What is free will worth? Breaking down the philosophy of the Loki finale

 
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(L-R): Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Marvel Studios’ LOKI, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved

Warning: Major spoilers ahead for the Loki season finale

Is free will worth the pain and suffering that may come with it?

After six episodes, dozens of different versions of Loki including an alligator Loki, and countless twists and turns, the entire conflict of Loki (created by head writer Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron) pivots on this question. And while it’s a fascinating question which has vexed theologians and philosophers alike for millennia, Loki is ultimately too preoccupied with setting up what comes next to provide a satisfying answer.

A quick recap for those unfamiliar. Loki is set after the events of mega-blockbuster Avengers: Endgame and follows a variant of the titular character (played by Tom Hiddleston) who escaped his death in Avengers: Infinity War—only to be conscripted by the shadowy Time Variance Authority (TVA) to take down another Loki variant called Sylvie (played by Sophia Di Martino). You can find my full breakdown of the first episode here.

Alongside TVA agents Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) and Hunter B-15 (a criminally underused Wunmi Mosaku) they discover that the TVA is secretly an authoritarian organisation directed by a hidden mastermind hidden at the end of time. After various digressions including a journey to Pompeii, a cameo from Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) and an encounter with Classic Loki (Richard E. Grant), Sylvie and Loki make it to the End of Time to confront the shadowy figure controlling the destiny of everybody on the “Sacred Timeline”.

The final episode, which follows on directly from the previous episode’s climax, reveals this mastermind to be “He Who Remains” (Jonathan Majors), a 31st-century scientist who has dedicated their life to preserving the timeline as it is in order to prevent evil variants of himself (who clued in viewers and diehard Marvel fans will recognise as classic comic book villain Kang the Conqueror) from coming into existence and threatening to destroy reality in a multiversal war.

This is where the question that is ultimately at the heart of the show comes into play, with “He Who Remains” providing Loki and Sylvie with a choice: continue in his authoritarian footsteps and preserve the universe—even if it comes with the high cost of practically removing free will—or allow the multiverse to flourish into new worlds, providing the freedom to choose for everybody—including the potentially villainous Kang variants who may appear.

This dilemma is what ultimately makes up the conflict for the Loki season finale, with large chunks of it devoted to characters debating the various angles and perspectives on the issue—perspectives that mirror the attitudes and arguments put forward by many in the real world. On one hand, there is the discussion between Loki, Sylvie and He Who Remains. Loki is well aware of the atrocities committed in service of He Who Remains goal but ultimately sides with his purpose. Sylvie, however, fails to see the justification—understandably considering her status as an anomaly who was declared a “Variant” by the timeline and hunted as a result.

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(L-R): Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong) and Judge Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in Marvel Studios’ LOKI, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved

Outside of this conflict, Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Mobius are seen having a similar debate. Renslayer, despite discovering that the TVA is founded on a lie and that the Time Keepers who ostensibly ruled the organisation were a fabrication, stands by the decisions. She justifies the horrors committed by arguing that whatever reason this lie was created, it must be necessary. Instead of interrogating the reasons why, she instead blindly doubles down on her beliefs. Mobius disagrees, noting the chaos which may result from change is necessary for free will, something which Renslayer laughs off.

The discussion here, perhaps even more than the one with Loki and Sylvie, echoes many of the arguments discussing free will in real life. I was genuinely surprised to see Mobius echo the argument I have seen many of my Christian friends put forward when discussing the matter: to truly have and understand free will, there must also be the opportunity for mistakes, pain and suffering.

But Loki’s depiction of this debate is unfortunately far from perfect, even if it does do an admirable job of attempting to turn a relatively heady topic into accessible popcorn entertainment. Part of this comes down to the villain of the piece. He Who Remains is a new variable presented in this episode and the catalyst for much of the discussion that follows, but in terms of representing the complexity of this discussion he is an imperfect vessel. Part of this comes down to the binary way this decision is presented by him. According to He Who Remains, there are two options—a universe without free will, or total annihilation. There is no in between. In this way, he reflects the perception many may have of a deity—a demanding figure who forces all to conform to his will. And while Sylvie clearly disagrees, her murder of him is clearly painted as a mistake, both by the tragic music and cinematography that accentuates the choice, and by the immediate consequences presented to Loki —who encounters a presumably villainous version of He Who Remains immortalised as a statue in the episode’s cliff-hanger.

Of course, this is just implication. The show doesn’t ultimately take a side or answer this question. That much is made abundantly clear by the cliff-hanger ending and the post-credits message spelling it out—“Loki Laufeyson will return in Season 2”. It seems likely that this second season will further this conflict, presenting more complexity and likely showing a third way in which our heroes may prove that He Who Remains was wrong in boiling it down to two choices. I’d love to see the show highlight Mobius’ argument in more depth—free will may lead to pain and suffering, but it does not mean unbridled chaos with no plan.

It’s clear that Loki is not done telling this story. There is more to come, not just in the next season, but in other MCU properties such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness or Spider-Man: No Way Home which will presumably deal with the creation of the multiverse; or Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania where Kang is slated to appear. But this desire to be the runway for more content ultimately harms the story it is trying to tell. From the moment He Who Remains’ dilemma is presented; the ultimate result is clear—he must be disposed of to set up the future of the MCU. And the future of the MCU certainly seems exciting—but this excitement comes at the cost of the show itself.

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Loki Key Art. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved

When it comes to answering the questions at the heart of the show, the best Loki can muster is a Tune in next season—or to a half dozen other MCU properties in theatres and on Disney+ to find out. As a chapter in the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki’s finale is the most interesting the franchise has been since Endgame, setting up a compelling new villain and a multitude of plot threads that could be followed up in multiple places during the rest of MCU Phase 4. As a fan of the franchise, I’m eager to see where it goes next, and what Season 2 of Loki may look like. But as the conclusion to Loki, the show about our titular god of mischief(s) and their quest to find independence, this finale episode falters. The personal conflict which Loki and Sylvie face is ultimately dispensed in service of a conflict where the result is pre-ordained. Any true denouement is waylaid as the show ends up kicking the can down the road. We’ll answer those questions next year . . . probably—the show seems to be saying.

The actors all do a wonderful job of selling the drama of the dilemma and go a long way to making the conflict work. But I still can’t help but wonder how else the show could have ended. It feels like a wasted opportunity to introduce so many variants of Loki in the last few episodes, but have the ultimate villain be somebody else who we have never met—especially as Loki fighting against the plans of another Loki is a staple of the comics the show draws from. Similarly, the lack of a clear resolution to the themes and questions presented leaves a slightly sour taste in my mouth—even as I enjoyed much of what was on offer.

That isn’t to say this episode is a failure. The direction and cinematography is beautiful and all the actors do a wonderful job at grounding the conflict of the show in the emotions. I just wish its attempts at philosophising were able to stand on their own and provide some closure, rather than setting up the next big thing. Previously, I stated that Loki seems to be asking “What is your purpose in life?” And while the show ultimately ended up providing some interesting perspectives on the nature of free will, it’s a shame that it did so at the expense of the conflict which seemed to be at the heart of its titular character.

Ryan Stanton is a PhD student at The University of Sydney. While he’s currently studying digital cultures, he very nearly did his honours thesis on the ways that big blockbusters adapt and influence classic comic book series. His favourite superheroes are Spider-Man, Loki and Green Lantern.