Disney+ has allowed the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) to explore new avenues and constructs away from the limitations of a movie format. We had the character-driven homage to sitcom history in Wandavision and a more traditional Marvel experience, albeit focusing on the ‘buddy’ arc of the two leads, in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Both series excelled in the development of the characters, an advantage provided by the extended air time compared to a movie, and both series fell short, because they felt like a warm-up for phase four of the MCU. Unlike the rich reward a series such as The Mandalorian provides the viewer, they felt too superficial. Given Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief has always been a fan favourite, it seemed difficult to imagine that with Loki, Disney would make the same mistake. Surely the roguish anti-hero would be more than another appetiser to the forthcoming movie main courses?
Unfortunately, what we get is worse; Loki isn’t just the hors d’oeuvre, he isn’t even the starring ingredient in his own eponymous show. Rather than the charismatic God of Mischief orchestrating the ebb and flows of events, he is little more than a narrative vehicle. This Loki is a passive participant as events see him pushed around the mad televisual feast.
From the outset, the Loki television series is unlike anything we have witnessed from Marvel. The moment our villain escapes from the Battle of New York with the Tesseract, time branches and we take a sharp turn into weirdness. Loki ends up captured by hunters working for the previous unknown Time Variance Authority (TVA). Tried by Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) for crimes against the ‘sacred timeline’, Loki faces being ‘pruned’ until he agrees to help Agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) with his own mission. Adding to the mind-bending nature of it all, the mission is to help Mobius track and capture another Loki variant from another timeline. As the series evolves, the story progresses to understanding who or what is behind the TVA. Rather than seeing the TVA as a force for good and preserving the timeline, the concept of free will starts to take greater prominence.
While Wandavision gave us mystery, Loki layers on bizarreness. From the 1970s influenced opening titles, to the shades of brown that permeate the 1930s styled TVA offices to the retro-futuristic technology, the production design is beautiful. The show feels like the love child of Doctor Who and Mad Men with a pinch of Blade Runner DNA for good measure. The rain swept scene where one of the TVA hunters, B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) finds out her true origins drips with Blade Runner imagery.
The production isn’t the only strength of the show. Hiddleston introduces a new dimension to the Loki character. He adapts to situations where he has no control and a role that places him as the hero rather than the self-centred anti-hero that escaped Manhattan. This Loki exudes a pathos not previously seen as he comes to terms with his personal timeline. Familiar elements of the old trickster appear and the narcissist is never too far away—as Loki falls in love, his love is for another version of himself!
Another bonus is the double act of Loki and Mobius. The onscreen chemistry between Hiddleston and Wilson is palpable and, in many ways, out-buddies the Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie pairing in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Wilson is perfectly cast as the strait-laced agent foil to Hiddleston’s erratic agent of chaos.
Sophia di Martino shines as Sylvie, the variant of Loki who drives the overarching plot. She seeks to thwart the TVA and disrupt the sacred timeline, in the name of personal revenge. The two Lokis share some, sadly underdeveloped, poignant scenes and the Sylvie character also highlights the good in ‘our’ Loki. Sylvie is focused on revenge at all costs, whereas Hiddleston’s Loki is more of a narcissistic disruptor. The series boasts some impressive casting, as a classic turn by Richard E. Grant as yet another Loki variant is later added to the mix.
Yet for all the clever casting and the mishmash of genres, the series feels like a mess. The TVA is trying to bring order to branching timelines to preserve the sacred timeline, yet the series itself seems to jump from thread to thread in an increasing jumble of complex narrative mumbo-jumbo. It is clear what the objective is: to set up the multi-verse ahead of Spiderman: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The six episodes boasted five different writers and, unfortunately, it feels that way; it’s not hard to imagine that they agreed on the ending, but not the journey. What the series needs is its own version of the TVA to bring structure to the chaos. The concept may seem an original and exciting departure for Marvel, but Loki treads a fine line between brilliant originality and pretentious nonsense.
The season finale delivers the core objective; it set up the multiverse, the multi-timeline version of the MCU that will drive the next phase of movies. It also introduces a new character who we can assume will be the main antagonist for our Marvel heroes over the next few years. Yet for all the revelations, and the cliffhanger on which the series ends, it feels anticlimactic. As Loki stumbles into the final scene realising the gravity of what he is witnessing, it highlights the biggest failing of the series: Loki is little more than a bridge to the MCU multiverse, little more than a waiter lifting the serving dish lid to reveal the main course.
Words by Andrew Butcher
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