Film & TV

Loki, Disney’s Latest Nihilist Hero

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in a scene from the new Disney+ show. (Marvel Entertainment/via YouTube)
Moral relativism for die-hard Marvel fans

Not just for Marvel die-hards, Loki gives the shape-shifting trickster — derived from Norse mythology as Thor’s adversary and last seen in Avengers: Endgame (2019) — his own storyline in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This six-part Disney+ television series tells us nothing about that old literature-class bromide about man’s inhumanity to man, but it says a lot about the blatant commercialization of narrative.

Because schools apparently no longer teach interpretation, cathexis, or exegesis, Marvel and Disney’s inhumanity to viewers is as brazen as Loki himself, the god of mischief played by tall, lanky Tom Hiddleston, whose pale skin and dark, flowing mane stylizes today’s fashionable gender and moral chaos.

The TV show-runners behind Loki use Hiddleston’s paycheck androgyny to disrupt notions of good and evil. They diddle with the narrative — further convoluting the Marvel plot ideas about timelines and Time Keepers — to get viewers wrapped up in silly minutiae. After Endgame, Loki takes the Tesseract cube and enters a new dimension where he must stand trial before the Time Variation Authority (TVA). This story arc exposes the makers’ cynicism, while discombobulated viewers commit themselves to Hollywood venality.

Marvel and Disney’s travesty is unacceptable following Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a visionary narrative that was a restoration in the grandest sense, enlarging its characters’ personal, principled choices. Snyder’s sensual, kinetic imagery gave aesthetic substance, emotional weight, and suspense to human dilemma, even when told through the analogies of godlike or superhuman figures.

The fact that Loki is flimsy and doesn’t take itself seriously is part of the Marvel-Disney problem. Director Kate Herron and writer Michael Waldron don’t have Snyder’s chops — the only visually interesting moments occur when Loki traipses his way past panoramic views of the TVA that’s in another dimension (ripping off both Lord of the Rings and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). Herron and Waldron settle for comic-book, sci-fi pastiche in which the narrative is reduced to the tongue-in-cheekiness that always gives away the budget and time constraints of TV production. Generations of TV viewers and now TV binge-watchers have learned to accept this discount sub-cinema (worth even less than what film-lover Frank Zappa saluted in his song “Cheepnis”) in the name of what media sophisticates now acknowledge as “content.”

Loki justifies each episode’s content through the icon of the god of mischief (“a devil bearing gifts”) whose misadventures “reorder the multiverse into a single pantomime.” This means that Loki arbitrarily loses or regains his “magic” as the storytellers see fit. Mostly, it’s Loki and TVA bureaucrats Mobius B. Mobius (Owen Wilson) and Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) endlessly investigating the series’ own plot.

Such meta-TV as this actually resembles outdated vaudeville routines: Hiddleston and Wilson josh their way through MCU babble about apocalypse and annihilation — especially Wilson, whose familiar, slumming insouciance evokes the Wes Anderson–verse. Mobius taunts Loki: “For someone bound to win, you sure do lose a lot.” Loki snaps: “Am I guilty of finding all this extremely tedious? Yes!” Wilson and Hiddleston are the minstrels Rastus and Mr. Bones, in their own version of Waiting for Godot.

Between the larky badinage and Star Wars–level stunt fights, Loki is casually nihilistic. Instead of Zack Snyder’s impassioned, hopeful, struggling figures, Loki and the TVA mock serious consequence. It all comes down to Loki’s time-crossing declaration “Everything is written. There’s no such thing as free will. I know something children don’t: It’s ‘No one bad is ever truly bad, and no one good is ever truly good.’”

So once again, Disney and Marvel exchange traditional morality for its opposite, teaching adolescent viewers to accept cartoon nihilism. Sure enough, when Loki is taught how the TVA works, it is through a cartoon instructional film. The series achieves its ultimate manifestation as Saturday-afternoon animation. With Loki, Marvel, Disney, and their die-hard constituents have found ways to make the banal even more banal.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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