Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Loki.”
In September 2019, political commentators David French and Sohrab Ahmari met at the Catholic University of America to debate. Tension between the two had been building all that summer online, but the underlying philosophical divide within the conservative movement had existed ever since 2016 upended the Republican Party.
On one side of the debate was a robust defense of pluralism, free-speech and limited government — core tenants of Western liberalism. On the other side was a conservatism far more comfortable with wielding political and cultural power — one that sought to enforce Christian values, even by means of curbing some speech or using government to police morality.
While this breakdown on the right came to a head in the French-Ahmari debate, on the left a similar power struggle was simultaneously taking place, if a bit less publicly. Those who recognize freedom of expression as the bedrock of progress have grown concerned about those seeking to enforce new progressive orthodoxies by deplatforming or “canceling.”
In other words, both the right and the left are internally asking themselves: What does freedom mean today?
Into this weighty space steps, somewhat surprisingly, Disney’s Marvel. For 10 years Marvel has offered up a pyrotechnic spectacle for the big screen — a roller coaster of escapism. And, for the most part, the stories it’s told have been simple. There have been exceptions, of course — see, for example, “Black Panther” and “Infinity War.”
Now, Disney’s Marvel seems to be engaged in a far more ambitious artistic project that migrates into the space of prestige big-stream TV.
“WandaVision” — a show about a superhero grieving the death of her partner — asked us what it means to mourn and questioned what is real. “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — a drama about who will replace Captain America — asked what it meant to be American. Now “Loki,” the latest from Marvel and Disney+, seems to query, “Is freedom worth it? Is freedom an illusion?”
These are questions that don’t just implicate modern politics, but faith as well, as director Kate Herron recently suggested to Deseret News writer Herb Scribner, “There’s a faith aspect to it.”
“Loki” starts off where the character was left in the “Avengers: Endgame” time travel hijinks. Loki makes a choice that disrupts the “timeline” and is quickly apprehended by an interdimensional authoritarian regime tasked with ensuring no one makes a choice diverging from a preapproved timeline.
Loki learns about this organization from one of its agents, and objects: “My choices are my own … I live within whatever path I choose.”
The agent practically rolls his eyes, “Sure you do.”
But while Loki bristles at being controlled here, those who recall the first Avengers movie will remember that Loki wanted to make himself the ruler of Earth. This puts Loki very much in the center of the debate. He tries to justify his own efforts to rule by saying he would have improved their lives.
“I would’ve made it easy for them. The first and most oppressive lie ever uttered was the song of freedom. For nearly every living thing, choice breeds shame and uncertainty and regret.”
Marvel is far from the first artistic effort to weigh this debate. Chief among them may be Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor.” In this parable, the Grand Inquisitor arrests Christ at his Second Coming and sentences him to death. The Inquisitor explains that when Jesus rejected Satan’s temptations and chose freedom instead, he showed he misunderstood human nature. Christ responds to the Inquisitor’s accusations with silence and a simple kiss.
The agent in “Loki” points out Loki’s both sides-ism on the issue, saying, “You said nearly every living thing (needs to be controlled). So I’m guessing you don’t fall into that category.” But in doing so, he simultaneously identifies the hypocrisy of each of us — for aren’t all politics ultimately about control? The agent’s indictment extends so far as to include himself, who is apparently enforcing a predetermined timeline while simultaneously living outside it himself.
This dynamic puts Loki in a crucial position for the show’s theme as being both the controller and the controlled. As a society similarly thrust into this debate, we see Loki as our audience surrogate. As he navigates the complicated matter, we can hope that the show will provide an entertaining entrance to the debate.
One of the first episode’s recurring visual jokes is a “time reverser,” a button the agent can push to send Loki back to where he was a few seconds before. But the joke introduces an important wrinkle to the theme. If Loki has freedom, does it matter?
The weight of Marvel’s 24-film backstory is used effectively in asking this question. Loki at one moment comes across a storage room and sees piles of infinity stones, the rocks that nearly every Marvel superhero has lived and died trying to obtain. A clerk throws out, “We get lots of those down here” — apparently they use them as paperweights. A powerful symbol trivializing all that has come before. Did any of it matter?
As the United States comes close to the midpoint of its third century, our most existential threats come from authoritarian regimes, which boast enviable economic progress and social cohesion. Will our national experiment in freedom survive? Will it matter?
Will Loki be stuck playing out the same villain role, as the agent describes to him, “to cause pain and suffering and death ... all so that others can achieve their best versions of themselves”? Or will he be able to strike out on his own and create his own future?
The initial episode ends with us discovering that there are two versions of Loki, and perhaps two versions of our national politics — one that is following the familiar villain pattern, and another version tasked with disrupting it.
Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine.