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Before the Mad Titan crushes Loki’s neck in the opening salvo of Avengers: Infinity War, the God of Mischief turns to his adopted brother seeking approval and acceptance, both of which escaped him for over a thousand years. “I, Loki, prince of Asgard,” he says, announcing himself to Thanos. After a brief pause, he turns one last time to the once-mighty Thor.
“Odinson,” he continues, embracing the non-familial parentage forced upon him in childhood.
On-screen, the moment plays to Loki’s long arc towards redemption and gives the audience reason to mourn the former villain’s death. He dies on the Statesman not as a child of Jotunheim, but in service to the Allfather and the emotional needs of the audience.
The real tragedy of Loki of Asgard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how his character arc perpetuates the “savior myth of adoption.” Loki becomes a martyr to a system and a society that celebrates adoption while ignoring the fundamental grief and emotional damage induced by family separation. His is the story of a little blue baby icicle that dismisses a critical biological and psychological truth: adoption is trauma.
Some experts believe that trauma can begin at birth when mother and child break their physiological bond. Nancy Newton Verrier’s seminal text “The Primal Wound” describes the separation as a loss that can affect adopted children throughout their lives. Psychologists and researchers in the field of obstetrics have both noted that even in utero, a human fetus can hear its mother’s voice and experience and process rejection — thus explains Loki’s reaction to learning his Frost Giant lineage in the first Thor film.
Underneath the Asgardian Temple, in Odin’s relic room, the God of Mischief confronts the Allfather about his past. Though he’s nonplussed to learn he’s of Jotun descent, the revelation comes as a confirmation of sorts to Loki. He’s always known that he’s different; the primal wound has been with him since birth.
“It all makes sense, now, why you favored Thor all these years,” Loki screams at Odin upon learning the truth. “Because no matter how much you claim to love me, you could never have a Frost Giant sitting on the throne of Asgard.”
An adopted child’s affective behavior may stem from the grief they carry inside, according to Newton Verrier. When the child acts out, it’s incumbent upon the new family to accept this burden and understand it as mourning loss. Too often, parents dismiss adopted children as troublesome, or, as in the case of Loki, mischievous.
In Thor: Ragnarok, for example, the titular character gives filmgoers a glimpse into his adopted brother’s childhood. Huddled around Valkyrie and the always-angry Bruce Banner, Thor recalls one of Loki’s earliest schemes.
“There was one time when we were children, he transformed himself into a snake, and he knows that I love snakes,” whispers Thor with Loki chained behind him. “So, I went to pick up the snake to admire it, and he transformed back into himself, and he was like, ‘Blehhh, it’s me!’ And he stabbed me. … We were eight at the time,” he continued. The moment, played for laughs, is a prime example of how loss and separation are dismissed in a young, adopted child.
By the time the audience arrives at Thor: Ragnarok, Loki’s gimmicks have grown in proportion to his anguish. No longer content with mimicking snakes, the God of Mischief takes on the persona of Odin himself, essentially usurping the throne of Asgard. After a lifetime of loss, Loki’s cries for help rise to a guttural scream. He tries to prove himself worthy of Odin by becoming Odin.
Newton Verrier describes this drive for acceptance in adopted children in her book. “Dorothy says that she always tried, but never quite ‘lived up to my mother’s expectations of what her own daughter would have been like.’”
Early in his arc, audiences are made to see the rightful heir to Jotunheim as a villain. Throughout both the first Thor film and the groundbreaking team-up movie The Avengers, Loki plots to take control of the throne, or as he says in the latter, “rule as a benevolent king.” Along the way, his actions nearly destroyed two planets. They resulted in the death of hundreds, including his birth father, the Frost Giant king Laufey, and fan-favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phillip J. Coulson.
But in Ragnarok, Loki’s actions are dismissed as mere games, the continued antics of a troubled adopted child. What was cause for war between brothers in the first Thor film, and a war between worlds in The Avengers — Loki’s attempts to rule from the throne — are brushed off with barely a second thought by the people of Asgard. “It took me quite a while to break free from your spell,” Odin tells Loki with a smirk,” Frigga would have been proud.”
