TV TATTLE

Marvel's Loki cares little about the Marvel universe, making it a welcome reprieve

  • "For 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe built up the Infinity Stones as objects of grand power, capable of manipulating all existence when united," says Shirley Li. "In Avengers: Infinity War, they turned half of the cosmos to dust; in Avengers: Endgame, the surviving heroes chased them down across time. In Loki, the Disney+ series released (Wednesday), they’re nothing more than colorful paperweights. The cheeky gag befits a series about a trickster god, but it’s a surprising one for Marvel to pull. The studio has never dismissed its own storytelling this way—more than a dozen films insisted on the profundity of the stones. Yet in a single scene, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) learns that the objects he’s long sought—and by extension, the objects fans have long been conditioned to care about—are mere office supplies at the Time Variance Authority, the bureaucratic entity that has captured him. Not only that, but Loki’s told that the TVA controls time itself, and thus has 'allowed' his every move. His actions have never been his own. By placing a fan-favorite character in an unfamiliar world populated with unrecognizable characters, and then promptly introducing him to an existential crisis, Loki challenges Marvel’s tried-and-true formula of lighthearted action plus airtight continuity. Each of the studio’s films and TV shows has not only told its own story but made sure to connect to the others through shared characters, common settings, and scenes that advance an overarching narrative. WandaVision was stylistically weird as a sitcom pastiche, but the series remained tethered to the MCU’s conventions, as a dutiful sequel to Endgame and a precursor to the next Doctor Strange film. Loki, however, is neither epilogue nor prologue, at least not in the two episodes screened for critics; its structure, ideas, and visual language feel unconstrained by the MCU’s blueprint. Instead, the series traffics in true comic-book storytelling. It’s an experimental, self-contained, and thoroughly welcome reprieve."

    ALSO:

    • Loki is a litmus test for Marvel TV: "As the third major Marvel Cinematic Universe television series to be released in this Disney+ streaming era of Marvel TV, Loki is in a bit of a tiebreaker position in a best-of-three game. WandaVision was an unexpected pleasure, upending assumptions about how playful a Marvel TV series might be willing to get and how far it could stray from the movies’ face-punching status quo," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The ending was a bummer in about three different directions, but on the whole WandaVision suggested that Marvel might actually have some exciting, imaginative impulses in the TV space. But WandaVision was followed by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which hit the ground with a dull thwomp sound and then failed to improve on that first impression. So Loki has felt like a litmus test for what Marvel TV really wants to be. Would it have the playful gestalt of WandaVision? Or would it be more of a bland The Falcon and the Winter Soldier–style slog? I’ve already spoiled the answer, of course: Loki... blessedly occupies more of the WandaVision side of the spectrum. It’s not quite as surprising as those first WandaVision episodes felt — Tom Hiddleston’s there playing Loki, the same character who has become very familiar from a slew of Marvel movies, and much of the show’s narrative language is closer to traditional Marvel mechanics: Infinity Stones, hopping between worlds, fight scenes where a mysterious figure knocks someone out and then strides away in a floor shot that only shows the villain’s boots. You know, Marvel stuff. Like WandaVision, though, Loki has carved out a little space for itself in an out-of-the-way corner of the Marvel universe. It doesn’t have to tangle with all the major earthbound plot events that tripped up The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, because Loki takes place in a weird story outpost: the Time Variance Authority, an organization of bureaucratic time cops whose job is to maintain a single, integrated universal timeline."
    • Tom Hiddleston is an absolute marvel in Loki: "Tom Hiddleston is one of the best things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it’s about time the sprawling movie (and now also TV) franchise gave him his own showcase," says Nick Schager. "Loki is that and more, and yes, that last sentence did include a pun, since the studio’s latest Disney+ affair is all about time-travel, and the many ways in which it’s controlled by higher supernatural beings and manipulated by Hiddleston’s God of Mischief, who in his first stand-alone saga grapples with issues of identity and agency while also trying to earn his freedom and, potentially, seize control of the Marvel multiverse...In swift fashion, Loki establishes the foundation of not only its premise but the entire multiverse conceit that will govern the MCU going forward (including in Sam Raimi’s upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). Moreover, it does so while letting Hiddleston roll his eyes, smirk, fume, and rage at the mundane insanity of these circumstances, about which he previously had no knowledge, and which he doesn’t care for in the slightest, given that they suggest he’s not in charge of his own destiny."
