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Loki: Moving from Self-Love to Self-Gift  

August 4, 2021


Marvel Studios continues their episodic, character-centric series on Disney+ by delving into one of their most complex and well-loved comic book creations, the anti-hero Loki, charismatically portrayed both in films and in this offering by the actor Tom Hiddleston. Loki began his cinematic arc as a villainous god-of-mischief who eventually redeems his relationship with his stepbrother, the hammer-wielding Thor. Having no idea what to expect from this new series and the deep dive it would take into the development of so complicated a character as Loki, I found keen nuggets of insight into the important concepts of time and free will, but most especially, I was stirred by the show’s communication of the human need to move beyond self-loving narcissism into making a free and generous gift of the selfif the “glorious purpose” for which we are born may ever be found.  

Without spoiling too much or getting caught in the weeds of comic book schematics, the Loki series begins with an earlier version of the character escaping imprisonment but being caught by agents of a new organization called the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Apparently, there is a benign institution working behind-the-scenes throughout the Marvel Universe to protect the “Sacred Timeline,” a canonical way in which history is designed to play out that must be protected at all costs. If ever a version of a character (a “variant”) steps out of the preordained line or doesn’t play their part in history correctly, the TVA time-travels to zap them and reset the proper order. Loki manages to play a part in wreaking havoc within this shadow organization as he tracks down and connects with variant versions of himself, including a principal female character named Sylvie.

Tom Hiddleston’s convincing portrayal of this tragic character, misunderstood and reeling from father issues and family wounds, continues to resonate with audiences for a reason. This show is at its best when it explores the pathos of what makes a Loki a Loki. After overcoming their initial distrust of each other and now together on the run from the TVA, both Loki and Sylvie find themselves on a train and begin sharing their stories and their wounds. When asked about the nature of love, Loki cynically relates the phenomena to the double-edged metaphor of a dagger: “It’s a weapon to be wielded far away or up close. You can see yourself in it. It’s beautiful until it makes you bleed. But ultimately, when you reach for it . . .” The conversation and the duality invites the inclusion of a line that teases at the possibility of gender-fluidity within the shape-shifting character, but it goes no further and seems like a nod to modern interpretation,  as does Loki echoing the modern trope that love is a mere illusory feelinga reason for the character’s refusal to allow anyone into that intimate, interior space of his heart, including (ironically) an alternate version of himself.

Self-aware but always desperately searching for validation (be it from his father or power from a throne), Loki represents well how the egocentric paradigm and unbridled freedom seem appealing but always imprison us within ourselves. This stands against the Christian way of being in the world, which is a life lived for others: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). 

As Bishop Barron often proclaims, your life is not about you. In his book Bridging the Great Divide, he writes,Christian metaphysics is . . . an affirmation of the primordiality of relationship, being for the other. John Paul II has expressed the ethical implication of this ontology as ‘the law of the gift’: that one’s being increases and intensifies in the measure that it is given away through love.” 

God has revealed himself to be a relational trinity of persons in whose image and likeness we have been created; any life lived solely focused upon my own ego and its lustful desires will never satisfy. 

“Glorious purpose!” The catchphrase and mission that every Loki seeks is ultimately accomplished only through a sacrificial gift of self. Encountering several versions of himself as the series spirals down through the chaos of the TVA’s crumbling, the Lokis who crave power by any means necessary perish by that same sword, while those choosing to live for others endure and ultimately survive. 

It’s the story of all the saints, that exact movement away from vanity and a preoccupation with the self to a life so changed by the encounter with Christ that, as Bishop Barron recurrently notes when he points to the Magi leaving the Christ child at Nazareth, “they depart by another way” (Matt. 2:12). Forever changed by the mark of love encountered, these are the men and women who abandon egocentric glory to serve the poor like St. Teresa of Kolkata, give themselves totally over to their families like St. Louis and St. Zélie Martin, or spend hours and hours in the confessional like St. John Vianney.

“I don’t want a throne! I just want you to be okay.” The last lines of Loki to Sylvie in the series echo the essence of love as described by St. Thomas Aquinas: “To will the good of the other.” Having grown beyond backstabbing, self-preservation, and achieving power at all costs, we leave Loki in this series finally understanding John Paul II’s “law of the gift.” Loki doesn’t say “happy” or even “happy with me,” but that he wants Slyvie to be “okay,” meaning finally healed and free. It’s a strange thing to behold and one that’s indicative of the postmodern imagination grasping at Christian truth: a character loving an alternate version of themselves, at once oddly narcissistic and yet also evocative of Loki finally getting over himself.  

We’ve all loved Loki’s portrayal as villain and antihero, but we don’t want him to stay that way. Like Frodo trying to redeem Gollum or Luke Skywalker trying to bring the good out of his father, we cheer for Loki’s turn from self-centeredness to willing sacrifice (as we witnessed at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War) and now his attempts to bring that good out of others.  Sylvieburned, bitter, and utterly enclosed from her years on the run from the TVAmust choose whether to reciprocate this act of surrender or coldly refuse.

Love changes us and impels us to return to life “by another way.” We will find our vocation—our “glorious purpose,” if you will—only through a sincere gift of self; a gift modeled by the very sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Lord.