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“Glorious Purpose” – Loki tackles the question of free will

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

What is your purpose in life?

It’s not a question many would expect to be tackled by a story about superheroes with capes and time travel, but the nature of one’s purpose is front and centre in Loki, the latest offering in the ever-present cultural hegemon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

For those unfamiliar, Marvel’s Loki (created by head writer Michael Waldron and directed by Kate Herron) is a new TV series airing weekly on Disney Plus which follows the titular Norse god of mischief, lies and trickery (played by Tom Hiddleston). While Loki began life as a villain in the Thor and Avengers films, he later experienced a redemption arc in Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok—tragically dying in an attempt to slay the MCU’s biggest threat Thanos during Avengers: Infinity War.

Of course, death would present a problem for most characters hoping to star in their own television show, but if anybody can overcome this, it would be Loki. The Loki show does not follow the version of the Asgardian trickster who met his demise, but instead focuses on a “variant”—a version of the character who escaped his fate during the events of Avengers: Endgame‘s time travel heist using a mystical artefact known as the tesseract (one of the Infinity Stones, a recurring set of macguffins that appear in multiple Marvel Studios properties). This variant, as the series premiere of this spin-off TV show helpfully lays out, is promptly captured by the “Time Variance Authority“—a bureaucratic organisation charged with maintaining the “continuity of the sacred timeline”. They deem this version of Loki to be an anomaly who faces extermination unless he can help them bring another rogue “variant” to heel.

If all that sounds complicated, then don’t worry. The first episode of Loki is a perfect place to start. While it wold take plenty of time to bring newcomers up to speed with the previous history of Loki in the franchise, the Disney+ series makes both the villain’s backstory and the complicated workings of the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and its multiple members instantly accessible: the cheekily titled Agent Mobius M. Mobius (an affable “good cop” played by an always relaxed Owen Wilson), Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku’s bad cop who provides much of the premiere’s action and conflict), and Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who makes a brief, but intriguing, appearance in this episode).

If that rough synopsis, or the trailer above, sounds compelling, or you’re a fan of the MCU, then I encourage you to give it a shot. For my money, this first episode lays out a compelling path for the series in a way which early episodes of both WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier failed to do. It may rely a bit heavily on exposition, but the compelling character work and wry humour more than makes up for it. You may want to catch up before reading the rest of this article, because in order to unpack the ideas presented in the episode and speculate on where the series may be heading, there will be spoilers—not just for this first episode, but also the comics from which it draws inspiration.

It’s Good To Be Bad

Full disclosure: I’m an avid Marvel Comics fan, and the character arc that Loki has experienced over the past decade may be my favourite thing the publisher has ever written. His journey from scheming villain to mischievous anti-hero and everything in-between—beginning in the fantastic Journey Into Mystery (2011) comic series, progressing into Young Avengers (2012) and concluding in Loki: Agent of Asgard—is a hilarious, tragic and poignant tale about the nature of destiny, the expectations placed on us, and what it means to change and grow as a person. So while the teaser trailers had me excited to experience a fun sci-fi romp, I was pleasantly surprised to see the show eager to tackle these ideas, even as it remixes them in a new context as the MCU often loves to do with its source material. Even better, the show so far seems to be engaging with these ideas in a more nuanced way than WandaVision’s relatively simple exploration of grief, or Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s haphazard attempts at social commentary.

The title of this first episode “Glorious Purpose” serves to highlight the ways the show is willing to dive headfirst into the complicated issues that the character of Loki is so well suited to dealing with. All the characters in the episode work to provide a different perspective on the core ideas underlying the concept of the show: what is your purpose?

Loki is, as he claims, “burdened with glorious purpose”. As he states repeatedly (both in this series and The Avengers), he believes that free will and choice is a burden which shackles mankind, and that true freedom would involve his rule as a benevolent dictator. Loki claims that this is his purpose and destiny—an inevitable moment which he is perpetually striding towards.

This claim is immediately challenged by the TVA. This organization makes a profound impact straight away. Not only do they undermine Loki’s purported purpose by revealing his intended fate (the heroic sacrifice we witnessed at the beginning of Infinity War), but they also raise questions as to whether free will even exists. According to the TVA, this Loki is a “variant” as his actions led to a divergence from what they deem the sacred timeline. The trinity of Time-Keepers, and by extension the judges who enforce their will, are the sole determinants of what should and should not happen. Is such a thing as free will even real if stepping off the predetermined path schedules you for extermination?

(L-R): (Mobius) Owen Wilson and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Marvel Studio’s LOKI, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

It’s hard to see where the series may go, but based on these two key questions—what is free will, and what is your purpose—it’s possible to make some guesses.

