SPOILERS FOR INFINITY WAR, OBVIOUSLY
I want to talk about Infinity War. Specifically, the first ten minutes of Infinity War, which might quite possibly have shaken me the most of any ten minutes of any movie I’ve ever watched (besides perhaps the last ten minutes of Rogue One).
Maybe I should start by saying that, the amount of headspace I’ve spent on this character notwithstanding, I don’t even consider myself a “Loki fan” (I feel that term applies to fans in a different league). Not the way that I was a Wedge fan in the days when the EU still existed. But, like thousands before me, I find the Thor and Loki arc fascinating, and pretty much the biggest reason to follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
How on earth did I end up writing an essay-length post about this??
I am a relative newcomer to Thor and Loki, my introduction having been Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which was the first Thor film I watched, not counting the first Avengers film, which I watched back in 2012 because I had recently been blown away by Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men. I did remember Loki in that movie because of his stature as a memorably evil villain, who has such confidence in his ability to sow discord using nothing but his voice that he allows himself to be taken prisoner simply to be able to create havoc among the Avengers.
However, after that I didn’t follow anything that happened in the MCU.
Until Ragnarok, which sounded like a movie I would totally enjoy regardless of what fandom it was set in – a distinctive comic-book aesthetic, my kind of humour, Cate Blanchett in gleeful goth villain mode. So I watched Ragnarok and – as I knew I would – LOVED it. Its blend of madcap adventure and comedy, the alternation of dramatic tension and humorous deflation, combined with a storyline with sufficient gravitas to make the outcome matter, is a unique formula that I have rarely seen anywhere outside of the best Biggles books I grew up reading (Captain W.E. Johns in his heyday, writing in the 1930s and 40s), as well as that glorious culmination of the X-Wing series, Starfighters of Adumar (by Aaron Allston). After I watched it, I raved to my brother, “I think I’ve already HAD my Starfighters of Adumar movie!”
And that was how I ended up watching the Thor movies for the first time, just before a major exam – Thor (2011) – I rewatched The Avengers (2012) – and Thor: The Dark World (2013). Thus getting the complete experience around half a decade late. The intense, dysfunctional and relatable sibling relationship. The solid groundwork laid by Messrs. Hemsworth and Hiddleston over the years for all the comedy in Ragnarok, and, as it would transpire, the punch in the gut in the first ten minutes of Infinity War.
Loki’s popularity as a character is probably explained by a combination of the ‘Belle’ factor (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, 1991) or the ‘Elsa’ factor (Frozen, 2013) – the universally relatable experience of being an outsider/not living up to social norms – along with what I shall call the, uh, ‘Sydney Carton/Grantaire’ factor – the self-destructive genius or cynic who sticks out like a sore thumb in a world of more well-adjusted people. He’s relatable, and he’s also a poor thing. Not to mention, he’s also Tom Hiddleston in an iconic performance – along the films we see the whole range of anger, malevolence, broken-heartedness, and flashes of the soaring playfulness which earns Loki the title of God of mischief. (Which explains the fact that he has legions of fangirls, among whose number I don’t even think I can be said to fall.) To be fair, there is no Loki without Thor, and fans’ investment in Loki is also due in large part to the fact that he has Thor, his big kor kor, to play off, who starts off in the first movie as a bit of a jerk but has a genuineness and likeability throughout, and never stops caring for his brother while at the same time he learns to insulate himself against multiple betrayals.
A it turns out, I jumped on the Thor and Loki wagon just in time to watch the final act in real time. It was only after that ominous Ragnarok mid-credits scene in which Thanos shows up to claim the Tesseract that I realised that there was something called Infinity War coming out in a few months, which might spell the end of Loki. I told my husband, “I will be SO BUMMED if the Asgardian ship is blown up and Loki dies in the first five minutes after all that happened in Ragnarok”. Yes. Well.
* * *
Prognosis was poor for Loki the moment the first trailer was released, and he had only himself to blame for swiping the Tesseract, which attracted the attention of the Mad Titan to his people. However, the manner of his end, or more pertinently, the allegiance he might be holding when he met his end, would be a question mark till the movie came out. While Ragnarok ends with the brothers closer than ever before, the Internet was rife with speculation as to whether this notorious trickster, who had betrayed his brother repeatedly, would switch sides again for his survival.
We all know what happens now. In a sequence that continues where the light-hearted Ragnarok left off, but in a much darker register altogether, Thanos slaughters half of the defenceless Asgardian civilians, the other half presumably having fled by escape pods. The movie opens with an exhausted and defeated Thor at Thanos’ mercy. Loki is still standing, but surrounded by Thanos’ Black Order. Thanos threatens to take Thor’s life unless Loki gives up the Tesseract. Loki at first blithely calls Thanos’ bluff, changes his mind when he realises he doesn’t really want to see his brother die, and hands the cube over. The Hulk charges at Thanos and is defeated. Heimdall uses the last ounce of dark magic he has to beam the defeated Hulk back to Earth before being swiftly finished off by the Black Order.
