(First two episodes screened for review. LOKI premieres June 9th on Disney+)
Over the past year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has found itself at a crossroads. Leaving behind a near-flawless decade of repeated hits and critical acclaim, including one of the biggest box office hits in history. AVENGERS ENDGAME is, for many, as perfect a superhero finale as you could ask for, and it’s the rare ending that actually sticks the landing. It feels almost foolhardy to continue, and yet, here we are, knee-deep in phase four.
And what a surprise this phase has been so far. Instead of going in big, Marvel has opted to hit the reset button, if not storywise, then in production and scale. Marvel has shown it isn’t afraid to slow things down, removing the interstellar danger and replacing it with the down-to-earth character dramas of WANDAVISION and FALCON & THE WINTER SOLDIER.
After two episodes of LOKI, we’re finally shifting to a higher gear, but in ways audiences aren’t expecting.
Last we saw the trickster god, he was either dead at the hands of Thanos or disappearing into thin air with the tesseract. From that latter timeline, LOKI thrusts us right into the middle of a new act in the beloved anti-hero’s (after)life. By now, Marvel expects you to know who everyone is and how they connect. After all, the show is on Disney+, and the entire backlog is readily available for viewing.
So don’t expect explanations or heavy recapping, at least not in a traditional sense. Because we’ve diverged from the main timeline, Loki is no longer the tragic brother looking to make amends. This is once again the fragile, egotistic, and vicious killer from AVENGERS, who nearly destroyed the planet in his quest for glory.
But Marvel has understood long ago what makes Tom Hiddleston great in the part, and it isn’t his statuesque looks. It’s how good he is at pratfalls and being the butt of the joke. Loki might be all-powerful to a degree, but he’s never better than when tossed around by others.
Right away, the planned escape doesn’t go well. Loki bumps into the TVA (Time Variance Authority), who quickly overpower the anomaly within the sacred timeline. His destination becomes the heart of time itself, where an aloof caseworker (Owen Wilson) takes an interest in him. Somewhere, in the vastness of spacetime, someone is killing TVA agents and wreaking havoc on the timeline. Should Loki cooperate, maybe a deal can prevent a reset of his soul.
The bigger picture
LOKI finds its tone instantly. Any other studio revealing that the past decade was only a small skirmish in the grand scheme of things could easily fumble the reveal. But here, Marvel uses that information for a character-defining moment, where Hiddleston plays the realization beautifully. Within moments, he goes from defiant to dejected, realizing his scheming amounts to ants on a molehill. Everything from the infinity stones to the wars fought is but tiny specks in the sacred timeline, and much grander enemies await in the galaxy.
There’s a level of absurdity that goes with all this, and LOKI embraces it while still playing many of the dramatic beats completely straight. Watching Owen Wilson casually wave away the ludicrousness of Loki, the god, while still delivering equally silly exposition with his trademark drawl.
Hiddleston and Wilson play together so effortlessly well; you wonder why the pairing wasn’t thought of before. They have an easy chemistry, made better by neither of them being superpowered like Loki’s more muscular brother. Hiddleston, after a decade playing the part, is more comfortable than ever as the Asgardian menace. He gracefully balances the pompousness and frailty that make up Loki’s inner self, and already in the pilot, it’s clear this will be something different for him.
Supported by the terrific duo of Wunmi Mosaku and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, LOKI is at once a cosmic procedural, a high-flying drama, and a satiric comedy about time itself. As with WANDAVISION, expect surprising, eloquent moments, as LOKI questions legacy, nature vs. nurture, and what comprises a soul.
It’s reference-heavy, helping itself to references from Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL and the works of Moebius, yet neither feels out of place. Instead, thanks to smart writing from Michael Waldron and sure-handed directing by Kate Herron.
It’s Herron, jumping aboard the MCU ship from her impressive debut with SEX EDUCATION, who is the standout. She takes to the mythic nature of the series like a fish to water, combining clever visual effects and pathos as if she’s always been here. Even as the series is just getting started, I’d be surprised if her ascent into a bigger place within Marvel wasn’t the big story to break from this.
While two episodes are not enough to form a definitive take on the show, LOKI feels like a natural continuation of the MCU in its most distinguished phase yet. With THE ETERNALS just on the horizon, it feels like Marvel is embracing the cosmic wholeheartedly, and that can only be a good thing.