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“Loki” bursts with metafictional charm, but lacks much energy

Loki (Marvel Studios)

Marvel gives its original bad boy his own series but misses what’s so fun about that idea.

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We’ve watched Tom Hiddleston play it up as Loki plenty of times, but this new Disney+ series promises to take him on a journey unlike anything we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

Like its titular character, the new Marvel series Loki is almost absurdly multidimensional, with more than enough quirks and tricks up its sleeve to be crowned TV’s own god of mischief. Though really it’s a Disney+ offering packaged nicely in the brand’s ongoing streaming strategy, which is to deliver longform (or longer-form) Marvel series that fill in the gaps of its larger cinematic universe. In an effort to bring the same box office hype and attention to Disney’s flagship streaming service, they’ve turned to Thor’s perpetually underhanded younger brother, Loki, and they must truly be desperate. 

Just kidding. Since his unexpected explosion in popularity — especially on Tumblr — back during the heyday of his introduction in Thor and reprisal as big bad in 2012’s The Avengers, Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki has been a constant fandom favorite. His ascent as an MCU villain was such a surprise, in fact, that Thor: The Dark World was hastily reworked to give him a much larger role, and his subsequent appearances in Thor: Ragnarok and the most recent Avengers films certainly pivoted the character into a more sympathetic, but still not trustworthy anti-hero, which certainly fits the bill for a lot of TV show first-season villains you’d see on the CW. 

And it’s clear Marvel has had plans to keep the character kicking around for more tangential projects since way before they effectively killed off his character in Avengers: Infinity War, as just a year later we saw a version of Loki in 2012, just after losing the big fight in The Avengers, quickly stealing the Tesseract back and using it to escape thanks to the time-traveling antics of the Avengers. This is where Loki begins, and that idea of messing around with time is the main basis for what we get to see from the Asgardian trickster moving forward. 

From the first episode, showrunner Michael Waldron and his creative team, which includes Kate Herron as director of “Episode 1,” go to pained lengths to assuage any of the common criticisms audiences will likely bring up before they even hit play. Like the fact that the main character of this Loki series is a different version of the same one we’ve already seen learn and grow throughout a fairly satisfying arc. What story is there left to tell without rehashing what’s already been done on the big screen? 

It’s not long before the show’s first episode gets to the heart of who Loki is and why a new story about him might be interesting, as that metanarrative gets a thorough examination to the tune of It’s a Wonderful Life. Directly after the events of Avengers: Endgame, we quickly see the 2012 version of Loki get snatched up by the TVA, which stands for “Time Variance Authority.” Though Loki himself didn’t travel through time, he did take an action that deviated greatly from the accepted timeline, making him a “time variant” according to this bureaucratic, pocket dimension of “time cops,” who feel like an intentional cross between Central Services in Brazil and the Temps Commission from The Umbrella Academy.

Loki (Marvel Studios)
Loki (Marvel Studios)

Their hyper-analog, late-’60s inspired society is borderline dystopian in its framing, and it’s also one of the most unique and visually dense worlds we’ve gotten from the MCU. And it’s all overseen by a small group of seemingly benevolent “Time-Keepers” who’ve created this agency to preserve the stability of the space-time continuum, as hinted at by the Ancient One in Avengers: Endgame. Where WandaVision barely toyed with the prospect of a fantastical multiverse, Loki goes full-tilt into stretching the premise and providing its own reasonable explanations and theories for how time travel could hypothetically work in a coherent fashion. It’s no wonder Disney hired Waldron, of Rick and Morty fame, to head up such an easily fraught experiment that could have massive implications for future MCU movies, notably the next Doctor Strange sequel.

The real hook of Loki, however, is the god of mischief’s interplay with co-star Owen Wilson as the charismatic Mobius, a TVA bureaucrat who’s hunting a time-jumping agent of chaos running loose all over the multiverse. Perhaps seeing Loki as a key to tracking down this mysterious villain, Mobius coerces him into a fascinating rehabilitation exercise, also serving as a helpful refresher on all the things Loki has been through over the years in movie form. 

This is a show that wants to unpack what makes someone a villain and how they can possibly be redeemed. Yes, it’s the arc Loki already went through, but now given more verve, detail, and a different wisecracking blonde guy at his side. Rather than try to reform Loki through loss and pragmatic opportunism, the show leaves room for a far more unpredictable series of events. It’s impossible to say where Loki will really end up when this is all over, and that intriguing promise of what’s to come certainly mirrors the early reactions to WandaVision, which ultimately phased out into a mostly standard conclusion. 

Loki himself is still a cipher in his own show, constantly limited by the constraints of being a protagonist in a world he wants to get out of as soon as possible.

That said, the first two episodes of Loki are missing some much-needed energy and stakes worth believing in. Most of the personality onscreen is in the brilliant production design and a handful of satisfying vocal daggers flung every which way by most of the cast, which includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a seasoned TVA judge and Wunmi Mosaku as a no-nonsense enforcer who’d love an excuse to reduce the puny god to dust. 

But Loki himself is still a cipher in his own show, constantly limited by the constraints of being a protagonist in a world he wants to get out of as soon as possible. His ambitions, wants, and ultimate goals are in constant flux so far, and the show keeps having to work up explanations for keeping him grounded and invested in being part of this story, which ultimately makes the early goings of Loki feel a bit slow and repetitive. 

The show should be commended, of course, for letting its main character still be as evil as he is without too many compromises, rather than retconning Loki to be more compliant. 

It’s too early to make any definitive statements about how well Loki will pay tribute to this well-worn mainstay of the MCU, and how effective the show will be at setting up all kinds of new directions for this massive media franchise without feeling like a commercial for something better. Two episodes in, that certainly doesn’t appear to be the case, but only time will tell if this is just an illusion of a great show trying really hard to fool us.

Loki tricks its way onto Disney+ on Wednesdays starting June 9th.

Loki Trailer:

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CategoriesTV
Jon Negroni

Author, Film/TV critic, and host of the Cinemaholics podcast. Other bylines include Atom Tickets, The Young Folks, and your discontent.