Since 2008, Marvel Studios has created 24 motion pictures each fitting into a recognisable style. The films all have a similar line in humour, and each product was a clear part of the whole. That said, each film seemed to lean into a different sub-genre: Captain America: The Winter Soldier evoked the 1970’s conspiracy thriller; Ant-Man was a heist movie; Avengers: Endgame was a time-travel movie.
With Kevin Feige’s reach now extending into television, this divergence is only growing. With WandaVision leaning into sitcom territory, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier almost reaching buddy cop territory, we approach each new product, possibly for the first time, not entirely clear as to what we are getting.
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During the events of Endgame, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) picked up the Tesseract during the 2012 Battle of New York, while the present day Avengers were there trying to reclaim infinity stones in order to undo the snap effected during Infinity War. The TV series picks up right away with Loki, having absconded with the stone, being arrested immediately by agents of a not-previously seen Time Variance Authority (TVA), who exist to maintain what we come to know as the sacred timeline: that is the one timeline in which events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have occurred to-date.
Taken in for questioning/sentencing – as his divergence from the timeline makes him a variant, and a danger to that timeline – Loki is offered a deal by Mobius (Owen Wilson) – a senior agent – to help the authority track down another Loki variant. This variant is a female we come to know as Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). After a game of cat-and-mouse, and good deal of cross and double-cross, Loki and Sylvie team up to uncover the truth both of origins of the TVA, and the architect behind it. In reaching their destination, Loki and Sylvie are presented with a choice that may define the future stability of the timeline, as well as unleash a new danger upon the world.
The biggest problem with the three Disney+ offerings to-date has been the uneven pacing of the story. In this Loki is no exception. A pedestrian, yet densely plotted opening episode is followed by our story getting underway, only for a third episode to put a focus on developing the Loki-Sylvie relationship. Enjoyable though their interactions are – and we really do learn a lot more about a character we’ve been with since 2011 – the plot goes nowhere, and a difficult, intense story is virtually shelved for what amounts to 1/6 of the show’s total running time.
That said, the lack of big screen pressures also comes with benefits. The character work is very illuminating, and the story opts for a final episode that is almost all dialogue, and very little action. When we are used to action films turning to non-stop action and explosions for the final twenty minutes, this is refreshing, as even the first two TV offerings had relatively formulaic final episodes, full of nothing but characters fighting.
Loki does have a few influences underpinning it: Owen Wilson cited Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting as a reference for how he wished to approach the role of Mobius; the TVA has a modern/retro mix in its style that evokes the administrative office in John Wick; while Miss Minutes (Tara Strong) is an animation that is reminiscent of any number of public information films from years past. All of this supports a piece of work that is fresh, inventive, and continues to push the MCU is new and brave directions.
If the show has one remaining flaw, it is that common to all the TV shows (and some of the films) of seeming to exist merely to set-up future offerings. As with WandaVision, this seems to be set-up for the multiverse that we know is coming with the next Doctor Strange offering, and believe to be present in the next Spider-Man film. On the one-hand, Marvel is becoming ever more of a conveyor belt of product – product there to propagate more of itself. On the other hand, a conveyor belt of franchise films has rarely, if ever, been presented in such a mixture of visual styles, sub-genres and stories that take us in directions we might not expect.
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In summary, Loki is… fine. Hiddleston and Di Martino have exceptional chemistry, Wilson is an excellent addition to the MCU, and the whole thing is shot through with a darkness that we might not have expected from a show led by the God of Mischief. The TVA is full of mistrust, lies, and people left unclear as to the purity of their purpose. To date, Marvel is off to a terrific start in making TV product that fits in with canon, yet stakes out enough of a personality to distinguish itself from its big screen siblings. That said, WandaVision remains the current high-water mark.
All episodes of Loki are now streaming on Disney+.