It's Not TV, It's MCU: Thoughts on Loki
When the newly-formed behemoth that was Marvel-Disney announced a full slate of MCU-based TV shows to be streamed exclusively on Disney+, the declaration carried the implicit promise that these new shows would be more closely in line with the MCU movies. The Marvel TV arm had existed for nearly a decade, but its products ran the gamut from forays whose initial promise faded into limp, underperforming slogs (the Defenders shows) to hidden gems with no support from the head office (Cloak & Dagger) to utterly misjudged turkeys (Inhumans). Now, Kevin Feige and his team of wizards seemed to be promising, the same alchemy that had turned the MCU into the most influential pop culture phenomenon on the planet would be brought to bear on the television medium, with appropriately lavish budgets, movie stars on call, and perhaps most importantly, the same willingness to play with genre and formula that is one of the key components of the MCU's success.
We're now six months into this new phase of the Marvel juggernaut, with three very different shows under our belt. And the only conclusion to be drawn at this stage is that the promise to make TV that was just like the movies has been fulfilled, and that this is not such a good thing. Most critics of the Disney+ MCU shows have focused on the way that each series, no matter how idiosyncratic and high concept, has ultimately ended up functioning as a teaser for upcoming movies—WandaVision sets up several key components of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness; The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduces Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, who is clearly being positioned as an important player in phase four (and who also shows up in the post-credits scene of Black Widow to nudge Yelena Belova in the direction of Hawkeye and his own, upcoming series; the synergy works both ways); and now in the first season finale of Loki, the aforementioned multiverse has been teed off following the assassination of the mastermind figure He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), setting the stage for one of his alternate universe counterparts to show up as the villain in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
This is, obviously, a valid critique, but to my mind the problem with the Disney+ MCU shows runs deeper. Synergy is not, after all, inherently problematic—it has worked extremely well in the MCU movies, functioning as a garnish rather than the main event. No, the problem with the Disney+ shows is the same complaint that has been frequently leveled at the MCU movies—they are fun, extremely well-made affairs that make it about 85% of the way to greatness before signing off for the day, secure in the belief that high production values and a seriously overpowered cast will allow them to coast to the finish line. And while that's an approach that works reasonably well in a two-hour movie that you can enjoy and then argue with after you've left the movie theater, its effects are a great deal more frustrating and unsatisfying in a story that takes two months to get through, and leaves you a week between every installment to realize how shoddily the whole thing has been put together. All the more so because the Disney+ shows have all aimed at some pretty heady material—he crippling power of grief and depression; American racism and how black heroism responds to it; and now, with Loki, everything from free will to the redemption of a mass-murderer. You find yourself wishing that a little less time and money had been spent sourcing mid century modern furniture, and a few more dollars thrown at a second pass at the script.
Loki takes as its jumping-off point the scene in Avengers: Endgame in which the heroes, who have traveled back in time to the events of the first Avengers to retrieve an infinity stone, inadvertently create an opportunity for the contemporary Loki to escape. Instead of being returned to Asgard in chains, faking his own death, impersonating Odin and ruling in his stead, being exposed, making peace with Thor, and ultimately dying at Thanos's hands, this Loki grabs the Tesseract cube and disappears... only to be immediately picked up by agents of the Time Variance Authority, or TVA. As a dementedly cheerful animated PSA explains, the TVA was created by a trio of immortal lizard-beings known as the Time Keepers to maintain a single, "sacred timeline". Otherwise, the film warns, the proliferation of alternate universes will inevitably lead to interdimensional war. As someone who has deviated from his set path on the timeline, Loki is dubbed a variant, and though he—rather persuasively, if you ask me—argues that it's the Avengers who should be in the dock, not him, he is sentenced to be "pruned", erased from existence. Until, that is, another TVA agent, Mobius (Owen Wilson) intervenes. Mobius is pursuing a variant who has eluded the TVA for years, killing their agents and stealing their technology for some unknown ends. He thinks Loki can help him catch this person, because the variant in question is yet another Loki.
