After a year of forced rest thanks to the ongoing pandemic, Marvel Studios returned with a vengeance in 2021. While franchise fans are eager to get back into theaters, with Black Widow leading the way, it’s on TV where Marvel has really been making headlines. No fewer than three series have dropped on Disney+ in the past seven months, from WandaVision to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Now, it’s the time of Loki, with Tom Hiddleston’s beloved impish villain and perpetual pain in Thor’s neck being front and center of his own story for the first time. Loki sees the god of mischief dealing with bureaucratic nightmares, multiverse alternates of himself, and a very cute alligator. So far, fans and critics alike are loving what they see. Adam B. Vary, a critic for Variety, called it the perfect MCU show. It’s a triumphant rise to the top for the character, a mainstay of the series for close to a decade now. It’s hard to argue that Loki is one of the most fascinating figures in the vast ensemble of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He may also be one of its most important additions.
Much has been written about Marvel’s villain problem over the past decade. How do you create truly effective and memorable villains for each film when they can’t be too threatening or overpower the ultimate big baddie, Thanos, once he arrives on the scene? A cycle of extremely talented actors – Christopher Eccleston, Mads Mikkelsen, Lee Pace – often smothered in prosthetics, turned up to be vaguely menacing before disappearing without a trace. One constant exception to that rule was Loki. Introduced in 2011 in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, he quickly became a fan favorite thanks to his scheming ways and tormented relationship with his Asgardian family. It’s simple enough to imagine the character being similarly interesting in the hands of another actor, but it’s tough to foresee the same level of fervor without the involvement of one Tom Hiddleston.
Prior to Thor, Tom Hiddleston a working actor with impeccable upper-class credentials and a handful of solid credits to his name. His most notable work had been in Shakespearean theater on the West End and a supporting role in the English language adaptation of Wallander, based on the Swedish crime novels. That show starred Kenneth Branagh in the title role. Hiddleston had actually auditioned to play Thor -- now doesn't that open up a fascinating alternate timeline of Marvel? -- but Branagh felt his talents would be better suited for Loki. Inspired by Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter and Lawrence of Arabia, Hiddleston leaned into his theatrical credentials and imbued Loki with a kind of regal menace. He's conniving but tortured, charming but bratty. The last thing he wants to be is pitied. When facing up against the arrogant dolt that is Thor at the beginning of the film – the great himbo of the MCU – you truly believe that Loki can take him on, not in strength but in shrewdness. This was a dynamic of opposites but with more in common than both would admit.
Loki later became the villain of The Avengers, where the stakes were drastically increased, and we saw how truly nasty he could be. He brainwashed Hawkeye, connived with forces far beyond mere humanity’s understanding, and called Black Widow a “mewling quim.” It wasn’t just that he was the bad guy: it was that he was so desperately eager to be the goon of whatever villain stood a few steps above his station. He was bad, sure, but it was the pettiness that made him such a threat. His seething resentment and Napoleon Syndrome felt keenly relatable, even for those of us who aren’t Asgardians with daddy issues and overcompensating horned helmets. Throughout it all, it was evident that Hiddleston was having the time of his life, playing up his smarm but never letting it become tedious. The vivacity he brought to Loki only became more evident when the villains who followed in his footsteps often seemed lethargic and half-baked by comparison. Maybe it’s because Loki always had a more thorough grounding in the wider MCU narrative, but his baddie contemporaries simply couldn’t keep up.
As the franchise moved forward, with two new Thor movies, a death, and a time-travel oopsie daisy that brought Loki to his current Disney+ realm, the character has only grown more popular. Thanos may have finger-snapped half of the universe into oblivion, but he’s never warmed audiences’ hearts like Loki. Because that’s another key development that’s made him all the more interesting: Loki’s kind of the anti-hero now. At the very least, he’s a chaotic villain with inconvenient heroic tendencies. The tension between him and Thor never disappears but their genuine bond as conflicted siblings feels lived in in a truly human way, something the MCU is often sorely lacking in. Loki is many things but easy to predict he is not, and in a franchise driven by the sturdy conventions of its genre, there’s something to be said for his slickness.
Hiddleston has only gotten better as the years have passed, to the point where, even though he’s technically now playing a different, brasher and less hardened Loki than fans got used to post-Avengers, he still feels cut from that same cloth. After the emotional weightiness of WandaVision and the political intrigue of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki feels somehow looser yet denser, especially in regard to its introduction of the Time Variance Authority (which will inevitably play a larger part in the MCU once we get to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.) It proves to be the perfect platform for Hiddleston to play around with Loki’s inherent chaos and childishness. It’s given him the perfect ensemble — largely made up of different versions of himself — to explore his egomania and smothering insecurities. All that and he’s pansexual? No wonder fans adore him.
Even with the franchise now literally dozens of entries long — and a multi-billion-dollar record-breaking smash hit — the MCU still has a mixed record when it comes to villains. Figures like Black Panther’s Killmonger have helped move the needle, but it’s Loki whose internal battle of mischief versus malice has kept us gripped. As his miniseries comes to a conclusion, we see him once again imbued with glorious purpose, but relishing it rather than feeling burdened by it. That hints at an evermore fascinating future for Marvel’s best bad guy. Or good-ish. That issue’s gotten more debatable recently.
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Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.
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