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Scene, Interrupted: "The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard"

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“[I]t’s the purest form of the human spirit, of how we’ll fight for survival, and at the end of the day these films are about humans and how humans survive. You see refugees or people who are in camps, the human spirit will always crawl out of the darkness and find the light. And you see that again and again with how people deal with the darker situations. […] My stories are always super universal and they’re very simple. They’re always about relationships or families, or people looking for family or looking for love.”

–Taika Waititi [x]

 

The entire Thor franchise—as well as chunks of the larger MCU and the superhero genre as a whole—could not-unfairly be subtitled: “Daddy (or Mommy, or Brother, or Sister, or some combination therein) Issues, The Saga”. The most prominent arcs of the titular character (Thor Odinson) across his solo films and the first Avengers movie center around his relationships with his father (Odin) and his adopted brother (Loki) which are fraught with lies and betrayal, albeit not necessarily of the same kind. The lies and betrayal meted out by his brother, the God of Mischief, are often presented as intrinsic to Loki’s nature—he will always conceal and be disloyal because he is a trickster and to be otherwise would be antithetical to the core of his character—and that dichotomy is what drives the narrative conflict between them. With Thor’s father, however, these conflicts (and the motives behind them) are more obscured.

Odin is presented in extremes: he believed that he fostered a good-natured rivalry between his sons (which encouraged a development of arrogant pride) but lashed out whenever he felt his directives were challenged through said rivalry. He claimed to have rescued Loki (a frost giant by birth, whose race was vilified by Asgardian lore) out of mercy, yet when pressed admits that he did so in the hope of fostering a future union between the two warring realms. He kept the secret of Loki’s heritage until it was unwittingly revealed, but never allowed space for it to be processed (or an apology—which may have arguable been more effective). He lectures about kingly responsibility and the dangers of personal ego, yet when faced with a personal loss (the murder of his wife, Frigga, by the dark elves) he entrenches himself in a plan to sacrifice Asgard and its people in his grief and vengeance. The full effect of his banishment of Thor in the first film is overshadowed by Loki’s concurrent machinations and betrayals, and as Loki takes on the continuing role of willing antagonist to his father’s (and brother’s) plans and wishes, Thor is allowed to reoccupy the (uncomfortable, unstable) role as the favored child—as long as he keeps his own opinions and ambitions in check.

The tension and instability in this relationship is clear throughout the films, as is the fact that—as Loki and Thor move apart—Thor and his father move together. But the inverse is true as well; as Loki and Thor move together, Thor and his father become distanced and at odds. The unravelling of their relationship starts with his (arguably justified, if in ideology only) rejection of Thor as his immediate successor and Thor’s subsequent banishment to Earth. The first film follows the rise and fall of Thor’s hubris through growth and development forced on him by his father which—eager to please Odin and robbed of his powers, family, and identity—Thor embraces (with some help from the intrigued but no-nonsense Jane Foster and compatriots). In the first Avengers, Thor is on a mission for his father (the only one supposedly with the power to transport between realms outside of the bifrost) to retrieve his brother and The Dark World begins with the fallout of this successfully-failed mission (successfully in that Loki is captured and brought back to Asgard, failed in that he wreaked havoc on Earth prior to being defeated). Here Thor and his father are perhaps at their most aligned throughout the films; both have rejected Loki and (according to Odin) it is only by Frigga’s appeal that Loki is not executed. But even in this moment of alignment, cracks begin to show. Odin disapproves of Thor’s preoccupation with Jane, and when Jane’s presence inadvertently causes Frigga’s death, Odin refuses to hear of any strategy to draw the dark elves (and their imminent threat to Asgard) away under threat of treason. Separating from his father and his edicts, Thor turns once again to Loki and a tentative new understanding begins to form between them. Their double-bluff against the dark elves and Loki’s (faked) death resolidify their bond—which at this point is redeemed through a (perceived) ultimate sacrifice that saves Thor’s life—and it is Odin whom Thor says he will tell, gaining for Loki in death the validation that he desperately sought in his life. Of course, with the audience-reveal that Loki has taken Odin’s physical and societal place in Asgard, the symbolism compresses in on itself. The three of them cannot exist in balanced harmony; it is only when Loki and Odin have collapsed into one being that Thor is able to maintain his own (temporary) equilibrium.

