Marvel Cinematic Universe fans love watching Loki get spanked. The self-proclaimed God of Mischief, played by Tom Hiddleston over six Marvel movies and now in the new series Loki, is treacherous and dangerous. But he’s also arrogant in a particularly smug and needling way that makes it satisfying to watch him get slapped down. Anything that takes the smirk and smarm out of him for a minute or two can be satisfying. From the ecstatic fan reaction when Hulk rag-dolls him in The Avengers (“Puny god.”) to the hilarious sequence where Doctor Strange utterly dominates him in Thor: Ragnarok (“I have been falling for 30 minutes!”), there’s a lot of over-the-top comic Loki-abuse in the MCU.
And that continues in the new Disney Plus series Loki, which sets up its action with a long sequence of him being taken down a few dozen pegs. After he escapes captivity and comes to the attention of a group called the Time Variance Authority, he’s humiliated by everyone from annoyed TVA security forces to indifferent bureaucrats to a seemingly well-meaning administrator. The way they chivvy him around is meant to be funny, but it’s also the first time the MCU has actually been cruel about punishing him for his choices, and the TVA’s awfulness in dealing with him is a key piece of the way the show is repositioning him for the shape and size of the story it’s telling.
[Ed. note: Minor spoilers ahead for episode 1 of Loki.]
At this point, trying to tell any Loki story may require shutting him down, just to make rational conversation possible. It’s hard to remember now what a subdued, cautious character he was back when he was introduced in Thor. He’s been through so much since then, including multiple death-fakings, an attempt to conquer Earth, a couple of rises to power and falls from grace, and endless heel-to-face-and-back-to-heel turns. In every iteration, he’s gotten more visibly frustrated and intense as his schemes have failed. The dude no longer has any chill. The early sequences of Loki, where the TVA goons prove he doesn’t impress them and has no power over them, is necessary to reset him to a baseline where he can talk to someone without being threatening, supercilious, or violent.
Over the years, Loki has been a hard character for writers to resist, because he has so much potential. His powers are flexible and adaptable. His righteous rage at being lied to about his own identity, raised to be a king, then rejected as unworthy and inferior by his adoptive father, is much more understandable than the usual vague MCU villain desire for destruction. He has a wicked sense of humor and an insightful sense for other people’s weaknesses, two things most MCU villains are sorely lacking. Maybe most importantly, he has a fandom. Buoyed by fan enthusiasm, the MCU’s writers have felt free to bring him back over and over. But to keep him from becoming predictable or rote, they’ve leaned into his theatricality, his mouthiness, and his indomitability, making him bigger and louder in every new appearance.
It’s been an impressive piece of long-term character continuity for someone who’s changed so dramatically, particularly given how static his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been throughout the same series. Thor has put on weight and gained a little caution and more of a sense of responsibility over the years, but by the end of Avengers: Endgame, he’s almost completely being back to the same swaggering, impermeable lunk he was at the beginning of 2011’s Thor. As Loki’s gotten wilder, Thor’s become the perfect foil by remaining the unmoving rock Loki keeps banging his head against.
But all Loki’s expansing operatic drama makes him a difficult character to put at the center of a crime procedural. Loki’s creators needed to smack him down hard just to get him to shut up for five minutes, and to make him stop seeing stabbing as one of the first solutions when anyone resists his authority. There’s certainly some humor in seeing such a haughty character effortlessly taken down with a super-slow-mo punch, then stripped naked by a robot with a silly emoji-face, then run through a wringer of pointless bureaucracy. But this latest comic round of Loki-smacking brings in something new: a sense that for the first time, he’s being abused more than he deserves.
Odin’s dismissal of Loki in the MCU, the core of Loki’s biggest emotional issues, always rode the line between rationality and injustice. Odin’s decision that Loki isn’t king material is based in prejudice, due to Loki’s secret heritage as the child of a frost giant, but it’s also based on Loki’s personality and his track record as an endlessly ambitious manipulator and liar. The heroes who have shut Loki down over the course of the MCU films have had even more righteous reasons — he’s a callous murderer who takes over people’s minds to use them as slaves. He believes free will is an inconvenience for most people, and that they’re better off under a tyrant who makes the decisions for them. The MCU doesn’t give fans any reason to regret all the times Loki is defeated and humbled.
