So far, Marvel has used their slate of Disney+ shows to explore side characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their latest entry, Loki, gives everyone’s favorite villain a story of his own. The show picks up right where we left Loki in Avengers: Endgame, escaping the scene of his crime in New York City mid-time heist with the Tesseract in tow. He crash-lands in the Gobi Desert only to be immediately arrested by the mysterious Time Variance Authority, time cops in charge of protecting the “sacred timeline”. Loki Episode 1 (“Glorious Purpose”) drops words like “nexus”, “multiverse”, and “madness”, so everything being introduced by the TVA is likely to come up in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which is written by Michael Waldron, the head writer of Loki. Waldron is also a veteran of Rick & Morty, and that show’s blithe attitude toward time-travel—rules do apply but no one ever gets hung up on explaining them—carries into Loki. The mechanics of what is going matter, but they’re not the main focus of the show. No, that would be Loki, escaping his fate as a prisoner of Asgard to find himself on a wholly new, unknowable path.
There’s a lot to like about Loki right off the bat, from Tom Hiddleston’s indefatigable performance, to his stellar chemistry with Owen Wilson as Mobius M. Mobius, to Natalie Holt’s spacey theremin theme, to Kasra Farahani’s retro-futuristic production design that mashes up Mad Men, Disney’s World of Tomorrow, and The Jetsons. This is one of the best-looking productions Marvel has ever mounted, but even with only one episode, Loki immediately sets itself apart from the rest of the MCU with its story. Most striking in this episode is how Loki, who we know as a space prince, a would-be conqueror, a villain, and a sorcerer, remakes himself in the image of his mythological brother. Here, Loki is almost immediately stripped of his Asgardian armor and thrust into a drab prison jumpsuit. He can’t use his magic, so his sorcery amounts to nothing. In the timey-wimey bureaucracy of the TVA, there are no worlds to conquer, and Thor is, this being the Loki of 2012 who has not grown up at all and is still throwing a tantrum, not any of Loki’s concern. None of his usual character markers are in play.
And as he learns the rules of the TVA, which governs a “sacred timeline” created to prevent multiverse shenanigans, and the Time-Keepers who founded it—a trio of, apparently, all-powerful beings—it’s mythology that starts seeping through the cracks in Loki’s persona, not his comic book lore. There is plenty of comic book lore elsewhere in Loki, the inspiration for the series is clearly coming from Al Ewing’s comic book, Loki: Agent of Asgard, but Hiddleston, who also serves as an executive producer on the show, the only actor thus credited so far on a Marvel series, seems to be leaning into a more mythic concept of Loki. He claims the title “God of Mischief”. He calls himself a “trickster” and a “mischievous scamp.” Without any of his previously established Marvel context, Loki starts reassembling his classic, mythological persona, right down to his silver tongue, his only real weapon in a place where his strength and magic don’t matter.
Much of this episode is consumed with Mobius and Loki simply talking as Mobius tries to learn from Loki in order to catch a rogue “variant”, a person outside the sacred timeline. Just as Loki has lost his Asgardian armor, he loses his metaphorical armor, too, as Mobius drills into what motivates Loki, and how everywhere he goes there is death and destruction, but he never seems to win any of his battles, echoing Phil Coulson’s comment in The Avengers: “You’re going to lose, it’s in your nature.” But through their dialogue we see that Loki has far more self-awareness than would be expected of a villain who, especially circa 2012, is borderline cartoonish and simplistic in motivation. He is fully aware he’s playing a role, but Mobius and the TVA show him another path—another role he can play, one not defined by Thor or Asgard. Of course, this IS Loki, so his motivations can’t be assumed to be pure, but his abrupt turn toward the TVA suggests that his role in Asgard was more wearying than he would admit out loud. But who is Loki if he’s not trying to be king?
A Loki uninterested in control is a Loki interested in chaos (by some attestations, he is the god of “chaos,” not “mischief”), and chaos is what he brings to the TVA. Mobius seems to delight in it, mainly because Mobius is the first person we’ve ever met who might be smarter than Loki. But mostly it sets up a Loki whose every conviction and goal is blown out of the water by what he sees at the TVA: A power greater than any he’s ever heard of, but also the comical sounding Time-Keepers, whom he refers to as “space lizards.” They are described as three beings in charge of time, of destiny. For superhero purposes, they’re “space lizards”, but they could also be the Norns of Norse mythology, the three sisters who weave the fates of humans. Loki immediately wants to meet with the Time-Keepers, but no good has ever come of Loki challenging the gods, for others but especially for himself.
This episode sets Loki on a literal crash course with fate, and casts him in a Promethean role of one god pursuing, well, something against other gods. We don’t know yet exactly what Loki is fighting for—he’s flying by the seat of his pants and clearly making it up as he goes along—but it is going to involve confronting not only himself and his own worst impulses, but also, eventually, the Time-Keepers. His story is no longer about a space prince seeking a throne of his own, or a hurt little boy striking back at his daddy, but it is about one god challenging the control of other, greater gods. Loki leans into the aesthetic and tone of a procedural, right down to its buddy cop dynamic, but it’s telling a grand, mythic story, we’ve just changed the setting, trading the magical Realm Eternal for Time’s prosaic waiting room.
Sarah Marrs is a film critic and writer at LaineyGossip.com and co-host of The Hollywood Read podcast. She also has bylines at Pajiba, SYFY Fangrrls, and Consequence of Sound. She can be yelled at on Twitter @Cinesnark. Sometimes she goes places and does things, though not so much in 2020.