    • It's a letdown that one of the MCU's most unpredictable characters gets a predictable storyline: "For a new Marvel production, introducing a powerful league of militaristic cops is practically a prerequisite for whatever story is yet to come," says Caroline Framke. "But it’s nevertheless a bit of a letdown when you realize halfway through the dense first episode that one of the MCU’s ostensibly most unpredictable lead characters has somehow landed in the most predictable of setups. To be fair, some of this irony is by design."
    • The problem with time-travel plots is that they tend to work best the less you dwell on the details: "Thanks to the premise, the audience can think about little else, since the source of the drama (and considerable comedy) fixates on the threat that a glitch in time poses to reality itself," says Brian Lowry. "The program's primary kick thus boils down to Hiddleston, as well as his interactions with time cop Mobius (Owen Wilson), who realizes Loki isn't trustworthy but sees him as the means to an end. An early template would be It Takes a Thief, where a skilled cat burglar's insights were employed to help catch other thieves. With the time element and buddy aspect of that, the opening episodes could be called 'Tom and Owen's Excellent Adventure.' There's less to do for the rest of the cast, which includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Mobius' boss. On the plus side, Loki looks fabulous, creating a bizarre world that feels distinctly different from other quadrants of the Marvel universe. Being weird, however — especially in those moments when it seems to be mostly for the sake of that — has its drawbacks too."
    • Loki is the first Marvel show with big-screen energy: "Judging from the first two episodes screened for critics, Loki is a spectacular TV show, but what makes it so fun is that it looks and feels more like a spectacular movie," says Dan Gentile. "There are no confirmed figures, but it’s been reported that Marvel’s TV show budgets could be as high as $25 million an episode. For context, Disney Plus’ first blockbuster series, The Mandalorian, cost about $10 million per episode. They say that money can’t buy happiness, but in this case it sure can buy fun."
    • So far Loki exploits its title character’s blatant, deadly untrustworthiness very nicely: "Creator and screenwriter Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron have a ball with the multiverse and competing-timeline angles," says Michael Phillips. "While the show’s overall narrative apparently feeds into the forthcoming 2022 Doctor Strange sequel, which Waldron worked on, these first two episodes work on their own. That’s what the WandaVision fans said about WandaVision; I was all over the place on that show, whereas Loki is all over the place, but more wittily."
    • Loki manages to be entertaining while also deconstructing Loki and explaining the multiverse: "So far the most interesting thing about Loki is how it deconstructs the character," says Mike Ryan. "Loki, in this world of the TVA, has no powers, so he’s faced with a lot of questions from Mobius about his actions. Did he enjoy killing people? Did he enjoy betraying people? Did he enjoy literally stabbing people in the back? His answers are revealing, though at this point we don’t know if Loki is really doing some soul searching or if he’s just telling Mobius what he thinks Mobius wants to hear. Both things can be true at the same time. But, at least so far, it seems the purpose of this show is to explain to people what a multiverse is."
    • Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson's banter makes Loki work: "The banter between Hiddleston and Wilson is electric and often hilarious — a significant upgrade from what Falcon and Winter Soldier believed it was doing — and I cannot stress how critical that is, since the two, roughly 50-minute episodes sent to critics (out of six total) revolves around their push me/pull you dynamic," says Matt Webb Mitovich. "(The fact that Loki and Mobius at one point make what is essentially a library all-nighter as entertaining as it is is testament to the actors’ chemistry.)"
    • Loki needs less conversation and more mischief: "Loki plays with straws," says Ben Travers. "It loves straws. The latest MCU entry for Disney+ dumps a bevy of colored straws, bendy straws, crazy straws, and all the compostable, biodegradable, and otherwise non-turtle-killing straws onto the table from moment No. 1, and invites everyone to start twisting them together. Straws aren’t beside the point, they are the point. On the one hand, the sheer bravado behind this choice — to thoroughly detail the hows and whens of time travel — fits snugly with the arrogance inherent to our eponymous God of Mischief. On the other, Loki would hate being forced to affix each tubular drinking aide to the next, in a very particular order, for hours and hours on end, which is much closer to what watching Loki feels like."
