Loki: The False Hero
Has it really been eight years since The Avengers came out? Man, you are getting old.
With a history spanning over a decade of cinema, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) replaced Star Wars (sorry George) as the central American mythos. Now, of course, it is so much more--with fans around the world helping to bring diversity and new perspectives to the hit series.
He's tall. He's handsome. He's clever. He's powerful. It's no wonder, then, that Loki's arrival on Earth in The Avengers is an awe-inspiring sight.
"I am Loki of Asgard," proclaims the Norse god, "and I am burdened with glorious purpose."
And in case we're wondering what that glorious purpose might be, Loki kindly cues us in:
"I come with glad tidings of a world made free," Loki says, then clarifies what people are being freed from: "Freedom. Freedom is life's great lie. When you except that in your heart you will have peace."
While it might be tempting to describe those lines as diabolical, that's technically not quite right. Loki isn't be diabolical or devil-like here in the traditional sense of being someone who points out the unworthiness of a hero. Instead, Loki is functioning as an anti-Christ.
No, Captain America is not Jesus.
When we call Loki an anti-Christ, it's not to say that he's somehow trying to fight Jesus Christ. But if we pick apart Loki's entrance, we discover pretty quickly that the Norse trickster is speaking in terms that invert well-known Christian scriptural teachings or traditions.
"I come with glad tidings" sounds eerily like the proclamation of Christmas angels that they bear "good tidings of great joy."
"Freedom is life's great lie" challenges and undermines the proclamation of Jesus Christ that "he who the Son sets free is free indeed."
And perhaps the most chilling, Christ's "peace that passes all understanding" becomes the peace of acknowledging that freedom is an illusion.
So why does Loki parody Christian teachings here so strongly, given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not itself driven by Christian thought? The reason lies in Loki's status as the divine trickster. Throughout The Avengers the audience is reminded again and again that Loki's two great powers are illusion and manipulation. Not only can he create visual projections of himself at will, Loki can also control the minds of others by touching his scepter to their heart. And, given what he says to Hawkeye just before using his scepter on the special operative, Loki seems to prefer "noble" hearts. As the divine trickster, it's Loki's task to expose how society is failing to live in accordance with its ideals. He strikes at the heart in order to control the mind.
As an aside, this is why Loki can't control Iron Man - Iron Man is literally heartless.
This test of inner belief is why Loki is the villain whose arrival truly forms the Avengers. Loki's assault on Earth is an indictment not of humanity's values, but of its faithfulness to those values.
We can see this especially well when Loki makes his appearance public in Germany, intimidating a crowd into kneeling before him.
"Is this not simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation...in the end, you will always kneel."
Notice that while there is an implied threat, Loki is not issuing an ultimatum. He does not say "kneel or I will destroy you." Instead, he invites humanity to kneel. He suggests that it would be easier and more natural. Loki even frames the decision to embrace bowing to his illusions - which are nothing more than nihilistic shadows without substance - as inevitable.
In what is perhaps the most moving moment in the entirety of the MCU, one person stands up to defy Loki. An old man rises to his feet and coolly replies "not to men like you."
The great charm of this moment is that the unnamed man is not arguing with Loki. He does not suggest that Loki has it all wrong, but rather Loki has simply mis-framed the reality of the situations. Human beings will always kneel, yes, but not to the empty shadows of nihilism that Loki uses to wield power.
Preparing to destroy the old man, Loki warns the crowd "look to your elder, people, let him be an example."
At that very moment, of course, Captain America drops in and deflects Loki's attack on his shield, then wittily replies "you know the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing over everybody else he an I ended up disagreeing."
Cap's remark is so well-delivered that we can actually miss the real significance of what just happened. Captain America is, after all, actually the peoples' elder. He is the example Loki just commanded them to look towards. And what is exemplified by Captain America is faith. His own criticism of the Asgardians reveals why it is the Captain who is the first person to confront Loki fearlessly: "There's only one God, ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that."
Now, obviously, the logic here is not great. Loki and Thor's fashion choices are a poor barometer for determining their deity. But the Captain demonstrates in this moment that he possesses exactly the thing dying Special Agent Phil Coulson indicts Loki for lacking.
"You're going to lose," Phil predicts, "it's in your nature."
Loki doesn't buy it: "Your heroes are scattered. Your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where exactly is my disadvantage?"
The Norse god's response is the powerful, fact-based argument of nihilism. It turns out that heaven is not floating in the stars above our heads, and that many of history's supposed heroes turned out to be wicked individuals.
But Phil remains undeterred: "You lack conviction."
Captain America possesses conviction in his belief that freedom is more than an illusion. And as Coulson reveals in his dying conversation with Nick Fury, the central conviction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that heroes can win: So long as they believe sacrifice is not in vain.
But because Loki does not understand sacrifice, he cannot yet become a hero. That must wait till later.