In stealing the throne of Asgard one last time, Loki sought acceptance. Instead, Odin laughed.
But until his denouement in the opening scenes of Infinity War, villainy and comedy are the only two attributes assigned to Loki’s character throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, his is a depiction of adoption built on the worst foundations of stigma and shame.
With Loki imprisoned aboard the Helicarrier in the first Avengers film, Banner tells the team that the God of Mischief is “crazy.” “Have care how you speak,” says Thor, momentarily defending his adopted kin. “Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard. And he is my brother.”
But when Black Widow reminds Thor that Loki killed 80 people on his quest to rule the earth, the God of Thunder responds, “He’s adopted.”
The Joss Whedon-penned line played for big laughs with audiences but fell flat in the adoption community. As adoptee and media scholar Jessica Crowell wrote in the New York Times, “[a]s an adoptee and comic book fan, I sat in the dark theater stunned… Shaken, I turned to my boyfriend and politely told him I wanted to leave.” Research shows that adopted children suffer from more psychological issues and have more contact with mental health professionals due to anxiety, depression, addiction, ADHD, and more. But it’s a complicated matter that’s formed at the cross-section of grief and loss, and that’s indebted to the systemic problems of the adoption industry itself.
As Odin himself admits, he took Loki not as a child to love, but as a tool for diplomacy and war. It’s a representation of the worst instincts of the adoption process when parents want a child as opposed to when they have love to give. Moreover, it’s a gross misappropriation of the Hague Adoption Convention.
No wonder Loki did what he did.
At every turn, the films remind Loki, and moviegoers by extension, of the superiority of his life on Asgard. Jotunheim is presented as a barren wasteland of ice and snow from whence the young Frost Giant was abandoned by his people — a story only heard from Odin’s point-of-view. In the relic room in the first Thor film, Odin tells Loki that he kept his adopted son’s past hidden “to protect him.” Frigga does the same as the Allfather lies in the Odinsleep.
It’s what is known by many as “the savior myth of adoption,” the notion that what came before was worse than what the child has now. Under this pretense, most states in America keep an adopted child’s original birth certificate under seal, a practice that’s only now begun the slow process of reversal.
But rather than protecting the child, it promulgates what some call “the trauma of invisibility.” Stonewalled at every turn from learning her true heritage, the adopted child begins to feel alone and abandoned. It’s a term that applies to the population at-large but holds an intense meaning for the adopted community.
In Thor: The Dark World, Loki lashes out at Frigga while imprisoned for his crimes against Midgard. After denouncing Odin as his father, Frigga counters, “am I, then, not your mother,” to which Loki responds, “no.” It’s a crucial moment in Loki’s arc — his final words to Frigga before she dies — meant to humble and tame his anger.
Most adopted children will recognize, however, a question that tries to buoy Frigga’s soul and bury Loki’s pain. In a moment of subtle truth, Frigga could have helped Loki heal. Instead, she forced his feelings down deep and disappeared.
There, in that Asgardian cell, Loki gives up on embracing his heritage so he can make his adopted mother happy.
Actor Tom Hiddleston celebrated Loki’s arc of redemption. “To have it all come full circle, and for Loki to call himself an Odinson, to really identify with that, to identify with the strength of his father’s love before saving his brother, I found that really touching,” he said.
But grief and loss burdened Loki’s death on the decimated Statesman. Dying an Odinson meant living a life cloaked in the trauma of separation and guilt. Audiences, on the other hand, consumed a full-on propagandized version of “the savior myth of adoption.”
Now that version of Loki is good and dead. And though his character should be mourned for the loss unaddressed, the story should be banished to the dustbin of history, bid farewell and good riddance for the stigma it perpetuated on the adoption community. Here’s hoping a kinder, gentler multiverse will give the new God of Mischief the tools he needs to overcome and avoid the true tragedy of Loki of Asgard.
Brandon A. Dorfman is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist who was lucky enough to be reunited with his birth mother. He writes about addiction, drugs, race, and other social issues, and his work has appeared in AlterNet, The Fix, MJ News Network, PotNetwork News, Talk Poverty, and more. Follow him on Twitter @BADorfman or at www.BrandonDorfman.com.