Note: This article has been split in half for its length.
Yeah, this is one of those articles. The thing is though, it’s not even subtle. From its opening scene, in which Past!Loki hurtles into a sand dune in the Gobi Desert and starts to lecture a group of Mongolian peasants on how he is “burdened with glorious purpose”, Loki is intent on sketching a priviliged white man’s fall from grace and then opening up a potential redemption arc. That the episode makes zero explicit reference to race is beside the point. The stock caricature of the elite white male loser, who believes the cosmos caters to his existence when in fact he’s a mediocrity who sucks at everything, has become such a staple of intersectionality-inclined media narratives at this point that it doesn’t need specifying. As someone who overlaps a bit with the target demographic, I have grumbled about this and adjacent issues on occasion, notably here: Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings Will Please No One – The Path (thepathwitcher.blog), and of course here: The Mandalorian S1E5 Review: The Gunslinger – The Second Stylus. When done vindictively, as it was in Mando S1E5, it gets old real fast, and was a misfire on multiple levels in that instance. Toro Calican is too slimy and stupid to make a compelling villian, and including him in the episode at all cut screentime from Fennec Shand’s introduction, though she later went on to become a major player in The Mandalorian. At any rate, the pilot of Loki avoids these pitfalls on a number of levels.
The first aspect is Tom Hiddleston, who has always been charming as Asgard’s resident egomaniac. The second is Loki the character, whose MCU redemption arc was cut short when Thanos strangled him in Avengers: Infinity War way back in 2018. This Loki is the unreformed Past!Loki of the first 2012 Avengers film, who managed to escape from custody when the Avengers did their time-hopping thing in Endgame. Thus Show!Loki is still a murderous asshole who aspires to Kingship and Godhead, not the slightly nicer Film!Loki who was spared quarantining with Thor and whoever the rock man Taika Waititi voices is called. The upshot is this opens the door for some interesting character development and a redemption arc rather than just kicking sand in a Brett Kavanaugh wannabe’s face to make a point. Loki deserves to be and is taken down a peg, but rather than cultural score-settling, the pilot functions as a surprisingly earnest investigation into entitlement, narcissism, and the means by which toxicity is often a cover for a wounded psyche. Loki is humanized—not in the sense of being given a pass for his crimes (or ridicule of his ego), but in the sense of the respect the episode confers on his inner life and its explicit connection between the poverty of the latter and the nihilism of the former.
After his rousing two-second speech to the Mongolians, Loki is interrupted by the appearance of armored officers of the Time Variance Authority, a shadowy organization working on behalf of the Keepers of the Sacred Timeline of the MCU multiverse. Confused yet? Hold on. After a typical bravado-ridden attempt to hack his way through the patrol immediately fails, Loki is taken to the Time Variance Authority HQ, a prison-like realm beyond space of tremendous power where even infinity stones are relegated to the status of paper weights. There he is stripped of his “fine Asgardian leather” by a robot, garbed in a “variant”-labeled prison uniform, forced to sign a stack of papers verifying that “this is everything you’ve ever said” and tested to make sure that “to the best of your knowledge, you are not a robot, and do indeed possess what most cultures would call a soul.” In between these scenes we see some Jack Black-looking white guy who has also run afoul of the Time Variance Authority being hustled along through the same process as he rants that “My dad is on the board of Goldman Sachs. One little phone call, and your whole job is privatized!” This gets him nowhere and, when he refuses to take a ticket given to him by the TVA to queue up to meet a judge, he is summarily “pruned”, that is, vaporized. More on that later. Loki is taken before the TVA judge, Ravonna Renslayer, condemned for his crimes, and sentenced to be summarily executed by pruning. When he protests “This is not how my story ends!” she replies, “It never was your story, Mr. Laufeyson.” Loki is saved by the intervention of Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), who convinces Renslayer that Loki can be used to hunt down a variant of himself that has been ambushing and slaughtering teams of TVA agents, and the rest of the pilot consists of Loki’s attempts to escape coupled with his psychological war of words with Mobius over the nature of power and the reasons for the mayhem he has caused in his life. These are the most revealing parts of the episode, but first let’s look at the courtroom scene.
