Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hiding in Plain Sight

The Trickster Is Never Who You Think He Is

Loki. The green-garbed, golden-horned Asgardian in the Marvel movies. The antagonist in various of the Marvelverse tales. He’s charismatic. He’s wicked. He has powers that seem controlling and illusory in nature. He’s largely looked at as the trickster deity of the screen series.

And that’s wrong.

Yes, yes, of course, he can make illusions, and he messes with people as a sort-of metahuman troll. But when stripped to the bare bones, that’s not a trickster.

In world mythology, tricksters do have those abilities. Charisma, illusions, mind control, and a host of other powers (shapeshifting is a big one). Coyote  and Eris, Anansi and Jack, Puss in Boots, even Loki (in traditional mythology) and Satan have these abilities. But the abilities are not what make the figure. They are the trappings. They are the robes of office, not the office itself.

The office of trickster is more about what the tricksters do with their power than the power itself. A trickster, classically, breaks boundaries. They deceive to either bring the powerful low or to teach a lesson to raise up a culture or a hero. They invert the status-quo, and they do so while maintaining an air of mystery and confusion. They have secrets. They triumph without resorting to gross, physical, and combative measures; they are, in a nutshell, both the intellectual and anarchic ideals that help re-shape a group to what it needs to become. Joseph Campbell, in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, put it in a nutshell: “Tricksters relish the disruption of the status quo, turning the Ordinary World into chaos with their quick turns of phrase and physical antics. Although they may not change during the course of their Journeys, their world and its inhabitants are transformed by their antics.”

Classical Loki image
Classical Loki image

Loki, despite his moniker, does not this. While in the original source material (Norse mythology), he is an outsider and an enigmatic rule-breaker, willing to both insult / harm his fellow Aesir (to the point, for instance, of the death of Baldur) and aid them (using his cleverness to retrieve Thor’s hammer from the giants and saving Frejya’s honor in the Þrymskviða tale), Marvel’s Loki is much, much closer to the dominant paradigm. He is, by all accounts, nobility. He is powerful (an Asgardian) and the second-born (at least by decree) of Odin (Again, a difference; in the mythology he is Odin’s half-son). He grows petulant when he finds he will not be ruler. A trickster would show the Asgardians why he should be ruler. He would break social taboos, or convince them to do the same. He would make the mighty look foolish, or empower those who had no power. Or he would, at the very least, use his wit and cleverness to find a way around a situation in which he had to face forces much more powerful than himself.

Loki, in the films, does none of these things. He makes himself a usurper. He allies with military powers and tries to gain control over powerful weapons. He ends up becoming a pawn of another power figure (the Tauri) and becomes their scout / procurer / war-leader. None of these things are remotely the way a trickster would handle things. Yes, he uses mind control and illusion. But even when he gets the Avengers to fight each other, he does so by mind control. Not by trickery. Not by subtlety or cunning. He is not a trickster. He is a controller and a usurper.

And the heroes fall, as heroes do. They crack under the assault, and one of their kind dies. Then the trickster partially unveils himself.

Loki isn’t the trickster of the Marvel Movie Universe.

Nick Fury is.

The one-eyed, clever, shapeshifting, teaching, bringing-the-heroes-the-lesson-they-need outside was there all along. Hiding in plain sight.

In order to bring the heroes the lesson they need to learn, Captain America cards, soaked in blood, are dropped on a table. Cards that we learn almost immediately afterwards were not exactly what they were said to be. A trick. To teach, to inspire, to unite.

The battle for New York rages. The powers that be want to bring to bear an even greater weapon. And someone denies them that. Someone stands up to them.

Another movie later, and there’s a plot at the highest levels of SHIELD. But there’s someone there who “knows all the secrets” and, while titular head of the organization, actually works against the organization’s aims. Subtly. From inside. With stealth and cunning. His crowning moment in the story is to bring his own organization down low with the trickery and misdirection of one scarred eye.

But then HYDRA catches on, and the trickster is killed… or is he? No. He has done what tricksters have done since the beginning. He fakes his death. He becomes another form in the end, even while helping out the heroes with guile, with cunning. Helping them against the powers that be.

And in the end? He vanishes. Like any good trickster. But he leaves behind a legacy: A team reforged, and an organization that, once festering at its core, is revealed to the light of day. We’re led to believe that there’s chaos in the wake of this. The reconstruction of New York, the political and tactical implosion of lives and the SHIELD organization, leading up to a civil war between heroes. And yet, out of all of this comes betterment, comes learning, comes a massive change in the status quo for the positive.

In hindsight, even with only one good eye? Loki never even came close to that role. Fury single-handedly, with Campbell’s “quick turns of phrase and antics,” turned the entire world on its head. And that looks pretty good for the trickster.

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