Loki vs. Killmonger: Sympathy vs. Empathy in Villains

Loki Killmonger

I’ve written a lot about villains. Why we like them – why some work better than others – why it can be difficult to follow up one great villain with another. I’ve also written a little about Marvel’s villains and how they…they are. Marvel doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to creating compelling antagonists. Their idea of a villain is often simply a bad dude with a similar power set to the protagonist. The bar is in fact so low that Josh Brolin’s Thanos is – in my mind – easily in the top three, despite having an overall goal that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

But let’s not talk about number three today. Let’s instead discuss my one and two, AKA Loki and Killmonger. Both defy the Marvel mediocrity and create lasting impressions. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way – one trip to Google showcases just how many people appreciate and identify with these villains. My question, and the purpose of this article, is: Why? Why do people love Loki and Killmonger? Let’s take a look.

Loki as a sympathetic villain

Before Loki became known as just a snarky, smirking Tom Hiddleston, his character actually had a meaningful arc. One of the reasons that I believe Kenneth Branagh’s Thor stands above the average Marvel movie (of which there are now at least a dozen) is because of how the director approached the subject matter. Branagh has a background in theater – primarily Shakespeare – and I feel he applied this very well to the creation of his Loki.

I never liked Loki in the comics. He’s mischievous and…that’s it. To be blunt, he’s a dick. There’s not much more to him. Sure, he mentions he’s Thor’s brother at least once an issue, but I never believed there was actually anything there. It was a classic storytelling blunder: Telling the reader instead of showing them the relationship.

Thor corrected this problem. Loki is presented first and foremost as Thor’s brother…his overlooked, demeaned brother. The movie makes it very clear early on who Odin loves more, and these problems are only deepened as Loki learns of his secret, problematic origins. In short, he’s spurned and it’s easy to see how he falls.

But he doesn’t seem happy about it – this is the other important factor. Remember how I mentioned Loki’s trademark smirk? He actually doesn’t wear it often in 2011’s Thor. Instead, his face is more this:

Loki sympathetic

A mix of surprise, anguish, and pain. Loki’s world is upended in the first Thor. He is desperate to prove himself to Odin and show that he is every bit as worthy as his brother.

Unlike how he would appear in later movies, we don’t see Loki taking a lot of pleasure in being evil. Instead, it seems like he feels this is his best and only option. Loki is driven, single-minded, and self-destructive.

Upon learning that Thor has had a change of heart and wants no part of genocide, Loki laughs maniacally…and cries. Tom Hiddleston plays a character who is literally coming apart emotionally.

I believe this is what makes Loki compelling. His “mischievous” nature is given reason: He can’t stand a status quo where he is routinely cast to the side in favor of his older, incredibly arrogant brother.

As Thor changes, Loki’s behavior becomes more erratic and he ultimately pushes himself to an extreme downward spiral. I don’t think it is any accident that Thor climaxes with Loki falling into a void, as that symbolizes the completion of the descent that has been happening within the character all movie.

It’s compelling, and it’s sad. We see Loki as horrible to his brother yes, but also caring to his father and mother. He is a monster, but he is a human one. This allows him to be a strong sympathetic villain.

Killmonger as an empathetic villain

And then there’s Killmonger. Erik Killmonger AKA N’Jadaka is not sympathetic, at least not to me – and I’ll explain why. Sympathetic can be defined as eliciting compassion, feeling, or understanding. While I think Killmonger does a great job for the second two, I personally find that he fails at the first – because he is too far gone. In Thor, we see Loki at the start of his fall. In Black Panther, Killmonger is a full blown psychopath.

The character kills indiscriminately, friend and foe alike. He is quick to betray, murdering several unarmed people in cold blood. Unlike Loki, we don’t see Killmonger behaving like a human to any other character in the film – even his own father. When asked if he feels sorrow for the loss of his dad, all Killmonger can say is “everybody dies.”

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“Erik Stevens. Graduated Annapolis aged nineteen, MIT for grad school. Joined the SEALs and went straight to Afghanistan, where he wrapped up confirmed kills like it was a video game. Started calling him Killmonger.”  – Everett Ross

And while there is some sorrow for how far Killmonger has fallen – since we know he was once innocent – it is too indirect, at least for me. It’s the same problem as showing Darth Vader as a child. Yeah, they’re nice as kids but…they’re kids. Even Hitler was probably fine as a boy.

This is not to say that Killmonger isn’t an effective villain. I think he’s terrific, but he’s serving a different purpose than Loki. Killmonger is an empathetic villain because the audience understands the root of his extremism.

Systematic and overt racism are enormous problems in today’s society, as well as the police state that many people of color feel they are subjected to. Given that Wakanda is a paradise – a technological utopia – Killmonger exists to show just how much of a fantasy that really is.

Given his plight, Wakanda could very easily be Norway or Sweden. Sitting comfortably, claiming to be a bastion of enlightenment, while other human beings suffer. Of course, the fact that Wakanda is an African nation adds incredible emphasis to this point, given the continent’s history of being abused and exploited by the “civilized” European world.

So while Killmonger may be a monster, he is “a monster of our own making” as T’Challa puts it. If Loki is Shakespeare, Killmonger is Shelley. He was created by a person (T’Challa’s father) who wished no responsibility for his actions.

But, like the Frankenstein monster, the audience is left drawing the conclusion that, no matter how right the creature may be about how wronged it was, it is still a danger to the world and the innocent people within.

All Killmonger knows is hatred, so that is all he can bring.

So there you have it, my thoughts and feelings about Loki and Killmonger. I think there’s a lot writers can learn from both characters, especially when it comes to creating compelling villains. Whether it is empathy or sympathy, these antagonists have to create feelings within us to be memorable. If not, well…they’re just this:

 

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