    • Marvel hiring a Rick and Morty writer to lead Loki turned out to be genius: "The hiring of Waldron raised some eyebrows among fans: Was it really wise to entrust a big Marvel franchise to a young writer whose primary credit was Rick and Morty?" says Daniel Fienberg. "Watching the first two Loki episodes, the pairing of creator and approach is absurdly logical or maybe logical in its absurdity. Perhaps no current show is as good at coming up with inspired differentiations on a seemingly simple theme as Rick and Morty. Here, Waldron has paired Loki, a master of chaos forced to acknowledge that even his most devious schemes may be predictable pieces in a cosmic plan, with Mobius, a literal tool of interdimensional order, whose idea of a personality is reading a magazine dedicated to jet-skis, even though he has never had enough free time to engage in the hobby. Waldron’s background has prepared him to execute recursive loops of silliness and the combo of Hiddleston’s florid exasperation and Wilson’s wry skepticism can be used to respond to any circumstance. It’s a classic odd-couple pairing of leads and a perfect play on the respective screen personae of Hiddleston, verbally dextrous and capable of making total nonsense sound Shakespearean, and Wilson, droll and precise, able to unravel with five words any tapestry of logorrhea Hiddleston might spin in 50. If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier led with soaring plot, but frustrated people simply wanting to watch Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan banter, Loki establishes Hiddleston and Wilson sitting across from each other at tables as its trademark set-up."
    • The confirmation of a beloved MCU character's gender fluidity is exciting, but still barely counts as visibility:  "It's crucial for queer audiences to receive more meaningful representation than throwaway hints and glimpses," says Kylie Cheung. "A real win would be Loki's identity actually playing a role in the story, not unlike how Sam Wilson's (Anthony Mackie) Blackness plays a decisive role in his experience becoming Captain America in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Now that the MCU is increasingly embracing the inextricable power of identity in any superhero story, why stop at Loki?"
    • In a different timeline, Loki would have made for an excellent Christopher Nolan movie: "But in the timeline that you and I share, it’s an exciting and genuinely inspired addition to Marvel storytelling, one that spins off and rockets its complicated villain into original territory with the help of time travel," says Nick Allen. "We are well aware of this character and his degrees of goodness and badness, and it builds from that backstory with a spirited take on time travel that deals in doubles, different realities, practical sci-fi technology, and more. And just like Nolan’s plotting, Loki is comprised of fascinating games, including how Hiddleston navigates the backstabbing Asgardian 'God of Mischief' through a premise that requires him to holster his god powers, acting in ways that make him unpredictable to his new teammates and us. Loki proves something that I’ve felt has been important about many of these Marvel extensions and how they unfold. If the scenario can stand on its own, without seeming too inside baseball, the story is especially intriguing."
    • Loki proves that a great villain is always the hero of his own (weird, wild, wonderful) story: "Perhaps it's because his turn towards darkness was rooted in a very understandable sense of personal betrayal, grief, and frustrated ambition. Perhaps it's because over the course of multiple films, the character was given far more depth and development than a dark elf or army guy," says Liz Shannon Miller. "Perhaps, yes, Hiddleston's cheekbones and the character's emo-goth vibe immediately made him the platonic ideal of a Tumblr dreamboat. Point is, Loki is a character whose background, powers, and personality indicate a wealth of storytelling potential, and so it's little shock that the new Disney+ series which bears his name is good entertainment. However, after having seen the first two episodes, the best of surprises is how weird, wild, funny, and emotional the show manages to be."
    • It helps that Loki is incredibly funny: "Story-wise, there’s actually not much to this confidently contained premiere," says Caroline Siede. "Head writer Michael Waldron and series director Kate Herron have two big goals here. One is to introduce the hilariously convoluted bureaucracy of the Time Variance Authority or TVA. And the other is to reintroduce Loki—specifically Loki as he was in 2012’s The Avengers, which is the version that managed to escape his preordained timeline during the team’s time heist in Avengers: Endgame. This premiere is essentially 45 minutes of exposition, much of which is just clips from past Marvel movies. What’s impressive is that it never feels like a drag. After all, if you’re as deep down the Marvel rabbit hole as I suspect a lot of this show’s viewers are, part of the fun is in watching the franchise revisit and recontextualize its own past. It helps that Loki is incredibly funny. In place of the strained attempts at banter that so often dragged down The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, Loki is filled with the kinds of hilariously subversive beats you’d expect from a writer who got his start on Community and Rick And Morty. A lot of the humor comes from the strange world of the TVA, who pick up the Endgame version of Loki as a 'timeline variant' who must be dealt with in order to preserve the 'Sacred Timeline' as established by their godlike alien overlords, the Time Keepers. This premiere gets a ton of mileage from Brazil-like sequences satirizing the absurdity of bureaucracy, my favorite of which is a bored employee who casually intones, 'Please sign to verify this is everything you’ve ever said'—a joke the show then goes on to keep plussing."