The imagery of Loki, quite literally a white male super villain, being thrust into a carceral state presided over by Black women, in the form of Renslayer and his arresting officer Hunter B-15, is crucial for the very reason that in terms of the actual demographics of the American justice system, it is usually the opposite in real life. The inclusion of the Goldman Sachs bro is equally intentional, an explicitly privileged foil to Loki who, in being reduced to the same hapless condition as Loki, makes Loki’s grandiosity look all the more absurd. If I’m in the same boat as that guy, perhaps I’m not so special after all. This is reinforced by the refusal of the Goldman Sachs bro to take his courtroom ticket and his desperate lying attempt to blame the ticketing officer for his refusal as he is vaporized. The argument is one common to contemporary culture: that privileged white men act with impunity and blame others for their failures when held to account. A certain pair of sexually abusive Andrews getting attention in the media this week come to mind.1i.e. Prince Andrew and Andrew Cuomo
But it is two particular lines of dialogue in the courtroom scene that stand out and feel very on the nose. The first is the line, “it never was your story” as Loki is being taken away to his execution. Why is this relevant? Because in most stories told in Anglo-American media until very recently, the opposite would be true. Loki is intelligent, charismatic, good-looking, and contemptuous of authority. He is, on paper, the classic anti-hero archetype of Anglo-American 20th century fiction, going back to James Dean and Holden Caulfield of the 1950s. In any media environment extending back before 2014 or so, it unequivocally would have been Loki’s story, mostly because a white man challenging established systems of power in a white male-majority media environment is less threatening to the order of business than a white woman or a BIPOC person doing so. And, speaking in terms of recent history, it can no longer be taken as a given in politically progressive media (which is effectively most media, in name if not in practice) that a white male iconoclast seeking to upend the established order of power is a positive force….
The second line is more of a joke, but still functions as a subtle commentary on race and the undermining of traditional hierarchies. When Mobius intervenes to save Loki, there is a tense exchange between him and Renslayer where, literally staring up at her as he stands below the bench, he quips, “I feel as though I’m always looking up to you. I like it, it’s appropriate.” The line is enhanced by the physical awkwardness such a conversation entails from a height standpoint, and further contributes to the inversion of a dynamic wherein white men almost always have power at the expense of Black women, not the other way around. Before I proceed to talking about the dynamic between Mobius and Loki, however, I want to side-step the racial issues and look at the authority of the TVA objectively, an authority which seems totally unjust and arbitrary if it is abstracted from its meta narrative role in inverting real-world racial inequalities.
The TVA is a cosmic police state ruled over by three authoritarian Time Keepers who seem to have few qualms about summarily condemning and executing “criminals” in show trials for “offenses” against the Sacred Timeline. What are these “offenses” precisely? Anything from starting an uprising to showing up late for work, according to Miss Minutes, the TVA’s cartoon mascot and narrator of the info video Loki is shown in the courtroom lobby. Later, when Loki objects that the TVA have never intervened in his crimes in the past, Mobius corrects him that the TVA operates according to principles of order and chaos, not good and evil. At the seat of “the greatest power in the universe”, arbitrary violence is utilized to preserve cosmic order, and those who offend against this cosmic order, intentionally or unintentionally, are sacrificed as subhuman rubbish in a multiversal housekeeping enterprise. When Loki derides the TVA as, “…an illusion. A pathetic attempt on the part of the weak to exercise control through fear”, one immediately grasps the irony with which this statement applies to Loki himself. But might he also be correct? The episode ends with Loki succumbing to the realization of his own toxicity when he views a future recording of his mother’s death in Thor: The Dark World and the destruction of Asgard and his own death in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, but he only resigns himself to view these recordings after he realizes the Tesseract and other infinity stones are useless in the TVA. In one sense, this serves the narrative thrust of the episode: Loki can only be redeemed once he has lost the ability to escape accountability for his actions. But in the other sense, it serves to underscore the fact that an organization run by “three space lizards” and accountable to no one possesses a power surpassing gods with no oversight and a demonstrated penchant for violence, including against those whose only “crime” seems to be being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s a questionable way to run a universe, and a prime example of how meta-analysis of even self-consciously progressive media does not always uncover unproblematic results. But the very notion of problematic art is itself problematic, for it supposes the belief without argument that art exists for the purpose of moral instruction, and that out of the myriad forms of morality which have existed across human history, Anglo-American Intersectionality is the summum bonum of them all. But that is a philosophical question un-germane to my analysis, and we should get back to the substance. Catch Part II of this article tomorrow!
The crux of the story is Loki’s confrontations with Mobius, which have the feel of an aggressive therapy session. Pressed to explain his behavior throughout the MCU continuity, Loki rails against the “pathetic” attempts of the TVA to exert control over the multiverse while Mobius argues that, far from the hero of his own story, Loki is a villain whose existence centers around hurting others and escaping from consequences. This last element leads into a hilarious flashback in which Loki is revealed to have been famed 70s air pirate D.B. Cooper2D. B. Cooper – Wikipedia, who robbed a plane of $1.28 million dollars (adjusted for inflation) and then parachuted away (either to safety or death) without ever being seen again. In the show, Loki “loses a bet to Thor” and is sucked out of the sky by the Bifrost. Humor aside, things turn serious when Loki is forced to watch how his attempts to kill Thor in Thor: The Dark World will lead to the death of his mother, as well as how he will meet his own death at the hands of Thanos in Infinity War in the film continuity. This forces him to admit to Mobius that his actions are the same “desperate attempt at control” he accused the TVA of attempting, and that while he does not seek to hurt people, he is often led to do so out of insecurity and weakness.
