viewing guide

Retracing Loki’s Journey Through the MCU

Photo: Courtesy of Disney+

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most memorable villain (sorry, Thanos) gets his own show this week with the six-episode Disney+ series Loki, and the first question on most viewers’ minds is probably, “Didn’t I see Loki die?!?!” After his murder at the big hands of Thanos in the opening of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, it may be a little surprising to see the God of Mischief back and leading his own show in 2021. While death is kind of an abstract concept in the world of comic books and the movies based on them, this one actually has a pretty clear explanation, relatively speaking.

No, Loki hasn’t been returned to the realm of the living by his Asgardian ancestors. Instead, Loki is embracing a classic comic-book device: the alternate timeline! While this creates an unusual dynamic, wherein more than half of the title character’s cinematic history to this point doesn’t directly apply to the version of him onscreen in Loki, it’s worth considering the entire arc of Tom Hiddleston’s beloved character as a preview to the events of the series. Like a lot of characters in the MCU, Hiddleston’s Loki has moved across the spectrum from villain to antihero, which raises the question of which version of Loki we’ll get this time. The one who tried to destroy the planet, or the one who died heroically trying to kill Thanos? Or maybe a new Loki altogether?

The answer depends in large part on the “when” of Loki, which is a little less straightforward than it was with previous post-Endgame MCU series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision. So let’s step back to reorient ourselves, and Loki, within the MCU timeline, and review what we need to remember about the troubled brother of Thor.


Of course, Loki isn’t a product of Kevin Feige’s imagination; like most of the characters in this blockbuster universe, his origins lie in Marvel comics. Believe it or not, Loki actually predates Thor himself, first appearing in a book called Venus back in 1949. That version of Loki barely resembles the one that would become a major character in the Marvel universe, who doesn’t really emerge until 1962’s Journey into Mystery, a Thor-driven book. The adopted son of Odin and the brother of Thor, Loki leaned into his nickname as the “God of Mischief” from there on out, blurring the line between hero and villain on several occasions (mostly the latter in printed form). He was most commonly featured in Thor books like Journey Into Mystery but also appeared in titles like The Avengers and X-Men. The character’s explosion in popularity thanks to his MCU prominence had an impact on the Marvel Comics world too, with solo series like Loki: Agent of Asgard and Vote Loki popping up in the 2010s.

Loki’s origin story in the comics is similar to the one revealed in the MCU, with slight tweaks around the death of Loki’s real papa. In the books, Odin, the ruler of Asgard after the death of his father, was fighting the Frost Giants and killed their king, Laufey. He then found Laufey’s son, hidden by the Frost Giants due to his non-giant size. Odin took the child and raised him as his own, making him brother to Thor, Odin’s biological child. With an intense amount of “second-child syndrome,” Loki became increasingly jealous of the way Thor received special treatment, turning him into a trickster character, someone who constantly conspired to bring down Thor, Odin, and all of Asgard, really. A history of shapeshifting has, over time, turned Loki into a gender-fluid character in the comics, even being referred to as such by Odin when addressing his three children as “my son, my daughter, and my child who is both.” A recent Loki teaser confirmed that this is also the case for the character’s MCU form, and there has been rampant speculation that the series will include an appearance by Lady Loki, as introduced in 2008 in J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel’s run on Thor (which just so happens to be getting collected and released in July as Lady Loki: Mistress of Mischief).

Thor (2011)

Tom Hiddleston’s run through six films as Loki started with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, a film that presented him as a villain not that far removed from the source material. Hiddleston’s Loki is a charming troublemaker, someone who pushes his heroic brother into dangerous situations in a way that’s downright Shakespearean. Of course, with Branagh at the helm, this first take on Loki owed a lot to the Bard — both Edmund in King Lear and Cassius in Julius Caesar were reported influences on Hiddleston’s take — but also to classic British cinema. Branagh asked Hiddleston to look at the work of Peter O’Toole, especially in The Lion in Winter and Lawrence of Arabia, and the director and star worked together to create a now-legendary antagonist in that charming O’Toole mode.

In Thor, Loki manipulates his brother Thor (played by Hiddleston’s fellow 2009 no-name Chris Hemsworth) into starting a war with the Frost Giants and discovers in the process that he is the biological son of the Frost Giant Laufey. Loki steals the throne of Asgard, after Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins) exiles Thor to Earth for all that Frost Giant nonsense. In the end, Loki kills Laufey and plans to destroy Jotunheim to impress his adoptive daddy, but that backfires when Thor returns from Earth with a few things to say about what’s happened while he was gone. Odin tries to save Loki, but his boy falls into an abyss between dimensions, leading him to encounter a race known as the Chitauri, who are just looking for a leader to guide them to chaos. They promise Loki an army for world domination if he can retrieve a legendary item known as the Tesseract, which will become essential to the MCU.

The Avengers (2012)

The Loki of Branagh’s film was downright pleasant compared to the one who, after spending time with the Chitauri, emerges as a more traditional supervillain in Joss Whedon’s 2012 blockbuster. In The Avengers, Loki launches an attack on a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, from which he retrieves the Tesseract early in the film, setting the Chitauri plan into motion. Whedon’s Loki is a more driven enemy, the big bad that the titular group has to destroy to save the world — and the vicious killer who ends up taking out Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and opens up an alien-spewing wormhole above New York City. In the end, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) literally throws Loki around like a rag doll, and he is then taken away from Earth by Thor before he can cause more problems. Well, one version of him is …

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Remember how the heroes of Avengers: Endgame jumped through time (and their old movies) to complete their mission in the biggest MCU movie ever? Well, returning to the action of the past to try and get their hands on the Tesseract created an alternate version of Loki, and that’s the guy who will now drive the action of the show that bears his name. That Loki is still alive and well, a prisoner of something called the Time Variance Authority, but it’s important to note that he may not be as fully developed as the one who died in Infinity War. At this point, he’s only fought with Thor and daddy over his lineage and tried to destroy New York City, embarrassed in his defeat at the hands of the Avengers. He knows nothing of Hela, Thanos, or Taika Waititi. However, it’s worth considering where he went in the MCU from this point, as it provides clues as to where he might go on the show. After all, the shift from pure villain in Avengers to more of an antihero over his subsequent appearances is certain to flavor how Hiddleston approaches the character on Loki. Viewers know that this character is capable of sacrifice and heroism, even if Loki himself doesn’t know it yet.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Loki wasn’t gone for long, returning just a year after Avengers in Alan Taylor’s follow-up to the first Thor movie. In The Dark World, the king of the Dark Elves (Christopher Eccleston) kills Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor and Loki’s mother, the woman who taught magic to the God of Mischief. Thor frees Loki as a part of a plan to take vengeance, as his magical brother can open a secret portal to the land of the Dark Elves, where they can kick some ass in the name of their mother. Of course, Loki doesn’t exactly do what he’s told, but he’s already becoming more of an antihero here, ultimately working with Thor and appearing to be fatally wounded as he tries to save his brother in an act of great sacrifice. Of course, he’s not actually dead, and the film reveals that he’s taken a position on the Asgardian throne, disguised as Odin.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

While all kinds of new characters were being introduced in the MCU in the mid-’10s, Loki was busy running Asgard, posing in the form of his father. In the third Thor film, the heroic brother uncovers what Loki has been up to and reveals his true form to the Asgardians. Before long, Loki and Thor learn that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is about to escape from a magical prison and cause all kinds of trouble. Again, Loki moves further down the spectrum from villain to hero here, ultimately aligning with Thor and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) to defeat Hela. After Asgard is destroyed in the battle, Thor, now King of the Asgardians, takes them to Earth, but …

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Thanos (Josh Brolin) intercepts the spacecraft and kills Heimdall (Idris Elba), taking the Space Stone from the Tesseract. Thanos demands loyalty from Loki, who seems to relent before trying to attack the supervillain, leading to the tragic death of Thor’s troublesome brother. Will the fate of the alternate version of Loki end up differently? Only time will tell.

Perhaps even more interestingly, how will the action of Loki impact future stories in the MCU? Will the alternate timeline aspect keep it more self-contained than something like WandaVision, which clearly had major repercussions on future films? Probably not. Is it a coincidence that Loki writer Michael Waldron did script work on the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? In Loki’s world, there are no coincidences.

(If you subscribe to a service through our links, Vulture may earn an affiliate commission.)

Retracing Loki’s Journey Through the MCU