Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe still having anywhere to go following the earthshaking finale that was Avengers: Endgame (2019). Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), felt like a non-event, and this month’s Black Widow (2021) had some promise, but was ultimately a non-starter. Despite having Shang Chi (2021), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and The Eternals (2021) on the horizon, we still haven’t really gotten an indication of what the MCU’s future looks like. Promising leads can be gleaned from Marvel’s TV output, with WandaVision (2021) and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (2021) placing longstanding side-characters to the forefront. The latest TV offering is Loki (2021), which might be the first major game changer of Marvel’s new era.
During Endgame, the Avengers used time travel to return to the Battle for New York, as seen in The Avengers (2012). In trying to steal the infinity stone known as The Tesseract, the heroes accidentally allowed the villainous Loki to escape, thus causing a branch in the timeline (seeing as he didn’t originally evade capture). This catches the attention of the TVA, a mysterious organisation tasked with keeping the timeline in check by hunting down anyone (called ‘Variants’) who create these branches (called ‘Nexus Events’). Loki is recruited by TVA officer Mobius (Owen Wilson) to hunt down another Variant who may be a danger to the whole operation. However, Loki may have ulterior motives, as his discovery of the TVA and their all-powerful leaders, The Time Keepers, causes him to question whether or not any of his actions hold meaning if everything is predetermined by the ‘Scared Timeline’.
At this point, pretty much everyone on the planet knows Marvel’s storytelling formula. Audiences have been pretty accepting of it, but it’s getting to the stage where they can see the mechanisms turning. Moving forward, it’s imperative for the studio to change things up if they want to remain relevant. Happily, Loki proves there’s still plenty of juice left in Marvel’s writers room, as the narrative is a complex web which will keep even the hardest of hardcore comic book readers guessing. Across these six episodes, there’s no shortage of surprises, twists, reveals and rug-pulls, many of which you can’t see coming yet still progress the story in a natural way. Things could’ve become convoluted very easily, but Loki manages to keep a handle on all of its bizarre concepts.
This brings us to the show’s main conceit, which is all about throwing away our understanding of the universe, and replacing it with a multiverse. At first glance, it seems like Marvel is biting off more than it can chew, but that’s not the case as there are rules clearly established. The viewer may need to take a minute to get adjusted, but the show explains all its cerebral thoughts in an intelligible way. Once you’re acclimated to it, you may start to worry Loki’s expanded mythology will completely void the importance of everything that’s come before, but thankfully Marvel is smarter than that and uses that metaphysical question as the thematic backbone to the entire show. The studio has done this same trick many times before, and it’s with Loki that they’ve perfected it.
To explain this further, you only need to look at Loki himself. When Marvel starts a project, they always look at what audiences think or feel about the character and work it into the character’s arc. Not many people cared about Iron Man before his film, so naturally that film was all about making the viewer care for him. Many people thought Captain America was too much of a goodie two shoes, so his first film was all about him making people (and the world) love and respect him for that exact quality. Every single one of Marvel’s films does this, and Loki is no exception. Loki is traditionally a villain, yet the show’s time-bending narrative allows him to view his own life from an objective view. Seeing that his only purpose has been to be beaten, defeated and used as a device for heroes to grow, Loki’s journey is set on a sobering path far richer than most stories with villains as the protagonist.
While there are large stretches of the show dedicated to all this exposition, Loki hasn’t skimmed on the action. There’s the expected run of chases, fist fights, laser battles and magic duels, only this time with a fresh perspective. So many of Marvel’s characters can easily punch their way out of a scrape, but the characters in Loki favour intelligence over brute strength. The action sequences match the tension and spectacle of the best science fiction thrillers, yet it’s all achieved with a focus on defensive combat and clever instincts. Even the visual effects rival the best cinematic outings, which thankfully means we aren’t left with awkward fights in under-lit hallways trying their best to hide the limited budget. Whatever Marvel spent on Loki, it looks and feels like they spent a lot more.
To carry the show across the finish line, we have an abundance of great performances from a great cast. The stellar roster includes Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Richard E. Grant, Wunmi Mosaku, Sasha Lane and Eugene Cordero, all of whom manage to create fully fleshed out characters (with limited screen time in some cases). Even with such a great supporting cast, none hold a candle to the three who steal the show: Tom Hiddleston, Sophia Di Martino and Jonathan Majors. After 10 years, you’d half expect Hiddleston to be sick of playing Loki, yet he’s showing no signs of slowing down. This is helped by the inclusion of Martino, who is the perfect companion to Hiddleston and brings unexpected layers of nuance to her and Loki’s arcs. Majors has arguably the hardest job, as he is the lynchpin to the whole series despite only appearing late in the game. Some viewers may be thrown for a loop and not accept him, yet that shouldn’t discount how successfully he positions himself within the show.
Loki might be the hardest test of the MCU’s strength since Captain America: Civil War (2016). It’s an undeniably brilliant story which proves why a cinematic universe is a creative idea, but in doing so it may be impenetrable for new audiences. Just like Civil War before it, Loki provides all the context needed, meaning there’s no doubt that hardcore fans and casual viewers can find something to love about it. Whether it’s the engaging mystery, the metaphysical themes, or the earth shattering stakes, Loki successfully promises a bright future for the franchise.
Best way to watch it: With your laptop nearby. You’re definitely going to be doing some Googling when you’re done.