What happens next is chilling and also, at first glance, somewhat puzzling. Loki, the master of self-preservation and inscrutability, seemingly tries to pull off a schoolboy stunt. He reels off his list of soi-disant titles – “I, Loki, Prince of Asgard, Odin’s son [here he pauses to make eye contact with Thor], the rightful king of Jotunheim, God of mischief… do pledge you my undying fidelity.” The immobilised Thor, and the audience, notice with horror that he is concealing a dagger in his left hand. The spiel he’s giving seems to be a smokescreen… can he be really planning to do it? It’s madness. But he does, lunging towards the giant with the dagger in an attack which never stood a chance. Thanos’s huge fist closes over his left forearm and he stares helpless for a second or two. Then, for an awful few beats, he is thrashing for his life, unable to get out of the vise that is Thanos about to crush his windpipe. All the physiological changes of asphyxiation are visible. The veins stand out on his temples, the face turns puffy. You can practically see the petechiae forming. He manages to choke out a last defiance – “You will never be a god”, and then life ends, there is the sound of the thyroid cartilage and hyoid bone being crushed, and the lifeless body is tossed at his brother’s feet like a doll, with the disfigured, swollen face not even averted from the camera. It’s a death of shocking violence and of clanging finality. Thanos looks directly at the camera and breaks the fourth wall: “No more resurrections this time.”
It’s awful, and heartbreaking.
In the weeks that follow, Loki fans seem to go through all the stages of grief, at least if comments on YouTube are anything to go by.
Anger: “They didn’t do right by Loki, what a dumb way to go! Sign this petition demanding that he’s not dead!”
Denial: “He can’t be dead, he’ll be back, he faked his death, he didn’t turn into a Frost Giant as he would if he had died for real”
Bargaining: “Even if he is dead, I hope Thor will find a way to get him out of Valhalla / Even if he is dead, I hope Hiddleston will get another role in the MCU”
Depression: [watching fanvid tributes incessantly, grieving on social media]
I’m of the school of thought that there’s no doubt at all that Loki is really dead. The scene has such a finality to it. Artistically, it has to be the only answer. The brutal prologue sequence, Loki and Thor vs Thanos, serves the purpose that Captain Antilles vs Darth Vader did at the beginning of A New Hope, or that the velociraptors vs T-Rex did in the last scene of Jurassic Park – to establish the supremacy of the apex predator (sorry guys who remember Tom Hiddleston’s Nerd HQ velociraptor imitation, I don’t mean to rub it in). The producers broke the fourth wall to tell you so. If there was any doubt whatsoever about the authenticity of the death scene, Kevin Feige was quoted saying that Tom Hiddleston was momentarily emotional on set as he had to bid farewell to the character. The best answer I saw online in response to the question “Is Loki really dead?”, by an online poster, was, “He’s not dead, he’s just pining for the fjords.”
* * *
An intentional sacrifice
I skipped the first few stages of grief. My initial reaction was to be unable to eat my lunch (it was only a few days later that I realised it was a stomach bug from my kids and not just a grief reaction). The death scene is apparently available to watch on YouTube in its entirety, but I can’t bring myself to see it again. (I must confess to watching tribute fanvids though which is how certain clips have become familiar)
After thinking it over for a few weeks, that death scene just seems more and more appropriate. Of course, that seemingly ‘dumb move’ with the dagger makes sense when one interprets it in the context that Loki planned his move not seriously believing that he could defeat Thanos, and instead knowing full well that it would result in his death. He has evolved from the last instalment, when engaging with a stronger foe was anathema to his self-preserving nature. In Ragnarok, he says to Thor, about Hela, “You’re not seriously thinking of going back, are you? She’s stronger than us. She’s stronger than you”. But later in Ragnarok, he returns to Asgard of his own choice to face this foe with his brother, and understands that if Hela is not checked, there will be no safe place in the universe anyway. Loki has come a long way – he counts “experience [as] experience”. In Infinity War, he applies the lesson: there are some foes you cannot run away from but have to stand and fight. There are times you may be perceived as having failed when actually you have won.
Of all Thanos’ victims in this movie, apart from Gamora and Nebula, Loki is the one who knows Thanos best, and he knows the tendency/eccentricity that Thanos has of killing half of a population, or half of a pair – taking sibling from sibling, partner from partner – as were the circumstances under which essentially he obtained all the other stones in this movie. At the beginning of the movie, it looked like between Thor and Loki, Thor was the one who was going to die. By the end of the prologue sequence Loki had flipped it around, and I believe it was intentional. The sacrifice is out of character in the sense that for once in his life it is unselfish, but it is not stupid.
