The Fast & Furious franchise has rightly earned a reputation for refusing to kill off beloved characters: First, it was Letty surviving an explosion before a convenient case of amnesia, and now Han is inexplicably returning from the grave in Fast 9 after also seeming to perish in an explosion. (Turns out car explosions aren’t that dangerous; please don’t test that theory at home.) But Fast & Furious isn’t the only blockbuster franchise that can’t resist bringing back old favorites. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe probably won’t resurrect Tony Stark, no matter how many billboards fans put together, when it comes to Loki, the God of Mischief appears to have infinite lives on-screen.
The character fell into an interstellar abyss at the end of his debut in Thor, only to come back in a post-credits scene with devious plans for Earth; he ostensibly sacrificed himself to save his brother in Thor: The Dark World, only to reveal that he had actually disguised himself as Odin in an attempt to rule Asgard; in the opening scene of Avengers: Infinity War, he also got the life choked out of him by Thanos, who then practically winked at the audience and declared that Loki would never come back. Except—and you’re probably sensing a theme here—Loki was once again resurrected, in a manner of speaking, through the time-traveling high jinks of Avengers: Endgame, in which a Hulk-related skirmish gave our guy an opening to grab the Tesseract and vanish into thin air. This Loki, technically an alt-timeline version of the character, is now the star of his own eponymous Disney+ series, premiering on Wednesday.
The MCU has jumped through a lot of hoops to keep bringing Loki back into the fold—in fact, his “death” in Thor: The Dark World was originally meant to stick, but test audiences didn’t accept such an unceremonious end to the trickster’s reign. It’s a credit to the studio that they’ve adjusted on the fly, but the fandom didn’t give Kevin Feige and Co. much choice: Unlike virtually every other Marvel villain, Loki is a genuine breakout star. The most unsurprising aspect of Loki getting his own stand-alone adventure is that it took this long for it to happen.
There’s a certain allure to Loki that has a rich history in pop culture: the brooding bad boy who’s shown just enough humanity that you can rationalize rooting for them. (Think Star Wars’ Kylo Ren or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike, both of whom have devoted stans despite their many misdeeds.) But it’s not enough for a character like this to be compelling on the page: An actor needs to bring that emo charm to life. And in Tom Hiddleston, the MCU found a perfect match, even if he’s shown some resistance in the past to embracing the Loki-ness of it all.
While Loki became Hiddleston’s breakout role in Hollywood, it wasn’t necessarily what the actor had in mind for himself. Originally, he auditioned to play the God of Thunder, but Thor director Kenneth Branagh noted that Hiddleston was a better fit as his puckish little brother. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Chris Hemsworth embodying Thor—even without the costume and hammer, he is literally built like a Norse God. That Hiddleston isn’t as muscularly gifted isn’t a knock on him, and as it turns out, Branagh’s impulse was spot on. The actor deftly handled the antagonistic turn in Thor, injecting Loki with unexpected depth and pathos as he discovers that he’s an adopted son who can never assume Asgard’s throne. (Odin is low-key a terrible dad, telling his sons that only one of them is destined to rule and essentially inviting them to be jealous of one another.) Here, and in The Avengers, Loki makes for the ideal villain: condescending, petulant, and occasionally menacing, but also legitimately sympathetic thanks to his complicated upbringing, and genuinely charming thanks to the charismatic actor playing him.
Hiddleston then explored Loki’s potential as an antihero with Thor: Ragnarok, which, in the hands of director Taika Waititi, brought some much-needed levity to Thor’s self-serious mythology. It’s the first MCU film that leans into the petty (and highly relatable) sibling squabbles between the Asgardian brothers, a comedic shift that brings a franchise-best performance out of Hiddleston. While there are still hints of sadness on display, even when Loki stages a play to celebrate himself because he’s never won his father’s approval, Ragnarok showcases a side of Loki that, to that point, had been mostly untapped. Thor using his brother as a distraction by pretending he’s injured and throwing him across a room is a more accurate representation of the movie’s wackier priorities.
Outside of additional MCU entries, Hiddleston’s career has followed the trajectory of a rising movie star, albeit one with an admirable eye for collaborating with celebrated auteurs like Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak), and Ben Wheatley (High-Rise). Only Lovers Left Alive and Crimson Peak, in particular, leaned into the goth-king sensibilities that Hiddleston displays in the MCU, as he played a moody vampire and an incestuous baronet living in a Gothic mansion, respectively. But, as evidenced by his ill-fated audition for Thor, Hiddleston has continually aspired to play the traditional leading man. In a strange twist befitting his Marvel character, whose ambitions to rule Asgard only underline that he’s unfit for the task, Hiddleston’s success rate in this area of his career is much lower.
There are fun components to Kong: Skull Island, the knowingly ridiculous “Apocalypse Now but With a Giant Monkey” installment of the MonsterVerse that coasts on a few great set pieces and a lot of schlocky death scenes. But Hiddleston is (theoretically) the movie’s human costar alongside Brie Larson, and in this role he brings little of his natural charm or cunning. His adventurer is so devoid of personality that I honestly couldn’t tell you the character’s name without looking it up. (Call it the Chris Pratt in Jurassic World effect.)
Being a handsome (and white) British star inevitably sparks rumors about portraying James Bond, and rather than dismiss those suggestions, Hiddleston has not-so-subtly invited them. Though he’s been questioned about Bond enough times that it’s a self-sustaining news cycle—and yes, he’s been asked about it again in the lead-up to Loki—Hiddleston basically did a glorified 007 audition with AMC’s 2016 miniseries The Night Manager. Based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name, the series stars Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier turned (you guessed it) hotel night manager who gets embroiled in an undercover mission to stop a powerful arms dealer. While the series netted Hiddleston a Golden Globe (perhaps you remember his cringe-worthy speech?), being on the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s radar isn’t necessarily a strong endorsement of a performance, even before the organization’s latest controversies. It’s not that Hiddleston isn’t serviceable in The Night Manager, but the series excels less for its acting than its sumptuous locations: a Bond pastiche by way of overt vacation porn.
Hiddleston spends a lot of time in The Night Manager shirtless, doing spy things, and putting on the charm offensive to Elizabeth Debicki, but something just feels off. It’s not that the actor isn’t an appealing on-screen presence, but like the awkward paparazzi photos of his brief (and bizarre, and possibly staged) fling with Taylor Swift, it comes across as too artificial to resonate. (No wonder the Bond producers were reportedly turned off, in part, by the “Hiddleswift” debacle.) A more interesting version of The Night Manager might’ve cast Hiddleston as the villain, where he could deliver a wry smile that makes you feel like his character’s hard to trust, masking some inner pain and insecurities, or, in the case of Loki, both.
That’s the thing about Loki: He’s so obviously untrustworthy, but against everyone’s better judgment, MCU characters constantly let their guard down around him. Be it Thor, citizens of Asgard, or the audience, we’re ensorcelled by Loki even as he constantly gives us reasons to doubt his sincerity. (As Owen Wilson’s character recounts in the Loki trailer, he’s literally stabbed people in the back “like 50 times.”) Noting how believably Hiddleston is able to play that trait may seem like a backhanded compliment, especially when the audience also cheers at the sight of Loki being tossed around like a rag doll by the Hulk. But as Hiddleston reaches a decade of playing Loki on screen, the sentiment simply reinforces how harmoniously—and mischievously—the actor and his most iconic role have matched up.