    • It's thrilling to see there are surprises in the MCU: "This is very much not the meat-and-potatoes superhero action of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And if anything it has potential to get weirder than WandaVision," says Richard Trenholm. "That's the foundation of the show's appeal: It is uncharted territory. WandaVision drew us in with its mystery element, which the very familiar Falcon and Winter Soldier entirely lacked. Loki takes WandaVision's weirdness and pushes even further into a whole new myth of the MCU that feels big enough to completely shake up the whole Marvel thing (unlike previous Marvel TV shows, which were precision-engineered to not affect the big screen story at all). After a decade, it's thrilling to see there are still some surprises in the MCU. The first episode in particular is stuffed with information and ideas, some of them cosmically huge in scope. It would be pretty dull if the main character just wandered around asking questions. But Loki isn't one for questions. Unceremoniously dumped into the Gobi Desert at the very start of the show, his first response is to leap on a rock and awe the puzzled locals with a grandiose godly speech. It doesn't last long. As the show continues you barely notice the landslide of exposition because you're too busy enjoying Loki's blustering arrogance smashing against the baffling new reality of the Time Variance Authority."
    • Loki has a more promising start than WandaVision: "It’s impossible to judge an entire show by two episodes, even if those episodes comprise a third of its season," says Alex Abad-Santos. "That said, I had a good feeling about WandaVision after its first three installments, and that show turned out to be pretty well-loved (despite a polarizing season finale). Similarly, I had a lukewarm feeling about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier after one episode, and that series ended up going out with a whimper. Based on what I’ve seen of Loki so far, the show is off to a great start. I’d even say it’s more promising than WandaVision at the outset: The show’s murder mystery coupled with Hiddleston and Wilson’s chemistry makes me want to watch more. With the time-jumping and the double-crossing and satirical bureaucracy, the show’s writers have a lot to play around with. I also hope that we see more of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the imposing authority and time judge Ravonna Renslayer, in upcoming episodes. Anything could happen in Loki’s remaining four episodes, but the show has the makings of a big hit."
    • Loki has a vibe that — at least early on — feels unlike anything else in the MCU: "The TVA has a retro-futuristic quality, with computers and interior designs that look ripped from the 1970s," says Andrew Webster. "The agency even has a cute little watch mascot, which also appears to be sentient, sort of like a holographic Siri mashed with the Kool-Aid Man. It’s both surreal and grounded, like something Douglas Adams would dream up. And as opposed to the more typical action-oriented Marvel stories, Loki plays out a bit like a police procedural, as Loki and Mobius attempt to figure out just who the fugitive variant is. Without his superpowers, Loki is forced to spend hours at a desk, flipping through files in hopes of finding a clue, before venturing out into the field to investigate. He quickly goes from god to amateur detective. The time travel premise also means that the show is able to jump around a lot, with visits to everywhere from Pompeii to a futuristic big box store. Much like WandaVision, Loki is evidence that there’s a lot of room to experiment within the tight confines of the MCU. It blends elements of buddy comedies and police procedurals with a hefty dose of classic sci-fi, helped along by an incredibly charming cast. It’s also a story that seems ideally suited for episodic storytelling, with the space to dig deeper into a character that’s often stuck on the periphery of larger moments. In its first two episodes, Loki nails the formula — now we just have to see if that momentum keeps up for the next few weeks."
    • Loki is really a screwball detective story that just so happens to feature time travel: "Loki's first two episodes lightly set up a focus on identity, with a gander at the dichotomy between hero and villain as our lead character is forced to reassess his own motivations, choices, and actions," says Brandon Katz. "It’s the beginning of a reckoning for this iteration of the character. There’s also a hint of philosophical debate between free will versus determinism. But in the early going, the show seems less invested in any sort of grand moral statement and more compelled to ride a wave of bouncy humor and hijinx. The show mixes the otherworldly matter-of-fact humor of The Good Place with the vibrant jaunts of Men in Black. I’d also like to throw in a smidgen of Beetlejuice for good measure. The series is really a screwball detective story that just so happens to feature time travel. It’s almost a slanted whodunnit with Loki’s patented shit-eating grin pairing nicely with Wilson’s shockingly excellent straight man. Their dialogue-based dynamic is the standout element early on. Thus far, Loki works on two key levels: as a star vehicle for one of the MCU’s most beloved characters and as an introduction to Marvel’s multiverse which may tie into Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Doctor Strange sequel. The rules and regulations of this new fantastical universe will provide deep-dive die-hards with plenty to obsess over. That the show’s general aesthetic is more mid-century cubicle monotony than futuristic sci-fi (though there’s still plenty) just makes everything more enjoyably hilarious."
