Loki and the God of Sacrifice

Joe George

Loki, the Norse trickster god and supervillain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stands across from Sylvie, a variant of himself from an alternate reality. Faced with the return of a mighty enemy called He Who Remains, Loki suggests that he and Sylvie use their powers to manipulate regular humans. Left to exercise free will, humans could bring back He Who Remains, resulting in death and destruction.

“Sounds like, whatever we do, we’re playing God,” says an exasperated Sylvie.

“We are gods,” Loki responds.

When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) made his first appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in 2011’s Thor and 2012’s The Avengers, he tossed off such arrogant pronouncements with a devious smile. He taunted humanity by insisting that they lived only to serve him. He sought mystical weaponry and employed lies, mind control, and other deceptions to reduce others to mere playthings. Such was his right as a god.

Across two seasons of the Disney Plus series Loki, things have changed for the god of mischief. He has been humbled, learning that he is just one of several variants in a multiverse full of Lokis. And in every reality, Loki loses.

By the time he and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) have the aforementioned conversation midway through Season 2, no conviction accompanies Loki’s declaration of godhood. He delivers the line after a sigh, almost with a sense of defeat. The episode’s directors, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, underscore the irony of Loki’s claim by cutting from a close-up to a wide shot of Loki and Sylvie standing alone in an empty room, seemingly squeezed to nothing by an enormous ceiling above them and floor below them. The scene makes explicit something that has been in the works since Loki was defeated by the Avengers (and possibly since the incredibly handsome and charismatic Hiddleston took the role). Loki is no longer a glowering supervillain. He wants to become a hero, even if he does not know how to do that.

He doesn’t know how, in part, because he faces a particularly knotty problem, one that could only exist in the pages of Marvel comics. Like the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, Loki’s narrative has involved various multiverses and timelines, in which the characters jump from reality to reality while dealing with a totalitarian threat called He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors). As confusing as the multiverse logic quickly becomes, Loki Season 2 rests on a clear conflict. Is it better to allow people to have their free will, even if that leads to their own destruction? Or is it better to take away free will in hopes of ensuring safety and harmony?

Although the gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have more to do with mythology and superheroes than the God of the Bible, the quandary faced by Loki and Sylvie does engage with Christian theology. Everyone from the Apostle Paul to Saint Augustine, from John Calvin to C.S. Lewis, has argued about the relationship between free will and God’s sovereignty. No one has put together an agreed-upon answer. Unsurprisingly, Loki does not articulate a coherent position on moral responsibility and God’s omniscience. However, the series does sidestep the question in a way that draws Christians back to first principles. (Spoilers ahead.)

The quandary faced by Loki and Sylvie engages with Christian theology.

In the season finale, Loki and Sylvie reconvene to once again debate the issue of free will. Loki contends that he must embrace his godhood and control the lives of regular humans, making them safe and ensuring the world remains as it is. Sylvie has a more cynical view. “Even down there, [the world is] full of death and destruction and injustice,” she contends. “Do you really want to be the god who takes away everyone’s free will so you can protect that?” Instead, she advocates for letting the bad world fall away, in the hopes that a good one, a better one, will take its place. “I’ve lived through enough apocalypses to know that, sometimes, it’s OK to destroy something,” she argues.

This final conversation is presented with a shot-reverse-shot structure, letting Loki and Sylvie stare directly at the camera as they debate. The visual choice diminishes the grand stakes of the conversation—the conceit that we’re watching two gods debate the lives and deaths of multiple worlds. Instead, it plays as a conversation between two people begging to be heard, pleading to know that their lives matter.

The conversation doesn’t end with either Sylvie or Loki finding the words to articulate a coherent moral position. They do not even bother to explain how one solution or another will stop the bad guy and save the day. Instead, it ends with viewers watching sadness and pleading pour over the two actors’ faces, signifying a call for care.

This visual language is used again later in the episode. For reasons that make sense only by untangling the various threads of MCU story logic, Loki realizes that he can only save the worlds and give people free will by making a hard choice. He must sacrifice himself by leaving his friends and taking a lonely throne at the center of the galaxy. “I know what I want,” he says directly into the camera. “I know what kind of god I need to be . . . for you, for all of us.” Once again, the camera ignores the metaphysical concepts represented by a computer-generated landscape to focus on the emotional truth Hiddleston conveys on Loki’s face. He grimaces with sorrow and determination as he marches away from his friends, away from the people who actually made him feel happy and accepted and safe, and toward a single throne in the center of the multiverse. Sad, soaring music reaches a crescendo as Loki takes his place on the throne, confident that he has saved his friends and retained reality, at the cost of his own happiness.

Loki, the god of lies and mischief, has become the god who sacrifices.

Christian theologians may differ on whether individual believers have the ability to choose to accept their salvation. Yet they all agree that, fundamentally, the Christian walk must follow the example of Christ. Through Christ, God took the form of a human being and entered a world full of death, destruction, and injustice in order to show a better way. God through Christ remained obedient and humble, even unto death on a cross, for the sake of his friends—and for all of us.

The complex relationship between faith and free will boggles the mind, even more so than the oddball mechanics of multiple realities in the MCU. But when Loki reveals the god he needs to be, he reminds all Christians of one clear aspect of our faith. We follow a God who sacrifices. How can we do any less?

Topics: TV