The first impression one forms of Loki is of a show that is throwing every bell and whistle possible at the screen in an attempt to obscure the fact that it is telling a fairly conventional cop show story. Mobius, for example, is a very familiar type, the company man with a soul who is smarter than he lets on, and whose folksy, self-deprecating demeanor conceals a staunch moral center. (So familiar, in fact, that the MCU has already fielded a previous example of it in the form of Phil Coulson, which gives the partnership that develops between Mobius and Loki—who at that point in his personal timeline is probably still flecked with Coulson's blood—a gloss of weirdness that I'm not sure the show is aware of.) In order to make it less obvious that we've seen this story before, the Loki production is simply a feast of idiosyncratic, bizarre details. The retro-futuristic design of the TVA, full of wood-paneled interiors, brown and orange fabrics, mechanical levers and buttons, and lots of dust-covered paperwork. The organization's shock troops, the Minutemen, clad in form-fitting black armor and bearing glowing-tipped batons that can prune a variant with a touch. The TVA's helpful AI, Miss Minutes (Tara Strong), whose Southern-fried sweetness is the perfect facade behind which to hide secrets.
All of this makes it easier to put off asking the question: what is Loki about? What is it that justifies this show's existence as more than another brick in the foundation of phase four? One obvious answer is "free will". Loki rails against the claim that the course of his life has been predetermined, and the TVA's militarized demeanor, the obvious contempt with which its agents hold the variants they prune, are clearly meant to put us in mind of authoritarianism, even fascism. But Loki—who only a few days before landing at the TVA was insisting to a crowd of people that their supposed freedom was a curse and that they'd be happier with someone else making decisions for them—makes for a rather odd standard-bearer for the opposite view. Even if you acknowledge that hypocrisy (as, to be fair, Loki very quickly does), the result is that the hero of the show doesn't have the standing to say much of interest over what is supposedly a central theme. And to be honest, I'm not sure there is anything that interesting that pop culture can say about free will vs. predestination. It's a topic for philosophy seminars, not adventure stories, which tend to reduce it to a rather boring binary whose answers are both perfunctory and not very convincing.
Another possible answer is that Loki is a meta-narrative of the MCU, or a commentary on comics storytelling and how it reuses and reconfigures legacy characters, with the TVA standing in for Marvel headquarters and their iron grip on the MCU's storyline—which is shattered at the end of the season with the death of He Who Remains, paving the way to the multiverse-focused storylines of phase four. When Mobius first interrogates Loki, he tries to puncture the still-unreconstructed demigod's arrogance by pointing out that despite claiming that his ascension to power is inevitable, his actual role in history (which it to say, in the MCU narrative) is to enable the heroism of his opponents, the Avengers. Later, when Mobius discusses Loki with his boss Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she insists that "Loki is an evil, lying scourge. That is the part her plays on the sacred timeline." "Maybe he wants to mix it up. Sometimes you get tired of playing the same part," Mobius answers.
But in the universe of Loki as it is currently constructed, and as enforced by the TVA, such deviation is impossible. Towards the end of the season, Loki is pruned and arrives at the void at the end of time, where he discovers a troupe of already-pruned Loki variants (one of them, played by Richard E. Grant, wears the classic, Silver Age Loki costume). All of them have been more successful than the canonical Loki—one of them killed Thor, another defeated Iron Man and Captain America, a third survived the standoff with Thanos—and all of them were pruned in punishment. More significantly, they point out that as soon as a Loki tries to be more than a backstabbing, power-hungry villain, they're also pruned. So breaking the TVA's grip on reality is the only way Loki, the character, can ever be more than a supporting—and usually, antagonistic—figure in other people's story.
