At this point, it requires a mental effort to commit to a piece of Marvel content. The problem is that I know exactly what it’s going to be: a frothy comedy with some ugly CGI action sequences. WandaVision had its moments, but totally wimped out on following its internal logic to an honest conclusion. For a long time, every time a Marvel narrative has approached moral seriousness, it has veered skittishly back into irony, burying sincerity beneath a stream of sitcom joking.
Could Loki be the exception to the rule? As the story has developed, it has drifted worryingly into the same old Marvel tropes. But what a beginning! The premiere felt like a shot in the arm for the aging MCU—punchy, ambitious, smart, and patient. It even attempts to ask big questions about free will. It’s a lot of fun; it’s smart; it’s unpredictable. It’s … Marvel? It doesn’t feel like it!
Free will and choice are very relevant questions for Loki, Norse “god” of mischief, who, as the Big Bad in 2012’s The Avengers, strutted about pompously explaining to crowds that “the unspoken truth of humanity [is] that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
Looking back at that Avengers speech on freedom, a character in Loki makes the point that those who rail against freedom are always those who consider themselves the superiors—the only ones who are truly free. “Freedom is an illusion,” is the text; “except for me” is the subtext. Loki thinks no one is free but himself, and he is … a god.
What would happen, then, if that arrogant deity wannabe was deprived of his freedom in every respect? If his idea of power had to be radically readjusted by observing bumbling office workers who disregard the superpowered McGuffins he spent his life chasing? What, then, has been the purpose of Loki’s crusade for glory?
I should probably tell you the plot. Loki is a six-episode Disney+ miniseries following a villainous “trickster god” who was killed off in the MCU films. While death is usually a permanent cap to a character arc, not so for Loki. In the recent MCU blockbuster Endgame, an earlier version of the character used time travel to escape from his set timeline—but he doesn’t get far. At the beginning of the TV series, he is arrested by a time travel regulation agency (the Time Variance Authority, or TVA), which enlists him to hunt down another, more villainous time-traveling criminal. Alternatively, he could be disintegrated.
That’s pretty complicated on paper, however it’s basically the good old trope “a criminal helps the police” except it’s “the time travel police—the guys who keep everybody on the right side of history.” White Collar meets Doctor Who.
This antiheroic role is ideal for the versatile Shakespearian Tom Hiddleston, who struts through the story with just the right amount of slippery, deceptive charm, chained to his desk by his own ambition more than any higher principle. Hiddleston’s Loki wants to know the secret to real power and he reckons that allying himself with a persnickety space-time bureaucracy is the way to do it. After all, bumbling TVA agents use infinity stones and tesseracts—the superpowered McGuffins he spent his life chasing—as paperweights.
Joining him in an excellent double act is a deadpan Owen Wilson, who is surprisingly authoritative as Loki’s handler: the avuncular and practical Agent Mobius. The show’s creative mastermind, Michael Waldron, took inspiration for their relationship from the frenemy-to-mentor pairing between Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can, which was a good choice. Their intellectual equality adds a zest to the pairing missing in many duos. Despite his laidback air, Mobius’ optimism about his Loki’s potential never clouds his clarity about the Asgardian’s hunger for power, and his criticisms are true and weighty.
Perhaps the most effective ingredient in Loki’s recipe is its immersive and intriguing setting. The TVA is a gloriously dingy and retro office building, part 1960s bureaucracy, part futuristic space city, with reams of paper files and old telephones and windows that look out onto glittering city skylines. The story has a lot of fun with establishing the TVA as a frustratingly capricious organization. “There are only two of us here,” Loki protests when a guard grimly insists that he “take a ticket” to join a queue in a near-empty room.
That’s more than just funny, though—this is the perfect setting, thematically. An arbitrary, red-tape-entangled bureaucracy is the perfect place to drop the god of chaos if you want to create narrative sparks. And sparks there are! The TVA’s ambiguity is an ideal complication to add to Mobius’s condemnation of Loki’s misdeeds. Mobius is entirely correct that Loki is a killer and a villain, but sometimes chaos is the right response to a wicked order. Who gets to decide what the right course of history is? Can free will exist when a time travel regulation agency is in charge of “the sacred timeline”?
This philosophizing is delivered lightly, though. When asked if he’s a robot by a clerk who’s filling out paperwork, Loki asks, “Do a lot of people not know they’re robots?” He freezes. “What if I was a robot and I didn’t know it?” A joke, but a real question all the same. Are we free—or do we just not know that we’re made up of metal and wheels?
“My choices are my own … I live within whatever path I choose,” Loki asserts.
“Sure you do,” says Mobius sweetly.
This is a great mental reset for Loki, who’s part dastardly, part vulnerable. And it’s a relevant question for this moment, too, as American thinkers seek to define what “good” truly is in a post-Christian society. What is the difference between freedom and chaos? Is there a difference? The real question here is this: What is the purpose of freedom? Unless we can all come to certain moral agreements about what life should be, we’ll have no meaningful way to distinguish between anarchy and ordered liberty. I suppose it’s too much to hope for Agent Mobius to break into a discourse about natural law, but you never know. Marvel’s greatest philosopher is absent, but the lesson that wicked men who claim god-like authority should not be worshipped is a decent one, if the series will commit to delivering it.
From the get-go, Loki is about interrogating the worldview of its eponymous trickster hero. That it largely manages to do this without becoming ponderous, navel-gazey, or inscrutable is greatly to its credit. Instinctively, good writers know that they shouldn’t take the audience for granted—and Loki seems more aware of this than, say, the supremely confident Endgame. Loki’s script is quick to ask itself questions and poke at the plot holes in its own premise. This level of sophistication is truly welcome.
Whether the show continues to pump out smart ideas at the same consistency remains to be seen. A very weak third episode leaned into Marvel bantering tropes so hard that it managed to undercut most of the gravitas the series had accrued so far. (“But look, Loki’s a bisexual! Please clap.” Or something.) That said, the premise is sound, the art and set design remain outstanding, and Hiddleston is always a joy to watch simper and smirk through his lines, especially opposite Wilson’s straight man, Mobius. If nothing else, this show is a shining example of what Marvel can do when it hires writers whose touchpoints are Spielberg, Tarantino, and Linklater. Less sitcom, more cinema! And perhaps even a big question or two.