One good thing I can say about Marvel Studio’s output is that I am consistently amazed at how consistent it is. There have been dips in quality over the years (looking directly at you Thor: The Dark World and Agents of SHIELD) but overall, Marvel has managed to produce quality content for over a decade and change now. With the first episode of the new series, Loki, the studio has taken us on a vastly different journey with a mostly beloved protagonist.
Obviously, spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the first episode.
Episode One of Loki, titled “Glorious Purpose”, was jam-packed with quite a lot of things to pick apart, so this is going to be a longer than usual essay (bear with me). Picking up immediately after Loki’s escape in Avengers: Endgame, Loki finds himself landing (quite painfully) in Mongolia. Trying and failing spectacularly to intimidate a group of local Mongolians, he is soon accosted by agents of the TVA, the Time Variance Agency. Quickly subdued and captured, the TVA agents reset the timeline using a device that is ridiculously powerful even by the standards of the MCU (more on that in a moment).
The following sequences of Loki being processed were so much fun to watch. I had to remind myself that this isn’t the Loki who went through the events of Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War. This is Loki before his redemptive arc, back when he was still the pouty child who caused misery and destruction because he couldn’t think of any other way to get what he wanted. This Loki is still full of himself and his own “glorious purpose”, not realizing yet that he is in way over his head.
The Time Variance Agency was not a group from Marvel Comics I was deeply familiar with before doing some research before watching the show. The show manages to simplify their role and make it easily digestible, thanks in no small part to the wonderfully kitschy Miss Minutes cartoon. The Timekeepers, ancient aliens of immeasurable power (which is definitely a thing in Marvel Comics), solidified the multiverse into a single Sacred Timeline. Anyone who goes against their stated role in the timeline becomes a Variant and is summarily removed and “pruned”, aka disintegrated. This version of Loki serves as one such variant but he is saved by Agent Mobius (portrayed with understated panache by Owen Wilson) for reasons that become clear by the end of the episode.
The comedic moments throughout the episode largely come from Loki trying and failing to manipulate and push his way through things. From being stripped of his Asgardian leathers by a creepy robot to finding out that his magical powers fail spectacularly in the TVA’s realm, Loki is put through one breaking moment after another. This is a crash-course in character development for this version of Loki. And while it doesn’t get him to the point he reached when he was killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, it’s definitely possible that he is on that road by the end of the episode.
The TVA itself is also quite beautifully rendered but in a deeply terrifying way. From the bored expressions on the TVA attendants Loki interacts with to the retro-70s architecture and technology shown, the TVA is both the most powerful organization shown so far in Marvel and its most anachronistic organization. What can be gleaned about the TVA and the denizens who work for the organization are the following: They exist outside known reality (including time and space); None of the people working there were born but were instead created by the Time Keepers (evidenced by Casey the filing clerk not knowing what a fish is); and most especially, they use captured Infinity Stones as paperweights. The idea that the most powerful items of the initial arc for Marvel Studio’s grand vision are now nothing more than paperweights in an office complex outside reality had me cackling. This is not an organization to be trifled with and the proof is in how thoroughly they handle Loki.
The real revelation for me in this episode is Owen Wilson. I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of his work up to this point (Shanghai Noon and Wedding Crashers notwithstanding). There wasn’t any of his usual quirkiness in his portrayal of Mobius but there is a deep well of humanity to the character that peeks out in places during the episode. The bulk of the episode’s runtime is spent with scenes directly between Wilson and Tom Hiddleston bouncing off one another. Loki goes through stages of denial and anger as he is confronted with the harsh truths of his existence, including the hilarious revelation that Loki was the infamous D.B. Cooper because he lost a bet with Thor. Mobius pushes Loki to reveal his motivations behind the actions he’s taken up to this point, something Loki is loathe to do on his own.
In particular is Loki’s line “An illusion. A cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear. A desperate attempt at control.”, which gets repeated twice in the episode. Loki slowly realizes that he is not the great conqueror or king that he thinks he is (something the original timeline’s Loki also figured out by the end of Thor: Ragnarok). Only when he’s able to watch his story play out (thanks to the TVA having his entire timeline recorded and available for viewing) does Loki accept that his cruelty and debased actions have always been because he is weak and seeks to inspire fear, thinking this will give him the adoration he desperately craves. Tom Hiddleston’s range has always been amazing (particularly if you watch him in features outside of the Marvel films). In a few short minutes as Loki watches Freya’s death, Odin’s loving declaration before his own death, Thor’s reconciliation, and the final moments of his life trying to stop the Mad Titan, Hiddleston displays everything Loki is experiencing in his face and eyes. It’s heartbreaking to watch and reminded me why I’ve enjoyed Loki as a character (in spite of the terrible things the character has done in the film series).
Marvel has yet again put out a worthy successor piece in their growing universe. The introduction of the TVA and another, even more homicidally bent Loki Variant, have me intrigued on where the series is going to go. My first guess would be that the fracturing of reality that will be explored in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is going to begin here and both versions of Loki are going to play a major role in how that shapes up. The fact that there will be time travel shenanigans makes me think this is going to be Marvel’s take on Doctor Who. Either way, I’m definitely going along for the ride.