If, “How does it feel? Like it’s someone else’s,” was the starting point for the character exploration in “The Falcon & The Winter Soldier”— Steve Rodgers passing the shield to Sam Wilson, but the Falcon hero unsure if he’s worthy of the symbol— then, Frigga’s (Rene Russo) line to Loki in “Thor: The Dark World,” “Always so perceptive about everyone but yourself,” might be the keyline to understanding Marvel’s new Disney+ series “Loki” and the self-realization ideas it hopes to discuss.
A would-be weird and strange sci-fi series (that’s sadly not as bizarre as it would like to be), “Loki” is also something of an existential character-driven narrative about Asgard’s God of Mischief, reckoning with his “glorious purpose.” That purpose—the entitled, hubristic feeling of ascension and how he must rule others and the universe—is tested and thrown for a big emotional and existential loop when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) discovers where he is post-“Avengers: Endgame” (purgatory, essentially), pushing him to grapple with who he actually is, and maybe if he can alter his path. The main problem with the show, however, created and written by Michael Waldron and directed by Kate Herron, is it’s fascinating in theory—a Marvel show about a villain contemplating his existence and wondering how much virtue is actually in him while questioning the cosmos itself— and a little unremarkable and unexceptional in actual execution. At least so far, in the two episodes provided for review by Disney+ (arguably an unfair way to judge a series, but we work with what we have). It’s interesting to think and write about—a show that’s also about control, order, chaos, and the unknowable notions of free will, determinism, and choice—but mildly entertaining, at best, as a whole.
“Freedom is an illusion,” Loki posited to those he wanted to enslave in the “Avengers” movies (paraphrasing), but when faced with the same notions about his own destiny, the Asgardian god bristles at the idea that he’s not in control. Filled with Marvel callbacks, perhaps to reorient the viewer given all the timelines, “Loki” begins with replaying the events of “Avengers Endgame,” when the Avengers travel back in time to retrieve all the infinity stones. Still, through fate and bad luck, the Tesseract falls back into the hands of Loki, and he disappears. Of course, this moment was set in 2012 during the first “The Avengers” film. And Loki escaping, instead of being brought to Asgard to stand trial as he did in “Thor: The Dark World,” (and then eventually die in ‘Infinity War’ by Thanos’ hand) caused a break in the ordered flow of time which is where the show begins. Got that? If you haven’t followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe closely, you could easily be lost (Marvel fans may want to look for a retconning that seems to kill the events of “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D” too).
So, Loki’s time transgression lands him in deep trouble with the mysterious Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that exists outside of time and space and monitors the timeline for disruptions and disturbances. In the TVA, Variants like Loki— doppelgangers that aren’t supposed to exist when they somehow defied the prearranged order of time— usually stand trial and then are eradicated out of existence to keep the “sacred timeline” in order.
And just when TVA judge Ravonna Renslayer: (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is about to sentence Variant Loki to oblivion, TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius (a deliciously droll Owen Wilson, perfectly cast in this role), who specializes in the investigations of dangerous time criminals, steps in and asks for a reprieve. Because there’s a Variant Time Criminal out there that is killing TVA Hunters and Minute Men, and Mobius has an unorthodox and rogue idea: use a clever, tricksy Variant like Loki to help him find this murderous Variant that’s causing havoc with the sacred timelines. Got that?
As you might imagine, much of the first two episodes of the “Loki” series is exposition—explaining how the multiverse and the TVA works, what the agents do, and how the pre-ordained flow of time works—which can be trying and even exhausting. Though kudos to the main exposition dump with Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong), a cartoon orange clock that is the TVA’s mascot, that explicates, in an amusing throwback ‘60s-style animation training video, what all this TVA stuff, and the Time Keepers (three big overlord lizards, who control all time and space), are about.
The highlight of “Loki,” other than the patronizing mien of Mobius and Wilson’s delightful performance, is the spooky, space-age, strange score by Natalie Holt (“Herself” “Deadwater Fell”). Full of theremins, zithers, Moog synthesizers, and other unworldly, ethereal sounds (think “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Bernard Herrmann’s score meets the world of analog trailblazers like Clara Rockmore and Wendy Carlos), the music itself is terrific. Though it does give the series a sense of being much weirder than it actually is, given most of it the equivalent of Loki and Mobius having chess-like therapy talks in rooms about Loki’s true nature, his predictable, behavioral patterns and why he does what he does.
At times, “Loki” feels like a Marvel clip show. There are at least three scenes where characters rewatch exact scenes from the MCU to remind viewers about the past, spell out what happened and force the protagonist to grapple with the pain he wrought with his horrible, arrogant actions (by sitting through it). The setting of the TVA is both interesting and purposefully bland. It’s essentially supposed to be the DMV of time and space; a hellish, boring time suck that makes one want to die, filled with annoying bureaucracy. But a much more superior, more drab, and much funnier version of this idea was already seen in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and “Loki” can’t match, update or expand of that absurdism. Some of the retro-futurism production design touches are interesting—a mix of ‘60s analog sensibilities and digital potential—but none of it feels as out there and strange as it could be (much like the show itself).
Loki’s moment of reckoning is the strongest element of the series—when the Asgardian prince uncovers his true story and fate. The discovery of his demise, and that of his parents passings, shatters his existence—and suddenly ends the character’s inclination to question and challenge everything happening in the TVA (much of the first episode is Loki unclear how he got there, and thinking most of it is a big illusion that he needs to escape). Acceptance is more difficult, as Loki realizes he’s essentially living in a purgatory afterlife of sorts and is living on borrowed time (given all Variants are eventually deleted from existence). Control is just not something he’s willing to give up.
Loki wouldn’t be the God of Mischief without a plot and a plan. Still, Mobius proves to be a formidable adversary who innately understands his moves and playbook. Unfortunately, part of this element is also a problem. If you thought “The Falcon & The Winter Soldier” spell-everything-out monologues in the final episodes were bad, the simplistic “Loki” expounders regarding character—are you a good guy, a bad guy, a little bit of both, and can you change who you are?—are a little tiresome, too on the nose, and may make you wince (the themes are good, the dialogue itself too ham-fisted and overt).
Ultimately, “Loki” is about whether we can break the cycles of our destinies. Loki is told his purpose is to cause pain so others can achieve their best selves, but Waldron’s show posits, maybe there’s more to the mischief-maker. “Loki” is about the Asgardian god, coming to terms with who he is, the position he’s in, and whether he can break the vicious cycle of earning someone’s trust, betraying them, and returning to his villainous roots after behaving virtuously for a limited, brief time. Or, maybe it all just reconfirms his beliefs in himself and his gloriously misguided purpose? Can Loki change his tiger’s stripes? As Marvel’s great disruptor, it seems unlikely they’ll turn Loki into anything more than an anti-hero, letting him live in the hazy, grey middle between good and evil, and that’s perfectly fine. One just hopes over the course of the series, they self-actualize these hypothetically fascinating ideas about pre-destined outcomes into something truly compelling. [C]