    • Loki's "so-so" material  doesn't seem challenging enough for Tom Hiddleston: "Hiddleston is, as always, significantly overqualified for the mix of jesting arrogance and slightly buffoonish insecurity that constitute the character," says Mike Hale. "He carries off Loki’s astonishment at the authority’s existence (its agents are able to erase all traces of their intrusions into the time stream) and his indignation at being its captive — all with the same ease with which Loki, when not wearing his prison collar, snaps himself from one place to another. If anything, it’s a little too easy, and as the star rather than a supporting player, Hiddleston can sometimes appear to be coasting through the so-so material."
    • Here are five stories Loki probably won't acknowledge
    • Loki’s Mad Men-isms seem to be everywhere: If the soul of Mad Men is alive in the TVA, the spirit of Mad Men fandom presents itself in the premiere
    • Loki was made with the intention of having a big impact on the MCU: “With Loki, we absolutely wanted to make a show that was going to have a huge impact on the MCU moving forward,” says head writer Michael Waldron. “The charge was to make the ‘Loki’ show the best it could possibly be and then how does that ripple out into movies to come? I guess everybody will just have to wait to find out.”
    • Did Loki use any footage from Endgame?: "So basically, there are some new shots that we filmed. I also got access to all the (Endgame) moments that we put in the first episode," says director Kate Herron. "So with the Endgame moment, we deliberately used footage, takes and angles that hadn’t been in that film, mixed in with the structure of the scene that people recognize. We wanted to put it more into Loki’s POV, so I filmed the shot in the elevator where he waves. I almost think of it a bit like Rashomon; it’s a scene we’ve seen before, but now we’re putting it through a different lens. So we did film some of it, as it’s a mixture of both of the things you’re saying."
    • Director Kate Herron landed Loki job after writing a 60-page document about her love for the Loki character: The British filmmaker, who a few years ago was temping at a fire extinguisher company, says: "I was just so overexcited. (My agents) were like, 'Look, it’s just a casual conversation, they just want to get a sense of you,' and basically I was like, 'OK, I’m just going to pitch them.' Because I thought, they might not meet me again. So I got as much information as I could, and they sent me a little bit about the show. And I just prepared a massive pitch for it. I canceled everything for two weeks. I made a 60-page document full of references, story ideas, music. I knew I’d be up against some really big directors, and I knew I wouldn’t be the most experienced in the room, so I (said), 'OK. I’ll just be the most passionate.'"
    • Herron says it was important to reference Loki's gender fluidity: "I would say that details are marked in but it is something acknowledged," she says. "He's gender fluid in the Norse mythology and the comics and it felt like an important thing to, as you say, make sure it's canon."
    • How Blade Runner inspired Loki: “It was a huge inspiration,” head writer Michael Waldron says of Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir. “Blade Runner is one of the, if not the defining sci-fi crime thriller. And it has such style to it. I described the TVA’s aesthetic on the page as Mad Men meets Blade Runner. That was all I had to do. It was Kate (Herron), our director, who came in, really inspired by Blade Runner and everything and working in conjunction with our production designer. She brought that idea to life in a really cool way and just made it that much more real, made the TVA feel lived in.”
    • Owen Wilson says not being an MCU fan actually benefits his Loki character: "It seems like just sort of, well it actually ends up working for my character because I think the TVA sort of believes themselves to be sort of above everything that happens in the MCU," he says. "And so as an agent for the TVA, it actually sort of works for the character of Mobius. They have a lot on their plate and there’s a lot of other business for them to be concerned with." Is this the most grizzled role Wilson has had? "Yeah, I like that," he says. "That’s a good description. Grizzled Mobius. I think that it’s always sort of, there are actors who kind of change their look a lot and, from different projects, and my life’s been fairly consistent. So it was nice on this to have sort of a different look and I think that sort of made it easier to sort of slip into Mobius’s shoes, so to speak."

    TOPICS: Loki, Disney+, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Kate Herron, Michael Waldron, Owen Wilson, Tom Hiddleston, Marvel




  • More TV Tattle: