Who Is Loki, Really? Marvel, Myth, and Eight-Legged Horses

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Loki (Tom Hiddleston) grinning in The Avengers

Credit: Marvel Studios

The emotional finale of Loki season 2, the Disney+ series featuring everyone’s favorite morally flexible Frost Giant, may have closed the book on one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most beloved characters (or did it?), but there are still a lot of stories to tell about the guy who becomes literal God of Stories.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki hearing the Multiverse
Credit: Marvel Studios

Although Loki has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since nearly the beginning and has developed into one of the franchise’s most nuanced characters, he has still always been something of a second fiddle.

In the Thor films, he obviously had second billing to his illustrious (adopted) older brother (Chris Hemsworth). In The Avengers (2012), his moment as the biggest villain of the MCU was swiftly and definitively overshadowed by a post-credits scene of Thanos smirking in space. Even in his own titular series, he’s frequently been put on the back burner to characters like Mobius M Mobius (Owen Wilson), Victory Timely (Jonathan Majors), Sylvie (Sophia di Martino), and He Who Remains (Majors again).

Jonathan Majors as He Who Remains/Kang in Marvel's 'Loki'
Credit: Marvel Studios

Related: ‘Loki’ Star Can’t Wait to Ditch MCU for New Franchise

When you really think about it, how much do you even really know about Loki? Obviously, he’s a villain (except when he’s not). He’s a pretender to the throne of Asgard, but he does actually have his own throne in Jotunheim if he ever wanted it. He’s a bad brother, a bad son, and overall a bad guy, but one who’s willing to save the Multiverse, no matter what it takes.

Obviously, the MCU version of Loki is ultimately inspired by old Norse mythology, but even there, the idea of the character as a Norse god is subject to plenty of debate. Heck, we still don’t know for certain what “Loki” means as a word.

With all that in mind, let’s take a walk through the many different versions of Loki that have been seen in pop culture, world culture, and good old-fashioned Norse myth.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Loki

The version of Loki (portrayed by Tom Hiddleston) that global audiences are likely most familiar with belongs to the MCU, where he was first introduced in Thor (2011) alongside Chris Hemsworth as his adoptive older brother and God of Thunder.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Thor Ragnarok from Marvel
Credit: Marvel Studios

Interestingly, Thor actually operates far more as an origin story for Loki than it does for the titular character, who begins the movie as a super-powerful Norse god with an ego problem and ends it as a super-powerful Norse god who has slightly less of an ego problem.

Loki, on the other hand, goes through a much more developed narrative arc in his first appearance. At first, he’s portrayed as a generally trusted and well-regarded compatriot of Thor, until it’s revealed that he secretly let Frost Giants enter Asgard, kicking off a chain of events that gets his brother exiled to Earth.

However, Loki did not actually know that he is himself a Frost giant when he came up with this plan and flies into a rage when he discovers that he is adopted. Before Thor has even learned that he should not smash beer glasses on the ground, Loki has had his entire identity thrown into question and ends the movie by letting himself drift into nothingness because his adoptive father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) won’t and can’t feel empathy for anyone, ever.

Odin in his armor talking
Credit: Marvel Studios

Although Loki will change hugely over the course of the MCU, it is very telling that he is a far more fascinating character than Thor from the very beginning. His next appearance in The Avengers (2012) sees him playing a ruthless murderer and leader of an alien horde, then popping up in The Dark World (2013) as an embittered prisoner and mama’s boy. Next, Ragnarok (2017) sees him stranded in an alien junk world, while Infinity War (2018) shows us Thanos’ bonafides by having him be abruptly and brutally killed on screen.

Of course, Marvel Studios would not kill off such a fan-favorite character just like that, and Loki went on to his own Disney+ series of Multiverse-saving. But the key to the MCU version of the character is that he’s not just the God of Mischief; he’s also the patron saint of desperately seeking approval and self-worth, but never finding it.

Marvel Comics Loki

While the MCU version of Loki is the God of Mischief (and now, God of Stories), the original Marvel Comics version is a little bit more intense: he’s the God of Evil.