Firstly, considering Loki is positioned as the series reluctant protagonist, it is hard to view the TVA as anything other than villains, or at the very least antagonists. While Loki may be working with them by the episodes end, their authoritarian bent and seeming lack of accountability represents a challenge to Loki’s belief that he is the master of his own destiny. The garb of the TVA Hunters bearing similarities to that of black suited Stormtroopers certainly seems to back up the potentially antagonistic position they may end up occupying in the narrative, as does the architecture and décor of the organisation which recalls The Good Place’s version of the afterlife—another show which questioned whether we can truly change, and featured a deep-seated scepticism towards its ruling otherworldly authorities who resembled the TVA.

What Is Loki’s Purpose?

If the TVA seem poised to challenge Loki on issues of free-will and predestination, then the show’s other hidden villain will likely be the show’s way of tackling Loki’s purpose. The reveal of another, murderous, Loki variant glimpsed in shadows at the episode’s end (could this be Richard E. Grant or Sophia Di Martino’s mystery role?) seems to raise more questions about whether Loki is doomed to become a villain once more. Is this “variant” a future version of the Loki we are currently watching, the Loki from Infinity War having cheated death or somebody else entirely?

As it stands, Loki is happy to merely raise questions on these topics. Whether the answers it provides are satisfying is still unknown—unsurprising considering that the heavy weight of these topics has challenged many philosophers and religions for millennia. The Bible, for example, states that we are burdened with our own glorious purpose: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). When it comes to free will however, Christianity is slightly more divided. Some Christians follow the theology of 16th century pastor John Calvin who believed in predestination. Many others, however, believe that free will is an essential component of humanity, noting the many times that God laments the decisions of man in the Bible as evidence that he allows us to make our own choices (one such example coming in Luke 13:34).

It remains to be seen whether Loki will definitively provide its own answer to these questions—but looking to the comic book source material may give us some hints as to what my come. As mentioned previously, the show seems to mainly draw inspiration from Keiron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery (JiM) which stars a teenage version of Loki reborn after the villainous version dies in a heroic sacrifice (sound familiar?). It is also inspired by Al Ewing’s Loki: Agent of Asgard (AoA), where a new adult version of Loki carries out covert missions for the rulers of Asgard to prove the legitimacy of his newfound heroic outlook. The Loki show seems to loosely be drawing on the fresh slate Loki was provided in JiM and his mission as a hero for a higher power (in this case the TVA) from AoA.

Interestingly, both feature an older, more overtly villainous version of Loki as the main antagonist—something the show seems to be adapting with the other variant of the character. And while JiM ends on a fatalistic note, with the older Loki victorious, replacing Kid Loki unaware to everybody else who views him as having redeemed himself, AoA features a triumphant Loki, proving their status as a hero and rebranding themselves as the god of stories instead of mischief—the change persisting even as the entire universe is destroyed and remade (comics are occasionally filled with nonsense like this).

As a result, it is unclear as to what angle the show will end up taking though the generally optimistic tone of the MCU makes me believe that some heroic form of Loki will survive the series to appear in the future. Maybe this will be the first Disney+ series to get a second season, or maybe he’ll appear in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. Perhaps he will even appear in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which head writer Michael Waldron penned. There’s also a chance that the TVA will appear in Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—as the title suggests, that movie will also deal with time travel. It’s also unclear whether we will see the various versions of Loki which appear in these series: rumours abound that we may get an old Loki and female Loki, though no word on whether kid Loki will make an appearance. Most importantly though, we don’t know whether the show will be able to do justice to the issues it raises. The MCU has a spotty track record when it comes to tackling social or theological issues, as one can see in the critical reception of its other streaming series Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and to a lesser extent WandaVision. Furthermore, this is ultimately an MCU product—while it may attempt to address these theological or philosophical questions, it is very likely to end as many Marvel products do: generic fights, lots of CGI and an third act which fails to provide a truly satisfying ending, instead serving to set up the next show or movie. At the end of the day these shows exist mainly to make bank for Marvel Studios owners Disney. And with the millions of Marvel fans who eagerly await the next step in executive producer Kevin Feige’s master plan, it is very likely it will achieve this purpose.

Still, no matter what direction it takes, I will be eagerly watching in hopes of seeing how the show addresses the question of Loki’s “Glorious Purpose”. And, who knows, maybe it will end up revealing a little about what our purpose is in the process.

Ryan Stanton is a PhD student at The University of Sydney. While he’s currently studying digital cultures, he very nearly did his honours thesis on the ways that big blockbusters adapt and influence classic comic book series. His favourite superheroes are Spider-Man, Loki and Green Lantern. 

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