I’ve enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Disney+ offerings so far in general, but the first episode of Loki in particular is a delightful treat. It’s funny, it’s mysterious, and frankly it’s weird in a way that I really appreciate! It didn’t hurt that I was coming into it with a freshly reaffirmed affinity for the titular role’s actor, Tom Hiddleston, having just rewatched Crimson Peak last week. Much in the way that film was one of the first to let the actor express his skill outside of superhero films, Loki is itself a departure from those customs, instead subjecting the Asgardian deity of mischief — fresh from his 2012 attempt at world domination — to the relentless, inescapable drudgery of bureaucracy. As such, Hiddleston is given the opportunity to play the straight man (not that way, ’shippers, continue to do your thing) against the absurdist rigamarole of the Time Variance Authority, and audiences get to enjoy some slapstick fun at his expense, as he’s fitted with a kind of control device that allows the TVA’s agents to keep him from acting out by rewinding him a few seconds every time he tries.
I’m getting ahead of myself here. The TVA is another one of those interesting little pulls from Marvel Comics history: It first appeared during the now-classic Walt Simonson run of Thor, the very same run that gave us such delights as Surtur and Skurge the Executioner in the 2017 film Thor: Ragnarok. The organization has only popped up a couple of other times in comics, which makes it perfect for an adaptation like this; the idea of time cops is a big, expansive one that’s been played with before in Hollywood, if not in the MCU. At the start of the episode, as Loki escapes from custody following the events of Avengers: Endgame (following, well … the events of Marvel’s The Avengers), he has officially violated continuity, which leads to the TVA sending agents to capture him.
As a comics fan, this particular bit was hilarious to me. Did they care that he caused several deaths and attempted to take over the world? No, that was supposed to happen, as was the Avengers’ defeat of him. The TVA only cares that he escaped custody after the fact; as we know, in the normal timeline he remains incarcerated until the events of Thor: The Dark World (the show plays with these details as well, in a way that I won’t spoil, except to say that it’s absolutely heart-wrenching). So why was this funny to me? Well, like I said, he violated continuity. By escaping, Loki created a divergence from the normal flow of time, a conflict in the canon of Marvel’s official cinematic fiction. Canon and continuity are the sacred cows of comics, the things to which these large superhero universes are beholden (sometimes even to their detriment), the things that comics fans the world over just love to argue about, and, frankly, the things that get a writer like yours truly jobs, because some of us actually spend our time memorizing this stuff. The TVA’s bit of metafictional fun at continuity’s expense is, consequently, exactly the sort of joke I appreciate. Also, on a personal note, I appreciate a Time Variance — or “TV” — Authority arresting people for violating storylines on a TV show. That’s just plain good humor!
The way the TVA’s presented is also fun. The entire organization has this sort of retro-fitted vibe to it. Like Asgard itself, it’s technologically advanced to the point of seeming like magic, and like the planet Sakaar in Ragnarok, it cloaks that technology in the spectre of aging industrial relics. But where Sakaar looks like a waste processing plant jazzed up with lurid colors, the TVA looks like a relic of the 1970s, with everything draped in drab browns, oranges, and yellows. The TVA Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) is rocking a mustache that is so perfectly matched to the show’s aesthetic that it somehow feels anachronistic, despite mustaches enjoying a current resurgence in popularity.
When Mobius interrogates Loki, he does so with the aid of what is essentially a projector; it creates futuristic holographic images he can use to demonstrate his points, but is housed in what looks like a marriage between an old cathode ray television and a late-’90s iMac (you know the ones). This is such a great stylistic contrast in its own right that it’s easy to gloss over the instructional video that’s played on a screen as Loki arrives for processing: a purely retro-style bit of 2D animation, where TVA mascot Miss Minutes, voiced by Tara Strong, cheerfully walks visitors through the importance of adherence to the “Sacred Timeline.” This video is capped off by a simple, matter-of-fact explanation of what happens to violators; they are “reset,” a cute euphemism for the concept of completely annihilating the variant, so that the accepted “Sacred” version can follow the timeline’s path.
Just as Loki himself is to be punished for his “crimes,” he’s granted a stay by Mobius, who does something that could almost be considered worse to Loki: He holds him accountable. It makes for a fun bit of parallel storytelling, as Mobius conducts this oblique interrogation, asking Loki what his plan was, should he have achieved his conquest, and leading Loki in circles as the god struggles to accept the sheer shortsightedness of his attempt. Because that was always the trick of it, no? Ragnarok highlighted this too, giving Loki a taste of rule as he impersonated his father, and exposing the truth that a deity of mischief is not built for rule, but the subversion of it. This sets up Loki to, as we expect, work for (or at least with, temporarily) the TVA.
What I find fascinating about this idea is the scope it offers. At the start of WandaVision, audiences and fans found themselves wildly speculating about where the conceit of Wanda’s journey through sitcom television could lead; not just story-wise, but the fun little cameos and appearances and their various degrees of popularity. That was lost a bit in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s more straightforward approach, but I can feel it again here. The idea of jumping through the last decade and a half of the MCU’s in-universe screen time is a fun one. We saw some of that with the Avengers in Endgame, but there the scope was limited by both the movie’s runtime and its Infinity Stone–related plot. Here, the options are much more open — not only could we see some of the MCU’s recent past, we could see any point in its continuity, including brand new locales and classic Marvel characters who’ve never been put to film before. As Owen Wilson might say, “Wow.”