This last point is essential. Loki’s only potential path to redemption is vulnerability and accountability; the strength to acknowledge the inner pain which drives his nihilistic quest for power, and the external check on his entitlement which leads him to destroy others as collateral in that quest. This may seem abstract, and there is a cottage industry dedicated to lambasting the degree to which white men are given second chances and others aren’t. I don’t wish to debate that point. What I wish to highlight is that this is a universal picture of how one grows out of toxicity, and for cultural reasons, applicable to white men in particular. Those who are held up as the societal archetype from which all other identities are deviations will, as a rule, have a learned incentive to abuse. The purpose of this abuse is to reify status and privilege of their, that is white male, identity at the expense of other identities deemed lesser or threatening. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between The World And Me,
“Hate gives identity. The n—, the f*g, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”3Note: while Coates is a person of color and employs these slurs in an uncensored manner in the book, I have deferred to our co-editor in gaping them, on the grounds that they might cause Black and LGBTQ readers obvious and unnecessary discomfort if included. (Page 60 Between the World and Me)
As the quote suggests, gender roles are also an essential component in the reification of identity through hate. Is Loki a white supremacist? No. But he is an Asgardian who literally believes, or wants to believe, himself to be a God, a role that allows for no acknowledgement of failure or limitation in any respect. This is largely in line with traditional views of masculinity, which span most cultures but take on an added force when they intersect with race under systems of white supremacy. For white men, as the Trump phenomenon has shown, traditional masculinity has the power to serve as a means of preserving racial as well as sexual and gendered power. Key to this is the refusal to be decentered from power or narratives of power by any means, as well as the labeling of masculinity in other races, particularly Black masculinity, as inherently threatening, perverted, or violent (including when it manifests in equally traditionalist forms incorporating sexism and homophobia).
But this pose of superhumanity collapses in the face of vulnerability, for to be vulnerable is to acknowledge one’s weaknesses, limitations, or failures in a mature fashion and come to grips with them. Most men avoid this, because it is an unpleasant experience to confront one’s own limitations or nurse one’s pain without the help of drugs, alcohol, or rage. It is also, in males especially, an act that is often stigmatized as shameful. As a long-term therapy patient recovering from rampant childhood emotional abuse and sexual assault, I am familiar with this problem all too well, and have put a dent in the wall on more than one occasion after a bad series of flashbacks or a meditation session. Vulnerability is difficult and painful. It is also the only means of neutralizing emotions that will not go away simply because you want to ignore them. Things always come out sideways if you try.
For white men, the intersection of gender and racial privilege increases the incentive and, in some cases, the psychological need to avoid vulnerability (which is a paradox considering the racial disparities in allocation of mental health treatment). If your identity is founded on all stories being “your” story, it can be disorienting, complicated, and disempowering to discover this is not actually the case; and to my mind, much of the Trump movement is predicated upon sustaining this delusion rather than confronting the difficult possibilities that arise when it is shown to be false. The rise, or reemergence, of self-consciously white identity politics on the American right presents a burgeoning awareness that old structures of racial power are no longer accepted as a given, and that this poses a threat to the privileges of white people. With this fear of loss of privilege and status comes inflated fears of racial degradation and obsessions such as the Great Replacement Theory, which alleges that Western civilization and white hegemony therein will be destroyed by an influx of predatory immigrants (usually Muslims) into majority white countries.
In essence, this is the psychology of toxic masculinity and white supremacy writ large: a systematic denial of vulnerability and fear that expresses itself through violently externalized hate. Discussions of racism as a pretext for economic theft are important (see “The Case For Reparations” by Coates), but a failure to engage with the psychological aspects of racism will inevitably leave such discussions deficient. As Coates states, “Hate gives identity.” With a white, and particularly male, identity built on the violent expression of hatred under threat across the Western world, this has created predictable violence and chaos. It is the reflection of the majority of my demographic’s failure to address what it means to be white and male in a world where these attributes are no longer conflated with innate superiority. Because to do so would entail a massive and intense degree of vulnerability which, however necessary, would be fucking uncomfortable. This is a condemnation of all women and people of color to a process of self-building which we ourselves are exempted from, one performed under arbitrary and violent duress on their part. It is dehumanizing; and in robbing the humanity of others, the dehumanizer is also spiritually dehumanized.
Loki’s journey through this pilot episode is a parable of that internal struggle; of learning to confront one’s own inadequacies and master oneself rather than violently attempting to master others. He seems to be making some progress in that regard by the end of the episode. Would that men like him were more common on such a journey. Next week I’ll be reviewing the series as a whole, with some closing remarks thrown in to see how Loki develops over the course of the season and where the themes highlighted in this essay develop or don’t over the next five episodes.