Loki wearing his horned helmet in Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Technically, Marvel Comics Loki first appeared in Venus #6 (1949), credited to Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, but the character seen there bears virtually no resemblance to the Avengers villain he would eventually become. Loki was re-introduced in Journey into Mystery #85 (1962) after having been re-designed by Jack Kirby, establishing much of the familiar green-and-gold horn imagery that we are now familiar with.

The first appearance of Loki in an issue of Journey Into Mystery
Credit: Marvel Comics

This version of Loki is one of Marvel Comics’ most durable characters and, like his MCU counterpart, has varied from villain to antihero at different times. However, the comic book Loki is noticeably much more brutal, violent, and manipulative, oftentimes being responsible for cosmic levels of mayhem and bloodshed. For comparison, MCU Loki could not even stand to kill Thor, in the end. Marvel Comics Loki manipulated events to be reincarnated into a child version of himself, then took over that child’s body and basically killed him via possession. That’s cold.

Speaking of Kid Loki, Marvel Comics continuity is a bit looser than the MCU, even now that the Multiverse idea is taking hold of Kevin Feige’s mind and soul. Along with the reincarnated young version of the god (who spent some time in Paris as a kid con artist), comics continuity has seen a Lady Loki (and not just a variant like Sif), a Loki who is King of Asgard, a Loki who becomes Sorcerer Supreme in place of Stephen Stranger, a Loki who founds cosmic version of the Avengers out of regret, a Loki who becomes a literal avenging angel, a human Loki given powers by an evil corporation in 2099, and even a giant Loki who dies when a skyscraper falls on him.

Alligator Loki soaking in a kiddie pool
Credit: Marvel Studios

Still, none of them are quite as fun as Alligator Loki.

DC Comics Loki

Although he is not part of any kind of Marvel continuity, we would be remiss not to make a slight detour into the company’s eternal rival, DC Comics. Specifically, we’ll take a look at the DC imprint Vertigo, which historically has featured more “mature” and dark titles and stories.

In this case, that would be the acclaimed Neil Gaiman series The Sandman, which featured a version of Loki in several storylines. Amusingly enough, Gaiman has said that he received hurt letters from fans who felt the trickster god (plus Thor and Odin) in his story was a parody of the Marvel Comics god, opining that his version was actually much closer to the original old Norse mythology.

Loki as he appears in DC Comics The Sandman
Credit: DC Comics

In The Sandman, we first encounter Loki as he is imprisoned in a cave beneath the surface of the world, tied to a boulder by the entrails of his son, while a venomous snake slowly drips poison into his face. So, yeah, this version of the trickster god is significantly more dark.

Loki is freed by Odin and accompanies him and Thor to the kingdom of Dream, where he will try to make the case that the Aesir Gods should take possession of the vast expanses of Hell. Unlike the typically dark-haired and handsome version in Marvel, this one has fiery hair and terribly scarred lips. You probably don’t really want to know about the lips.

Related: Miss Minutes Confirms Loki’s Gender Reveal, Fans Infuriated by “Woke” Choice

Old Norse Mythology Loki

However, that does bring us to the original inspiration for all these characters: the original Norse mythology Loki.

This trickster appears in both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, the definitive compilations of Norse myth that serve as our best understanding of these old legends. Although there are numerous contradictions and conflicts in the various stories, there are some definitive, consistent details about Loki.

For example, unlike Marvel, Loki is the blood brother (meaning the two literally cut themselves and let each other’s blood enter the other) of Odin, rather than his adopted son. As such, he has more of an uncle status to Odin than a brother, but Aesir cosmology is a whole lot more complicated than that.

Loki as depicted in the 18th century text SÁM 66
Credit: Wikipedia

Also unlike Marvel, Loki is described as the son of a giant and Laufey, a goddess, and his relationship with the Asgardians is complicated at best and world-destroying in the end. He’s also the father of the goddess of the underworld, a giant wolf who eventually kills Odin, and Jörmungandr, a giant serpent who encircles the world and will die in combat with Thor. So, cheery!

In one adventure, Loki becomes a mare and gives birth to the eight-legged horse ridden by Odin, and, at one point, he manages to insult everyone at a party so viciously that they tie him underground with the snake, just like in DC Comics.

It’s probably fair to say that the Marvel version of the character is a lot more fun and charming than the old Norse one.

What’s your favorite version of Loki Laufeyson? Tell us in the comments below!

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