Loki’s trajectory with Odin throughout the films is both more pronounced and more complex: he hates his father even as he craves his love and validation. He has no father and yet Odin is omnipresent in his life, mirrored in all of his actions. His most vehement anger and resentment of his brother comes when he perceives that Thor sides with Odin over him, or when Thor’s demeanor reflects the image of their father. His very nature is conflict and contradiction, but he is surrounded by a father and a brother who seek to standardize him and who mock and diminish his identity, respectively. He yearns for Thor’s approval and affection, yet rails against his brother’s arrogance and heedless warmongering even as those stand as the emblems of Odin’s reign. The revelation of his heritage in the first film sends him reeling, and he repeatedly claims that his (increasingly unhinged) actions are in service of being recognized as Thor’s equal and as Odin’s legitimate and capable heir. Although it is not explicitly stated, it does not appear that much effort was put into locating Loki after his fall from the bifrost—nor even in confirming whether he was alive or dead. This (along with his true parentage) is one of his first accusations against Thor in The Avengers, and although Thor continues to try and appeal to Loki as his brother (albeit on Thor’s terms and in service of reclaiming the brother he thought he had rather than the brother—and being—Loki actually is) Loki remains hostile and convinced that Thor is acting out of the duty of the good son to his father rather than from an actual desire to save his brother.

By the end of The Avengers—and especially at the start of The Dark World—Loki’s self-destructive drive is at its peak as he tries to goad Odin into executing him rather than eternally imprisoning him. The image of his mother is magically manifested to both comfort and confront him (“Always so perceptive about everyone but yourself”) and, couched in taunts, he asks her how Odin and Thor feel now that they have abandoned him. It is the rage against his mother’s death that serves as both his primary stated motivation and the shared agenda between Thor and himself (now that, as Thor states, he no longer believes that his brother truly exists anymore) in their treasonous escape from Asgard and subsequent battle with the dark elves on Svartalfheim. He even goes so far as to—without being demanded or threatened—repeatedly protect and save Jane’s life (after having given Thor the validation that Odin refused him: “I like her”) for seemingly no immediate reason other than that Thor would like even less of him if he let the woman he loves die. But it is his (non)final sacrifice that is the most telling: in saving Thor’s life and being mortally wounded in the process, he is allowed a space for vulnerability that has been consistently denied to him (by both others and himself). In his dying moments—shared with a brother who now both sees him as he truly is and has not absolutely abandoned him—Loki allows himself an honest, naked exchange. He apologizes and admits his failings (two things that he had been consistently resistant to before) and then—when offered a promise of defense and validation being relayed to the father whom he has spent the majority of his narrative arc clawing for—he refuses it:

 

Thor: “I’ll tell Father what you did here today.”

Loki: “I didn’t do it for him.”

 

While it could be argued that Loki meant that what he did (help Thor save Jane and fight against the dark elves) was not for Odin but rather for his love and memory of Frigga, the cinematic framing makes it clear that—cradled in his sobbing brother’s arms—Loki did it primarily for Thor. This unexpected (perhaps even for Loki) shift from chasing Odin’s validation to seeking to reaffirm the bond between his brother and himself closes the same narrative loop that compressed for Thor at the end of the film: having either given up on or relinquished his destructive campaign for Odin’s validation, Loki is able to (physically and in terms of societal role) usurp him. These collapsed and usurped roles trail through the second Avengers film and drop, squarely, at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok in one of its most hilarious and illuminating scenes—The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard.

