Loki and Sylvie did not expect to find a man of flesh and blood living in The Citadel beyond time. And they certainly didn’t expect He Who Remains to offer them the chance to run the TVA. But the gambit he presented the two Variants—“stifling order or cataclysmic chaos”—shouldn’t have surprised MCU fans. This dichotomy has been an overarching theme in the franchise. Just like in the real world, this question has fueled the stories of heroes and villains alike. And the only answer is that there is no good answer, and never will be.
The issue of security, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to protect ourselves, has been a part of the MCU from the start. The franchise began with an arms dealer—whose family long justified its business in the name of national security—building himself a literal suit of armor. Iron Man kept Stark Industries in the security game even after the company gave up building weapons. He stopped making bombs for profit. But kept working to keep himself and others safe.
It was only fitting that He Who Remains presented Loki with the choice between freedom and control. It was the God of Mischief who first brought the idea to the forefront of the MCU in the original Avengers movie. “Freedom is life’s great lie. Once you accept that, in your heart…you will know peace,” he said. Later he told a crowd of cowering people, “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity.” Loki said that you can’t have both freedom and security. You can’t even have freedom and peace. That’s no different than what He Who Remains said to him in the Citadel.
In his own personal timeline, Loki gave his speech mere days before he heard the TVA ruler’s own monologue. The Time Variance Authority nabbed Variant Loki, the one offered control of the TVA, minutes after the Battle of New York ended. And yet, even though he was just trying to take away peoples’ freedom, the Loki at the Citadel couldn’t have been more different than the The Avengers Loki. Avengers Loki only wanted power for himself. The Variant Loki, who pleaded with Sylvie to consider their options, worried for the safety of everyone and everything. He was being selfless. That’s often the fine line between hero and villain. They can both try to do the same thing, but their perspective and motivations can be totally different. Still, that doesn’t mean either version was right to seek control.
Earth’s mightiest heroes have never been able to agree on this question either. Nick Fury is an unelected government official with more authority and power than most world leaders. He had S.H.I.E.L.D. secretly building weapons from the Tesseract to prepare for a future war against unknown foes. Tony called it a “nuclear deterrent” before sarcastically pointing out, “That always calms everything right down.”
That didn’t stop Tony from trying to do the same exact thing in Age of Ultron. “What if the world was safe?” he asked Bruce Banner. “What if next time aliens roll up to the club, and they will, they couldn’t get past the bouncer?” Tony, having met those foes Nick Fury worried about, wanted to build a suit of armor around the whole world; a noble goal of turning the planet itself into Iron Man. Bruce said a world surrounded by weapons sounded like a cold place. But Tony wanted “peace in our time.” Even if it meant peace through strength and security.
Accidentally making a sentient murder-bot intent on destroying mankind showed why Steve Rogers was right when he said, “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time.” But not even Captain America had all the answers. Secretary Ross wasn’t wrong about the Avengers in Civil War. A group of super-powered people, acting without oversight or approval, ran around the world doing what they wanted wherever they wanted. We normally call people like that dictators and tyrants. And despite their intentions, how safe did the people of Sokovia and Lagos feel after the Avengers came to save the day?
If Steve had listened to Tony and sacrificed a little autonomy, the Avengers might have stopped Thanos before he snapped his fingers. “Whether it impacted our precious freedoms or not, that’s what we needed,” Tony said in Endgame. But if Tony had listened to Steve, about the dangers of handing over their freedom to power-hungry politicians with conflicting agendas, the Avengers also might have stopped the Mad Titan together. Both men are right. Both men are wrong. The right balance between freedom and security is not only unknowable, it might not even exist.
But what does exist is intent, purpose, and what someone carries in their heart. Tony knew what unaccountable freedom could mean. It could lead to the complete opposite: total control. “We need to be put in check! Whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, if we’re boundary-less, we’re no better than the bad guys,” he said. Steve knew that too. In The Winter Soldier, he learned firsthand how chaos could become a hammer against freedom.
