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Exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Shakespearean Character


Loki, at his core, is a Shakespearean creation, gifted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe by an actor and director who practically bleed the Bard. Kenneth Brannagh has portrayed more Shakespearean characters than just about any actor breathing and Tom Hiddleston performs it as if he breathes it. Their background, fused with Hiddleston’s pure and instinctive relationship to the character’s most compelling flaws, manifested what we all know and love about Loki.

Every iteration of him … of which there have been many.

A Multiplicious Character Projecting Humanity Back Onto Itself

That multiplicity within a single character is Shakespeare’s creation; his gift to centuries of storytelling. He knew how to fold humanity back onto itself, analyze it, dramatize it, and project it back with a profundity that quite literally ripples across time. It’s astonishing how deeply embedded his work is within our innate understanding of storytelling. So much so, that those who don’t necessarily subscribe, but love storytelling of basically any stripe, actually do, and just don’t know it.

In that regard, the legacy of the Bard himself is a bit mischievous, and tieing him to my exploration of Loki, is a bit chaotic. Chaos, after all, suggests a paradox — the connection of two seemingly incompatible notions that are familiar and understandable when separate but create great conflict when combined.

Loki is the Norse God of Chaos and Mischief. He, himself, a paradox of what we commonly understand good and evil to be, combined into one soul. A reflection of the true nature of humanity, which is utter chaos. One individual who represents what we all know to be true.

“No one good is ever truly good, and no one bad is ever truly bad.”

RELATED: Interview: Composer Natalie Holt Discusses Her Work on Loki

Loki and Mobius - Loki

This lies at the heart of why Loki is such a beloved character, one so often dubbed by just about every writer out there covering the MCU, as its most compelling. We crave his redemption as we crave it within ourselves. Superheroes being dashing and relentlessly righteous has its own appeal, sure, and we love to root for that, too. But how often can any of us truly relate to that?

“I mean, honestly.”

Often we’re flawed victims of our own ambitions, woefully misdirected by “imagined slights,” and social media certainly makes a case for a need of attention.

We relate to Loki. He is our underdog. And he’s a damn good bit of fun.

Loki Is the Only Character in the MCU Who Conducts Proper Tête-à-Têtes

Thor and Loki - Thor Ragnarok

Defined as a head-to-head, or private conversation, of weight between two characters, a tête-à-tête with Loki is always fascinating, fun, or emotionally revelatory. He wields words, and the moment of them, like no other character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It almost doesn’t matter who he’s engaging with but there are memorable stand-outs.

Above all, of course, is the brotherly love/hate bickering between Loki and Thor. Regularly, they challenge the understanding that each has of the other, or simply swap barbs that ground one another — really as only a life-long friend can. There are moments where Thor pleads with Loki to see beyond his “imagined slights,” moments where he throws up barriers of wounded mistrust, and then, eventually, moments where he manipulates the manipulator, discovering that the best way to get through is to play his game. Love is inseparably infused in all three, and therefore, so much of our desire for Loki’s redemption is shaped by his tumultuous relationship with his brother.

Loki and Mobius - Loki

Then, later, this is reinforced by Owen Wilson’s Mobius — someone with a different skill set, and a different connection to the mercurial trickster, who can achieve what Thor tried to do for years. As we all know, sometimes it takes someone else, who we respect in a different way, to create sense from emotional chaos.

While these two, and their interactions with Loki, are most vital for the character, he has had other memorable (and quotable) exchanges. Black Widow and Loki’s mutual manipulation through the glass of that “impressive cage” in The Avengers, as well as with Nick Fury; Phil Colson and Loki’s entanglement, leading to the “death” of Colson, which created the literal catalyst for The Avengers to … avenge; and most recently, Sylvie and Loki’s unstable alliance that challenges their shared ability to trust and to be trustworthy.

What I beg of the creatives masterminding the MCU is a meaningful (and hysterical) tête-à-tête between Loki and Doctor Strange (the actors are very old friends). With the multiverse in tatters and Kang on the horizon, I would be shocked, and saddened, if this isn’t on the way. Perhaps also, a little reunion with the not-so-dead Phil Colson. They can bond and share fond memories of their multiple resurrections. I mean, sounds like fun to me.

Despite Questionable Actions, Loki Always Cheats Death … And We Want Him To

Loki and Thanos - Avengers: Infinity War

Loki has straight-up murdered people. And yet, we love him.

At this point, though, there are a good many murderers in the MCU, are there not? Black Widow isn’t the only one with red in her ledger; damn near everyone has at least some, these days.

With Loki, his anger is so grounded in relatable, foolhardy misconceptions that we’ve understood exactly where he’s coming from since the very first Thor film. He was lied to, “locked up like another stolen relic,” raised for a purpose he never understood and was isolated by, and therefore, manifested his own glorious one to fill the void. He truly believes he is the hero of his own story, or at least, can be with willful action; enough to square what he perceives as his father’s doubt in him. As an audience, we see that drive, and those hints of good in him, and quietly hope that they converge into something extraordinary.