In order to fully parse this scene—a play within a movie framed as a fictionalized account of prior events in the film series—we must understand two further themes: illusion/revelation and the director’s history of satire and meta commentary in his work. Let’s start with the latter—Taika Waititi (a name not exceptionally well-known before the lead-up press junkets for Ragnarok) is a New Zealand director of Maori and Jewish descent who has built his career on collaborative projects with his friends (Flight of the Conchords, Eagle Vs. Shark, What We Do In The Shadows) and stories that connect with his personal and political views (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). His comedic work often falls into satirical categories (with underpinnings of Maori-specific concepts of humor) while his dramatic work explores frequent themes of resistance against systemic injustice and the fragility of idols (particularly in the form of flawed father figures). Waititi uses both humor and earnest empathy as tools to expose the tensions between systems (institutional, societal, familial) and disenfranchised individuals, with an investment in narratives of found families and reclaiming/restructuring the traditional familial bonds. His vocal use of the high-profile position as a Marvel director to commit to representation both on-screen and behind the scenes speaks to his dedication to subverting the fictional and real-life power differentials at play, and his legacy of utilizing satire and meta commentary to not only address narrative weaknesses across the sprawling MCU universe but also to unpack pretention and expose the vulnerable emotional underbelly of the characters is on full display throughout Ragnarok.

But satire is only as strong as its connection to the source material—so why choose the formal trope of a play within a play to rift on? In many ways, it harkens back to the roots of the first Thor, which was directed by the famous Shakespearean director and actor Kenneth Branagh. The film was noted for its Shakespearean influence both narratively and tonally; something that the always-quip-ready Tony Stark lampshaded when he first saw Thor and Loki interacting in The Avengers (“Uh, Shakespeare in the Park?”). The often knowingly-hammy classicism of the first film started to erode when the brothers found themselves as nemeses in a film by a director with a very different aesthetic; their dynamics began to read as somewhat stilted, like actors who’d stumbled into the wrong theatre. The Dark World returned to the tradition of absurdity, but was weighed down by a grittier script and a dour visual palate. By the time that Age of Ultron came out, Thor was left to juggle the odd-god-out role without a scene mate (something that was ultimately draining for both the character and the actor). In Ragnarok, Waititi and his team seemingly overhauled the entire tone of the franchise much to the delight of fans and critics alike. But if we look closer, it becomes clear that the melodrama and absurdity is still very much there—the only difference is that the characters are earnestly laughing along with their follies now, instead of unironically monologuing and/or winking at the audience in search of gold stars for being cleverer than the material itself. To that end, Waititi draws on the literal dramatic traditions of the first two films to reexamine the most emotionally climatic scene in the second movie (and the last time the brothers knowingly interacted with each other). Loki’s play sets up the basis for his and Thor’s reunion, as well as their emotional dynamic throughout the film, but it also may be one of the most honest scenes that the trickster has had thus far (which is fitting, since he is wearing his father’s form at the time).

The dual purpose of this play within a play is especially fitting for a character like Loki, whose evolution and devolution are predicated on the themes of obfuscation and revelation. In the most topical sense, Loki as the trickster god—whose primary powers are those of magic and illusions—is the physical embodiment of these themes: he consistently uses his abilities to alter and/or conceal himself bodily. But his narrative arc is also wrapped up in these concepts: he conceals his plots and schemes, he conceals his authentic feelings (for the most part), and his own identity (his true heritage and thus his sense of himself in his family and in his world) are concealed from him. The revelation of these concealments is traumatic for him and for those around him—fracturing relationships, disrupting the social order, and frequently ending in outright violence. And yet he also desires to be truly seen, to reveal himself (as he perceives his mangled sense of self, not as others have perceived him) and be acknowledged. These desires grow like poisoned weeds after his parentage is revealed, and by the time he ends up on Earth demanding subjugation it has twisted and consumed him. He reveals himself to Thor at the end of the first film and offers justification for his actions (“I only ever wanted to be your equal”) but Thor—in spite of his good intentions to try and save his brother from himself—denies Loki what he is looking for. He clings to the concept of Loki-who-was, or rather Loki-who-wasn’t, and in his desperation to rescue the concept of his brother he abandons the Loki-who-is. The Avengers sees this disconnect between what Loki wants and what Thor thinks he wants widen into a chasm once Loki decides that he will never be truly seen and thus commits to severing their ties through a series of hyper-revelations (the legitimacy of Loki-as-murderous-tyrant being the true Loki is questionable as well). The loss of their mother in The Dark World shakes them both, and whether it is out of grief or exhaustion or emotional rock bottom, Thor and Loki share another revelatory scene that is a marked departure from their earlier dynamics:

 

Loki [taunting, standing well put-together in a pristine cell]: Thor, after all this time, now you come to visit me. Why? Have you come to gloat? To mock?

