Marvel’s “Loki,” Disney+’s third Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming series, is the Marvel machine firing on all cylinders, by turns charmingly droll and whimsically kooky, taking the best parts of previous fare and putting them altogether into a bona fide hit.
Loki may never reach his dream of being god-king of the universe, but “Loki” is about to become the god-king of Disney+.
Since this is a series about time travel, let’s rewind to Loki’s origins. The character was introduced in 2011 as the semi-sympathetic villain in the Kenneth Branagh-helmed “Thor.” Branagh brought Shakespearean actor Tom Hiddleston on board to play the fast-talking, power-mad, magic-wielding con artist. Joss Whedon then sealed the character’s place in the pantheon by bringing him back a year later in a full-on villainous role for the box office smash “The Avengers.” Since then, Marvel’s take on the Norse god of mischief has been a fan favorite, appearing in both “Thor” sequels and the two-part “Avengers” adventures “Infinity War” and “Endgame” — which, taken as a whole, gave Loki a redemption arc (of sorts) and a hero’s death.
But reports of that death were apparently premature; popular characters in good comics never die without at least one loophole in place to facilitate their return — and the “Infinity Saga” finale, which hinged on time travel tropes, provided. In the 2019 “Endgame” installment, the heroes revisit the events of 2012’s “The Avengers,” and, during a rather convoluted series of events, the 2012 Loki (originally taken prisoner at the end of the film) instead escaped with the help of the tesseract.
Loki becomes the protagonist in a buddy (time) cop story, in which veteran Agent Mobius takes on a new partner over the doubts of the division boss, creating an odd-couple dynamic set within an office comedy.
The new series opens with the revelation that our antihero didn’t exactly get very far in time or in space, and what he thought would be his new chance at becoming a god is interrupted by the arrival of soldiers who come to arrest him under the protocols of the Time Variance Authority (henceforth the TVA). Led by Wunmi Mosaku (“Lovecraft Country”), the Hunters (known collectively as “Minute Men”) are timeline police who have come to remove the “variant” version of Loki to keep him from screwing up the accepted flow of official events.
From there, Loki first finds himself standing trial for his time-meddling crimes and then being hired by the TVA, which turns out to be a bureaucracy straight out of a fantasy dystopian universe.
“Loki,” then, is one of the oldest types of shows on TV: the police procedural. And Loki becomes the protagonist in a buddy (time) cop story, in which veteran Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) takes on a new partner over the doubts of the division boss (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), creating an odd-couple dynamic set within an office comedy.
The TVA is a place of byzantine processes, with mounds of paperwork that have to be filed in triplicate, staffed by bored-looking office drones, none of whom are very impressed with Loki. (It turns out he is one of the most commonly hunted variants in the known universe.) Throw in a few 1960s-style animated videos that entertainingly explain the time travel tropes at play and some 20th-century open-office floor plans and you have a kind of “Marvel’s Brazil,” where, so far, all that’s missing is a Terry Gilliam cameo.
Perhaps most importantly for fans, “Loki” is not a standalone set of episodes like Marvel’s last two Disney+ series, which hovered somewhere between a bridge between the Marvel big-screen adventures and “bonus content for the hardcore fan.” Though “Loki,” like “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” was conceived of and went into production when estimates of the Disney+ audience were still in the modest range, the reason the show’s adventures won’t directly impact the big-screen films comes from the very nature of its time travel plot.
In creating this new show, the producers of “Loki” have managed to combine all the winning elements of Marvel’s previous series successes.
Though this is still a character fans know, played by the actor they recognize, his “variant” status means “Loki” is not part of the same timeline as the rest of the MCU, but deliberately outside of it. His adventures, therefore, can function completely independently of whatever’s going on in the films without audiences feeling like they’re watching a show that’s been orphaned by the franchise universe that generated it — a complaint often aimed at the Marvel series on ABC, Hulu and Netflix.
That freedom also allows “Loki” to feel like a genuine television show meant to be watched on its own, which “Falcon” never did and “WandaVision” only sometimes managed. Each episode is an hourlong compartmentalized adventure, while still allowing the weekly installments to build into a larger story arc. At only six episodes, fans might even feel like the first season of “Loki” is too brief, though the lack of narrative fat is quite impressive in this age of streaming bloat. (There’s easily enough material here to sustain an eight- to 10-installment run, and if Disney+ hasn’t officially confirmed a second season by the end of the show’s run, I’ll eat my hat.)
In creating this new show, the producers of “Loki” have managed to combine all the winning elements of Marvel’s previous series successes: It has all the off-kilter mystery of “WandaVision” but stars a far better-known (and far more popular) side character, like in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” It plays the bureaucratic clean-up crew notes of the long-running broadcast series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” with the single-story arcs of the Marvel streaming series of Netflix (which ranged from the good like “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” to the painfully bad “The Punisher” and “Iron Fist”), while maintaining a family-friendly attitude perfect for the Disney+ walled garden.
Like the big-screen “Avengers” movies before it, “Loki” is the perfect distillation of everything Marvel has been working toward — just slightly smaller and less godlike. Sort of like Loki.
Ani Bundel is a cultural critic who has been writing regularly since 2010. Her work can also be found at Elite Daily and WETA’s Telly Visions, where she also co-hosts “Telly Visions: The Podcast.”