would agree with me that we should not approve Satan’s determination to overthrow God, or find Khan Noonien Singh’s genocidal aspirations sexy.
The truth is, since I am never a fan of a bad guy, when I walked into the movie theater to watch “Thor: The Dark World,” I fully expected to enjoy some Loki snark, to appreciate Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, and to giggle at the Hiddleston fan who would be sitting next to me. While I expected to enjoy everything about Loki far more than I would enjoy Thor’s “Me Thor, You Jane” personality, I did not expect to be drawn into sympathy for Loki in any way.
I was very pleasantly surprised.
When the audience first sees Loki in “The Dark World,” he is in an Asgardian prison doing time for his crimes in New York in “The Avengers.” What with Asgardian prison cells being luxury apartments surrounded by shimmering golden walls, Loki has ample opportunity to play the suave Mephistopheles, reclining on an elegant settee to read, or drawling his complaint against his uncaring father and brother to his mother. Even after his mother is killed, the audience sees Loki as the cool villain. It is only when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) forces Loki to reveal his true situation that we learn that he is hiding his furious and self-destructive grief behind a facade (almost literally; one of his superpowers is that he can hide things behind a perception filter of some kind.)
Thor calls on Loki to help him defeat the evil Dark Elf (Christopher Eccleston) who killed their mother. Loki agrees to help his brother, and there is some satisfactorily goofy comic-book interaction between Thor and Loki (and various and sundry other gods), as they begin their quest. Then it suddenly becomes serious when Thor says, “I wish I could trust you.”
“Trust my rage,” Loki tells him.
Thor apparently does, as he participates in a patented (by this point in the movie) Loki-perception-filter-deception to temporarily stymie the Dark Elf.
This makes for an interesting twist on the superhero format. Superhero movies, at least in my limited experience, nearly always deal with the superhero’s inner demons. Thor had a sort of inner demon in his first film—he was a bit cocky—but Thor of “The Dark World” doesn’t have any inner demons. Or inner personality. He just has Loki. Thor is the personality-free force of goodness and light who fights the personality-free force of evil and darkness in the Dark Elf. Loki, on the other hand, is conflicted. He is the Tony Stark or Peter Parker of the story: the human (so to speak) character who could use his power for good or evil. And apparently he makes the choice for good, because he turns his rage against the Minion of the Dark Elf and is killed in the process.
Except that he isn’t, because we discover in the last moment of the movie that Loki never did die, and that he’s taken over his father’s throne (presumably by killing his father). We thought that he had redeemed himself in the end, but he hadn’t.
So what to make of this? What do we do with a movie in which the only developing character is an evil villain who has taken countless lives, and who seems to change for the better but really doesn’t? Should we be horrified that movies these days don’t provide kids with useful role models? That the only interest in this movie is in the bad guy who twists everything good around him for his own evil purposes and confuses you about his moral position in the process?
I have a few thoughts:
First, Loki in “The Dark World” is realistic. Yes, he can shape shift, but he, like most every character in a superhero movie, is fundamentally human. And not every human villain is Heath Ledger’s Joker. To quote the sort-of-redeemed villain in “3:10 to Yuma,” “Even bad guys love their mammas!” In real life, criminals are not all matricides, or even horribly unpleasant people that no one wants to be around. When I go to see a Marvel movie, I expect a realistically complex hero rather than a realistically complex villain. But we humans are fallen image-bearers of God, and as such we should expect to see some glimmers of good in any human characters. Loki’s love for his mother makes him a realistic person, and thus a realistic villain.
Second, Loki presents a great picture of the problems inherent in our culture’s idolizing of love. When we think that Loki is helping Thor, we start to forget all the hundreds of people Loki killed. He has some love in him after all—love for his mother, and maybe even his brother! Love is good! Love is redemption!
That is how we feel, but observation shows us otherwise: Love can lead to selfishness, violence, and even psychopathy. Or as C. S. Lewis put it in “The Four Loves,” “Love, having become a god, becomes a demon.” Loki’s love could have motivated him for good, but it didn’t necessarily have to. As it turned out, he used it as a facade (possibly even a motivation) for his hatred and murder.
Third, and finally, this potentially problematic character was what made this a good film. The 10-dimensional villain saved the film from its one-dimensional hero. And it did so, not by encouraging us to love him for his sexy evilness, but by making us hope that his love for his mother proved that deep down inside he was a good person. It made us think his revenge was righteous anger. It made us love his apparent repentance and even root for him. It may have even made us weep at the sacrifice he made out of his grief.
And then, it forced us to realize that he was evil after all. He may have pretended to have the most noble of reasons: love! But that love makes him an almost oedipal patricide, and certainly a god-defying regicide.
Loki becomes almost a Satan at the end of “Thor: The Dark World.” But a more frightening Satan than Milton’s. For where Milton’s Satan was a grandiosely defiant angelic failure, Loki is a self-sacrificingly, lovingly evil human success. He is what our deeply flawed contemporary version of love leads to, and nothing could be more frightening than that.
Image copyright Marvel Entertainment.
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell once wrote a 20-page paper about sublimity, genius, and the reception of Milton's Satan throughout the 18th century. Her personal trainer, Arthur, believes that her time would have been better spent walking him. Arthur is a labradoodle.