Thor: Loki, enough! No more illusions.

[The magic slowly peels away to reveal Loki, disheveled and despondent, sitting on the floor surrounded by the wreckage of his cell possessions.]

Loki [quiet and defeated]: Now you see me brother.

 

Loki’s words are shattering because this entire exchange reads as an undressing—but whereas in previous interactions Thor would have begged Loki to come back to him, here Thor is acknowledging both that he can see Loki’s concealment and that he does not know what lies beneath it. It is a directive and a bitter request: No more illusions, show me who you really are. And—without a fight, without a cruel rejection—Loki compiles. The unruffled, smug, silver-tongued façade is lost as he reveals his pain, his despair, his rage. In turn, Thor neither mocks nor disregards it—he acknowledges Loki as he is (as dangerous and untrustworthy as Thor holds him to be) and offers a plan that will see them cautiously working together in both of their honest forms for the first time. This acknowledgement, this seeing, is arguably what informs Loki’s choices for the rest of his plot—why he doesn’t hide his (spiteful, combative) affection for his brother, why he saves Jane, why he agrees to a plan that will likely get him killed, why he doesn’t betray Thor (insofar as his usurpation of Odin is not a direct strike against his brother), and why he sacrifices himself to save Thor. He then—as Odin—grants Thor the freedom he wants and even offers validation; it is undoubtedly a self-serving gesture (with Thor off of Asgard he is less likely to be discovered) but not one strictly necessary to his plan. He may have told himself that everything he did was in service of his own ambitions, but taking over Odin’s role did not require him to reunite and/or tearfully bond with his brother (or, put another way, he did not need to do all of that just to fake a mortal injury and convince Thor that he had died).

So Loki, at the beginning of Ragnarok, finds himself in a position of mandatory concealment yet cannot help but continue to reveal himself to anyone who will listen—specifically about the two topics on which he can’t ever seem to keep quiet: his father and his brother. So he has staged what appears to be a repetitive performance of a play in his own honor: “The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard”. Whether or not he wrote it himself is debatable; he must have had a significant role in relaying the story at least, since the only people present on Svartalfheim at the time of his “death” were Thor and Jane. Notably, Jane is almost absent in this retelling—silent and barely visible in a subjugated position at the feet of the Warriors Three—which could be a meta-nod to the actor’s absence in the film but is more likely a purposeful cutting-out of the only other person who effectively vied for Thor’s attention and affection against Loki. Her active role is shifted to Lady Sif and the Warriors Three who—while absent for the actual events—are the only friends (outside of Thor) whom Loki is ever shown to have had. He refers to them as such throughout the first film and banters with them in the second, even as their patience with him has grown thin. In life he felt they preferred Thor over him, that he was a required burden to champion alongside the golden prince. But in his fictionalized retelling, they stand with him as witnesses to his heroic sacrifice and solemnly mourn his loss. (The only line is given to Lady Sif, which may also be a nod to the absence of the real Sif in the film, due to filming conflicts.)

The play is, presumably, an entire story—although at what point it starts and which parts it includes and excludes is unknown to the film’s audience. Because as telling as the entire premise is, what is even more significant is what Waititi chooses to show the viewers. We enter the scene already in progress with Thor, just returned from a near-miss with Surtur after learning that Odin is not on Asgard and Heimdall has been declared a fugitive of the throne, suspecting his brother’s trickery without yet being sure (as the audience already is). But the dangerous, duplicitous spectre of Loki—who characters and viewers alike feared would dismantle any place that he held a position of power over—isn’t there; instead, Loki-as-Odin seems to be indulgently ruling over a relatively stable and peaceful Asgard and spending his time delightedly watching his legacy recounted to him. But it is not a scene of heroic battle or glorious triumph that we are privy to here. The moment that everyone is enthralled by is one of revelation: of Loki’s apologies, of the vestiges of his goodness, of the salvaged love between him and his brother. But it also reveals Loki’s biases, the ways in which he wants to be remembered and the ways in which he remembers his and Thor’s relationship. Compare the dialogue from the original scene in The Dark World with Ragnarok’s play:

 

The Dark World

Thor: No, no no no! Oh you fool, you didn't listen!

