In Norse mythology, Loki is a shape-shifting god who enjoys the occasional turn as a woman. The gender bender doesn’t discriminate—sometimes he’s even a female animal. In fact, Loki was once mounted by a stallion. He then gave birth to an eight-legged horse.
So when comic book writer Al Ewing, who’s working on the solo story Loki: Agent of Asgard, wrote on Tumblr recently that the character would be bisexual and that he would “shift between genders,” it wasn’t a huge surprise.
Marvel has yet to confirm this new direction for the character, perhaps because the whole idea of a queer superhero is complicated by the fictional character’s other gig: as arguably the most popular character in a string of blockbuster superhero movies, from The Avengers to this weekend’s Thor: The Dark World, which has already raked in $100 million overseas and could match that total in domestic receipts within days. Yet according to those who know the comic book world, the whole discussion is moot: Loki’s fluid gender has nothing to do with sexual orientation at all. It’s about guile, and that’s why we Loki.
Played masterfully by English actor Tom Hiddleston, the movie version of Loki, Thor’s brother, is sensitive and slim, with long hair and feminine features. (Just watch this scene.) He wears a long coat that resembles a dress. In the new film, Loki morphs himself into Captain America, glances in the general direction of his crotch, and says that his suit feels tight. Still not convinced? A Chinese theater accidentally displayed a fan-made poster of Thor and Loki in a romantic embrace.
At a recent screening, Hiddleston was applauded whenever he appeared on screen. People like him. Christian Bale’s Batman, Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man were fine in tights. But they’re essentially just crimefighting bros.
Lex Fajardo, creator of the graphic novel series Kid Beowulf, really likes Loki, too. In his series, characters say “Holy Loki” when something exciting happens. His three-year-old border collie is named Loki. But Fajardo says applying the word “bisexual” to the movie version of his favorite hero—or any other fixed label—is nearly impossible. “With Loki you never know what you’re going to get! Will he be helpful or will he be deceitful? Will he look like a human or a horse? Will he be a he or a she?”
He’s not alone in that assessment. Roger Langridge, who wrote the comic-book series Thor: The Mighty Avenger in 2010, doesn’t think the “flimsy” nature of an imaginative character can even support the moral weight of this conversation. “It’s a potentially interesting subject,” he says. “But in a superhero comic it’ll probably just get in the way of all the fighting and pretty costumes.” If it were up to him, Langridge would make the comics resemble the movies, at least superficially, because that’s what a new generation of readers wants. He’s right. And that’s essentially what’s being done.
Inevitably, however, the labels will be affixed. Moviegoers will call Loki “gay” or “bisexual” or whatever else. And that could be problematic. An examination of the cover of Ewing’s book reveals something unsettling, as gay author Andy Mangels points out. It’s right there, in big letters: “Prince of Lies.” “When you’re dealing with an amoral antihero style character who is generally portrayed as a villain and a liar, who uses trickery as their modus operandi, that can play into different psychological elements,” Mangels says, “What does that say about women? And gay people?”
“Male villains are often portrayed as effeminate,” says Paige Braddock, author of the lesbian-friendly comic strip Jane’s World. Disney is a notorious offender (remember Jafar?) “Chicks, historically, have gotten bad press.”
Then again, it wasn’t so long ago there was a truly effeminate main character in a blockbuster superhero film—one who was cheered and loved in spite of his nefarious plots to kill everyone in his fictional universe. It was Heath Ledger’s Joker, and he was still pretty cool.