Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Loki (2021) is the first of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Disney+ shows with a confirmed second season. Clocking in at 6 50-minute episodes, Loki follows the exploits of the titular character who was seen escaping with the tesseract in Avengers: Endgame (2019). Immediately after escaping Loki is tracked down by the Time Variance Authority and turned into a criminal informant by TVA Analyst Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) in order to help capture another variant of Loki that has been systematically wiping out TVA agents sent to destroy branching timelines before they branch out of control.
The reaction to the MCU dabbling in time travel in Endgame was met with some controversy by the fans and an astounding flurry of questions and theories about how it might affect the universe from now on. Every single Marvel property released since has been bedeviled by fan theories about how it will tie in multiverses and introduce “retcons” to the timeline. In their defense Far From Home (2019) deliberately exploited this (false) hope and titles like the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness admittedly fans the flames. Loki could represent a sort of “walk the walk” with regards to the timeline nonsense can of worms that was opened in Endgame. Of course, I continue to maintain these side-stories on Disney+ are dubiously canonical until happily proven otherwise.
At the start of the show a problem exists in that the Loki (Tom Hiddleston) we know and love has undergone 6 years of in-world character growth since the events of The Battle of New York in 2012 following several traumatic events in his life. The death of his mother after an attack on Asgard by Dark Elves and joining forces with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to save the day. The death of his father and joining forces with Thor to defeat his evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). The total destruction of Asgard. And his own death at the hands of Thanos (Josh Brolin). The show does its darndest to cram that all into a nice montage of Loki watching these events unfold on tape.
Credit where credit is due the show doesn’t milk things for all that long before moving on to a different mystery. Condensed into six episodes the season feels more like three little movies than the slog that the Netflix shows had become and with so much new stuff to introduce and wrap our heads around the time spent on exposition justifies itself better than it did on the other Disney+ shows. For those curious, Loki does continue the fine inexplicable tradition of making the comics-accurate costumes look as silly and cheap as possible. At least this time it’s burdened with glorious purpose.
So the plot in a nutshell: Loki comes to terms with being a failure destined to fail. Falls in love with the lady version of himself, Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Rages futilely against a deterministic universe. Dies. Meets even more versions of himself including an impeccable Richard E. Grant. Joins forces with his beloved. Unmasks the devil. Tries desperately to do the right thing. Fails anyway. And finds himself adrift in a sea of infinite timelines ready for Season 2.
A possible surprise at the end is getting to meet Kang The Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) in perhaps the most obvious villain reveal so far. Kang, a supervillain time traveller from the 31st century is a character who fights time wars changing the past to destroy futures and his enemies as he sees fit. Often in the comics Kang is busy battling his own equally powerful time-travelling cosmic entities and doesn’t typically bother with street-level demigods. The version of Kang we meet in the show is killed by Sylvie in revenge for having been removed from her timeline as a child after warning the Loki duo that doing so will unleash an infinity of far less friendly time-travelling Kangs. In fact a version of Kang is slated to appear in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. In part the reason this reveal was pretty obvious to those familiar with Marvel’s properties is that time-travel nonsense mostly points to Kang as a villain. The trouble is, like all scenes of this type, the reveal of the mastermind is always underwhelming even if you hang a lantern on how underwhelming it is. The principal actors have to sit there looking confused while a brand new but pivotal character is introduced at the last minute to deliver a gargantuan amount of exposition.
Loki gets itself out of a bit of a jam logistically by “freeing” the timeline from the TVA’s control. This leaves room for more semi-canonical nonsense like the upcoming What If…? in August and takes the burden off the quick explanation for how timelines work in Endgame from ever having to make sense again as well as the bevvy of “predictions” that had been made as throwaway gags and set-pieces throughout Loki. This is all fine and good for circumventing a few question-induced headaches at the next comic-con panel but doesn’t really do much to elevate the show itself.
