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Caution: Mild spoilers for the first two episodes of Loki ahead.
“You ridiculous bureaucrats will not dictate how my story ends!”Loki – S1, Ep1
This line, spat venomously by Tom Hiddleston’s trickster god Loki to his all-powerful captors halfway through the first episode of Disney+’s Loki, might as well feel like Hiddleston’s own real-life entreaty to Marvel execs.
Sure, the last time we saw the God of Mischief, he’d completed a redemptive arc of sorts, transforming in a few short years from the aspiring conqueror of Earth to trusted confidante of his brother Thor. And, of course, he would pay for that face turn with his life in the opening minutes of Avengers: Infinity War, at the bulky, gauntleted fist of Thanos.
But Avengers: Endgame gave Marvel fans (and show creator Michael Waldron, who’s written for Rick and Morty and is penning the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel) a potential out for fans of Hiddleston’s wiry, wily Loki. And that’s where Waldron’s series begins, with Loki snatching the Tesseract from the newly-minted Avengers after his defeat from the events of the 2012 movie, and zapping away to parts unknown.
However, his newly-won freedom is short-lived: He’s quickly scooped up by the omnipresent goons of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an agency that exists outside of time and space. Their goal? To protect the “Sacred Timeline” from people or events that break the existing flow of time and threaten to create “Variants” that would destroy the universe as we know it.
Loki, in stealing away with the Tesseract, becomes one of those Variants, and is immediately detained and stripped of his powers. Most of the time, Variants get erased, but Loki is saved at the last minute by senior TVA agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), who realizes he’s the only one that can help him track down an especially dangerous Variant who’s engaged in the same time-hopping mayhem that Loki was.
In its opening two episodes provided to critics, Loki immediately sets itself apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even the two Disney+ shows that preceded it, WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Narratively, Waldron’s series has more in common with the stylistic swings of the former than the meat-and-potatoes Marvel of the latter. But unlike WandaVision, Loki wastes little time masking its true premise from its audience, instead leaping head-first into its brief of silly time-travel antics mixed with a surprising focus on its fan-favorite lead character.
At this point, Marvel fans have been watching this version of Loki for a decade or so, so it’s tempting to think that the MCU has run out of cards to play with this particular trickster. But one of Loki’s most unexpected joys is how it places the God of Mischief into truly fascinating new situations for him: in the arms of the TVA, he’s truly humbled, left with no powers and – thanks to the TVA’s “viewing room” – a terrifying knowledge of what awaits him in the future.
After all, this is an earlier version of Loki stuck in the gloating hubris of his appearance in the first Avengers. He hasn’t had the same growth we’ve seen in the subsequent Thor sequels, which gives Hiddleston ample opportunity to turn back the clock and recalibrate the character for this new setting. He’s a preening rock star one minute, a scared child the next, the series placing the limits and potential of his megalomania to the test. How much is his villainy borne of insecurity? Is there a realm in which he could be a good guy? Or is there always an angle to play, even when he plays the part of a saint?
Episode 1, which serves as a slower, more existential set-up for the series, spends much of its runtime stripping away all of the hubris and pontificating trappings the character is used to, burning off his iconic green outfit (“This is fine Asgardian leather!” he complains) and slapping him in a beige jumpsuit. What’s more, his initial interviews with Mobius, a laconic character as fascinated by Loki as he is wearied, dig to the heart of his motivations as a villain. And, by showing him the events that await him in his future – his role in his mother’s death in Thor: The Dark World, the deaths of his father, his people, and himself – Loki’s given a wake-up call about his true place in the universe.
That’s not to say Loki is all mopey navel-gazing: once the true nature of Loki’s place in the TVA is established, the rest of the episodes blend that philosophizing with a zippy, delightful sci-fi detective show of a piece with The X-Files and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, with a dash of Men in Black thrown in there.
I’m obsessed with the look of the TVA itself, production designer Kasra Farahani designing a ‘60s-inspired bureaucracy that looks like if Sterling Cooper from Mad Men merged with an M.C. Escher painting. Analog rotary phones and cathode-ray-tube TVs mesh with ornate wooden paneling and mid-century modern furnishings, large windows revealing similar structures that seem to stretch on into infinity. Loki’s primary setting, evokes the hyper-specific aesthetics of FX’s Legion, which is immediately charming. (I wish I could say the same for Autumn Durald Arkapaw’s muddy cinematography, which vacillates between endearingly moody and downright murky.)
But the real attraction (apart from Hiddleston, of course) is Wilson’s Mobius, who plays the character with all the laidback energy you’d expect when casting Hollywood’s chillest leading man in a goofy Marvel show. His Mobius is a company man through and through, but sees something intriguing in Loki: he treats his new charge with a mixture of standoffishness and curiosity. He’s partner, mentor, and handler all in one for our lead, and the two bounce off each other wonderfully.
Some of the most entertaining stretches of Loki come when Loki and Mobius just get to sit down and talk about the nature of fate and free will. Loki wants to understand the nature of a universe where everything is set in stone; Mobius’ patient, soft-spoken certitude clashes nicely with Hiddleston’s flustered dismissiveness. The best character you can pit against a raging egotist and manipulator is a zen master who holds all the cards, which makes for an unexpectedly watchable dynamic.
This goes double in Episode 2, as Loki settles into his new role as an interim TVA investigator, swapping his robes for workaday slacks and a practical coach jacket and digging into paperwork. It’s a fun angle for Hiddleston to play; as much as Loki thinks he’s meant to rule the universe, he’s also held hostage by his need for approval, and there are scenes where he’s practically eager to please. One angle of their investigation involves chasing the Variant through various historical apocalypses, which make you wish Hiddleston had had at least one crack at playing the Doctor from Doctor Who.
For now, unfortunately, that means that when the focus is taken off of those two, Loki stumbles a bit. The supporting cast hasn’t had that much to do so far: Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s stern TVA judge gets a few choice conversations with Mobius, but they don’t go anywhere interesting, and other TVA staffers played by Eugene Cordero and Wumni Mosaku just pop in for the occasional contrast to Loki’s bluster. But as is, they’re window dressing for the Loki and Mobius show, and it’s hard to fault the show for making the most use of its greatest assets.
More than a jaunty time-travel procedural and a haunting character study, Loki also wrestles with metafictional questions about what it means to be a villain, or even a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general. The TVA feel like subtextual stand-ins for continuity-happy fandom, with the “Sacred Timeline” acting as the strictly-ordered comic book canon they so badly need to police. That makes Loki the trapped fictional character, realizing he’s little more than a puppet in a story someone else is writing. Peel away a few more layers of artifice, and he’s practically Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction.
That’s the unexpected treat of this show in its opening hours: on its face, it’s a silly, delightful romp in which Hiddleston gets to try out some new angles on a character he knows like the back of his hand. But look deeper, and you can also see a comic book universe wrestling with the expectations of its audience, with the Nine Realms’ greatest shit-stirrer hoping to break out of those canonical chains.
Still, as episode two comes to a close, and we learn a bit more about the nature of the Variant Loki is chasing, the show leans into a perverse nihilism that keeps viewers on their toes regardless of their investment in the broader meta-fictional messages on display.
How the show will resolve these questions remains to be seen. But in the meantime, Loki has us off to a good, genre-hopping start. Let’s cross our fingers and hope that the show maintains its deliciously droll momentum.
Loki | Time Traveler’s Guide to Marvel’s New Show
Loki | How Tom Hiddleston’s Trickster Became the MCU’s Best Enemy
Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.