Annually, we get to live in a post-San Diego Comic Con world where questions about who won the convention,whether Kaiju movies can work as a modern film and OMG HOLLYWOOD IS IMPLODING are speculated to such a minute degree and with so little information that it will all be hilariously wrong by SDCC 2014. Plus all the cosplay in the world.
One tidbit of information gleaned from this year is that Tom Hiddleston (as Loki) will not be in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, but may find himself in other projects during phase 3. The new Thor trailer came out yesterday, and it’s becoming clear that he is still a central character to the universe.
That is a testament to the love we collectively have for the character. People enjoy Loki so much that he was featured as THE major villain in two of six phase one films with a supporting role in at least one phase 2 film and rumors of phase 3 involvement. Not a bad run.
It’s curious to me that the character is so popular because of what it says about the way we consume entertainment. We love this villain. We find him so engaging/charismatic/handsome/sexy that he’s worthy of being the reason The Avengers assemble.
Why is that?
Loki attempts genocide. If you’ve seen the new Thor: The Dark World trailer, you know Natalie Portman gives him the big slap for what he did to New York. And suddenly you realize that she is the only person acting appropriately under the circumstances, and just barely. He tried to do the same thing that made Hitler the go-to villain of the 20th century (with honorable mentions to Stalin and the cast of Batman & Robin). He kills indiscriminately for, seemingly, no reason. He wants to rule the world because his dad didn’t love him or something.
The character is a counter to everything we hold precious. In choosing a career as a loner sociopath, he implicitly says that having a job, falling in love, being part of a community and deciding that a life without violence is not good enough. His purpose is the destruction of all human society. He is, at the least, a terrorist.
And Loki is not alone. He comes from a growing stock of similarly apocalyptic villains that we glorify them for being the coolest of the cool.
So I have to ask. Why don’t we see this when we look at these characters?
The big freak out was that people thought this glorified the persona of a terrorist, and yet we find ourselves glorifying the personas of would-be terrorists. Granted, there is an obvious difference between the two kinds of villains I’m talking about here. One is a fictional character and the other is a probable bomber. One ruined actual lives while the other helped earn $1.5 billion worldwide.
But is that all there is to it? Killing real people is a good reason to condemn Tsarnaev (or anyone), but doesn’t explain our endorsement of his fictional counterparts. And I, like most people, experience Tsarnaev and others like him indirectly. Abstractly even. We can all agree that what happened at the Boston Marathon was horrible and should never happen again, but for many of us it’s a news story, not a personal tragedy.
The victims exist in a space not too far from the mass-murdered of Darfur or the collateral damage in Afghanistan. We agree that these things are terrible, but they are distant and, to many of us, totally unreal in our everyday lives. When you don’t know the names and faces, real becomes relative.
My point here is to illustrate that the two characters aren’t so different, both being abstracted forms of evil for those of us not personally touched. Both kinds move beyond being people and represent a threat to what we hold valuable. Even accepting the difference between the two (and I do believe there are differences) why is it so easy to idolize fictional would-be murderers?
A part of it is we understand that even the most realistic movie is still farce. It’s not just an awareness that no people were harmed, but that none of what is happening in anyway matters. But is that enough to explain why fictional killers are such popular costumes?
At the end of the day, this guy is dressed like a person who’s cool for killing.
I think something else altogether is happening here. Loki and his proxies don’t register as evil in a sense we can relate to. For all his malice, Loki doesn’t actually kill many people. Coulson dies in The Avengers, but not really; we’ve been hearing rumors of his return for months. The Joker killed some people, but they were mostly other criminals and corrupt police. Rachel Dawes died, but for some reason no one cares.
Compare that to Kevin Spacey in Seven. The bright colors and choreographed fights are absent. Instead we see, in graphic detail, what the life of a murderer looks like. The gritty realism makes Spacey a little too similar to things we actually fear–to crimes we actually have to read about. We will never have to worry about an alien/Norse god trying to conquer the planet, but we have to worry about walking alone at night.
Villains that aren’t strictly evil can become sympathetic. Many of our nasty terrorist-style ne’er-do-wells have tragic back stories and secret pains that explain why they do what they do. Loki does.
Sympathetic villains are easy to turn into fantasy. As an audience, we have the luxury of putting ourselves in the shoes of both the hero and the antagonist. Loki and his like represent a life free of being told what to wear, where to go, how much money electricity costs, what we ought to look like, who we should love and a million other things that mark the boundaries of a social world. These larger-than-life villains can make us feel free without having to feel evil.
A friend of mine says it’s a power fantasy. Taking a human life is the ultimate power. That rings true, but also gets at the core of my question: why is that a fantasy worth having? We could cosplay as doctors that cure diseases or solve water scarcity, but we don’t. We don’t because the fantasy is about the cool we derive from violently achieving ends. That’s why, for every random guy dressed like Thanos you see at a convention, there will be twenty dudes dressed like Loki.
We love the flirtation with being out of control without actually being evil.