Where to start? My instinct is to start this next thought with a Brene Brown quote or a Rumi quote, or even better, a Mary Oliver quote. This is where my brain goes. Somewhere on Themarginalian.org website is the perfect quote. We’ll get there in a minute, but I think, instead, I should start with Disney+.
[Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen Toy Story 3 or the Disney+ show Loki, and you might want to some day, you’ve been warned. And if you don’t know that Iron Man was recently killed, the rest of the essay won’t make a lick of sense, and you should probably stop here…]
Like many thinking, rational humans, I am somewhat ambivalent about the fact that this one, megalithic company has so much power to influence not just society at large, but my children specifically. And if I’m being honest, this company has enormous power over me and my emotions and how I experience the world, too. One of the most moving cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen, or hope to see, is at the end of Toy Story 3 when the group of toys you’ve come to love and cherish are headed toward certain destruction. Woody is doing the thing he always does and is frantically trying to come up with a last minute plan to save everyone when he and the rest all realize that there isn’t a last ditch plan, that they’re going to be destroyed. They all reach for one another and hold hands to face their end the same way they’ve spent their lives: together. I’m crying right now while I write this. It gets me every time. It pulls and tugs my heart strings even knowing they’re saved in the end by a funny and apropos deus ex machina moment. Fucking Disney.
I’m going to start with Disney+ anyway – specifically the show Loki. (Side note: this essay is the direct result of a very, very interesting texting conversation I had about this with my eldest child. Proper props to him for effectively explaining what was going on. Turns out you have to be 14 to understand the vagaries of the Multiverse…) I wasn’t ready to really understand this show until very, very recently. Now, if you know me at all, you will know that I came out of the womb ready for time-traveling, interdimensional, kung-fu fighting hijinks. What I’m talking about here specifically is the romance in the show between Loki, and the alternate reality version of himself, Sylvie.
There’s a whole bunch that could be written about the potential weirdness of a situation where a person falls in love with another version of themselves from another dimension. I mean a lot. Because it’s weird. But for a moment, for the sake of this essay, I’m going to treat Loki and his variant, Sylvie, as consenting adults who are neither genetically nor phenotypically related. I mean, if you put up with Game of Thrones, this is an easy pill to swallow.
Another side note: How nice is it that there’s a love story between two main characters in which their apparent relative age on screen and in real life is approximately the same. The male character isn’t ninety three and the female character isn’t twenty one. (Hack, cough, cough Sean Connery, cough, cough Harrison Ford, hack, cough.) In real life Tom Hiddleston is 41 and Sophia De Martino is 38. This is one of the things that makes hating Disney hard. I digress.
What’s great about this series is that you can’t really watch it on a surface level. In a lot of Marvel movies, the psychological machinations of the main characters is either so cartoonish as to be uninteresting, or essentially irrelevant to the plot. And a lot of those plots are pretty basic. There are bad guys who are messed up and try to take over the world. The good guys kick enough ass and make your garden variety superhero sacrifices and the world is saved. I was way more moved by the plot device where Woody and Buzz and the gang were going to get destroyed than I was about losing Iron Man. Again, I digress.
In the show Loki, to understand what’s happening with the nature of the timeline, you have to know what’s going on in the hearts of the main characters. Owen Wilson plays Mobius (super obvious metaphor), who, in the name of helping him to understand the other Loki variant (it gets weird) essentially provides ongoing therapy for Loki throughout the entire series. The point of these sequences where Mobius is asking Loki why he does what he does – to uncover the roots, the genesis of his pain, the neglect and the desire for external validation is the same as the point of therapy: self-awareness. Loki is a character who has spent his whole life hiding from self-awareness. He doesn’t trust anyone and is so reliably untrustworthy that characters around him just assume he’s always lying to them. The consequences of avoiding self-awareness are dire and multifaceted. This is a reality that I have only recently begun to understand about my own life . . .
But back to Loki. It’s extra potent that Disney chooses to follow the story arc of these two specifically middle-aged characters. I don’t think it would work with young glamor stars. Someone over there is listening – really listening – to Brene Brown (yes it’s Brene Brown quote time), who says:
… we all grew up and experienced to varying degrees, trauma, disappointment – hard stuff. And we armored up. And at some point that armor no longer serves us. And so, how is not talking about this serving you? It’s not serving you anymore. And now the weight of the armor is too heavy and it’s not protecting you. It’s keeping you from being seen and loved by others. This is the developmental milestone of midlife. From late thirties until probably your sixties, this is the question. This is when the universe comes down and puts her hands on your shoulders and pulls you close and whispers in your ear – I’m not fucking around. You’re halfway to dead. The armor is keeping you from growing into the gifts I’ve given you and that’s not without penalty. Time is up. It’s not a crisis. It’s a slow, brutal unraveling.
I’m pretty familiar with this kind of unraveling . . .
But back to Loki. Loki’s untrustworthiness is a kind of self-loathing. He can’t care about anyone else because he doesn’t care about himself. It’s a shortened, carefully choreographed, tidily packaged, Marvel kind of revelation, but there it is. Loki can’t fall in love with Sylvie – or anyone for that matter – until he figures his own shit out. Not only that, he won’t even be able to have real friendships. There will be no late summer nights drinking wine, jumping in lakes for him.
And if, in season two, they are to have a real shot at a relationship, Sylvie’s going to have to jump on the self-awareness bandwagon, and Disney is going to need to create a character who can provide her with some therapy. Her childhood has some pretty heavy trauma, and her relationship with Loki is going to be a messed up attachment train wreck unless she faces and comes to terms with the trauma she grew up with. Which, like many kids of course, was having to hide in time from agents of the Time Variant Authority in the moments right before complete apocalypses, always on the run with no parenting or meaningful connections in her life, so . . . yeah. Her choice to free the multiverse and betray Loki at the end of season one only makes sense if she’s choking on emotional armor scrambling for any kind of foothold outside herself.
Questions I have for season two: Is the multiverse inherently chaotic? Can you have free will if your timeline is deterministic? If you do liberate the multiverse in favor of free will, can it behave harmoniously, or will it inevitably lead to war and chaos between alternate timelines? Can humanity be happy under the thumb of an unseen, yet oppressive force who never-the-less provides order? But most of all, I’m interested in whether Disney is going to do the emotional heavy lifting and let Sylvie come to terms with her own emotional armor? There isn’t a chance in hell for a healthy relationship with Loki otherwise. My guess is that Loki, the character we’ve invested several movies and much more time with, will get the benefits of surviving with his self-awareness intact, and Sylvie will end up sacrificing herself to rectify mistakes she’s made before achieving, albeit too late, the kind of self-awareness she’d need to be in a healthily attached relationship with Loki. Such are the dreams Disney+ is made of.