Tom Hiddleston's Loki has had one of the strangest character arcs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Thor: Ragnarok actually brings the series' best on-again, off-again antagonist squarely back to his chaotic neutral roots.
[Warning: The following contains light spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.]
In the original Thor stand-alone film, Loki tried to overthrow his family to take command of Asgard, and transitioned seamlessly from his defeat to waging war on Earth in The Avengers. In the second Thor film, Thor: The Dark World, Loki made plays to defeat his brother, but eventually sacrifices himself to save the universe. Of course, nothing is as what it appears. Loki can never go full lawful neutral without a twist revealing a self-serving twist later.
When Ragnarok begins, Loki is still running Asgard in Odin-disguise, and very obviously playing his hand by staging elaborate theatrical tributes to honor his own sacrifices. Despite his ego, Loki has managed to run a very peaceful Asgard from the shadows. Until now. While Ragnarok is absolutely Thor's story first, the small flashes of Loki storyline show one of the biggest changes of a character in the MCU.
During a recent press junket for the film, Hiddleston addressed Loki's growth, saying “In this film, it’s about the development of the relationship between Thor and Loki as brothers. Thor has evolved, matured, and grown and Loki, in a way, is stuck in his challenges of the past.”
Hiddleston expanded on this character development in a recent interview with SlashFilm: "I’ve said this about Loki before ... the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. So the idea that Thor might be indifferent to Loki is troubling for him, because that’s a defining feature of who his character is. I don’t belong in the family; my brother doesn’t love me; I hate my brother. The idea that his brother’s like, “Yeah, whatever,” it’s an interesting development." This was Hiddleston's big draw when reading the script for Ragnarok; seeing familiarity in complicated situations create a sense of family.”
This is all perfectly encapsulated in a mid-movie scene when Thor suggests Loki should simply follow his own self-serving darkness. Thor knows Loki has good in him, but time and time again Loki has turned against his brother. Thor, in no way offering a challenge or redemption, suggests they both know Loki will always be evil until he finds reason to change from within himself.
The idea of fixing Loki has been replaced by a dismissive gesture that Loki should just attempt to find something, anything, that will make him happy. It also represents Thor washing his hands of his brother and responsibility he feels for Loki’s choices, but simultaneously extending the kind of love for his brother that no longer asks for anything in return.
In an interview with Collider, Hiddleston explained that Loki understands he can’t just be the mischievous prankster and hope to get by.
"He has to deal with the consequences of, like, ‘Oh shit – I started something here,’” Hiddleston said.
As Hiddleston said in the press junket, Loki is still battling his past. Thor's version of adulthood is moving forward, and Loki has to grow up — one way or another. Thor's refusal to weigh in on Loki’s future is far more painful than getting slammed into the ground repeatedly by a furious Hulk.
In the comics, Loki usually exists in the position of being less interested in control than in watching the fallout from his experiments on humanity. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally reached a point where Loki has run several different realms at various points in his professional mischief career, but has also experienced the defeat of a villain and the sacrifice of a hero. As a character, he's experienced each type of win and loss, but keeps winding up in exactly the same place. There's a real nihilism in trying to be a trickster god in this world, and Loki is finally at a breaking point.
Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters on Nov. 3.