The Small Things Matter, or Sometimes Adoption Jokes are Funny

The Small Things Matter, or Sometimes Adoption Jokes are Funny

Listen, I promise I can write about other things that aren’t related to adoption. It’s just that I saw Thor: Ragnarok last week and I love Loki (predictable, I know), so of course I’ve been having a lot of feelings lately.

In particular, I was reminded of something about a few nights ago.

Spoiler warning for both The Avengers and Thor: Ragnarok.

In 2012, The Avengers was released. (For the record, I like it, even though it’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and watched the whole film.)

There’s a specific exchange in the film between Natasha Romanov and Thor, after Bruce Banner insults Loki.

Thor: Have care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard, and he’s my brother.

Natasha: He killed eighty people in two days.

Thor: He’s adopted.

Then the dialogue shifts to plot stuff between other characters.

Back then, I felt so alone in that movie theater. The moment I heard that line, I sort of froze up; Everyone around me laughed at it except me. There are few points in my life I can recall when I felt that acutely isolated and hurt. Yet, I also was embarrassed. If everyone else found it funny why couldn’t I? I would later rant to friends who validated my feelings, but they weren’t adopted and I felt bad being a downer about just one joke, one line, especially one that was so otherwise beloved.

Somehow, it was only this week that I found out that plenty of bloggers (mostly adoptive parents) back then had actually articulated why this joke was distasteful, even harmful, to the point of kind of being a legitimate controversy. It was validating to know that people from the same(-ish) background understood me.

So that made me think of a similar exchange in Thor: Ragnarok.

Thor, after being captured for the Grandmaster’s entertainment, spots Loki chatting with other aliens, free and healthy. Desperate, he begs for help but Loki rebuffs him. Consequently, the Grandmaster asks if Loki knows Thor.

Loki: I’ve never met this man in my life.

Thor: He’s my brother.

Loki: Adopted.

The conversation then moves onto plot stuff.

When Loki said that punchline, I laughed! It’s good! I still feel fine with it. Also surprisingly, I only later realized the parallel between that scene and the one in The Avengers after someone else pointed it out me, which made me feel…vindicated.

So why this different personal reaction?

Part of it is the passage of time. I’m a different person now in 2017 than in 2012. That first joke still bothers me, but now it’s more the residual leftovers from my initial, visceral distress.

However, it’s more than that. In Thor, Loki and Thor grapple with raw emotional turmoil towards each other. Loki is devastated by his insecurities being proven true by the reveal of his birth origin and then acts out (to put it mildly). Thor is devastated by Loki’s betrayal and acts of villainy. Having to fight him in order to protect Asgard is heartbreaking.

So in The Avengers, the next movie featuring Thor, him dropping that line about Loki being adopted rings emotionally false. I get it, it’s funny how he says it. I get that the joke is Thor distancing himself from Loki so quickly after Natasha’s remark, especially after speaking of him in such a sincere, gracious manner. He’s being kind of a prideful hypocrite, which fits his inflated, spoiled ego. (At least, this is my most generous reading.)

The character writing still feels off though. Thor’s feelings towards Loki are still tender, painful, and trusting. In their last fight with each other during The Avengers, Thor begs for Loki to stop and remember their familial bond, which Loki rejects. While Thor doesn’t have a full, central arc in the film beyond learning to work together with the other Avengers, he goes from hopeful to disappointed again at Loki’s refusal to back down. His joke just doesn’t fit within that emotional arc.

I understand when there’s multiple writers and directors across various films, interpretations will diverge. Still, with the context of Thor, there were other potential alternatives that would’ve fit his arrogant but sincere heart better. It’s a matter of personal taste but for me, The Avengers opted for a cheap, throwaway jokey joke at the sacrifice of consistent characterization.

