Loki and the Kafkaesque

Rodrigo talks about the Kafkaesque themes present in the first two episodes of Loki.

“Evil knows of the good, but good does not know of evil. Knowledge of oneself is something only evil has”- Franz Kafka. 

You are probably wondering, “why would someone start their review of Loki with a vague and pretentious quote from some Czech writer?” and in all fairness that it is a bit weird of me, but give me some time, I promise you it will all make sense as soon as you finish reading this. 

In the interest of complete honesty, I’m not the biggest Loki fan. It’s not that I hate him or even mildly dislike him; it’s more that I haven’t had that much exposure to the God of Mischief. I have read one or two of his appearances in the comics, and I have watched him in the Thor and Avengers movies. Other than that, the most I had ever read on Loki was the few chapters Neil Gaiman dedicates to him in his book Norse Mythology, which is notably not set in the Marvel Universe. So imagine my surprise when I found myself loving the first two episodes of his new series.

Source: Marvel Studios

I spent an unnecessary amount of time figuring out why I had loved the first few episodes of Loki so much. I couldn’t figure it out until one night while talking with my brother about the series. I realized what Loki’s journey reminded me of; the constant jabs at mindless bureaucracy, the hopelessness of some of the characters, the absurdist and surreal atmosphere of the series, all of it reminded me of the works of the Czech writer Franz Kafka, a favorite of mine.

For those who don’t know, Franz Kafka was an early 20th-century author who wrote about the absurdity of bureaucracy, loneliness, alienation, guilt, and good old existential anxiety. Kafka’s most famous work is his novel The Metamorphosis (also know as The Transformation), a story about a young salesman who one day wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a giant bug-like person (not in the fun Spider-Man way). But my personal favorite of his works is a short story called The Hunger Artist, about an entertainer whose performance is him fasting himself for a prolonged amount of days (I promise this is all relevant). 

Am I saying that the Loki series has been amazing so far just because it’s somewhat similar to the writings of a random dude? Yes and no. I don’t think these similarities make the episodes inherently good, but I do believe that the Kafkaesque aspects of the series work in a wonderful way to develop the characters of the series and to set up a unique conflict. We can see this in the first episode through the way the series develops its titular character.  

The Loki we see in this series is not the same Loki we have watched grow through 5 movies, this is not the Loki that went through the deaths of his adoptive parents or the one that mended his relationship with his brother, and he isn’t the Loki that died at the hands of Thanos. So, how do you take a character who is missing five movies’ worth of character development and get him up to speed with the audience?

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Owen Wilson as Mobius M. Mobius / Source: Marvel Studios

Apparently, the answer was destroying Loki’s will through the means of mindless bureaucracy, making him question all of his motivations, showing him some clips of his past and future, and finally, making him realise that his attitude and all of his actions are just an illusion of power he builds so that he can feel in control. All the steps he goes through in the TVA have a Kafkaesque quality to them and help bring Loki down from “arrogant god with a glorious purpose” wannabe to a sad broken person who feels that his destiny is to hurt others, so he doesn’t seem so weak. 

In his first moments in the TVA, Loki questions his nature (not knowing if he is a robot or not). Not soon after, he is put on trial for something he didn’t even know was a crime, made to watch the death of his mother, father, and himself. All of this forces Loki to realise that the system he has been trapped in is infinitely more powerful than him. For the first time, this version of Loki is forced to experience guilt, alienation and existential guilt. This way, he is fully prepared for the journey that is about to unfold across this six-episode first season. 

The conversation that Mobius and Loki have at the end of the first episode, where Loki admits that he doesn’t enjoy hurting people, that he only acts that way because he “has” to, reminds me of the ending of The Hunger Artist. At the end of this story, the artist confesses that the only reason he is good at fasting is that he never found a food that he actually liked, so he spent his days trying to transform his suffering, his weakness, into something for which people would admire him, would love him. Loki is (at the end of this episode) pretty much in the same spot, trying to use pain to transform his weakness into power, into respect. 

Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong) / Source: Marvel Studios

To be completely honest, the second episode reduces the Kafkaesque aspects to give more space to action scenes and detective work, but there are still things worth talking about; a small detail that advances the themes presented in the first episode is the small loophole that Loki finds while exploring some of the few available files available to him (another small example of mindless bureaucracy). According to the series, people can do anything they want near an apocalyptic event without upsetting the sacred timeline because no matter what happens, everything will be destroyed. The fact that one can be truly free only when their surroundings and the people around them will cease to exist it’s just the absurdist situation Kafka would have loved.

But perhaps the bit that truly continues the themes of guilt, loneliness and alienation is the last thing Lady Loki says to Loki before starting bombing the timeline: “This isn’t about you.” This line seemingly breaks Loki and makes him abandon everything he had been working for, after “the variant” makes Loki realize once again that he is not the all-powerful 

god he builds himself up to be; he is just another person on the sidelines, a “cosmic error,” as Hunter B-15 would put it. Both Loki and Lady Loki are just variants of the original Loki, flukes in the sacred timeline. They are of no importance, but Lady Loki is trying to make something of the situation by the looks of it. In contrast, after hearing his counterpart highlight his unimportance, Loki decides the only logical option is to follow Lady Loki. 

Sophia Di Martino as Lady Loki / Source: Marvel Studios

At this point of the series, Loki seems to be in a spot of absolute alienation, separated from any context that would give him importance or power. He is as close to a salesman who has turned into a giant bug as he can be without literally being a salesman who has been turned into a giant bug and has been abandoned by everyone, and I love it.  

I find this use of the Kafkaesque journey in service of Loki’s character arc to be well utilized and exceptionally well executed. I feel the team behind the series managed to build an absurd and surreal atmosphere to place a story about guilt and alienation that puts the main character in the perfect spot so that we are excited about where he goes next. 

So that’s why I decided to start this review with a quote from Franz Kafka, and that quote in particular, because I think that through a Kafkaesque lens, we can see what makes these first two episodes of Loki so great, as well as what can we expect from this journey and how it looks at Loki’s very nature.

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