Can people change, for better or worse? Can a person truly let go of a part of their personality, their self, especially if it’s to fill the void with something else? I’m not talking about the changes we are (hopefully) forced to go through as we grow older (for instance, children have no concept of boundaries, but one expects adults to have already learned those at their age), nor about the little things such as likes and dislikes (“Yeah, I used to love that show, but nowadays I can’t get past how campy it is”); rather, I’m talking about the big things (or possibly a whole bunch of little things that all add up) on the scale of “Can a murderer truly repent for what he did – not because he was punished, but because he came to acknowledge that the act of murder itself is wrong?”.
Well, to be even more precise, what I’m really going to talk about is how fiction tends to deal with that kind of thing. Then again, the best stories always reflect something of real life, even if only an idealized version of it, so I’d be very surprised if nothing we discuss here can be applied to our own world.
Warning: there will be HEAVY spoilers for Kieron Gillen’s run on Journey Into Mystery, Al Ewing’s current run on Loki: Agent of Asgard, and Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga Rurouni Kenshin. You have been warned!
One of the title character’s favourite truisms from the House TV series was “People can’t change”, but consider the source; a misanthropic jerk who often used that as a way to excuse himself of responsibility for the way he treated people, especially the few who loved him (“It’s not my fault, I can’t change; they’re the idiots who remain by my side even though they should know better”). On the other hand, while I find that statement debatable by itself in real life, in fiction, it tends to be true – especially since we don’t let those people (the characters) change.
I mean, let’s face it: the main reason why so many viewers loved House is exactly because he’s a jerk who can flaunt social convention and get away with it because he’s such a genius – he’s basically the barbarian hero for modern society, a power fantasy incarnate. Which is why all of those occasion where House acted nicer (or even just nice, period) lasted only for single episodes: neither the audience nor the writers WANT House to change, so they don’t LET him change until the final episode (possibly). As a fictional character, he’s doomed to be the living proof of his own saying: “People can’t change”.
That can be even worse with cyclic entertainment industries, like American comic books: no matter how many times they find safe shelters in The Walking Dead, people will always somehow screw things up so the protagonists have to end up on the run again (well, to the best of my knowledge; I stopped reading after about 100 issues of that, so I don’t know if it’s changed – but I seriously doubt it), and it doesn’t matter that Barry Allen had both a “happily ever after” (in his own comic) and a great heroic sacrifice (in the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” series) and Wally West actually grew as a character over a period of 20 years, Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns (respectively, editor and writer for DC Comics) grew up reading about Barry Allen, so now he’s back and he’s the official Flash (to the point the new TV series uses him as the main character, even though TV’s Barry Allen doesn’t actually have all that much in common with the comics character).
There’s a recent (and surprisingly good) comic book series which deals with these issues in a humorous and very metafictional manner, even as it shows it’s a dramatic series: Loki: Agent of Asgard, which had its origin in Kieron Gillen’s handling of the “Kid Loki” character in Journey Into Mystery, and that, in turn, was the offspring of 2010’s “Siege” mega-crossover (with the “Siege: Loki” special issue written by Gillen himself). Oh, don’t worry, the story isn’t nearly as convoluted as that might sound; that’s just a common side effect of Marvel’s (and DC’s, for that matter) editorial practices (“Why stick to a single comic book for a single narrative when we can spread the story throughout our books and sell more of them?”).
So, let me sum things up for you guys (oh, and by the way: SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.): Loki orchestrated an attack on Asgard (which, at the time, floated over the city of Broxton, Oklahoma) by Norman Osborn, his Dark Avengers, the forces of H.A.M.M.E.R. (S.H.I.E.L.D.’s replacement) and a whole mess of deputized super-villains. During this attack, the Sentry (a super-“hero” with Silver Age-Superman power levels) loses his mind, brings Asgard down and starts rampaging uncontrollably, leading an apparently contrite Loki to sacrifice himself to empower the heroes present to stop him. With Loki dead and everyone else baffled – why would Asgard’s greatest villain sacrifice himself to save it? -, Thor goes to Hela to talk to his brother, but then he finds out something which the readers already knew: shortly before the events of “Siege”, Loki had struck a deal with Hela that he would be released from the Books of Hel – if he died, his soul would be free.
So Thor, in light of that new knowledge, goes looking for his brother and does find him… Only, now Loki is a child (nicknamed “Kid Loki”) with no memories of his previous life. Which is theoretically great, since now he’s a blank slate – a truly changed person who can become anyone he wants to be!… …if not for the fact that Thor is the only one willing to give him a chance. All the other Asgardians, including a revived Odin (sidenote: how often are they going to kill Odin off, only to bring him back later?), still judge him for all the many, MANY misdeeds of his previous self. Despite that, Kid Loki continues to strive to prove himself a hero, using his cunning to save Thor and Asgard various times, until everyone finally accepts he’s not the same person he was!