A show like this should provide us with an interesting character study and window into what makes them tick. WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier successfully expanded the inner lives of its leads. Of course Wanda was hemmed in by being under some sort of mind control the entire time and the other show had to juggle time between its two leads. Loki could have been non-stop Loki. As Loki himself points out, he shouldn’t even be there, it’s the fault of the Avengers messing with the timeline that he escaped at all. Loki is detached from and confused by the TVA lacking any real emotional connection to it. His supposed friendship with Mobius is entirely based on mutual exploitation. An infinitely more compelling character is Sylvie. A Loki who was ripped from her home as a child for no reason and who has been living on the run ever since. To paraphrase the show itself. Loki only wants to stop the TVA. Sylvie needs to. As entertaining and pretty as Tom Hiddleston is, Loki’s arc ended in Endgame. Keeping him around now, even a version who has fallen in love and wants to try to be a hero, seems more like savvy marketing than compelling television. A similar decision gave us seven seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with a resurrected Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Sylvie on the other hand is filled with rage and purpose that completely bulldozes Hiddleston’s mischievous mannerisms. When Loki dies at the end of episode 3 it is almost a relief, an end to the charade that this was ever about him. As the show even puts it “This was never your story”. When he is brought back in the post-credits stinger it feels like a betrayal. A quashing of ambition.
The MCU has an interesting relationship with the cosmic nonsense that has grown so much under the Marvel aegis. Jack Kirby never shied away from the Olympian theatrics of Marvel’s panoply of alien beings. In science-fiction a common motif for characters venturing out into space is to find God. It is the endless quest and search for meaning that drives humans to leave the bosom of our home and the answers can be as chilling and vast as outer space. Marvel has been playing this game since the 1960s with its Asgardians, Olympians, Eternals and Titans. Cosmic entities like the Beyonder, The Living Tribunal, and various personifications of the forces of the universe itself have all played the role of mad, malevolent, and magnanimous deities. When the MCU reaches into these areas it finds no incomprehensible forces of nature but only men. Men with technology, power, and vision. But men nonetheless. This is not quite a betrayal of expectations; Marvel is free to do as they wish with the characters which they own. But it is beginning to seem as if the current shapers of these stories are rebelling against the old comforting notion of a universe that can set itself right. That has a will of its own and tools with which to correct reality. In the comics Thanos, once defeated, was tried for his crimes by beings more powerful than he and the infinity gems rendered inert. Superheroes have been granted boons by ancient forces to do their bidding. Characters have been enlisted into wars of cosmic proportion to unmake and remake the universe. The universe feels awe-inspiring, powerful, majestic. In the movies they punch a guy and go home. The universe feels small, predictable, pedestrian.
The TVA, it is explained, defends the “sacred timeline” from deviations in accordance with the will of a noble trio of “Timekeepers”, aliens who are working tirelessly to shape the timeline into a utopia of order and peace. When challenged about this subversion of free will the TVA’s response is rather meek. The barest questioning of it threatens to turn most of the staff into turncoats and the few that double-down are revealed to be self-serving fanatics or in on the scam. Why did we need to reach a critical mass of escaped Loki variants to disrupt the timeline? The whole thing seemed precarious from the start. Does the show have something to say about propaganda? The TVA’s mid-century style posters are certainly plastered all over the walls in mockery of corporate and wartime campaigns. Is the show’s thesis about the nature and power of free will? Of destiny?
Just outside the Citadel at the End of Time we watch the Sacred Timeline, a perfect loop of all that ever was and will be, branch and flourish into infinitely tangled chaos. Inside the Citadel we watch little men talk and argue about the fates of billions. Personalizing the stakes has long been the key to Marvel’s success. The concerns of its heroes are meant to be relatable. Superheroes often have personal relationships with their supervillains. Kang offers the Lokis a choice: 1) Take over for Kang and maintain the timeline as he has for untold millennia. 2) Kill Kang and allow the universe to descend into chaos. This trouble is this choice is a no-brainer for Sylvie who is out only for revenge and meaningless to Loki. Loki refuses to kill Kang merely out of fear that doing so will cost him Sylvie. It’s interesting in a narcissistic, incestuous, kind of a way. But it’s difficult to muster up much enthusiasm for Kang, the ageless eccentric from a thousand years in the future. He claims to have deliberately created this exact scenario but to have no foresight as to its outcome and seems at peace with either eventuality. He may as well have been a button to press.
After Kang’s death and the escape of the former fanatical leader of the TVA, Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Loki steels himself for the coming war against an infinity of Kangs before realizing he’s too late as he beholds a statue of Kang inside the TVA headquarters where once were statues of the Timekeepers. No one there, including Mobius, remembers or recognises Loki. As bait for a possible season 2 plot where there are either multiple TVAs or Loki must fight an infinity of Kangs on his own it’s not bad. But it’s also the ending from Planet of the Apes (2001) which is not something you want to be associated with. It also opens the door to another time-travel can of worms: Who remembers when the timeline has been changed?