Loki [pained]: I know, I'm a fool. I'm a fool!

Thor: Stay with me…

Loki: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry...

Thor: Shh, it's okay—it’s alright. I'll tell Father what you did here today.

Loki: I didn't do it for him. [dies]

Thor [anguished]: No!

 

Ragnarok

Actor Loki: Oh brother! This is it—I take my leave.

Actor Thor: You fool, you didn't listen!

Actor Loki: I’m sorry…

Actor Thor: Lady Sif, get help!

Actor Sif [runs off-stage]: Somebody help!

Actor Loki: Sorry for all I’ve done.

Actor Thor: Shh, it’s alright. Hold on.

Actor Loki: I’m sorry I tried to rule Earth.

Actor Thor: They’d be lucky to have you.

Actor Loki: I'm sorry about that thing with the Tesseract. I just couldn’t help myself.

Actor Thor: I know.

Actor Loki: I’m a trickster.

Actor Thor: So mischievous!

Actor Loki: Sorry about that time I turned you into a frog.

Actor Thor: It was a wonderful joke!

Loki-as-Odin [to himself, from his seat]: ‘Twas indeed hilarious.

Actor Thor: You are the savior of Asgard.

Actor Loki: Tell my story.

Actor Thor: I will.

Actor Loki: Build a statue for me.

Actor Thor: We will build a big statue for you!

Actor Loki: With my helmet on, with the big bendy horns.

Actor Thor: I will tell Father what you did here today.

Loki-as-Odin [whispering pre-emptively]: I didn't do it for him.

Actor Loki: I didn’t do it…for him. [dies]

Actor Thor [anguished]: No!

 

The first and most obvious distinction between the two scenes is length—Loki’s rendition in Ragnarok is bloated to humorous effect with overwrought lines and self-aggrandizement (e.g. his specific request for his helmet—the most absurd part of his outfit—to be memorialized). It also casts Thor as a fawning Horatio to Loki’s dying Hamlet, although the dignity is somewhat intentionally undercut by the uncredited cameo appearance of Matt Damon as Actor Loki. On its surface, the exchange can be read as one more self-deluded monument Loki has constructed to his own sense of superiority and excused bad behavior. But side-by-side, the scenes expand in an unexpected way with the (unable, unwilling) unspoken words between the brothers made explicit in Loki’s historical revision.

The most important clues lie in what accuracies Loki has chosen to keep in his story; the entire framework of the scene is technically accurate and as such gives insight into the significance of the original (unprepared, unscripted) event. Loki could have rewritten his heroic death in a dozen different ways (although he probably feared straying too far from the truth in case word of it got back to Thor)—he could have played to brute strength or cunning, framing himself as self-assured even in death. He could have sidelined Thor entirely, or caricatured him as the clown of the tale. Instead, he explicitly fleshes out what he didn’t (couldn’t) say on Svartalfheim. His apologies in The Dark World were understood contextually by Thor and by the viewers, but here he clearly states the most egregious of his sins: his genocidal attempt to conquer Earth in The Avengers. He apologizes for that twice, in fact, before turning to what sounds like a relatively minor prank he played on Thor when they were children. Although it’s clear from Loki-as-Odin’s amused aside that he doesn’t view the frog incident as having been malicious, the formal stating of it sets up a barometer by which the fluctuations of the brothers’ relationship throughout the film can be measured. The theme of childish tricks that were interpreted differently between them—Thor recalling them with anger and hurt while Loki seems to view them almost as bonding exercises—is a lens that can be applied to the larger series arc of each brother believing their feelings and experiences were the same for the other. The trilogy begins with Thor assuming Loki has experienced both their childhood and their current relationship as he has without actually consulting his brother about this (and thus unintentionally allowing Loki to stew in bitterness and resentment); Loki’s frog incident apology concedes that he assumed things about Thor’s experiences too. As Loki postures to Thor during their raid on the Grandmaster’s garage: “Communication never was our family’s strong suit.” That breakdown in communication is part of what Ragnarok is trying to narratively work through, and the first breach is this play—a direct communication couched in several indirect layers. It is Loki’s story told by him pretending (indefinitely) to be someone else and as such is both literally and figuratively performative.

Along with expanding on his own internalities, Loki’s version of his death features the complement of Thor as the agent of his absolution. Again—where in the original scene the truncated, choked-out line of forgiveness is understood—in the play Thor meets Loki’s apologies with equally-explicit reassurances: he affirms that it was not due to lack of ability or birthright that Loki couldn’t rule Earth (with the added ego-stroke that Midgardians would have been “lucky” to have him), he aligns himself with Loki’s feelings and experiences (agreeing that the frog incident was “a wonderful joke”), and—most notably—he vocalizes the revelation of Loki’s true self (a trickster) and compounds it with the type of joyful acceptance that was absent in the previous films. There is no condescension (as the pre-banishment Thor told him: “Some do battle, others just do tricks”) and no (justified) anger or distrust; here Thor acknowledges Loki as he is and goes the further step of praising him for it. After the hyperbolic vows to enshrine Loki’s memory in death—both a staple of classic tragedies and a meta-justification for the play itself—Loki’s revision merges again with the authentic history in the most obvious instance of self-revelation: the double-echo of his declarative last words to his brother. If there was any doubt of that line’s sincerity in The Dark World, the purposeful framing of it (by both the play and the movie) along with Loki-as-Odin’s whispered repetition (as though he can’t quite keep that confession from revealing itself time and again) serves as a confirmation of its genuineness—even in the ever-shifting bed of Loki’s inscrutable motives.

The question of sincerity must always be broached with Loki but here the overall answer seems relatively straightforward: in a play that—with some melodramatic flourishes and embellishments—appears to be reasonably truthful, who and to what end would Loki be attempting a Machiavellian manipulation? He has obviously constructed the piece to cast him in a sympathetic light and through that (as well as an edict from their king) he is able to win back the favor of the Asgardians after his villainous fall. But again, to what end? There does not seem to be one, beyond basking in his idolization and not feeling as though his people and his homeworld loathe him. This manipulation does not extend to Thor, who was never intended as a spectator. This performance is, in that way, intensely private for Loki—he is able to relive an emotionally climactic and cathartic moment repeatedly without risking exposure, without being faced with public vulnerability. His evident alarm and panic at Thor’s appearance—not just back on Asgard but back on Asgard at this particular event—makes it clear that he has no brilliant long con for this Odin trick and that the self-exposure that began in earnest in The Dark World is now fully unraveling in his brother’s presence.

With a live choir farcically reenacting Loki’s death theme from the previous film while Actor Thor screams in mournful anguish, the play makes a final shift as Actor Odin enters the stage to offer an epilogue that waxes philosophical on the impact of Loki’s sacrifice for their realm and on their own tumultuous relationship:

 

Actor Odin: And so Loki died of his wounds, giving his life for ours. He fought back those disgusting elves and brought peace to the realm.

[A young boy, painted blue, wanders onto the stage and climbs a rock next to Odin.]

Actor Odin: Loki, my boy…‘Twas many moons ago I found you on that frost-bitten battlefield. On that day, I did not yet see in you Asgard’s savior. No, you were merely a little blue baby icicle…that melted this old fool’s heart.

 

To the actors and citizen spectators, this ending speech reads as a grieving father eulogizing a son he lost without ever truly seeing him. But as the conclusion of Loki’s ode to himself, it reads as a son—one who has physically subsumed his father—using a vessel twice-removed to voice the love and validation he never felt he truly had. Perhaps the distance of an actor speaking the words that his father’s likeness commissioned is what was necessary for him to believe that those sentiments were not an illusion he conjured himself. Yet he does not use it to punctuate Loki-as-king (although Actor Thor’s savior claim is repeated again here); rather, the last line is one of full exposure—Loki-as-Jotun, Loki-as-son, Loki-as-beloved.

