tv review

Loki Is a Litmus Test for Marvel TV

Photo: Marvel Studios

Hey, whaddya know! Loki is pretty fun, actually! What a nice surprise.

As the third major Marvel Cinematic Universe television series to be released in this Disney+ streaming era of Marvel TV, Loki is in a bit of a tiebreaker position in a best-of-three game. WandaVision was an unexpected pleasure, upending assumptions about how playful a Marvel TV series might be willing to get and how far it could stray from the movies’ face-punching status quo. The ending was a bummer in about three different directions, but on the whole WandaVision suggested that Marvel might actually have some exciting, imaginative impulses in the TV space. But WandaVision was followed by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which hit the ground with a dull thwomp sound and then failed to improve on that first impression. So Loki has felt like a litmus test for what Marvel TV really wants to be. Would it have the playful gestalt of WandaVision? Or would it be more of a bland The Falcon and the Winter Soldier–style slog?

I’ve already spoiled the answer, of course: Loki, premiering tomorrow, blessedly occupies more of the WandaVision side of the spectrum. It’s not quite as surprising as those first WandaVision episodes felt — Tom Hiddleston’s there playing Loki, the same character who has become very familiar from a slew of Marvel movies, and much of the show’s narrative language is closer to traditional Marvel mechanics: Infinity Stones, hopping between worlds, fight scenes where a mysterious figure knocks someone out and then strides away in a floor shot that only shows the villain’s boots. You know, Marvel stuff.

Like WandaVision, though, Loki has carved out a little space for itself in an out-of-the-way corner of the Marvel universe. It doesn’t have to tangle with all the major earthbound plot events that tripped up The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, because Loki takes place in a weird story outpost: the Time Variance Authority, an organization of bureaucratic time cops whose job is to maintain a single, integrated universal timeline. Loki has been arrested for the crime of attempting to depart from the approved version of historical events, but he’s given the chance to prove himself (and continue existing) when a TVA official played by Owen Wilson recruits Loki to help track down a pernicious, dangerous timeline offender who’s evaded the TVA’s grasp. Loki’s there to help the authorities capture a more murderous version of himself.

Nothing about that premise guarantees Loki as part of the more freewheeling, light-touch wing of Marvel. It’s not like WandaVision, where the concept of the story requires a departure from the status quo. Still, there are promising signs in the first two episodes provided to critics. Unlike The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which had no apparent design beyond “What if a movie but also excruciatingly long,” Loki’s reluctant buddy-cop dynamic is familiar TV territory, and it carries with it just enough of a procedural oomph to differentiate Loki from the lumpy, overcrowded morass of Marvel movie storytelling. While I think Loki would benefit from some procedural elements in the way “procedural” is usually meant on TV (strong single-episode stories, a chain of problems and solutions linked inside a broader narrative arc), the first two Loki episodes already have some fun procedural features in a slightly different implication of that word. Loki’s beginning is full of boring procedures. Some of it is world-building material that’s painfully obvious expositional stuff, sure: long explanations of how the TVA works, gleeful send-ups of bureaucratic nonsense, scenes that are mostly about sorting through paperwork. But it’s such a relief to watch a Marvel story that doesn’t skimp on that material; I’d much rather grow fond of a character by watching them give a tour of a building than I would by watching them appear suddenly in the middle of a story that expects me to instantly recognize them and care about who they are.

Much of the credit for Loki’s fun side goes to Owen Wilson, who plays a rule-bending time cop who’s made the unorthodox decision to bring Loki into the TVA fold. Tom Hiddleston has always been reasonably magnetic as Loki, but he has nothing on Wilson’s incredible charismatic chill. Loki is still full of MCU narrative shenanigans — I’m positive there are dozens of Easter eggs and comic references that flew entirely over my head, and I’ll be honest, I only mostly followed a scene full of clips from Loki’s past and/or future. But Wilson is like an imperturbable boulder in the middle of a rushing river. Bits of story eddy around him, and the vast intricate gobbledygook of inevitable multiverse developments go rushing past. Still, there he is in every scene, solid and grounded and faintly amused by the vast deluge of stuff. Everyone else can run around like magical chickens with their magical heads cut off. Wilson plays that straight-man character with such total confidence that your eye will always return to him.

It seems possible — probable, even — that Loki will not be able to maintain the fun throughout the remainder of its six episodes. Loki is about unlikely heroes struggling to maintain a unified timeline, pruning away errant events that threaten to branch off from the timeline’s single stalk. The TVA’s cute brutalist/absurdist aesthetic shows us the same image over and over, an old-fashioned  monitor displaying some variant timeline snaking away from the main story, threatening to split the universe into multiple branches.

Most Marvel programming performs that image in reverse. It may begin in its own world with distinctive protagonists and an opening setting that differentiates it from the rest of the MCU. Then, as it reaches the resolution, whatever makes it distinct gets peeled away. The little vacation from the Marvel status quo is over, and characters are brought back into the Avengers/Infinity Stones/Blip/main-story fold. Chances are pretty decent the same thing will need to happen in Loki, and much as I’d enjoy a series where Loki and Owen Wilson are time-cop partners and reluctant friends, like a Marvel version of White Collar, it seems likely that Loki will eventually collapse back toward the Marvel narrative mean. Until that point, though, it’s nice to be able to enjoy Loki for the fun storytelling variant it is.

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Loki Is a Litmus Test for Marvel TV