This post will probably be long, but I was asked to write it (and I’ve been wanting to since I went to see this film), so at least I know I have one reader interested enough to read to the end. Oh, and there are lots of pictures.
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I am by no means the person best qualified to write this post. I’m not a long-term Marvel fan who grew up reading the comics and I still haven’t read them. I jumped on the Marvel bandwagon when the Avengers came out, like the majority of ‘new fans’. But I am very interested in mythology, and I’m also currently researching gender roles in history and myth, so I’ve been looking pretty closely at interpretations of those stories.
I’m also interested in costume design, diversity, and LGBTQ characters. Thus, I walked out of Thor: The Dark World with a slightly different impression than the majority of the audience, and while I was fangirling over Loki like the best of teenage fangirls, it was mostly about his costume.
Disclaimer: I am well aware that Marvel’s Loki is by no means the same as the Norse mythological figure of Loki, and cannot be directly compared.
Second disclaimer: This post will not have ‘spoilers’ as such, but if you have not yet seen the film and would prefer to know nothing about it whatsoever, it may not be the right place for you, as it includes screenshots and some discussion of characters and their actions.
A few weeks ago, Marvel confirmed that Loki is canonically bisexual and genderqueer. This is great, because he’s a popular character and anything that increases awareness of LGBTQ folks is important, but it’s also not a surprise to anybody who is familiar with the Loki you’ll find in the eddas, the source material for the majority of Norse myths.
He’s a shapeshifter. So why would he be limited by his biological sex? He takes female form several times, including that one incident with a horse. He’s fairly problematic as far as Norse perceptions of gender were concerned, because he can be proven to do exactly what they accuse guys of to shame them: he gets pregnant and gives birth. That’s right, mpreg was considered to be totally a thing, and if you wanted to diss somebody, you tried to make out that they’d given birth. Which is mildly hilarious, but when you think about Loki, makes a lot of sense. It’s been theorised that this sort of attitude originates from a one-sex system which is super complicated and goes into the realms of anthropology and things, but is interesting nonetheless.1
If you want to read some interesting analysis about gender roles regarding both myth!Loki and Marvel!Loki, I can recommend this Livejournal essay on the subject, since it’s both informative and accessibly written. For those interested in other analyses (including books like LotR and the Hobbit among others), the rest of the site is also a good read.
Given that I went to see Thor 2 only about two days after reading this statement from Marvel and the above essay, it was in my mind at the time. And, because I’m a cosplayer, I was looking carefully at the clothing of every character, trying to figure out exactly which ones I’d be capable of making and whose outfit I most wanted to wear. The film was beautifully designed, and all of them were wonderful. And I started noticing something.
I’ve known for a long time that costume design can show character development as much as anything those characters can say. Just look at this comparison of Loki in the first Thor film and in Avengers Assemble.
In the first one, he looks youthful, as though he’s not quite reached his full strength. His collar is too large, making him look dwarfed by it; he is slender, and we can tell that he’s more about brains than brawn. But in the second one, the cut of his shoulder panels makes him look wider. The colours are more muted and threatening, with the bright green changed to a darker tone. The collar now fits, and the metal edges give it a threatening feel. He’s also changed his awesome fabric-and-leather sleeves for metal wrist guards (it’s less clear in this image, but I love the design of his sleeves in the first film).
Therefore, it’s instantly obvious that this is no longer “little brother Loki”. This is “supreme evil overlord Loki”.
And of course, there’s a contrast between Loki and the other Asgardians (are we calling them that, or the more accurate ‘Aesir’? I never know with Marvel) that’s instantly noticeable: colours. Most of the time, we see them in red and gold and bright, striking colours, while he’s dominated by more muted tones with green accents. The Les Mis fandom is fond of the red/green dichotomy as portrayed by Enjolras and Grantaire (vision and revolution versus cynicism and alcoholism), and it’s a similar duality here.
Looking at the costume design in Thor: The Dark World, however, what I noticed was something else.
This is Heimdall’s armour. It’s clearly defensive, because as gatekeeper his role is dangerous and he might well be attacked, but it’s also ceremonial. Its colours are contrasted with his skin but reflect his golden eyes, proving that for the Aesir, it’s as much about aesthetics as anything else. Notice the perfect symmetry of everything from the body armour to the sword.
Then, on the right, we’ve got a still of Thor while he’s fighting. His armour is, again, functional but also attractive. It guards all aspects of his body, but allows him movement. Like Heimdall’s it is symmetrical, giving a sense of completion and order.
Okay, so we have two examples of some armour design. Great. Now let’s look at Odin and Thor together – and what do we notice?
Due to difficulty in acquiring screen caps in the early stages of the film’s release, I can’t provide a whole host of examples, but other viewers may be able to observe that the only time the male characters are shown in asymmetrical clothing is when they are away from their duties, such as Thor’s rather charming outer garment while he’s talking to Jane that basically looks like he’s wearing a curtain. But an artfully draped curtain.
Now let’s take a look at Frigga’s costume. This one is unusual for the majority of female characters in the film because, Sif aside, they don’t tend to wear much in the way of armour. Can you see how, despite its functional breastplate and wrist guards, the rest of the outfit is asymmetrical? From the skirt to the single shoulder guard to the decoration and design unique to each sleeve, we can see that it’s not about mirroring itself.
This design pattern isn’t limited to Frigga. Jane’s outfit while on Asgard is likewise asymmetrical, including a fairly nonsensical breastplate that only covers one side of her torso and therefore only any use if the guy stabbing you is on your right.
