Spoilers for the entire Thor franchise below.
A long time ago, back before I prematurely aged out of midnight premieres (thank God for the rise of 7 p.m. Thursday night screenings), I went to go see The Avengers with a rowdy crew of theater nerds from my women’s college. (Yes, we dressed up. Yes, I was Thor. Yes, we both look much better as darker blondes, thank you!)
I enjoyed the movie—we met a little girl whose favorite character was the Hulk, and I hope she’s having a splendid day today—but there was one scene that turned my infamously weenie stomach. (In my defense, this was before I frantically binge-watched Hannibal before the series finale.) On the way back to my car, one of my companions made affectionate noises about one Loki Laufeyson. I, sleep-deprived and still a little nauseous, whipped around to declare, “We don’t like Loki anymore! He took out a dude’s eyeball!”
In that minor breakdown lies the issue I’ve had with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on Loki since 2011. Yes, he’s an engaging, well-written character, and easily the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best villain, but … he’s just a villain. Contrasted against the morally nuanced take on Loki that appears in the comics, especially in Kieron Gillen’s legendary run on Journey Into Mystery that began the same year the first film came out, he’s a little lackluster.
I certainly didn’t mind it in the first Thor film, where Loki is a tragic villain who just wants his father to be proud of him. Sure, he ends up killing a lot of Frost Giants and disappointing Odin, but … you know, he cries a lot. But in The Avengers, he’s an unmitigated power-hungry villain intent on forcibly ruling Midgard. He calls Black Widow “a mewling quim” (hey, doesn’t Joss Whedon’s documented delight in getting an antiquated gendered slur into a PG-13 superhero film now feel extra hella gross?) and is explicitly compared to Hitler by not one, but two World War II veterans. (2012 was a much more innocent time.) Oh, and not to belabor the point, he rips that one dude’s eyeball out. He is, in no uncertain terms, just a really bad dude.
Even in Thor: The Dark World, where Thor and Loki team up, Thor treats Loki the way anyone would after what Loki pulled on Midgard—grimly and tentatively. And even though he weeps over Loki’s death, he’s right to mistrust his brother. It’s a trick, somehow part of Loki’s plan to finally rule over Asgard as its king. Who needs dear old dad’s approval when you can just be dear old dad? But as much as I loved the reveal and enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s performance, Loki’s villainous ways were starting to just get a little stale.
So imagine my delight when Taika Waititi apparently agreed with me. Not only did he deliver a film that appears to be plucked directly out of my '80s-fueled fever dreams, but he finally gave us the fully fleshed-out Loki both he and we deserve. And all it took was remembering that Loki isn’t the God of Evil or Death—that would be big sister Hela, the Gothic Renaissance to his Hot Topic—he’s the God of Mischief. Or, to put it more succinctly, all it took was remembering that Loki isn’t Chaotic Evil; he’s Chaotic Neutral.
When we’re reintroduced to Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, he’s enjoying the fruits of his countless years of effort to usurp the throne—by lounging around in a bathrobe, eating grapes, day drinking, and watching plays about what a cool and awesome dude he was. (I mean–I’d do the same thing, to be honest.) With the main goal that motivated his villainy achieved, Loki’s personal stakes are changed from “burdened with glorious purpose” to “staying one step ahead," which makes him infinitely more flexible and engaging. Whatever situation Loki ends up in, whether by his own actions or someone else’s, he’s always looking for the best deal to make. When he ends up on Sakaar, he doesn’t try to knife his way back to his throne—he picks up a cocktail and immediately starts schmoozing. When Thor shows up, he immediately offers to include Thor in his plan to usurp the Grandmaster. (Once you’ve mastered a skill, you gotta stay sharp, right?)
And his family no longer takes his mischievous behavior as shocking. When Thor and Loki reunite with Odin, Odin has a fond, good-natured laugh about the spell Loki put him under, even saying that his late mother would be proud of him. Thor even gamely uses Loki’s inability to not betray him against Loki, making sure to give him some big brotherly (which is to say, patronizing) advice about the need to grow and change along the way. Thor and Odin are more than aware that Loki is a compulsive snake in the grass, and they’ve grown to, if not love, accept that part of him. Loki’s penchant for mischief is no longer treated as a character flaw—it’s simply who he is.
By making Loki Chaotic Neutral instead of Chaotic Evil, Thor: Ragnarok taps into the beating heart of the character in a way that the previous films did not. Loki’s not an inherently evil character; he’s just always looking out for Number #1 in sometimes straightforward, sometimes deeply convoluted, and always interesting ways. What’s fun about Loki is the opacity of his immediate motivations. We shouldn’t know what direction Loki’s going at any given moment, and neither should he.