In the second episode of Disney+’s latest Marvel series, Loki, the title character pulls off his most illustrious trick yet: meeting himself. Working under the auspices of the Time Variance Authority—the mysterious organization that ensures everything happens on the multiverse-avoiding Sacred Timeline—Loki traces another version, or “variant,” of the God of Mischief to a shopping center in middle America. The goal is to rid the universe of this alternate trickster, and after encounters with three people whom this other Loki has embodied, our antihero comes face to face with this new variant’s main form. She removes her hood, revealing blonde hair, horns, and the green suit Loki has worn in multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe films. He then follows her into a portal, and the credits roll.
For months now, after photos surfaced of actress Sophia Di Martino in green-and-gold garb surfaced online, fans have been speculating the Disney+ show might feature the character known as Lady Loki. Like the character Tom Hiddleston plays in the MCU, Lady Loki is the God of Mischief. But, unlike him, she’s a woman. Except that’s not unlike Loki at all. “Anybody who knows Loki’s mythology,” says Kieron Gillen, who spent years writing the character for Marvel Comics, “knows what a queer figure Loki is.”
Throughout Marvel history, Loki has taken many forms: snakes, women, Captain America. According to the original Norse myths, he once turned into a mare and mothered an eight-legged horse that became Odin’s steed. In the comics, the trickster god became Lady Loki following Ragnarok, essentially taking Lady Sif’s body. There’s no telling how much, if at all, the new Marvel show will investigate Loki’s many identities, but the appearance of Lady Loki—along with a small tease in one promo noting that Loki’s gender is “fluid”—is a deliberate nod to the God of Mischief’s past. “Our show is really about identity,” says director Kate Herron. “We're really digging in to what makes Loki tick. Acknowledging that Loki is gender-fluid was very important to me.”
To be clear, having Loki show up as a woman does not a queer (anti)hero make. It says nothing of the character’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But the fact that Hiddleston’s Loki registers no reaction to seeing his female self does acknowledge that the character has always known this part of his unclassifiable legacy. In Gillen’s Young Avengers, Loki flat-out tells David Alleyne/Prodigy, “My culture doesn’t really share your concept of sexual identity. There are sex acts, that’s it. I’m actually the patron god of certain popular ones, believe it or not.” Loki has lived many lives in many forms; the only rainbow he cares about is the Bifrost.
Yet, in the Marvel movies to date—the Thor films, the Avengers titles—there has always been something unavoidably queer about his presence. Not in terms of acts or presentation, per se, but in the particulars of his magical powers. Loki is someone whose talents and pursuits were always out of sync with what the world wanted him to be. When he transforms his look or demeanor to escape a precarious situation—something queer folks have been doing for centuries—it’s called a trick. But it’s really a tool of endurance. He’s the half–Frost Giant half-brother of Thor who has been conflicted about his place on Asgard since birth. (Remember: Odin literally turned his son’s skin from blue to white when he was a baby and kept Loki’s parentage hidden from him until he was an adult.) To get intersectional about it, Loki is a biracial, gender-fluid being attempting to both blend in and be seen for who he truly is. “For queer people, growing up knowing that others expect and assume you are straight, and having to negotiate that expectation in order to survive, or in order to make your way in the world, we all become tricksters,” says Anthony Michael D’Agostino, a professor at Fordham University who has studied queer identities in comics. “Loki being queer is almost beside the point. Queer people are going to identify with him no matter who he’s fucking, because of the way he negotiates the world.” It’s a parasocial relationship, in other words, based on a shared sense of alienation.
Hiddleston has always known this. Earlier this month Inverse published a piece in which the actor said that the “breadth and range of identity contained in the character has been emphasized and is something I was always aware of when I was first cast 10 years ago.” Hiddleston, a cisgender man, may be playing Loki now, but in theory any actor could. And according to Herron, moving that part of Loki’s identity out of the subtextual realm was key. “I've always thought of him as [queer]; in the comics, it's canon,” she adds. “It's definitely something we wanted to acknowledge.”
So does it matter that Loki’s a villain? That the one queerish main character in the MCU also happens to be one of its nastier figures, invested mainly in subjugating the Nine Realms and double/triple-crossing his allies? It’s complicated. Disney has a weird history of being accused of “queer coding” its villains—giving them stereotypically gay characteristics, albeit subtly. Ursula’s a drag queen; Jafar (the animated one) lives between menace and camp. What this does, some say, is equate queerness with villainy. To be gay is, inherently, to be evil. Not the case for Loki, Gillen says. “The problem with the queering of villains is that they are demonized because they’re queer,” Gillen notes. “The more you move the queerness to an aspect of the character which is entirely separate from their nefariousness, it’s fine. Good representation is about showing any group in its full humanity.” Loki, unlike Ursula or Jafar, has appeared in six movies and now a TV show. He’s proven himself multifaceted, not just a one-note caricature.
Loki’s latest facets are just unfurling now. Herron, for her part, will only say “I don't think I can talk about anything without spoiling,” but with four episodes left, audiences haven’t seen all of the character’s shapes. But perhaps even more than Lady Loki or a deepening of the whole Moonlighting thing Loki and Mobius have going on, the show could benefit from bringing some of the God of Mischief’s ideas about sexuality and identity to audiences. Loki’s whole deal is that he (or she) is ever-changing; not a man or a woman, or gay or straight—the only labels Loki has are the ones given by simple mortals. And, as D’Agostino notes, one of the nagging issues of representation in media is that it reduces characters, and the audience, into the boxes in which they fit. The whole point of fantastical fiction, Gillen adds, is that not everything is a one-to-one comparison with real life but rather a new way to think about the ways people define themselves.
When Loki first brought glad tidings to Earth in The Avengers, Tony Stark called him “reindeer games”; Hulk identified him as a “puny god”; and Nick Fury promised to bury him “like the pharaohs of old.” He is, and can be, all of those things. Much like anyone else, he’s always evolving; he just has far different tools to do so—and doesn’t bother with the rigid ideas of identity mere mortals do. Queers have always sought to break down ideas of sexuality and gender, but truly queering the world means living on a timeline where deeds matter—not how the world perceives you when they’re done. This, perhaps, will be Loki’s legacy. “It’s not just going to be about gender; it’s not just going to be about sexuality,” says D’Agostino. “It’s going to be about the way that he solves problems, about being uncertain about what’s good or evil, about being in a world that refuses to believe that you are good.” Now that would be the greatest trick he ever pulled.