“Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So don’t be afraid; you are wroth more than many sparrows.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What would happen if someone knew everything? I mean everything. Every decision you make; every word you speak; all known completely before you do them. What would that mean for your life? Would you really have any free will? Or would you simply be doing what this person wanted you to do? This week the latest Marvel Disney+ series, Loki came to an end. As has become the case for nearly all of their work, the show’s creators invited viewers into Marvel’s fantastically impossible world of superheroes and villains, of incredible technology and magic (but I repeat myself), and now of time travel and multiple realities. The story the comics giant has been telling for 13 years was not just continued, but launched in a whole new universe of directions. It personally left me as excited as I can be for what comes next. But as is equally true for nearly all of their content, it invited viewers to consider some of the big questions of life. Specifically, what would it mean for our lives if there was someone who was truly sovereign over them? This morning, let’s talk about Loki and how we as Christians should think about the questions it asked. By the way, this conversation will be filled with spoilers for the last episode, so if you plan on watching it, go do that first.
Time travel and the existence of multiple realities, or universes, has been a staple of the world of Marvel comics for a very long time. As they have built their cinematic and now television universe, though, they have done so with as much of a nod to realism as they could in light of the abilities, technology, and know-how of the characters in it. If they made a live action world that was impossible to believe in the first place, their audience would have never bought into it. They wanted viewers to watch the original Iron Man movie and think, “You know, it’s at least possible.”
Now, as they have gone forward, things have gotten progressively more unrealistic and impossible, but they didn’t start jumping sharks until they had their audience invested in their world and ready to find out what lies under the waves right alongside them. Marvel’s latest offering, Loki, goes full-blown fantasy. In the second act of Avengers: Endgame, when the heroes had figured out time travel and were journeying through their own past to collect the Infinity Stones to undo Thanos’ erasing half the life in the universe, there was a scene when Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, and the Hulk visited the end of the first Avengers movie when the Battle of New York against Loki and his Chitauri army had been defeated. In a funny scene, their attempt to do a switcheroo and nab the Space Stone gets accidentally foiled by the Hulk of that timeline. The stone gets knocked out of its case where a captured Loki, intrigued by whatever is happening around him, picks it up and slips away to who knows where.
The where turns out to be a Mongolian desert. After getting his bearings and egotistically emoting for some curious locals, a series of portals open around him and some kind of intergalactic cops come through and arrest him. They take him from there back to the Time Variance Authority (TVA) headquarters located somewhere outside of time. Hilarity ensues as the trickster god learns he has no real chance against their super-advanced technology and eventually gets shown how the rest of his story plays out (remember, this is the Loki from the end of the first Avengers movie who hasn’t yet been on the redemptive journey he took over the course of Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War).
The job of the TVA is to safeguard the “sacred timeline” from hostile variants – intentionally so or not – who threaten to spin off branches that could threaten the existence of all of reality. Their methods are…aggressive. When a branching timeline is discovered, agents are dispatched to the timeline where they take the variant – that is, the person who made a decision she wasn’t supposed to make (according to whom is the whole point of the series) – into custody and “reset” the timeline. This resetting, we later learn, erases the entire branched timeline and everything and everyone in it from existence. We learn even later (episode 5) that this is done by launching it all through time to a place at the very end of all time where a reality-consuming, monstrous entity called Alioth eats it. The variants taken into custody are themselves either pruned (sent to that end-of-time place) or else brainwashed into becoming agents of the TVA.
Are you still with me?
Loki – our original Loki – winds up getting drafted by Agent Mobius (wonderfully played by Owen Wilson) to help him track down a variant version of himself who has been eluding capture for a very long time and murdering TVA agents to pursue some grander plan. This variant turns out to be a female version of himself named Sylvie. Loki’s being faced with the reality of a female version of himself makes for a humorous moment, but eventually he does indeed track her down and the two accidentally find themselves off on their own adventure. During this time, Loki learns more about the increasingly sinister TVA from Sylvie and joins in her plot to find whoever is behind the whole operation and take them down. Their reason for this finally gets us back around to our big question. The actions of the TVA have the effect of eliminating free will. For the whole of human history, people have never really had any free will. We are all only making the decisions that whomever is behind the TVA has determined are right for us to make. If we vary from that path, the TVA shows up to prune the variance and keep things on the right track. The result is that no one has ever made a decision the TVA didn’t allow them to make. Free will is really only an illusion. Loki and Sylvie are going to change that so that people can have the freedom they deserve to have.
