Centred on Tom Hiddleston’s devilishly charismatic villain, the franchise’s latest foray into TV skilfully bridges the gap between the inventive and the familiar, writes Stephen Kelly.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s foray into television has been an intriguingly mixed bag so far. The wonderful WandaVision, for instance, set the bar high with a formally inventive and creatively risky riff on classic sitcoms – albeit one that felt more like a curio than MCU TV’s big bang. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a far more conventionally fan-pleasing show on the surface, felt far too conventional, plodding and limp in its execution. The first two episodes of Loki however suggest a show that has managed to skilfully bridge the gap between the inventive and the familiar, with a dazzling script full of weird ideas headlined by one of the most popular characters in the MCU.
Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, in which time-travel shenanigans allowed a past Loki to teleport away from captivity, it picks up with the god of mischief being apprehended by the Time Variance Authority, a bureaucratic agency in charge of preserving the integrity of the “sacred timeline”. Think the Time Lords from Doctor Who crossed with the daily drudgery of Mad Men. This Loki – who, let’s not forget, is not the same Loki killed by Thanos in Infinity War, but is the younger version who starred in 2012’s The Avengers – has been identified by the TVA as a “variant”. This means that he should not exist – he is a product of an alternate timeline; the TVA does not allow alternate timelines – and thus is to be erased from history.
It is in these early scenes – while Loki is being processed through the TVA’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy, full of bored office workers sitting amidst drab 1950s-style yellow and brown decor – that the show sucks you into its delightfully absurdist tone and rhythm. A disgruntled jobsworth presents a stack of paper and asks Loki to sign off every word he has ever said. A grinning corporate mascot blasts off all his clothes. A fellow prisoner is disintegrated for not getting a ticket to wait in line. The idea of portraying the otherworldly through the lens of dull office life is hardly novel, of course. Just take recent hit sitcom The Good Place or, in cinema, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But the comic momentum of creator Michael Waldon’s script – alongside steady, measured direction from Sex Education’s Kate Herron – manages to sell the idea anew. It’s little surprise that Waldron’s roots can be traced back to the writers’ room of animation Rick & Morty, a show famed for marrying imaginative science fiction with razor-sharp gags.
But Loki would be nothing without the man himself, who Tom Hiddleston makes as devilishly charismatic as ever. In the later Marvel films, Loki underwent something of a redemptive arc, involving the mending of his relationship with his brother Thor. This Loki however is stuck firmly in pompous villain mode. He is obnoxious, narcissistic and – with all his talk of the strong deserving to rule the weak – nakedly fascist. Yet all of that maleficence is punctured somewhat by the TVA, an organisation so ridiculously powerful that its workers use infinity stones as paperweights.
Villains starring as the protagonists of their own stories has become a trend of sorts; motivated perhaps by a postmodern desire to dismantle the duality of good and evil. But there is an uneasy sense here that Loki is caught between the allure of its main character and the uncomfortable truth of who he actually is.
The script tries to navigate this by pairing him with Owen Wilson’s Mobius, a TVA agent who requests the trickster’s help in tracking down a particularly dangerous variant. But before accepting him for the job, Mobius stages a de facto therapy session to work out what makes Loki tick. Why does he do what he does? What does he want? Does he enjoy hurting people? It all feels designed to put the audience’s mind at ease, to reassure them that Loki is not evil per se – he’s merely playing the part that history intended. But it’s debatable whether that rings true.
Regardless, Wilson plays off Hiddleston brilliantly here, and his own likeable, spaced-out chill dude aura fits perfectly with the off-kilter feel of the TVA. Indeed, this screen chemistry becomes even more pronounced in episode two, where the show transitions from action comedy to something approaching a buddy cop mystery, with the pair bonding while investigating crime scenes across time. You can imagine which one is the maverick who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results. This shift in genres is hopefully a sign that Loki will invest in episodic storytelling, rather than simply play like one single, extended movie, as is, laboriously, often the way with TV shows these days. It certainly seems so.
There is not a huge amount that can be written about episode two, for obvious reasons. Suffice to say that it takes the larger overarching mystery established at the end of episode one – which, in itself, is intriguing – and develops it in ways that suggests larger ramifications for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The ending of episode two is fairly shocking, and will likely result in some of the most perverse fan fiction the internet has ever seen.
It is, in many ways, the Marvel show that fans have been waiting for.