With the release of Avengers: Endgame just hours away, a lot of the internet is doing its best to create clickbait-y articles on anything Marvel-related. A popular topic? Ranking the previous 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films to find the “definitive” best. Of course, there is no real greatest movie in the MCU – art being subjective. While I make no secret of my hate for Thor: The Dark World, I have no problem if you enjoy it. On the contrary – I’m glad someone does.
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:
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.”
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:
In 2011, the cinema world of the Marvel superheroes was forever changed with the successful introduction of Thor, a heroic epic about a hero of the same name. Thor did what many, including Iron Man director, Jon Favreau, deemed impossible: namely introduced magic and outlandish ideas to a very technology-based Marvel cinematic universe. Before Thor, everything was science in the way that it either required grounding or some form of explanation. Without Thor, Joss Whedon’s epic The Avengers may not have felt comfortable taking its fantasy to near Star Wars level heights.
Successful films are no accident, too many things need to go right. Thor was a product of Kenneth Branagh, a director responsible for many of today’s recent adaptations of William Shakespeare and other great literary works. Branagh believed in the world of Thor and added human drama to its characters, most notably the character of Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki.
Fast-forward to last year and the release of Thor: the Dark World, the “phase two” Thor movie directed by Game of Thrones veteran, Alan Taylor. Thor: The Dark World goes more fantastical, focusing on elements that many fans of the first film wanted to see more of; including Asgard, Loki and other strange worlds. The film introduced audiences to a new villain, Malekith, played by a Doctor Who himself, Christopher Eccleston. Yet for all its seeming success, Thor: The Dark World was as lifeless as its name suggests.
The casting of Eccleston proved to be irrelevant as the filmmakers forgot to add anything resembling humanity to his character. Malekith is evil and wants to destroy everything because he’s a dark elf. That last sentence is the same level of rationalization and character development that is given to the character in a nearly two hour movie.
Returning actors Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and Anthony Hopkins return but again have little to do in the way of character development. Thor is the generic hero, Jane Foster is the generic love interest and Odin is the generic Hopkins performance. Even the magical setting of Asgard, which in the fist film brimmed with light and uniqueness, appears faded and tired this time around.
The only actor who ever breathes onscreen is Hiddleston. His Loki still continues to exude the conflicted trauma of pain and mischief that makes him fun to watch. However the script fails to give Loki any real impact on the story other than to prevent the audience from lapsing into the coma of the Dark World.
Director Alan Taylor added the darker, more realistic look of Game of Thrones while forgetting to import any of the show’s intriguing character drama. The result is a dull affair that does little more than to answer the question of what Thor was doing between Avengers films. The movie would have been bad on its own, but to compare it to the initial vision of Kenneth Branagh, the man who proved magic was possible in superhero films, cements Thor: the Dark World as not only the worst of the Marvel superhero movies but also 2013’s most disappointing film.
This article and many more may also be viewed at Culective.