Pause here for just a minute. The undergirding assumption of Sylvie and now Loki is that people deserve to have free will. We should be able to make decisions that are not controlled by someone else. And, free will here is defined as the ability to have chosen other than we did choose. Yet why should we deserve such a thing? What makes us deserving of it? Who determined that? Whose job is it to settle on which decisions we make are truly the right decisions? Why would this person decide the way he does? And if someone had this amount of power, why would he allow the various atrocities of human history to unfold the way they have? The questions here begin to pile up quickly. Loki takes a peek down this rabbit hole, but stops short of falling all the way in. Yet the implications of the answers that someone has to eventually offer are enormously profound.
In the show’s final episode, we are actually given answers to many of them. Loki and Sylvie complete their quest and find themselves in a citadel beyond the end of time. They come face to face with a character only ever identified as “He Who Remains.” While they never actually say this, He Who Remains is an alternate version of the major villain for Marvel’s Phase 4, Kang the Conqueror. The whole purpose of Loki’s story was to set him up for all the content coming down the pipe over the next five years. In this version, the man isn’t overtly sinister at all. He’s jovial and a bit silly even as he is perfectly serious about his belief in his mission and the appalling nature of what he has done to achieve it.
In an episode filled with an incredible – but totally necessary – amount of exposition, He Who Remains reveals to Loki and Sylvie that he is from the 31st century. In his original life, he was the first to discover the existence of multiple different universes other than “our own.” He was able to make contact with these universes and travel in between them where he discovered other versions of himself. At first there was great excitement and cooperation. They shared knowledge and technology to make the other universes better in the ways they were able. But then things turned south. Some of the versions of himself decided they wanted to rule the others or that theirs should be the only universe. The result of this was a war of the multiverses that threatened to end all of reality forever. During the war, the version of He Who Remains sharing the story discovered Alioth and figured out how to weaponize him to destroy the timelines of these other versions of himself. He used his extensive (and by “extensive,” I mean total) knowledge of human history to chart the course that would lead to his own version of himself to avoid the creation of the more sinister versions he had finally managed to defeat. He then created the TVA to keep things on this track by eliminating any variations from it. Now, Loki and Sylvie get to decide what happens next.
For Sylvie, her entire purpose has been to kill him. And we can perhaps understand why. She was a variant and was to be pruned until she managed to escape. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She was a child when she was taken. As near as we can tell from the context of the series, the only thing she did “wrong” was to be born a she. After all, the “correct” Loki is a man, not a woman. Her existence created a branch that could have eventually given risen to an evil version of He Who Remains and so she had to go. It was nothing personal. Except for her, it was. She had been told her whole life that she shouldn’t exist. That kind of thing has a way of getting to you after a while. She wanted her revenge and she was not capable of thinking through the consequences of it.
Loki, on the other hand, didn’t really have a dog in this fight except through the feelings he had developed for Sylvie (and her him) along the way. Yes, he fell in love with himself which is weird, but just go with it. Because his existence had been mostly as it was intended to be, he didn’t carry the emotional baggage toward He Who Remains that she did. As he listened to the story, he grew more and more horrified at the potential consequences of removing the TVA from existence. The danger was (and for the Marvel universe going forward, is) this would not get rid of the man entirely. It would only get rid of this one who had defeated the more sinister versions of himself, thus paving the way for them to exist after all, and setting the stage for another multiversal war. In other words, He Who Remains may be a monster, but he was a monster who was keeping at bay monsters far worse than himself.
