This was a big weekend for Marvel — Loki Season 2 bowed out just as The Marvels landed in theaters, the first time the studio’s television and film calendars have lined up precisely so that the finale of a hit series and the debut of a large tentpole film arrived on the same day. It’s ironic that what was once a stated goal for the interconnected franchise universe has been achieved at a time when everyone seems intent on pouncing upon Marvel as “in deep trouble.” One has only to watch “Glorious Purpose” (which is also the title of the Loki series premiere) or head to the movies to see these claims are overblown.
Loki Season 2 delivered solid ratings for Disney+, and the final episodes were among some of the best Marvel has managed on the small screen to date. Meanwhile, The Marvels, a big screen intertwining of at least five Disney+ shows (and a good half dozen films), is a return to form for Marvel storytelling after some self-inflicted wounds from ill-advised chasing of awards glory or attempts to add too much dramatic weight to stories never meant to carry it.
That’s not to say that Marvel is having its best year. As noted above, some of that is the company’s own fault. Some of it is ego, because apparently Columbusing showrunners is a better look than admitting the WGA forced you to behave. But also, consider the years that 2023 is being compared to. From 2008 to 2019, Marvel dominated the box office with 23 films, all of which were box office successes. (Yes, even The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World.) Since then, the company’s moved to a different medium, with different demands and storytelling structures, while at the same time, audience tastes have moved on from earnest saving the world to more ironic Barbie and angry Oppenheimer. The laws of gravity apply to everyone, be it Bob Iger, Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios, or superheroes: what goes up must eventually come down.
Loki was always well positioned to hold the line for Marvel, better than most of its other Disney+ offerings, which were conceived of as closed-ended standalone fare eventually meant to feed the big-screen stories, and not actually necessary to enjoy them. (The Marvels was actually originally meant as the endpoint for characters introduced in WandaVision, Ms. Marvel, and Secret Invasion. What If…? and Hawkeye popping up in the end credit scene mix are merely bonus shoutouts.) However, as they’re on a completely separate timeline from the rest of the MCU, Loki’s plot lines could go on to exist for multiple seasons, adding and subtracting as many cameos as the writers wanted, knowing that everything could be excused as “pruned branches no one remembers happening.”
It also helped that from the jump, Loki’s wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey variants of every character gave it a “Marvel does Doctor Who” vibe. Not only is that elevator pitch accurate enough to get people to tune in, but if you’re going to pick a science fiction franchise to imitate, you could do a lot worse than the one celebrating its 60th anniversary in a couple of weeks. Moreover, this decision separated the series from the rest of the pack and resulted in it being the only live-action series granted a second season.
But series creator Michael Waldron also chose well when it came to which parts to lean into from Season 1 and which ones to discard. While “Ouroboros” featured a bit too much chaos theory, Season 2 became less complicated as it went along, eventually condescending it all down to “There’s a loom that explodes and makes time into ribbons. Must make loom stop exploding. Go with it.” That culminated in a pair of episodes that served less as science-fiction action hours and more as character studies, allowing the top-tier cast of Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Owen Wilson (Mobius), Sophia Di Martino (Sylvie), and the brilliant addition of Ke Huy Quan (O.B.) to do what they do best, dig into their characters and show what makes them tick.
Loki’s biggest surprise, however, wasn’t what was in the finale, but what wasn’t: the establishment of Jonathon Majors as the Multiverse Saga’s Big Bad. Variety recently reported on the turmoil at Marvel, citing an insider who had seen a cut of “Glorious Purpose” (the second one) and declared the Loki finale as a step in that direction the franchise could not come back from. Whether the episode was recut is unknown, but the episode’s conclusion did not feel like the writers had committed to a branch that was somehow “unprunable.” The ending boiled down to keeping all Kang variants on lock, but that doesn’t “lock” Marvel into sticking with Kang.
In comics, there is no limit to what you can dream up; half the reason Loki is so good is that it's the closest Marvel Studios has come to capturing that truth in any medium. Any perceived obligation to keep collaborating with Majors is borne from a lack of imagination. Why not just envision something different? After all, this is the same company that recast the Hulk after Edward Norton refused to play nicely and dropped Terrence Howard for Don Cheadle without a second thought because no actor is bigger than the franchise.
If Marvel execs somehow figure replacing Majors will signal some kind of weakness and play into the narrative that it is losing audience numbers, they have nothing to fear. The audience will continue to decline no matter what they do, because it was never not going to drop.
Superheroes may be able to fly, but eventually they land. Marvel scaled heights with what it retroactively decided to name “The Infinity Saga,” which broke records and set its place in history. That place in history isn’t going anywhere, even if the company folds tomorrow. The best thing Marvel can do for itself is to keep calm, carry on; never complain, never explain; and green light Loki Season 3.
Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily.