Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
On June 9 of this year, Disney released the first episode of “Loki,” a series starring the recurring Marvel villain of the same name. The series has had a new episode every Wednesday since its release, but it only took the first episode for fans to start furious discussion of the show’s basic premise. “Loki”introduces an organization called the Time Variance Agency (TVA for short) whose agents are tasked with maintaining a particular timeline of events called the “Sacred Timeline.” If anyone does something that departs from the timeline, the TVA shows up to arrest them, destroy the parallel reality created by the variant action, and most likely to execute the person responsible. While some fans consider this an intriguing element of the show, examining the philosophical implication that free will may not exist, other fans are a bit put off by the idea. Could it really be the case that the entire plot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) isn’t the result of heroes acting according to their own will but instead the predetermined plan of a powerful group of people with their own agenda? Well, yes, that’s how movies work.
The first episode of the series is a bit of a deconstruction of the MCU itself. When Loki is told that what is happening isn’t his story, that isn’t just figurative speech; it’s about his secondary role in the plot of the movies. To paraphrase the show, Loki only exists to cause pain and suffering so that the heroes get to have their big moments. As in any fictional story, the character of Loki is a tool to achieve a certain result. It doesn’t matter if his motives are strange and unclear, as the show points out, because he exists to play the role of the antagonist. The only difference between Disney executives and the TVA is that the former have a much clearer motivation for putting characters along a set path: profit.
When any movie is produced, it exists for two purposes: to be a piece of art and to be a consumer product. A well-made film makes us forget about its existence as a product and allows us to think of it only as a piece of art; whereas, bad films do the opposite. Think of how much blatant advertisement takes you out of a movie. The most consistent problem with the MCU is that things happen, not because they make the most interesting story, but because they make the most money. Killing off half of the cast of “Infinity War” isn’t the most artistic decision, but it shocks people—gets them talking with their friends—makes them want to see what happens in the sequel where, of course, everyone gets brought back to life. Spiderman and Blank Panther are characters who make cash cows of movies—did anyone really think Disney was just going to leave them permanently dead? It’s all a manipulation leading to the end goal of profit.
It’s still a philosophical mystery as to whether real people have free will or not, but it’s no secret that fictional characters are puppets. That’s fine, because puppet shows are great fun, but Disney tends to not be great at hiding the strings.