Loki is a great place to start, because he’s a perfect example of a villain who isn’t really all that impressive on paper. Oh sure, he’s got some nifty tricks up his sleeve – notably his talents as an illusionist – but on his home turf of Asgard, a world populated entirely with godlike denizens, Loki’s powers barely set him apart from the pack. As a warrior, he’s no Thor; heck, he can’t even compete with his brother’s merry band of cookie-cutter sidekicks. His schemes aren’t all that subtle, either. He does manage to manipulate his brother pretty effectively, but let’s face it – that takes about as much cunning as convincing your golden retriever to chase the stick you didn’t really throw.
Add to that a host of daddy issues and a nigh-on Oedipal obsession with his mother, and we don’t exactly have a thoroughbred villain here.
And yet, Loki manages to steal pretty much every scene he’s in – first in Thor, then in The Avengers.
Why is that?
A good chunk of the credit certainly goes to Tom Hiddleston. His wry, smirking portrayal is by turns sexy, creepy, and downright maniacal. And let’s face it, not every man can pull off a bike helmet with antelope horns.
I’d almost be tempted to stop right there and say that a charismatic actor can make or break an on-screen villain. Certainly, Michael Shannon’s General Zod can’t hold a candle to Terence Stamp’s, and while we’re on the Superman subject, Kevin Spacey wasn’t a bad Lex Luthor, but he was no Gene Hackman. (Miss TessmachERRRR!)
But there’s more to Loki’s appeal than the charisma of the actor who plays him. In fact, I think there’s more to it than the character himself. A big part of what makes Loki work is context.
For starters, when we first meet Loki, he’s one of the good guys – or so we’re led to believe. Though he’s a bit mopey and obviously jealous of his big bro, his manipulation of Thor comes across more as sibling rivalry than Evil Scheming. Also – and I think this is crucial – we meet him at a point where his brother, the putative hero of the tale, is acting like a smug frat boy: drinking, fighting, and overturning banquet tables in fits of pique. Soft-spoken, sharp-witted Loki can’t help but look good in comparison.
He’s playing us, of course, and that’s part of his brilliance. By the time we know what he’s up to, he’s wormed his way into our hearts. Poor Thor, meanwhile, starts out with a credibility gap, and for some of us, I think he never completely overcomes it. (I know I was rooting at least as much for Loki as for Thor by the end.) It also helps that we witness firsthand where Loki’s baggage comes from. We’re a fly on the wall when Odin, in a bid for Father of the Year, tells his sons, “Only one of you can ascend to the throne, but both of you were born to be kings”. We watch through Loki’s eyes as his knuckle-dragging dudebro of a sibling is groomed to be king. And we witness his anguish when he discovers the truth about his heritage. We’re sympathizing with his pain before he becomes the villain, not after; we are, in a very real sense, present for the genesis of the villain, which gives us a stake in his redemption. (Which redemption, incidentally, both the Thor and Avengers franchises cleverly flirt with, just to keep us hanging on.)
All this being said, I might be overthinking it. Because when you get right down to it, Loki is just a whole lot of fun. From his maniacal grin in the opening scene of The Avengers to his smouldering sulk in the dungeons of The Dark World to his elegant glide down the steps of the opera house in a slim cut, three piece suit*, Loki works every angle. Like Hannibal Lecter, he slips into whatever skin suits him, wears it for a scene, then sloughs it off for something new. He delivers some excellent snark (“are you ever not going to fall for that?”) and goes toe-to-toe with some of the MCU’s baddest baddies without batting an eye. And yes, it helps that he looks very pretty doing it.
But I digress. I promised I’d be running each villain through a common analytical framework, so let’s get to it. Without further ado, I give you The Machine.
Strengths: Like all Asgardians, Loki is nigh-on indestructible on Earth, which you have to count as an advantage. He can also create illusions at will, and he’s pretty clever too – although fooling father-and-son-genius-team Thor and Odin probably doesn’t qualify you for Mensa.
Weaknesses: Daddy issues. Mommy issues. Brother issues. Delusions of grandeur. Oh, and a really, really bad outfit.
Best Quote: “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”
Lair: Does he have one? Asgard? 0 points.
Toys: A sceptre that vaporises people, or possesses them (aka “the glow stick of Destiny”). Contains an Infinity Stone, one of six ingots of raw power that predate the universe. Top that, Q. 8 points.
Henchmen: Does Thor count? After all, Loki can manipulate him into doing just about anything. No? OK, one point each for glow stick-enchanted Hawkeye and Erik Selvig.
Intimidation factor: With or without the bike helmet? Without, 5 points. With, -10 points.
Schemes - Scope: Ruling the world is a pretty lofty goal – unless you’re Asgardian, in which case, where is your ambition, dude? There’s a whole universe out there! 5 points.
Schemes - Complexity: Loki’s schemes are about as subtle as Thor’s hammer. 2 points for tricking Thor that first time (0 points for subsequent tricking; that’s on Thor).
Overall Badass Rating: 22
Can’t wait to see how that score stacks up against our next villain? Me neither! And remember, if there’s a villain you’d like to see put through The Machine, let us know in the comments!
Next month: Cersei Lannister
*And let’s face it, there isn’t a man alive who wears a slim cut suit better than Tom Hiddleston.