(Ed. Note: This review tries to avoid big spoilers, but drops details about the first two episodes of Marvel’s Loki.)
There are a lot of TV genres and tropes I suspect inspired Marvel’s highly anticipated superhero series for Disney+, Loki. But after watching the first two episodes of the new show, I realized producers came up with the one thing I didn’t expect: a Men in Black-meets-48 Hours-style buddy cop comedy adventure.
If you’ve watched any one of the bucket load of clips and trailers Marvel has dropped, you know Loki starts by answering the big question: How do you build a TV series around a character who died in one of the biggest movies ever?
Turns out, Loki, the God of Mischief who got himself killed by ultimate bad guy, Thanos, in Avengers: Infinity War, avoided that fate by escaping from the Avengers in the past — Avengers: Endgame and the prologue in the first episode of Loki offers more details. But that escape created a version of Loki outside the universe’s official timeline, called a “variant.” Which leads to his arrest by the Time Variance Authority.
Here’s where comics fangirls and boys will absolutely lose it. The TVA — and middle manager/TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius, played by Owen Wilson – are a beloved creation of the comic books. They’re a group of bureaucratic enforcers who make sure that meddlers like Loki can’t screw up the timestream by leaving the spot where they are supposed to be or by going somewhere they are not.
Wilson plays a TVA agent who thinks Loki can help him solve a serious problem. The first two episodes involve Mobius convincing Loki to pitch in – giving Wilson and star Tom Hiddleston time to develop a quirky, cantankerous chemistry a la Men in Black‘s Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
Except, in this case, Hiddleston’s Loki is a legendarily duplicitous narcissist and murderer, convinced most of the universe consists of life forms destined to live under his rule. Mobius is a weary-yet-idealistic agent – resigned to the trudging, soulless bureaucracy of the TVA – and is well aware of the ways Loki will try to charm and manipulate him while he works the same game in reverse.
The first two episodes of Loki achieve quite a lot. On the surface, they build out the world of the TVA — a sprawling system that falls somewhere between the dead-eyed spirit of the DMV and a bizarrely menacing ride line at Disney World. The technology looks like drab, 1970s-era office chic but achieves wonders like projecting images from any stage in a person’s life history. It cloaks the most powerful cosmic forces in the most banal setting.
As Mobius shows Loki pivotal moments from his life history, we get to learn more about a character who has mostly been a charming villain and occasional punch line in the last few Marvel movies. The films Infinity War, Endgame and Thor: Ragnarok gave Chris Hemsworth’s Thor plenty of scenes to grieve the loss of his mother, father, homeland of Asgard and even his adopted brother, Loki.
But it isn’t until Marvel’s Loki that we see the God of Mischief react to those same losses – allowing the prodigiously talented Hiddleston room to shine. We learn why he hurts people as well as his true purpose as a supervillain. And we see him reach toward another, humanizing the character in the process.
(Sharp-eyed viewers scanning the TVA paperwork shown onscreen will even learn Loki’s last name – Laufeyson – and that Loki’s gender is considered fluid.)
Still, there’s a little foreshadowing among all the self-revelation. “You called me a scared little boy … [but] you see, I know something children don’t,” Loki tells Mobius, as they talk about the celestial beings who created the TVA, known as the Time Keepers. “No one bad is ever truly bad. And no one good is ever truly good.”
Superhero geek that I am, I do have a few quibbles. Deep into the second episode, Loki gets into a fight with someone who appears to be a regular, if muscular, human. But we’ve seen Loki trade blows with the almighty Thor and shrug off gunfire; does it make sense that a puny human could push him around?
A scene set in Mongolia highlights an obvious, if necessary, conceit: Our protagonists may journey across the cosmos, but they all speak English and sometimes cannot understand others who do not. And, much as I love WandaVision‘s Jimmy Woo (played by Randall Park), it’s becoming an uncomfortable trope for Marvel to use geeky Asian men for comic relief, as a TVA office drone played by Eugene Cordero seems to be here.
And why didn’t the TVA go after the Avengers when they jumped through a bunch of timelines to save the day in Endgame? “That was supposed to happen,” Mobius tells Loki, in a seemingly throwaway line that does an awful lot of narrative heavy lifting.
Hiddleston is arguably the biggest star from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to show up in a streaming series. So Loki is a big swing that Marvel needs to work for all kinds of reasons. (General Mills is even selling a slightly retooled version of their Lucky Charms cereal called Loki Charms online, in conjunction with the show’s debut.)
Still, after the buzzy successes of WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier earlier this year, it seemed unlikely Marvel would score with a third, high-quality Disney+ series based on a supporting character from its movies.
But Marvel has managed all that and more — at least, in the first two episodes — producing an entertaining, thrilling and ultimately revealing series. It’s poised to ask important, incisive questions about the nature of good and evil while showcasing one of the most enduring villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.