Dr. Arnim Zola (as a computer) told Captain America that HYDRA had used S.H.I.E.L.D. to bring mankind to its knees. HYDRA “created a world so chaotic” that humanity was “finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security.” For years, the organization worked within the confines of a national security agency to undermine the very thing S.H.I.E.L.D. was designed to protect. HYDRA didn’t build those Helicarriers, the weapons that could wipe out enemies in an instant. The good guys did.
Alexander Pierce was a lot like Nick Fury. Both men agreed that the world needed to be protected. So Pierce enabled Fury’s mission, as it so closely aligned with HYDRA’s. “Your work has been a gift to mankind.” Pierce told him. “You shaped the century, and I need you to do it one more time. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos. Tomorrow morning we’re gonna give it a push. But, if you don’t do your part, I can’t do mine. And HYDRA can’t give the world the freedom it deserves.”
Tyrants have always laid claim to security as their reason for infringing and persecuting on others. That they, and they alone, can keep people safe. Long before He Who Remains promised he kept an even worse version of himself at bay, Alexander Pierce said, “Our enemies are your enemies, Nick. Disorder, war. It’s just a matter of time before a dirty bomb goes off in Moscow. Or an EMP fries Chicago. Diplomacy? Holding action. A Band-Aid. And you know where I learned that—Bogota. You didn’t ask, you just did what had to be done. I can bring order to the lives of seven billion people by sacrificing 20 million. It’s the next step, Nick, if you have the courage to take it.”
It’s easy to see Nick Fury as a hero and Pierce as a villain. Fury answered his former friend by saying, “No, I have the courage not to.” And yet, Variant Loki wasn’t a villain for wanting to say yes to that same question. He was willing to sacrifice Variants to protect the entire universe. But Sylvie wasn’t necessarily wrong for sticking her dagger in He Who Remains anymore than Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff were for killing Alexander Pierce.
This issue, that has long been at the forefront of the entire MCU, is set to remain a major part of the franchise going forward. Agatha Harkness fears Wanda’s powers, known as Chaos Magic. Agatha thinks chaos itself is a threat to the world. And, like so many villains and heroes before her, she thinks only she can be trusted with it. Agatha would rule over the TVA.
Even though Doctor Strange will be called on to help save reality from the seemingly opposing threats of Chaos Magic and the TVA, he himself still has to answer for his own actions taken in the name of safety. In his first film, he broke the natural order to stop Dormammu. Yes, he saved the day. But at what cost? “You still think there will be no consequences, Strange? No price to pay?” said Baron Mordo. “We broke our rules, just like her. The bill comes due. Always. A reckoning.”
You can be a hero and believe it’s okay to sacrifice freedom for security. You can be a villain who thinks the same. Just like you can be a good guy or a bad guy who accepts the inherent risks of chaos. What you can’t do is ever know which Loki Variant was right. Neither were, even though both acted heroically in that moment.
But while the MCU never can tell us if the TVA is wholly good or wholly evil, because there is no right or wrong option when it comes to freedom versus stability, it has given us an answer on what it means. “Humans are odd,” Vision said to Ultron. “They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t.”
The natural order is chaos because existence itself is chaos. Life is too complicated to ever control it. It’s why freedom might be impossible when we also want the freedom to be safe. We can’t ever find the right balance because the two because they exist on a coin with no side. The best we can do is to make the most selfless decision we can for the right reasons. The main difference between heroes and villains: heroes also deal with the consequences that follow those decisions. And they do it with the “grace” that Vision said can be found in our failures to do good under impossible circumstances.
We will fail at this impossible question. Always and forever, because chaos and order are one and the same. But failure is okay too.
“They’re doomed,” Ultron said in response to Vision’s observation about us.
“Yes,” said Vision, a creature made of both the best and worst the MCU has to offer. “But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” It’s beautiful because while it had the chance it did the best it could for the most people it could.
Featured Image: Marvel
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.