The Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding into television, now with the premiere of Loki on Disney+. A review of this first episode — with spoilers — coming up just as soon as I know whether I’m a robot…
With the debut of Loki, the Kevin Feige era of Marvel TV is two-for-three on bold swings. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was basically just a very long MCU movie (and not always a good one), WandaVision was a fascinatingly weird mash-up of sitcom deconstruction and reckoning with grief. And now Loki is, among other things, a time-travel epic, a buddy-cop comedy, and a psychological re-examination — or, perhaps, reformation — of the most entertaining villain the MCU has produced.
This is a lot to tackle. With great ambition comes greater potential to get tangled in one aspect or another, and the Loki premiere definitely struggles at times to shoulder the burden of everything writer Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron are trying to accomplish. Without lead performers as verbally nimble and fundamentally appealing as Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson, this first episode would collapse under the weight of all the exposition required to revisit Loki’s backstory and explain what the Time Variance Authority is and how it functions(*).
(*) For the comic book-curious: Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema introduced the TVA towards the tail end of what many fans still consider the definitive run on Thor. But Simonson wrote his best TVA arc during his brief but wonderful Fantastic Four run (basically jump to issue 353 if you care about the TVA only). Simonson designed the group in part as a tribute to legendary comics writer-editor (and frequent Falcon and the Winter Soldier inspiration) Mark Gruenwald, who was much stricter about policing continuity errors than some of his peers. Other writers have occasionally brought the group back, but the Marvel comic-book universe has so many time travelers that it’s generally best not to think too hard about how the rules are meant to work.
Time travel in general can be headache-inducing. But when our title character only exists because of time travel — the “real” Loki died at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, and then this variant (from right after the end of the original Avengers movie) escaped into the time stream due to the bungling of the time heist from Avengers: Endgame — and then gets caught up in a plot involving the organization that polices the entire MCU time stream, it can be even harder to follow. Waldron could perhaps have just hand-waved away Loki’s continued existence with some arch banter, but he instead opts to dive deep into the how and why of it all, resulting in a debut episode that might feel unbearably sluggish if Hiddleston and Wilson weren’t so enjoyable to watch.
Most of the scenes here that pair Loki with Wilson’s TVA agent Mobius are meant to serve three simultaneous purposes: 1) explain the TVA and the role it plays both in the MCU and this particular story; 2) provide a refresher course on Loki’s long, winding, and now paradoxical MCU existence; and 3) try to come up with a grand unified psychological field theory for why Loki acted the way he did in the past, and figure out if he might change enough to justify being the hero, rather than an obstacle (at best) or villain (at worst) for Thor and his buddies.
It’s that last task that’s ultimately the most important one, and the most compelling part of the premiere after the Hiddleston-Wilson chemistry and perhaps the production design of the TVA offices. (In the comics, the place was a blandly infinite array of identical desks; here, it looks how someone in 1960 would design a workplace of the future.) Hiddleston is this show’s greatest asset coming in. If he hadn’t brought Loki to such vibrant life (in what was otherwise the fairly underwhelming first Thor), it’s hard to imagine him having been used as the first Avengers villain, or continuing to appear in so many MCU films since. But the character comes with a lot of baggage from all the terrible things he’s done. This is a conundrum franchises face when villains become, thanks to the charisma of the actor playing them, so beloved that they are brought over to the hero side of things. (See also: Spike on Buffy, among many others.) You can’t just ignore the various acts of mass murder they attempted or committed in previous storylines; but confronting those can be even messier, because it forces the audience to reconsider why they seemed so great in the first place.
With his roots in Norse mythology, Loki has a much longer history to reckon with than your average charismatic villain type. It’s something comics about him have wrestled with, to the point where Loki was for a while killed off and replaced by a young and innocent new version, known at the time as Kid Loki. Waldron doesn’t opt for anything so radical. The Loki who is a prisoner of the TVA is the same Loki who, from his perspective, was leading an alien invasion of Earth earlier that day(*). But in giving Loki a breather from scheming, and forcing him to witness what would have become of both him and his family if the Tesseract hadn’t literally fallen into his path(**), both Mobius and the Loki writers make him consider why he acts the way he does, and offer the hope of him being better in the future.
(*) This probably does a disservice to some of the premiere’s emotional beats if you think about how fresh his defeat — including a very painful thrashing at the hands of the Hulk — would be for him. It might have been smart to leave Loki rotting away in a TVA cell for some unknown length of time before Mobius shows up to recruit him.
(**) Like parts of the Endgame time heist, this perhaps leans too much on everyone’s least favorite MCU film, Thor: The Dark World, but the montage that Mobius shows Loki is really all anyone needs to know without rewatching (or, if you’re lucky, without ever watching in the first place).
Of course, when you’re both a trickster god and a character who has been in the hands of many authors over such a long period of time, the answer to “Why?” is usually “Because it seemed like fun at the time.” And the answer to “Can you be better?” is usually “Only until the next story demands otherwise.” But since “our” Loki (more or less) has been partnered with Mobius to take down what we’re told is yet another variant Loki, the series that bears their name gets to have its mythological cake and eat it, too, goodness versus badness-wise.
It’s as good a starting place as any for Loki’s first adventure as an MCU protagonist. And if the exposition drags at times, there are also lively sequences, like Loki being dropped level-by-level though the TVA offices, or Loki finally accepting how powerful this place is when he sees that workers like Casey use Infinity Stones as paperweights. I’ve also seen next week’s episode (the last one critics will be given in advance), and so far this thing is starting off to be more entertaining, and weirder, than the comparable Falcon chapters.
Some other thoughts:
* It’s an impressive cast around Hiddleston and Wilson, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Judge Ravonna Renslayer, who has a longstanding friendship (and perhaps more?) with Mobius; Wunmi Mosaku from Lovecraft Country as Hunter B-15, who understandably just wants to disintegrate Loki as soon as possible; ace voice actor Tara Strong as Miss Minute, the TVA’s chipper animated clock mascot; and Good Place alum Eugene Cordero as TVA receptionist Casey.
* Finally, given the show’s early Mad Men-era aesthetic, it’s an amusing reveal that Loki was infamous skyjacker D.B. Cooper, who disappeared after jumping out of a plane with $200,000 in ransom money. Cooper became a pet obsession of some Mad Men fans who for a while were convinced that Don Draper would become Cooper.