The short version of what happens next is that Loki and Sylvie battle it out over whether he lives or dies, she wins and kills He Who Remains (after they share a kiss), and Loki finds himself back in the TVA, but one that is now overtly controlled by a different version of him, a discovery made with much fear and trembling for the future.
This finally takes back around to where we started. What if someone knew everything? In the context of Loki, He Who Remains was that person. He knew everything. Every word or action Loki or Sylvie took he knew in advance. They couldn’t kill him because he knew when they would swing at him and he merely dodged out of the way. He knew everything and kept things on the track he wanted because he knew how it was going to end up if he didn’t. He may have destroyed countless lives in the process, but it was all for the end of preventing something far worse than anything he allowed. Who was he to be in such a position? That’s a question that never gets answered except that he put himself there for the sake of the universe. His motives were both selfish (he won the war against these other versions of himself) and noble (he saved the universe from the effects of that war). But he was also the one to cause all this trouble in the first place. And in the process, we lost because our free will was taken from us. Of course, we never knew this. We had (have?) no idea that none of our decisions are really free. They have the illusion of freedom, but they aren’t really.
In light of this, was Loki or Sylvie right? The series doesn’t answer that question. She simply kills this god and lets the consequences be what they will be. The slight nod of the writers is in her direction. The consequences may be terrible, but at least people are really free now. Loki feared whatever was going to be worse and leaned in the direction of the control He Who Remains had (and freely offered to them in his place) to avoid it. But he didn’t miss out on a whole lifetime because of being a variant at birth like Sylvie did.
This all makes for really fun storytelling and pondering, but what is real? What is real is this: We serve a God who knows the world He made with even greater intimacy than He Who Remains did. Across the Marvel universe both in comic books and on screens, there are all manner of people and powers. There are heroes and villains and characters who sit somewhere in between. There are people who are a little stronger than the average Joe and beings whose abilities include the very shaping of reality itself. But for all these beings and abilities, one thing is missing: God. There is no one sovereign over the whole affair of creation. We are on our own and have to fight our own battles. We may achieve great victories (and always do because otherwise the stories wouldn’t be very good), but we are ultimately on our own to do it.
He Who Remains only knew the decisions and actions and words people would make. The God Who Is knows us. He doesn’t just know what we will do or say, He knows us. He knows our thoughts and feelings. He knows who we are and who we could be. He knows all of this and He loves us. He loves us perfectly. His love is so great that He was willing to sacrifice His only Son so that we might have access to the greatest prize in all of reality: eternal life. Not merely existence, but life in all its glory.
But if He has such complete knowledge, are we really free? What makes Him different from He Who Remains in terms of the control He has? The short answer is, yes. How? Well, that’s more of a conversation than I want to try and get into today and you’re getting tired of reading (kudos for sticking with me this long). Here’s a bit of food for thought for now, though. Our God’s knowledge of all of reality is not only more intimate and comprehensive than He Who Remains could possibly have, He has power and wisdom He Who Remains could not even begin to imagine. In addition to that, He is good. He doesn’t simply guide things to suit His personal convenience and makes up grand reasons why His convenience is really beneficially for the rest of the universe, He is good and His plans are good. When we are willing to trust in Him, we will get to participate in those plans.
The choice of whether or not to do that, though, is our own. He doesn’t force us into anything. In spite of His total and perfect sovereignty, He allows us to make meaningful and consequential choices. He honors the freedom He has given us even when doing so hurts Himself. His plans will ultimately prevail, yes, but we determine what our role in those will be. We can resist Him to the end and separate ourselves from Him, and He will ultimately honor that desire to be apart from Him. Or we can embrace Him and run along the path He has charted and experience the wonder it will bring. And all of this is not simply to stave off something worse. It is all for His glory and our good. In the end, we are not on our own. He is going to make all things right. Justice will rule the day. Righteousness will flow like waters. Loki and the larger Marvel universe may make for good storytelling, but the story of God is better by far. Enjoy the one, but don’t miss where it falls short of the other.