In the beginning, there was chaos. Multiple strands and storylines overlapped, creating widespread confusion and doubt. Then, some people with a clear vision got together and decided to sort everything out – they pruned the timelines, organised the wayward strands of the story, and ruthlessly controlled every aspect of existence.
This is the background to Loki, a new television show starting on Disney+ today that’s the latest addition to the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. But it’s also the story of the MCU itself.
The show builds on a brief seed planted during Avengers Endgame, the blockbuster finale to ‘Phase Three’ of the MCU, which saw Iron Man and friends travel through time to retrieve the Infinity Stones – powerful objects which when collected together would allow them to undo the destruction of half of all life in the universe perpetrated by ultra-villain Thanos.
But, during their attempt to retrieve one of these objects from 2012 New York (The Tesseract, a glowing blue box that drives the plot in many of the Marvel movies) they accidentally let it fall into the hands of Loki, the Asgardian god of mischief, played with a sneering menace by Tom Hiddleston. Loki, whose character had died in the present day, absconded with the Tesseract and used it to escape to parts unknown – creating a messy paradox, and a branch in time.
Loki, the television show, introduces us to an organisation called the Time Variance Authority, which exists to snip such loose threads – and ensure the sanctity of the ‘sacred timeline,’ which is shaped and protected by three shadowy “space lizards” known as the Time Keepers. Its soldiers, called ‘Minute Men’ travel through time to track down ‘variants’ who have deviated from their set path, like 2012 Loki, and destroy them.
If, unlike me, you didn’t spend lockdown evenings slogging through all 23 Marvel movies plus associated television shows, you’re probably utterly bewildered by all that. But don’t worry, the first episode of Loki explains everything with a Jurassic Park-inspired cartoon voiceover early on (absolutely the greatest form of plot exposition, I can’t believe more films don’t do this).
Without giving too much away, the 2012 variant of Loki ends up trapped within the bureaucracy of the TVA, and forced to work with Mobius – a kind of hardened time detective, played by Owen Wilson, to work out who keeps killing the TVA’s troops.
The first two episodes are promising – Hiddleston and Wilson antagonise each other well, and make a more entertaining pairing than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in Marvel’s previous television outing, who seemed too stiff and soldier-like for believable repartee.
As with WandaVision, the costume and set designers have excelled themselves – from the timeless, maze-like bureaucracy of the TVA with its olive-and-beige 70s stylings, through various periods in time from Ancient Rome to a corporate mega-mart in the 2050s. And the first two episodes only scratch at the surface of a vast world, you get the sense that there’s a lot more depth here that could be explored in later entries. There’s even some meditation on destiny and the nature of free will – although it’s hard to take seriously in Wilson’s ‘here, buy this sofa’ drawl.
But, while it’s entertaining, the show hints at a wider problem facing the MCU as it moves into the next phase of pandemic-delayed cinematic releases: fatigue. Even having watched everything the studio has put out, there was still a lot of pausing and looking things up on Wikipedia: ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Which one is the Soul Stone?’ ‘I thought he was dead?’