But really, my biggest beef is that the joke still works for the same reason as to why that punchline is generally unpleasant: It’s a reminder to adoptees that they’ll never be “normal” and that somehow, it’s their own fault. Whatever that is unlovable or unappealing can be blamed on adoption. Ultimately, Thor’s trust is proven more wrong than his mean quip because Loki does do awful, horrible things to the end, that then Thor must stop.

The situation is flipped in Ragnarok. Thor’s disoriented and imprisoned. Loki has the power to help but he chooses not to. When Loki says that he’s “adopted,” it’s a complete reversal. He utilizes the thing that’s hurt him, the thing that’s driven a wedge between him and his family, the thing that’s uprooted his entire identity, for his own benefit. And so glibly too.

It’s an uncommon dynamic. Whether adoption is a burden or a blessing, conspicuous or negligible, it’s always something imparted onto the adoptee. The adoptee must carry it with them always. Loki uses it though, finds a way to impart it onto Thor, to make it his problem, even if he’s not telling the full story.

Then there’s the specific arrangement and motivation of the scene. Thor is right there. He doesn’t explicitly protest Loki’s remark but his frustrated presence (especially as the heroic protagonist) is a reminder of the utter absurdity of it. Loki also doesn’t say it in reaction to a perceived slight, he says it to maintain favor with the Grandmaster. He’s still self-serving, but there’s no negative baggage attached to him saying that he’s adopted.

It also just feels right. Loki’s a conniving, rude, greedy jackass (to put it mildly). In Ragnarok, he’s an ally, but a fickle one. When he remarks that he’s “adopted,” it’s an immediate farce. The root of both jokes, deliberate distance out of selfishness, feels different from not only the adoptee, but also from someone you shouldn’t trust too much in the first place.

That ambivalence around him works well with Loki’s central character flaw: His constant need for control, often at the expense of others.

For Thor, this means he’s been through multiple cycles of awareness, disappointment, and resentment with Loki by the time of Ragnarok. Particularly after Loki’s faked death and takeover of the throne, while Thor absolutely still sees Loki as his brother, he’s reached his limit.

Thor: Loki, I thought the world of you. I thought we were going to fight side by side forever, but at the end of the day, you’re you and I’m me. Well now, maybe there’s still good in you. But let’s be honest, our paths diverged a long time ago.

Loki: Yeah…It’s probably for the best we never see each other again.

Thor: It’s what you always wanted.

It’s a huge contrast to Loki’s insincere denial of familial connection. Thor’s being loving and honest, not snarky, but it cuts deep. Loki’s clearly uncomfortable with the idea of Thor actually becoming “indifferent” to him, that Thor really would distance himself away from him.

So it’s on Loki to decide: To keep prioritizing himself at the cost of losing Thor, or to prioritize other people and hold onto what remains of his family. He has to ask himself: Does he really wants to be on his own?

By the climax, Loki does make that choice: He chooses to do good for others, even in his own vain, self-centered way. He chooses to put himself on the line and so Loki and Thor’s brotherly bond is saved. (At least until Avengers: Infinity War, given that Loki definitely, totally, without a doubt took the Tesseract.)

Thus, Loki’s “adopted” line works in sync with Loki’s character arc, his relationship with Thor, and even Ragnarok’s general themes around running away and taking responsibility. It’s a mistake Loki makes, one of the many, many mistakes that he makes, and must make up for. I’m not saying that entire joke makes the film, but rather it just fits really well. Not every gag has to be so in tune with the story and characters, but it certainly helps.

It could be a coincidence, but given the other references to The Avengers (such as Loki’s roller coaster of reactions to the Thor vs. Hulk fight), it’s likely this was a deliberate callback to that specific scene. Though I don’t think the writers thought it was bad and needed correction. They probably thought it was funny so it would be just as funny for Loki to get a bit of revenge.

And maybe I shouldn’t feel such sympathy, but it feels like a bit of revenge for me too? I suppose it’s petty and oversensitive to think of it that way, but such is the territory with being a petty and oversensitive adoptee who’s probably overly invested in the wrong characters.

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