And in a very real way, he isn’t. Memories are a huge part of who we are; they help form our very identities. If Kid Loki truly doesn’t have any of Original Loki’s memories (and he doesn’t), he really isn’t Original Loki in a new form, he’s an entirely different person (even if he does show the same preference and gift for trickery and guile). So score one for personal growth in fiction, right?
(Remember, people: SPOILERS!)
Except things can’t end that way. Come on, some of the best moments in Thor’s career in comics were his battles with his evil half-brother! Loki is just too iconic a villain to really let go of him. Besides, the Marvel Cinematic Universe features Loki as the key villain not only in Thor’s own movie, but also in The Avengers, and if there’s one thing both Marvel and DC have in common, it’s the inability to trust their reader’s intelligence – what if the poor, dumb people who watched the movies picked up a comic, were confused by Loki being a hero (and a kid) and never read another comic book again?!
Kieron Gillen talks about the issue in a very eloquent manner in a blog post here, but let me summarize: there’s no way Loki could have permanently become a hero – at some point, another writer would be forced (or worse, want) to change him back into a villain -, and Gillen didn’t want to leave that as his legacy in comics, that some people (especially a kid) are predestined to be evil regardless of what they might want. So he did the only thing he could: he killed off Kid Loki (who had his consciousness erased by a “backup” of Original Loki), while also granting him a moral victory (he proved that, unlike his older self, he COULD and DID change, something Original Loki could never do) and giving him the chance to lay the blame where it belonged, with the people responsible for condemning him to that – US, the readers. Yeah, that final shot of him looking straight at the page and “damning [us] all”? That’s not just Loki falling back on his habit of blaming everyone but himself for his situation, it’s also a way for Kid Loki (and even Original Loki) to give us the finger for not letting him change, to force him to once again play the villain.
This theme continues throughout the new series, Loki: Agent of Asgard. Original Loki-in-Kid-Loki’s-body (which I will call “Young Loki” for simplicity’s sake – he aged himself to around 20, 21 years old) is tasked by the new rulers of Asgard, the All-Mothers (the Asgardian goddesses Freyja – who used to be called Frigga -, Gaea and Idunn), to perform covert missions for them; for every successful mission, they will erase one story of an evil deed by Original Loki, essentially telling the Universe to forget about Original Loki so Young Loki can reinvent himself – change and grow, like his child version did. But like with Kid Loki, he’s burdened by the weight of all those stories, which are trying to force him to conform to the role he played for so long. To make matters worse, an older Loki – which isn’t Original Loki reborn, but Young Loki from the future, happy to play the villain – reveals to the All-Mothers that in his timeline, Asgard is superbly ruled by King Thor and Loki is basically the only villain left, so now they, too, want fate – the story – to play out as it should and for Loki to be evil again, regardless of what he might want.
Kid Loki was right, of course. We ARE to blame for what happened to him. Oh, we bitch and moan about the writers and editors constantly screwing things up, and we’re not wrong about that, but think about it: they’re doing what they think we want. And we’re telling them that IS what we want, because we keep buying what they’re selling. It’s not just with comics, either; we keep complaining about how Hollywood is doing nothing but remakes and adaptations, but we keep going to the movies to watch those.
“But Spoony, that’s just the nature of the beast! The arts and the entertainment industry have to renew themselves constantly in order to attract new consumers!” First of all, since when does “telling the same story over and over again” equate to “renewing itself”? Secondly, I think this is the height of nerdish snobbery: “Oh, kids these days, they’re not smart enough to appreciate the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy like we did, let J. J. Abrams do his own version of ‘Star Trek’ which they can handle.”
Let me put it another way: when they remade Total Recall, they updated the special effects and toned down the camp, but they also removed all the ambiguities and complexities from the original movie – which WAS an action film, but it also had an interesting commentary on the subjects of self and identity while leaving things ambiguous enough for the viewer to decide for himself what was going on in the screen – and turned it into a straight popcorn flick. So, in the process of “updating an old work of art in order to present it to a new audience”, they not only removed everything that made said work of art what it was, they also removed everything that made it interesting. How is that not a disservice to both the original work and the new audiences? Or the remake of RoboCop: it’s not a bad movie by itself, but Lewis noticing that “RoboCop” retains all of Murphy’s mannerisms – showing that even though the mega-corporations treat people as nothing more than bags of meat (“He’s legally dead, we can do whatever we want with him”), the individual remains – is a much more powerful statement on the nature of Man and the Machine than any of Gary Oldman’s histrionics. Why does the entertainment industry keep underestimating the consumers’ intelligence, and why are we so complicit in it?
Whew, this is kind of too long already, and I haven’t even gotten to Rurouni Kenshin yet! Stay tuned for the next part!