The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an experiment that’s played out in public and in real time. It wasn’t obvious before Iron Man hit theaters in 2008 that moviegoers would turn out for a hero who didn’t have the name recognition of Spider-Man. Nor was it a sure thing that audiences would put in the homework of watching films starring individual Avengers before the release of a movie that brought them together. Establishing the MCU as we now know it took a lot of risk-taking. But in some respects, Marvel also hedged its bets in the early days with largely earthbound stories and relatively simple concepts. Until Guardians of the Galaxy expanded the universe to the far reaches of the cosmos and Doctor Strange explored its mystic underworld, the MCU largely held back from hitting viewers with the full-on weirdness at the heart of Marvel Comics. With the MCU’s expansion to Disney+, however, Marvel seems happy to let weirdness run wild — at least up to a point—a trend their latest series Loki, which begins this week, delightfully continues.
Marvel’s first two Disney+ series, WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier look almost like an A/B test to see what viewers wanted from Marvel’s new TV ventures. With little explanation, WandaVision dropped viewers into a series of meticulously realized but slightly off parodies of classic sitcoms, only starting to pull back the curtain toward the end of the third episode. It looked, for a while, like nothing MCU watchers had seen before. Though the final episode brought its odd concepts back down to Earth (and climaxed in a cookie-cutter Marvel fight scene) it was allowed to stay strange for most of its run. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, by contrast, followed a playbook set up by the Captain America movies that preceded it: international intrigue, superheroic twists, some feints in the direction of political relevance without any commitment to making a real statement, and a lot of quippy banter.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier worked well enough, up to an awful final episode. But it also looked fairly pedestrian on the heels of WandaVision, which offered everything from a send-up of Family Ties to a flashback to the Salem Witch trials, because why not? That’s how superhero comics work, after all. There is no faster express train to insanity than a Wikipedia entry attempting to untangle the wilds of comic book continuity. (Just try making it through Carol Danvers’ page without a headache.) But those bizarre extremes and hairpin reversals are part of the pleasures of superhero stories, and — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier aside — it’s been heartening to see Marvel start to lean into the potential for television madness.
That continues with Loki, in which the Norse god of mischief played by Tom Hiddleston finds himself imprisoned by the Time Variance Authority, an organization dedicated to stamping out variations on what it calls the Sacred Timeline, the proper order of historical events from which there should be no deviation. Why? Because deviation from the Sacred Timeline has the potential to create alternate universes that inevitably clash, resulting in disaster. After stealing the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame, the Loki of 2012 — not the older Loki who died at the hands of Thanos in Infinity War; try to keep up — created just such an alternate timeline and finds himself facing the possibility of being erased from existence as punishment for his crime. But a sympathetic case worker named Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) offers the possibility of redemption (or maybe just someone Loki can fool into letting him escape). Working under Mobius, Loki joins the hunt for a time-hopping murderer who, and here’s where it gets even more confusing, seems to be an alternate universe of Loki himself.
The oddness extends beyond the set-up. The series, created by Rick & Morty veteran Michael Waldron (also co-writer of the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), is largely set within the sterile halls of the TVA, a sprawling bureaucracy that monitors and enforces the timeline using futuristic science powered by outdated tech. Its gray-meets-orange color scheme, institutional rigidity, and monochrome computer monitors make it look, at times, like a 1970s adaptation of 1984. But the strictness and stuffiness are seemingly justified by the understanding that any rogue actors who screw up the timeline could result in the end of existence as we know it.
Maybe. At the end of the two episodes of Loki provided for critics, it’s still not entirely clear where the TVA comes from or why they do what they do, despite a cartoon hosted by a cheery anthropomorphic clock named Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong) laying out its supposed origins. The squareness, intense focus, and fundamental humorlessness of the TVA agents makes them a perfect foil for the out-there possibilities of the series’ set-up — assuming it doesn’t shift. Early on, Loki seems to be a kind of buddy cop variation on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but a late twist in episode two suggests that could be upended at any moment.
So does Loki’s own mercurial nature. Hiddleston’s performance — a mix of shiftiness, unpredictability, and unmistakable vulnerability — has been a highlight of the MCU since 2011’s Thor. He may do awful things, but he’s also clearly a deeply wounded soul. And though he has the potential to do great good, his own nature keeps tripping him up. Hiddleston plays well against Wilson, who depicts Mobius as a man laconic in his manners but quick with his wits, even if he can’t help but be troubled by some of Loki’s needling questions about who he works for and why he does what he does.
First introduced in a 1986 issue of Thor written and drawn by Walt Simonson, the Marvel Comics version of the TVA began as a joke layered on top of a joke. In the course of his adventures, Thor encounters a visitor from the future named Justice Peace, a parody of the British comics staple Judge Dredd, who brings with him such a draconian idea of how the law should be enforced that he starts attacking jaywalkers. He’s on assignment from the TVA, revealed in a later appearance in a Simonsson-created issue of Fantastic Four to be clones. Specifically, they’re clones modeled after Mark Gruenwald, a storied Marvel writer and editor famed for his encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel continuity, and stand-ins for any readers who sounded alarm bells when they noticed inconsistencies.
The TVA is the sort of strange corner of the Marvel universe that would never have found its way into the MCU in its early days. But, so far at least, Loki is not only having fun with its strangeness, it’s using that strangeness as a jumping off point for even twistier feats of storytelling. Where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier offered predictable entertainment, Loki joins WandaVision in happily diving off the deep end and hoping for the best, asking viewers to keep up with its time loops and the head-spinning possibilities of a multiverse filled with continuity-defying criminals.
The MCU might be a well-oiled assembly line at this point, but it’s not one that’s content to turn out the same product over and over again. Marvel is using its accumulated goodwill and the possibilities of episodic TV to get more daring, at least part of the time. Loki also looks like a bellwether for projects to come. While Black Widow appears anchored to the cloak-and-dagger corner of the Marvel universe, Eternals, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Taika Waititi’s second Thor film and future Disney+ series like She-Hulk and Moon Knight all seem likely to draw from Marvel’s odd fringes. That kind of unpredictability is considerably more exciting than an attempt to make a bigger, slightly different version of what Marvel has already done. And once you’ve had a movie that teams up virtually every possible character to fight a bad guy able to reshape the universe with a snap of his fingers, how much bigger can you get? Better to get strange and trust everyone else to go along for the ride.