It’s especially nonsensical because, you know, her heart is totally exposed… but whatever. It looks pretty cool and it helps me to prove my hypothesis.
While I’m examining the female characters, it’s obviously vital that I include the Lady Sif, who is not only extremely attractive but also totally badass on the battlefield. She disproves my theory that female characters are costumed asymmetrically, as her armour is symmetrical. But if you subscribe to the theory that the Norse perceived sex as irrelevant and behaviour or gender as relevant (which is set forth in the academic journal I referenced earlier), then Sif is in fact a ‘masculine’ character.
Although evidently female she fulfils the masculine gender role of fighting, and thus is dressed accordingly. Her armour is her entire outfit, rather than an occasional necessity in the way it is for Frigga, and helps constitute a large aspect of her personality and characterisation because we perceive her as one of Thor’s band of fighters rather than joining Frigga and, in this instance, Jane as one of the “ladies” of Asgard.
It’s hard to tell from the screenshots I’ve found, though, but it strikes me that her skirt may in fact be asymmetrical. It’s hard not to read that as a reminder: while her heart may be ‘masculine’, her female biology is still there under her skirt. (Friendly reminder than in myth, Sif and Thor are a couple.) But I may be reading too much into an artfully posed photo.
So where does this leave Loki? Because by now I’m sure you’ve all made the connection I’ve been hinting at: his armour, though at a first glance basically masculine, is asymmetrical. The lapels vary from one side to the other. The shoulder pads are different. The overlapping leather pieces that form the flexible torso armour aren’t centred, and the metal ornamentation there is only shown on one side. Where the tunic splits to allow movement, it does so on one side, rather than on both like Thor’s.
And not just his armour. To my annoyance I was unable to obtain a decent picture, but towards the beginning of the film Loki is in a cell beneath Asgard. He is wearing a rather attractive green long-sleeved top beneath a dark outer layer, which you can mostly see in the picture below. (Edit: I’ve now updated this post with a clearer image thanks to the availability of images.) One sleeve is ordinary while the other has a winding pattern a little like a vine which wraps around it and creates variation, much like Frigga’s outfit shown above. Even in this apparently simple outfit there is a degree of asymmetricality.
Throughout Norse mythology, Loki is put into situations where he undermines his own masculinity to help the Aesir get what they want, whether that’s turning himself into a mare and getting pregnant or tying his testicles to a goat. As described in that Livejournal essay, the nature of his magic is perceived as, essentially, effeminate.2
In the Lokasenna, a truly hilarious part of the Poetic Edda (it’s basically an insult contest between Loki and everybody else), Thor’s favourite phrase to try and shut Loki up is “Unmanly one, cease!” before he then threatens to smash his face with his hammer if he won’t be quiet. Admittedly, in other translations “unmanly one” is rendered as “cock-craving creature” which while it has some wonderful alliteration, carries slightly different connotations, but the essence of the insult is there: Loki doesn’t fulfil the Norse ideal of manliness.
Regardless of whether his self-debasement is on their behalf, the Aesir still see fit to use it against him. And it’s kind of fair enough, since most people would find other ways of abducting / distracting stallions and making people laugh than Loki’s preferred techniques.
In short, Loki is ‘genderqueer’. He refuses to conform to their ideals of masculinity and has no qualms about taking on feminine traits. He is as ambiguous when it comes to gender as he is with loyalty – and anyone who has seen Thor: The Dark World will know that it’s very hard to see whose side he’s on at any given moment. The safest bet is to say he’s on his own side; in this film the self-loathing he portrayed in the first Thor movie is far less evident, so perhaps that’s even true, though I don’t believe he’s fully reconciled with himself and I think he’s hiding his emotions completely. But that’s another essay.
And this costume design is screaming to anyone who cares to listen: Loki transcends your gender boundaries. He’s not wearing a dress of asymmetrical design. He’s not wearing symmetrical armour. He’s wearing armour that’s asymmetrical, gleefully dancing over the line between masculinity and femininity. Perhaps it’s more pronounced in this film, or perhaps I was paying more attention, but Marvel’s confirmation that Loki is in fact genderqueer as well as bisexual within the canon of the comic books and presumably the cinematic universe too suggests to me that it’s nothing if not deliberate.
It’s subtle, but it’s undeniable, and more importantly than any of this: it’s beautiful.
The whole film is so well designed with fantastic world building, as well as costume and set design to rival anything I’ve seen. The constant use of colours was just unbelievable, and even if you have no interest in the plot, I recommend seeing it for that.
I’m going to end this epic essay-post here, because it’s already over 2000 words long (longer if you include the hovertext on the pictures), but I hope somebody finds it interesting. My hypothesis may be disproved by a second watching of the film, or by a costume designer stepping in to correct me, but this is simply the evidence I’ve collected to support an idea I’ve come across with regard to Loki’s role.
Is there anything you noticed about design that particularly stood out to you in the film, or can you think of anything I’ve missed? Please don’t leave any spoilers in the comments – I want them to be safe for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. :)
References / further reading (because this is totally a proper essay)
1. If you want to read more about this, I can recommend “Regardless of Sex: Men. Women and Power in Early Northern Europe” by C.Clover, but it’s from an academic journal so you may need a university login or something to access it.
2. I recommend “The Function of Loki in Snorri Sturluson’s “Edda”” by Von Schnurbein for more on this topic, though again it’s an academic journal. You may just wish to read the Lokasenna and the Prose Edda (Snorri’s Edda) to observe it yourself.