There are moments of sympathy for him here and there — he seems to take the death of his adoptive mother Frigga sincerely to heart in Thor: The Dark World, even though he helped cause it. The moment where he drops his illusions to show Thor his pain and rage is his most sympathetic moment in the MCU to date. And there are times when he does honestly seem to wish he and Thor could just be simple brothers and allies, as they were in childhood. “Satisfaction’s not in my nature,” he tells Thor bitterly in Dark World, as if regretting he can’t just settle for being a subordinate. His frustration leads him to cruelty, and his impulsiveness and opportunism make him untrustworthy. But he isn’t a simple monster.
And where Loki really creates a new sympathy for him is in putting him in the hands of people who see him as exactly that monster, then giving them absolute power over him. Only Mobius (Owen Wilson) seems to see him as potentially useful enough that the TVA shouldn’t arbitrarily “prune” him out of existence. Even so, Mobius’ tough-love talk about Loki’s past actions doesn’t offer many options. He outright tells Loki to accept his role as a villain, as someone whose real purpose in life is in helping better, stronger people to reach their full potential by opposing him.
No matter how much Loki deserves a smacking, the opening episode of Loki presents the smackers as far too casual about their power and their rules. One random functionary thinks nothing about obliterating a prisoner for being rude. Another seems just as apathetic about forcing Loki through a machine that could rip him apart from the inside out, if he happens to be wrong about not being a robot. Mobius is similarly offhanded when he says that while Loki is in custody for manipulating time, and could be sentenced to death for it, it’s entirely fine if the Avengers do the same thing, as much as they want, for doctrinal reasons that no one bothers to articulate. People die for not following TVA rules, which follow no clear moral logic, and can’t be questioned or appealed.
This is the exact kind of unfeeling, oppressive bureaucracy that makes the protagonists in stories like The Trial or Brazil or 1984 feel like heroes, simply because they have to endure judgment without fairness, empathy, or explanation. It’s terrifying to be in the hands of what Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel Inferno called “infinite power and infinite sadism.” The first episode of Loki plays that to comic affect, but there are hints that the show will rapidly shift to show the TVA’s darker side.
But Loki doesn’t even take its hardest swing at the character by telling him he’s being punished for doing what other people are freely allowed to do. Even sitting him down to run through a list of his biggest failures isn’t the show’s biggest cruelty. Nor is making him relive his mother’s death, and showing him how he’s at fault, or letting him witness how he himself was destined to die. The TVA is at its cruelest when Mobius implies that Loki is simply incapable of change, that the Sacred Timeline has destined him to eternally play the villain role, grasping at power and failing to achieve it. If Mobius was actually right about that, it would be a merciless shutdown of a constantly shifting character, one who’s always been most interesting when he rides the line between using his power to oppress other people, and using it to defend them.
And instructing Loki to accept his limitations and boundaries, under threat of deletion by an implacable and indifferent power, is the cruelest thing anyone’s ever done to him in an MCU story. It’s not just that his ambitions are being stymied, and that the right to rule he keeps touting is being ignored. It’s that he’s being told he himself doesn’t get to make choices. For someone so dismissive of other people’s free will to face the loss of his own may seem appropriate and educational. But if that oppression was sadistic and fascistic when he tried to enforce it on other people, it’s just as sadistic and fascistic when it’s being done to him — and it flies in the face of every story the MCU has told about his struggles between nobility and selfishness.
The blessing of Loki is that there’s no reason to believe Mobius is actually right. He may not even believe what he’s saying. As a way to manipulate a master manipulator, telling Loki he’s incapable of change or success is a brilliant stroke. It’s a challenge that’s all but guaranteed to make Loki authentically want to walk a straight and narrow path, just to prove he’s strong enough to defy the timeline.
But that first episode of Loki is still surprisingly brutal. Writer Michael Waldron absolutely needed to recalibrate the character to a lower rev, to make him fit into the confines of this show. This is a story where he has to cooperate with bureaucrats instead of wielding vast cosmic power, and following rules instead of scripting his own. (At least temporarily, while pursuing his own goals.) But the way Waldron gets there is downright mean. The TVA’s treatment of Loki arguably still isn’t more than he deserves, given the things he’s done in the past. But cutting so precisely to his insecurities and ego, forcing him to reconsider his past and ask himself what he’s capable of, is a more vicious takedown than anything Hulk ever did to him.