April 16, 2018

NOSTALGIA CAFE | Why Loki Failed as a Villain (And How Killmonger Succeeded)

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Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done miraculous things, namely building a highly successful franchise with eighteen (and running) feature films, turning formerly B-list heroes into household names. Who had even heard of Tony Stark before his popular appearance in his successful solo movie, Iron Man?  But when it comes to villains, the writers suddenly revert back to eight-year-old children who still see villains as the exact cartoon cut-out of the cackling monster-alien super-beings from the comic books they read in the 80s and 90s.

That’s fine: generic comic villains are okay for a few runs before they become tedious and predictable. Unfortunately, most superhero movies are trapped in their limited existing beliefs of what a superhero story should be, with the first law of superhero movies being: the hero can’t die. With the story mainly focused on the protagonist, it’s easy to overlook the villain figure and forgo its complexity and layered development. More often than not, you end up with forgettable and purposeless adversaries like Malekith, Whiplash, Ronan, Dormammu, etc.

Enter Tom Hiddleston’s Loki: he’s not your typical cookie-cutter supervillain who cackles at the sight of destruction and world domination. No, he’s more of a confused and misguided soul with a pitiful motivation for malevolence. In Thor, Loki doesn’t ask for the end of the world or power solely for the sake of power: he merely seeks the love and validation that he believes have been missing all his life as the overlooked second child. His emotionally intricate relationship with the protagonist, Thor, offers a refreshing portrayal of Shakespearean drama amidst the bombast of superhero cinema. For several feature films, Loki was, uncontestedly, the most painstaking and well-rounded villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—that is, until this guy came into the picture:

Eric Fucking Killmonger.

Eric Fucking Killmonger.

Killmonger knocks Loki out of the park. Before you click away from this article because I’m attacking your favorite, think about it for a few seconds. Royalty, dethroning, familial rivalry, an undeniably epic fashion sense, and breathlessly badass entrances — is it any surprise these two are the most popular villains in the MCU? And yet, even with Killmonger absent for half of Black Panther, he manages to become one of the most impactful antagonists that MCU has ever had the guts to bring onto the big screen. Loki, by contrast, has been playing increasingly diminished and, quite frankly, lackluster roles since his masterfully villainous debut in Thor.

The truth is, Loki should have died at least ten movies ago.

Killmonger dies with conviction. His death resonates with his motives, bringing a conclusion to the character that is emblematic of the heavily complicated history and relationship between the colonizers and the colonized. And as much as we mourn for the the loss of such a dynamic character, his death is unquestionably necessary as to keep his beliefs alive. His insistence to die at the hands of his opponent, rather than to linger in the limbo of defeat, resonates with the “death over bondage” motif that pervades the discourse around the colonization of Africa. With a good villain, you feel equally (or even better, more) for the antagonist as you do for the protagonist. The fight isn’t black and white. With a good villain, the hero is forced to change.

Now let’s go back to Loki. He is a perfect villain in Thor. The movie essentially leaves his fate to a cliffhanger, but his willing fall into the abyss of space concludes his motive to become accepted and loved by his adopted father. These are such simple motives, but his readiness to go to extremes in order to achieve these motives ultimately differentiates a good villain from a bad one.

Then The Avengers was released. It was a massive hit, and it still remains one of the top-grossing superhero movies of all time. And surprise, surprise: Loki’s alive.

However, he is no longer the subtly evil, precise manipulator he was before. Now, he is the bombastic, unapologetic villain who cackles gleefully at the sight of destruction and chaos, just for the sake of it. Now, he’s one of those villains: another obscurely-outlined, lazily-written caricature plotting to destroy a world we couldn’t care less about.

While the ambitiously epic superhero team-up in The Avengers distracted the audience from its disastrously blunt plot and stunted character development, Loki’s subsequent appearance in Thor: The Dark World is another red herring. Loki seemingly sacrifices himself at the end of the movie, leading the audience to believe that he is finally going to die. Oh, you think to yourself, this is actually kind of sad… wait no, it’s just another fake death under the facade of an empty emotional drama. I should’ve seen it coming. I really should’ve seen it coming…

He returns yet again in Thor: Ragnarok, evoking more uncertainties regarding the trajectory of his character arc: Wait… so is he a good guy now? Is he going to betray Thor again? He better not betray him again. Does that mean he’s not a bad guy anymore, if he’s fighting with the good guys? What’s happening? Is Loki even relevant in this movie, besides its meta attempt to mock Loki’s own death and the opportunity for him to walk around all pretty?

Fast forward a couple months. The lineup for Avengers: Infinity War is ridiculous. There is little-to-no hope of redeeming Loki’s mess of a character in the two-hour superhero Olympics — we’d be lucky just to get a few glimpse of him. With the overwhelmingly crowded roster in Infinity War, fans are hypothesizing possible and likely deaths, with Loki being among them. But at this point, the MCU is like the girl who cries wolf. Even if Loki does meet his demise, it would be, more likely than not, an extraneous afterthought attached to the end of his overextended existence in an overblown universe. He missed his chance at a meaningful death long ago.

I’m not saying all villains should die. But in these two similar cases — Loki and Killmonger — death for the villain entails a permanent emotional loss for the protagonist and a thematic imprint on the audience. It is the far more logical and momentous choice.

Overall, the MCU has a longstanding problem with taking risks when it comes to handling their characters. This is why we often get mediocre movies with a few great ones sprinkled in. It’s almost as if they are afraid of creating real tension and conflict between the characters. The MCU treats their characters as cardboard cutouts with limited emotional capacity, showering them with inconsequential and monotonous conflicts instead of emotional and thematic repercussions. Take Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok, for example (which I will save for another time).

What do I have to say for the future of the MCU villains? Let them fight the heroes. And I don’t mean, fight their homes, their planets, or their world. I mean, fight the heroes. Fight the person. Fight the human underneath the superhero mask. Let the fight consume both sides, stripping the two mortals of their superpower defenses and exposing their human selves. Let them each grow from the wounds they create. Let them witness the responsibility of their power, capable of both great good and great destruction.

So, what should we do about Loki?

It matters little whether he lives or dies in Infinity War. His time has come and gone. He will always be remembered as the endearingly tragic son in Thor. But for his appearances thereafter, there is not much I can say.

You either die a villain, or live long enough to see yourself become an irrelevant jokester.