I believe this is why the whole of the character’s fanbase has refused his death. Loki, as a character, was supposed to die several times. Written, in the script, as dead. Hiddleston fully believed it was the end. Contract terminated. Written, performed, filmed, dead. End of file, so to speak.

But the fans have vehemently rejected the idea every single time, forced the hand of the creatives at Marvel, and rewritten the character’s story almost themselves. Loki’s sacrifice, at the end of Thor: The Dark World, was supposed to be final, but when the film went to screen for test audiences, no one believed he was dead. Everyone theorized how he got away and played some kind of manipulative Loki trick, prompting the filmmakers to reconvene and reshoot the entire ending of the film.

Collectively, prior to the Loki series, the character had only been on-screen for roughly two hours over the course of five films (all of which tend to be upward of two hours each). Yet, he has had enough impact with fans to change the course of Marvel’s own plans. Quite possibly the only character of the MCU to do that.

This perhaps even inspired Loki header writer Michael Waldron’s own approach to the pivotal moment of the series pilot. Loki, confronted with the existential mindf— of witnessing his own death and the realization that his prior course led to nothing he expected, must take the hit, rise again, and rewrite how his story ends.

In a very relatable way, the character inspires. He loses “sometimes painfully” and yet still rises to the occasion of using it to his advantage. Every loss, therefore, deepens his meaning to the audience. Our desire strengthens for that next f— yeah moment when he overcomes — “Your savior is here!”— as well as our empathy for how much he deserves those moments.

Loki Is Portrayed By An Instinct-Driven Actor Committed to Empathy

Tom Hiddleston - Loki

Historically, if Hiddleston can’t find kernels of himself in a character, you won’t see him portray that character. There isn’t another actor, that I can think of, who is so committed to being uncool that it becomes cool. He does not learn lines and deliver them; he papers the walls of his entire psyche with his research, empathy, and personal connective tissue for a character. He gives himself permission to be in the thick of it, to care, to give it everything, to project his passion through imagination until it’s vivid and in focus. It’s tremendously generous.

Now, amalgamate that with a deep love of human multiplicity (it’s difficult to find an interview where the man does not quote Walt Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes”), and there’s literally no one else that could have brought Loki to life as Hiddleston has. He understood the assignment because maybe he kind of is the assignment. An actor, in the purest of ways, exploring all the different things that we are, on our behalf.

Can you even imagine anyone who isn’t in tune with that portraying Loki? It would be so boring. Loki certainly wouldn’t approve of that. He abhors boring, as we all know.

In the Marvel Studio’s Assembled episode for Loki, Hiddleston describes the character saying “he plays all of the keys on the piano.” He’s mischievous, charismatic, witty, charming, and disruptive, but also profoundly broken, damaged, manipulative, and at times, even a bit unhinged in his anger fueled by heartbreak. He walks the mercurial line of sanity, and at least for a time delighted in its unpredictability, until it became predictable … and perhaps a bit lonely. Becoming defined by being undefinable will, after a time, erode any possible identity you could have had.

As an audience following this character’s story for over a decade, we knew that is what we were witnessing — a character teetering on the brink of total erosion. Our understanding of that is directly influenced by Hiddleston’s own understanding of, and empathy for, the character. We see what he projects from the interior, and a lesser actor, merely tapping into villainy, would not have the chops to do that. Ultimately, we want the character to win, in a different way than what will destroy him, because that’s what Hiddleston wants for him, as well.

Why We Don’t Need to Worry About the Future of Loki

Loki - Thor Ragnarok

For one thing, there’s Hiddleston.

Talent aside, the guy has devoted over a decade of his life to this character and regularly demonstrates gratitude for its impact on his career. Marvel, undoubtedly, loves him for that and collaborates with his understanding of the character quite closely. While it seems to embarrass Hiddleston quite a bit in interviews, he is called “Professor Loki” within the Marvel ranks. With this in mind, I feel it safe to venture: for as long as Tom Hiddleston is involved on an executive producer level with this character, it will retain everything that we love about him.

Loki, the series, demonstrated this with stunning precision.

RELATED: Disney+’s Loki Season 2 Sets Production Start Date

Loki and Mobius - Loki

All of the character’s emotionally defining moments are literally played back to him as things he, himself, has never experienced. And in this rare moment with a character, we as an audience know more about his potential than he does. We know that his brother actually thought the world of him, that he made mistakes (including casually murdering some people, but whatever, we’ll blame the mind stone), and that Odin, like him, had a flawed approach to achieving a glorious purpose. We know that he was truly an Odinson, and now he knows it.

From that point forward, within the established rules of the TVA, Loki has more of a clean slate than any of us could have imagined for him. An opportunity for friendship, self-acceptance as a flawed being that could become something more than a hero can, and apparently, a pretty damn good singer (“Very Full” was a Billboard-charting song). More importantly, he has the opportunity to use his experiences to explore deeper existential realities, perhaps in service of an even greater purpose than he first imagined. Straight-up heroes tend to not be terribly rich in pathos, but a reformed villain, who will never be any less mischievous, certainly can.

To that end, perhaps this is where the character, born of turbulence and tragedy, deviates from his Shakespearean roots.

He survives. Because that’s what Loki’s do, heroes be damned.

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