Loki gives – exchanges – his life for Thor’s for a number of reasons apart from brotherly feeling: he knows that if anyone can help to take down Thanos later it will be Thor – he has seen Thor come into his powers in Ragnarok. Secondly, he knows that it is his deeds in Avengers 1 and his act of taking the Tesseract from Asgard that has attracted Thanos’ attention to the remnant of his people, and may want to make amends. Lastly, he has backstory with Thanos and might be expecting retribution or torture, which could well be in store for him even if Thanos kills Thor, so he may have felt he had nothing to lose. Although one might say that Thanos might have spared Thor’s life since Loki has given up the Tesseract, we know Thanos is unpredictable and cruel (c.f. the dwarves who made the Infinity Gauntlet), and also smart, and wouldn’t leave a potentially dangerous foe like Thor at large, he might have progressed on to kill him anyway.
His last recital of his titles is not, actually, intended as an introduction of himself to Thanos (who knows very well who he is). We are, in fact, witnessing an unprecedented phenomenon, the tying up of the loose emotional ends of four prevous movies. Prior to the opening of Infinity War, Tom Hiddleston gave an interview in which he said that “the next thing for Loki to conquer is his own mind.” And that is what he accomplishes in this scene, the shapeshifter, that insecure son battling self-loathing and unable in previous movies to accept his parentage: he has finally arrived at a synthesis that allows him to reconcile, in the end, his adoptive Asgardian identity with accepting the love of his father (“Odin’s son”), his original parentage (“rightful king of Jotunheim”), and his personality and gifts (“God of mischief”). Finally – after years of not knowing his own mind – he knows who he is, no longer inscrutable, catching Thor’s eye, letting the mask drop. And with this he is bidding Thor, and the audience, farewell. He hesitates for a moment before extending that left hand, takes one last deep breath knowing it is the last unhindered breath he will take – how can anyone watch his expression at that point and interpret it any other way than that he knows he’s going to die? Then he lunges.
It’s no coincidence that the hand that holds the dagger is the same one that was grabbed by the Jotunheim warrior in the first movie and turned blue to reveal his true nature while he stared at it in horror and disbelief. In this final scene, which echoes that first betrayal, the “disloyal” left arm is now redeemed by one final blow in the Asgardian cause.
Moreover, calling himself ‘Odin’s son’ cements his identity and self-identification as Thor’s brother. In that moment he is indicating that he and Thor are truly two halves of a pair, calling this to Thanos’ attention, hoping that, in the spirit of his “half and half” rule, after he kills him he will spare his brother. Thus the moment he is truly at peace with his brother is also the moment that he is able to fulfil the definition of the “half” being subtracted when he is killed. Later on in the same movie, Thanos tells another character that he chooses the 50% who will die at random, but in this case Loki intentionally ensures that Thanos kills him and not Thor, engineering Thanos’ choice, so that his death was actually his final sleight of hand. It’s a brilliant move. It’s also possibly the first unselfish act that Loki has done and ever will do.
* * *
In The Frogs, a satirical comedy by Aristophanes, the playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides argue over who has the better lines and is most deserving of the title of best tragic poet. Aeschylus says (I always overuse this quote, because I like it so much), “Well, now, look at the characters I left him. Fine, stalwart characters, larger than life, men who didn’t shirk their responsibilities. My heroes weren’t like those market-place loafers, swindlers, and rogues they write about nowadays; they were real heroes, breathing spears and lances, white-plumed helmets, breast-plates and greaves; heroes with hearts of good solid ox-leather, seven hides thick.” The playwrights then go on to cast lines from their plays into a pair of scales to see which is heavier.
In my book, Loki’s death clangs into those scales after the levity of Ragnarok with the unexpected weight of those lines from “Easter 1916” by Yeats (“He, too, has resigned his part / In the casual comedy; He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly”). Never in my life did I expect this kind of heaviness in a Marvel film, of all places. In the prologue of a Marvel film, before the title credits have even rolled, we have witnessed the transformation of a “swindler and rogue” into a “real hero” in death. When the title came on screen, I checked my watch. Not even ten minutes in. What a shock to the system.
But it’s all good. As Hiddleston teased in an interview prior to the release of Infinity War, to fans anxious for Loki: “Everything’s fine”. It was tongue in cheek, but it was true. Kind of. Loki may have lost the fight against Thanos. But that final move with the dagger is his victory on a few levels. He dies having conquered his internal demons, accomplishes his immediate goal of saving his brother, and keeps Thor alive to avenge him and the Asgardian remnant on Thanos later.
As a Loki fan, anika g., has pointed out in a fanvid on Youtube, he goes out deserving of the Viking Prayer recited by Thor in Ragnarok for his father, which Loki also knows by heart: “I bid you take your place in the halls of Valhalla, where the brave shall live forever. Nor shall we mourn but rejoice, for those that have died the glorious death.”
With that, his character arc is complete. From the resentful, lost adoptive prince struggling with self-loathing in Thor (2011), to the menacing supervillain in The Avengers (2012), the angry and broken trickster at the height of his powers in The Dark World (2013), and the formerly insecure son finally hearing affirmation from both his father and brother and reaffirming family ties in Ragnarok (2017), this is the way that Loki goes out – having finally found his identity, and in the same moment using this identity purposefully to save his brother.
“And died stinkingly martyred.” (can’t resist re-quoting Dorothy Dunnett, The Game of Kings) You can almost see his grin.