Which is clever, to be sure. But also not much more than that. It has the whiff of "our story was really about stories". Which is to say, a tautology that, once noticed, doesn't really go anywhere particularly fruitful or dramatic. One can imagine a version of Loki that is an MCU riff on "Duck Amuck", with an increasingly irate Loki futilely threatening the unseen "author" who keeps subjecting him to indignities and boxing him into a single, limiting role. But, well, an hour-long dramatic series isn't the same thing as a seven-minute cartoon. At some point you need an actual story, and "it's a metaphor for the MCU" isn't it.
It's around the point where Loki comes face to face with the elusive variant that one realizes the truth: what Loki is about is, well, Loki. What is it that makes him himself? What are his innate qualities? How far can he push himself to change and grow? Can he be the hero of his own story? Can he ever win? Is what makes a Loki the fact that, as he suggests at one point, while he may be destined to lose, he always escapes by the skin of his teeth? Or is Loki, as Grant's variant suggests, the "god of outcasts", unable to be part of the world because that would constitute a variation from proscribed reality?
Loki attempts to grapple with these questions by positing a Loki who is as un-Loki-like as you could possibly get. Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) was pruned as a child, escaped the TVA, and has been on the run ever since. She has spent her life hiding out in apocalypses, places where her actions won't create an anomaly that the TVA can trace, because everyone is about to die anyway. In other words, she's someone who actually has something to complain about and a legitimate grievance, unlike our Loki. And also unlike him, she doesn't crave power, but liberation. Her goal is to kill the Time Keepers, topple the TVA, and free people from the tyranny of a single, predetermined fate. "The universe wants to break free. So it manifests chaos," she tells Loki soon after their first meeting.
There's more to be said about Sylvie, and we'll get to it in a minute. But first, it must be acknowledged that trying to puzzle out Loki is a questionable pursuit, possibly doomed to failure. Perhaps inevitably due to his trickster nature, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of how the MCU was constructed, Loki has had four or five different personalities since his first appearance in Thor. In that film, he was the power-hungry schemer, incensed over having been relegated to playing second fiddle to his meat-headed brother, and all the more determined to prove his right to rule once he discovers that he isn't actually a member of the race whose superiority he'd been brought up to believe in. Joss Whedon took the hints of supremacist thinking in this character and ran with them, explicitly likening Loki to a Nazi (along the way, he crafted what is still one of the best depictions of fascism in pop culture, one that grasps and even highlights the fact that the fascist is inherently ridiculous and pathetic, and that this does not make them any less dangerous).
Thor 2 toned down the politics and tried to reimagine Loki as suffering from a personality disorder. It's a justly-maligned film, but one of the things it gets right is conveying the anguish felt by people like Thor and Frigga, who love Loki but know that he will never be capable of earning or returning their love. And Taika Waititi discarded most of that thematic weight, somehow doubling down on the hints of Asgard's roots in conquest and colonialism in the first Thor, while simultaneously divesting Loki of any share in that poisonous legacy. He reimagines Loki as the universe's fuckboy, a perennial screw-up whose betrayals and manipulations are more funny than hurtful, and who nevertheless comes correct in the end. (In hindsight, it should not have come as a surprise when Waititi followed up his Thor movie with a film in which Nazis are harmless buffoons who can be gotten rid of by making fun of them.)
It's not that it's impossible to draw a line between these disparate versions, or even that you couldn't, as Loki initially seems to be doing, tell a new story that picks up from the most evil version of the character. But instead of trying to do either of these things, Loki gives up before it even starts. The closest it comes to exploring who Loki is at this juncture in his life, and where he can go from it, is a lot of unconvincing pop psychology. The season's first episode attempts character development by proxy by having Loki watch a recording of his canonical form's adventures after their deviation, implying that the shock of learning that he is doomed to lose will shake him out of his megalomania. Later in the episode, Mobius hammers at the question of whether Loki enjoys hurting people, which is not only irrelevant to his investigation, but also has a very obvious answer—once again, this is a Loki who only hours earlier needlessly shishkebabed Phil Coulson, and a few minutes before he tearfully claims to Mobius that no, he doesn't enjoy hurting people, he gleefully tortures one of the TVA's agents (Wunmi Mosaku) with one of her control devices.
