The beauty of a cinematic universe is that it contains someone for everyone. But if the MCU had anyone close to being a universal fan favourite, Asgard’s most slippery adopted son was it. Loki’s charms made him one of its more magnetic personalities and, until Thanos, its most compelling villain.
Yet on anything approaching a close examination, Loki’s character development is among the most inconsistent in the MCU. He entered as a scheming Iago, overflowing with envy and mired in deceit, but still at heart a wounded little boy. By The Avengers, Loki was a fully-fledged psychopath, racking up a kill count so high it’s referenced in the script. He gleefully extracted eyeballs, used his sceptre as a club, and generally got busy sticking the fascist boot into Earth’s anthill. It was undoubtedly his most arresting and memorable moment, but hardly his most likeable.
So for Thor: The Dark World, the only path left was being a better demigod. He took it, creating one of the more engaging moments in an unpopular chapter of the MCU. But poor audience testing led to the second of Loki’s resurrections – great news for Tom Hiddleston’s contract, but a death knell to any reasonable character development. He had one more opportunity to sell a really credible redemption, and he just about managed it – but the price was being made ridiculous, with Taika Waititi taking every opportunity to put the words “Devil’s Anus” in the mouth of a plummy Brit.
When finally the axe fell, it was best not to look too closely at the details of the scene. Better not to ask questions like: why would the prince of self-preservation emerge from the shadows at that moment, with Thanos about to depart and surrounded by his powerful ‘children’? All potential backup is dead, restrained or put down and packed off onto the Bifröst.
Why does Loki awkwardly telegraph his intention to be a bit shady by looking meaningfully at his brother as he stresses his title, “Odinsson”? There were plenty of far more in-character ways out of that scene that didn’t result in the first really significant death of the MCU (Quicksilver, we hardly knew ye). But the Russos knew what we didn’t want to accept: it was long past time.
Comic books are notorious for slapping a revolving door on the crypt, and one of the biggest criticisms levelled at Marvel’s film universe up until Infinity War was the lack of high-stakes, permanent deaths. Tony Stark’s whole thing was surviving near-death experiences from the very first time he had to construct himself an artificial heart; he had to make it to the end in order to be the end. And after Bucky emerged from the abyss as the Winter Soldier, the biggest back-from-the-dead card was firmly played.
Arguably the most deeply affecting on-screen death was that of another antagonist, Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger, but unfortunately for Loki his death couldn’t be timed to pack the same punch. It would have left a bum note coming in the anarchic Thor: Ragnarok, so it had to happen within the first few minutes of Infinity War, a hurried hastening to the halls of Valhalla. Although in a nice touch for students of Norse mythology, he dies within minutes of Heimdall.
But if there was nowhere else for Loki to go in the MCU movies, why not give him an afterlife on television? A spin-off series for upcoming streaming service Disney+ has already been announced, and Hiddleston secured to do the honours. It has not been revealed exactly when and where the story will take place, only that Loki is likely to pop up here and there to influence historical events on Earth (oh boy).
Since then, we’ve learned that the time-tinkering of Endgame gave Loki an opportunity to escape with the Tesseract when he should have been on his way to an Asgardian prison cell. The old Trousers of Time explanation for Marvel’s physics suggest it is technically possible for a past Loki to show up in future MCU films, but it’s certainly an impulse the powers that be should resist with all their might. Because no matter the wheres and whys and hows, a season-long arc of a TV show finally gives Marvel room to pick the Loki they like best and run with it.
It remains to be seen which version will be the starting point for this more satisfying character development. Perhaps it’ll be the peevish Shakespearean little brother. Maybe it’ll be the wannabe conqueror. For what it’s worth, assuming that it’s not yet another iteration, my money is on some development of Dark World’s pithy tortured soul. While it’s not the best loved of Marvel’s instalments, it allows for a number of touching and witty moments for the trickster. He genuinely mourns his mother, he trusts in his rage and he puts his talents of mimicry on full show, taking on the appearance of Captain America for comic effect (something Endgame couldn’t resist showing off one more time).
Hiddleston can more than hold his own in a massive ensemble cast, but he’s proven time and time again that the lingering intimacy of stage and television are where he really shines. Those two sides of Loki, the sharp-eyed opportunist and the second-best child, offer him the richest territory for playing with the character’s backstory, without losing the spark that made us love him – or love to hate him – in the first place.
Yes, it is after all one more resurrection of sorts. But this time we might just get the chance to get to know the real Loki.