Contrast that with the last canonical exchange between father and son prior to Odin’s usurpation:

 

Odin [in reference to Loki’s attack on Earth]: “All this, because Loki desires a throne.”

Loki: “It is my birthright!”

Odin: “Your birthright was to die! As a child—cast out onto a frozen rock. If I had not taken you in, you would not be here now to hate me.”

Loki: “If I’m for the axe then—for mercy’s sake—just swing it. It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just…I don’t love them.”

Odin: “Frigga is the only reason you’re still alive, and you will never see her again. You’ll spend the rest of your days in the dungeon.”

Loki: “And what of Thor? You’ll make that witless oaf king while I rot in chains.”

Odin: “Thor must strive to undo the damage you have done. He will bring order to the Nine Realms and then, yes, he will be king.”

 

Here Odin denies Loki’s claims of his birthright—not just as king, but as son and brother and Asgardian—and reiterates that it was only through his benevolent intervention (as a conqueror, not a father) that Loki survived past his infancy. He declares that the only emotional tie left between Loki and Odin’s true family is from Frigga, then in the same breath severs that tie permanently and ends by prophetically decreeing Thor’s future kingship once he has salvaged the ruins that Loki left (and always leaves) in his wake. This final statement is a confirmation of what Loki has ruminated over for centuries: that he is and has always been unequivocally inferior to Thor. The vitriolic confession he made during his first revealed confrontation with his brother over the extermination of Jotunheim in Thor—“I never wanted the throne! I only ever wanted to be your equal!”—is echoed again here, in permanency, once more refused to him and it is in service of this long-unmet (through both his own actions and the actions of others) need that Loki rewrites his history to allow for a better parting with Odin.

Of course, shortly thereafter, Ragnarok weaves its way to an authentic parting between Odin and both of his sons. This exchange follows many of the thematic cues that Waititi ascribes to, such as the confrontation of support systems—whether they are societal, familial, or otherwise—failing the individuals they are meant to serve, and kicks off a series of events that forces the brothers and their companions to strip down to their deepest vulnerabilities and demand the same of Asgard. Their newly-discovered older sister Hela may be the literal manifestation of this reckoning, but their journeys towards knowing themselves had long been in motion.

“The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard” is a comedy dressed-up as a tragedy, while Thor: Ragnarok is a tragedy dressed-up as a comedy. The former serves as both a gentle parody of earlier Thor storylines and a template for the themes that occupy the emotional core of the rest of the film. It sets the (literal and metaphorical) stage for the developmental shift in the characters and arcs of these two brothers, while the tropes and accepted absurdity of tragedies as a genre allow Loki to protect his vulnerability under the guise of farce. But that pretext will soon become untenable—even in these early scenes, the cracks are starting to show in the structure of the ruse itself. Loki, who has spat venom at any sincere claims of kinship after discovering his true heritage, allows himself one more validation—a validation that will be fulfilled by his return at the final battle—in the play’s title. During the confrontation on Svartalfheim, he (albeit as part of a planned deception) proclaimed himself as “Loki of Jotunheim”—but here once more the audience sees with whom he truly aligns himself. By canonizing himself as “Loki of Asgard”, Loki reclaims an identity that he both rejected and which was taken from him, and this reclamation feeds into the conversations the film ultimately opens up about what Asgard (and any society) really is. The ultimate chosen destruction of their realm (as Valkyrie termed it: “the whole golden sham”) is predicated on Thor and Loki both seeing themselves, seeing each other, seeing their father, and seeing their world as they truly are—peeling away the performative glory, the institutionalized deception, the idolatry and the legacy and the roles that were demanded of them and understanding that the price of these revelations is the foundation of their prior lives. It is only after these foundations have crumbled that they can start the task of relearning who they are as individuals, as brothers, and as part of a larger community.