Throughout the season, Mobius keeps coming up with reasons why Loki is the way he is. Loki is "a scared little boy shivering in the cold," Mobius concludes in one episode. He thinks that he deserves to be alone, he decides in another. It all seems like a way of avoiding the obvious truth: that Loki grew up with parents who loved and nurtured him, a brother who admired him, and people who would have been happy to be his friends, and somehow none of that was enough. He always felt superior and resentful, always enjoyed causing mischief more than caring for others. The presence of Sylvie also undermines the show's attempts to justify Loki's behavior, because her suffering and damaged upbringing dwarf his. And yet Sylvie isn't power-hungry or obsessed with her own sense of superiority. She isn't even that much of a villain. She kills people, but they're people who would have killed her (and since it eventually turns out that all the TVA agents are variants, by the logic that they've applied to her they aren't real and don't deserve to live). She enchants people, but only to get information from them, nothing like the way Loki violates Hawkeye and forces him to kill his friends in Avengers. The more we see of her, the more obvious it becomes that all the excuses being made for Loki are just that, excuses, and not very convincing ones at that.
And in the end, all of these excuses end up feeling beside the point, because the Loki who stars in Loki isn't the Loki from Avengers, or even any of the others. He's a new, cuddlier version of the character, who is extremely reactive and almost childlike. He lies to Mobius, but his lies are pathetically obvious, his manipulations blatantly doomed to failure. For all his pretensions at superiority, he's clearly looking for someone to follow, someone whose approval he can earn—first Mobius, and later Sylvie. There's none of the sense of menace that always seemed to lurk between the surface of even the character's least villainous turns, the impression that this was a person who would always have his own agenda that mattered more to him than anything else. Even before he starts to change in response to his growing friendship with Mobius, or his affection (which is perhaps fraternal and perhaps romantic) towards Sylvie, this version of Loki never seems dangerous. Which is, obviously, a really strange starting point from which to interrogate the character and try to discover his foundational traits.
Which brings us back to Sylvie, a character who is not only more dynamic than Loki, but who through her very un-Loki-ness shines a light on the way that Loki, in all of the guises that the MCU has clothed him in since 2011, doesn't actually make sense. He calls himself the god of mischief, but as Mobius points out when he reviews his litany of sins, there's nothing particularly mischievous about him. (A flashback scene even suggests that Loki, as an adult man, thought that cutting off a hank of Lady Sif's hair in her sleep constituted a joke.) And finally it becomes clear that Sylvie is the true Loki, because unlike him, she believes in chaos as a necessity in its own right, not as a means to her own empowerment.
To a certain extent, Loki realizes this. When Loki travels to the void and meets all of his alternates, he concludes that despite the massive differences between them, they are all fundamentally the same, more obsessed with their own power than with their supposed allegiance to chaos, incapable of loyalty to anyone. But Sylvie, he insists, is truly different. Though he doesn't quite make the leap to seeing Sylvie as a truer Loki than himself, he does seem to recognize that his best course is to follow her. And for a moment, it seems as if Loki might do something truly bold, something that only a television series that is its own entity, that understands itself and the story it is telling, could do—have its protagonist recognize that he's better off as the supporting character in another, better hero's story.
And then it all goes to pieces, in a listless, muddled final episode more concerned with setting up the show's next season, and the forthcoming upheavals in the MCU, than in bringing the story and character arcs of the current season to a satisfying close. Sylvie and Loki, having discovered that the Time Keepers are robots, make their way beyond the void at the end of time to discover... the Time Keepers by another name. Well, it's actually Majors's He Who Remains, but his function in the story is identical to the Time Keepers's, and his justification for keeping the entire universe in thrall to a single, predetermined timeline is exactly the same as the one explained to Loki in the series premiere—it's either that, or interdimensional war. It's as if nobody explained to the show's writers that when you pull back the curtain, there should be something new and unexpected there. Once again, it's left to the actors to carry the thin writing, and Majors is a revelation, even to people who have noticed him in things like Lovecraft Country or Da 5 Bloods, delivering a grinning, bug-eyed, deeply sinister performance that instantly makes him one of phase four's most highly anticipated components.
As a capstone to Loki, however, and to Loki and Sylvie's story, it's an utterly inert hour, punctuated only by the ultimatum He Who Remains presents to his would-be assassins: they can kill him, which will unleash the multiverse and, with it, all of his far scarier variants; or they can take over from him as stewards of the sacred timeline. There's the hint of an interesting character dynamic in the duo's differing reactions to this offer: Sylvie remains determined to liberate reality, while Loki flinches—not, as Sylvie immediately assumes, because he wants the power that He Who Remains offers, but because he's genuinely scared of what might happen if his variants are released. His admission to Sylvie, "I just want you to be OK", is one of the season's few genuinely moving and effective character moments, even if it's the culmination of a character arc that never really existed.
But the problem is that the conflict between the two variants never lands. Even if you didn't know that Majors was going to be the villain in the next Ant-Man, it's obvious that Loki wants—and that the MCU needs—the status quo to be shattered. Even worse, the episode tries to paint Sylvie's determination to kill He Who Remains as a product of dysfunction, an expression of her traumatic upbringing and inability to trust (a trait that is ascribed to her only a few minutes before it becomes relevant to her behavior—in truth, Sylvie is not particularly distrustful, and even forms bonds with people whom she had considered enemies, like Mobius or Mosaku's Hunter B-15), rather than a choice that is consistent with her worldview and stated aims. Not to mention that the episode leaves no space to agree with Sylvie that chaos is better than control, and clearly expects us to view her choice as a negative, pathological one. Which is hugely morally fraught and yet something that the audience is clearly not expected to argue with. Because what matters, in the end, are two things—the needs of the MCU, which demands that the culmination of Loki's story arc feel more significant for what it bodes for future movies than for what they mean for the show's own story; and the needs of Loki the character, whose heartbreak is treated as more important than Sylvie reaching the end of her lifelong quest.
Worst of all, those needs force the show to ignore what should be obvious, even through the hash that it has made of its definition of Loki: a Loki would never tolerate being backed into an ultimatum. The god of mischief wouldn't be fine with learning that their every step, even the ones they took in rebellion, had been anticipated and factored into their enemy's master plan. An agent of chaos wouldn't accept being forced into a binary choice. If Loki was really a show about Loki; if it really wanted to make us understand and even root for Loki as an abstract concept, rather than any specific iteration of him; if it was really a TV show in its own right rather than a component of some grand content-generating engine, it would show us its heroes finding a third option. It would treat them like protagonists, not pawns on a gameboard. But the show neither wants to do this, nor seems capable of delivering writing on that level.
The first season of Loki ends on what appears to be a major leveling-up moment. He Who Remains is dead. Loki and Sylvie are separated. Loki has returned to the TVA to discover that not only has the timeline fractured, but he's ended up on one of a million branches of it, one where Mobius and Hunter B-15 don't even know who he is. The post-credits scene promises a second season, but I found myself thinking about Westworld, another seemingly-sophisticated but actually quite simplistic show about free will, and how that show's seasons always ended with a major upheaval that seemed to promise that the story just around the corner was really going to kick into gear, to distract from the fact that the previous chapter hadn't succeeded in doing this. Loki gives off the same vibe, of a show that can never quite figure out how to deliver on its promises, and instead just makes bigger and more bombastic ones. Perhaps that's the point where the MCU's lackluster writing and its everything's-a-teaser-for-the-next-thing attitude converge, and perhaps that means that we can never expect more from the new generation of MCU shows. Whatever else they end up being, they will never be plain, ordinary, satisfying TV.