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You know how you mention to somebody that you need blue jeans and suddenly you find yourself getting served ads for Levis on social media? So far, it feels as if Marvel’s new run of Disney+ shows are similarly sensitive — however unlikely the causality — to the smallest murmurings of audience dissatisfaction.
WandaVision was well-respected, but some fans were disappointed by the lack of traditional superhero thrills. So The Falcon and the Winter Soldier opened with 10 solid minutes of high-flying, effects-driven excitement. But then the primary complaint about that series was that audiences were promised, and never given, buddy comedy hijinks. The third Marvel show for Disney+ is Loki, and it’s a safe bet that viewers are going to love the cleverly written buddy comedy dynamic between Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief and a newly introduced celestial middle-manager played by Owen Wilson. But might this new series again fall a little short when it comes to traditional superhero thrills? Well, that’s something for Marvel’s next series to worry about.
Airdate: Wednesday, June 9 (Disney+)
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino, Wunmi Mosaku and Richard E. Grant
Created for TV by: Michael Waldron
Loki has had an interesting journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, evolving from sympathetic villain to, however briefly, selfless doomed antihero. It’s an arc you can execute if you have an actor who plays manipulative and egomaniacal as likably as Hiddleston does — an attribute that lets creator Michael Waldron and the team behind Loki take an even stranger step: basically scrapping the previous character development and starting from near-scratch.
The six-episode dramedy (episodes run roughly an hour) begins in an alternate version of 2012 created as a result of the attempt, in Avengers: Endgame, to retrieve the Tesseract, which falls into Loki’s hands and leads to his escape. He forms a new timeline, earning the ire of the Time Variance Authority, an organization entrusted with protecting The Sacred Timeline on behalf of three Time-Keepers who…
I sense I might have lost you there. Let’s make this simple. Or simpler: The Tesseract lets this variant of Loki exist in a timeline in which he wasn’t killed and Thor: The Dark World didn’t happen — frankly, we should all be so lucky — but also one in which Thor: Ragnarok and other subsequent movies haven’t happened or won’t happen, to the chagrin of some powerful unseen figures (Disney accountants, presumably). Loki is like a jazz musician of time villainy and the TVA is very insistent that everybody stick to the notes written in the score.
The TVA quickly catches Loki and runs him through a justice system that includes hunters (like Wunmi Mosaku’s B-15), analysts (like Wilson’s Mobius) and judges (like Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Ravonna). Nearly everybody wants to eliminate or at least reset Loki, but Mobius believes that the clever Asgardian could be an asset in stopping an ongoing catastrophe in which a variant (no spoilers as to their identity) has been going through time creating ruptures and killing TVA agents.
The hiring of Waldron raised some eyebrows among fans: Was it really wise to entrust a big Marvel franchise to a young writer whose primary credit was Rick and Morty? Watching the first two Loki episodes, the pairing of creator and approach is absurdly logical or maybe logical in its absurdity. Perhaps no current show is as good at coming up with inspired differentiations on a seemingly simple theme as Rick and Morty. Here, Waldron has paired Loki, a master of chaos forced to acknowledge that even his most devious schemes may be predictable pieces in a cosmic plan, with Mobius, a literal tool of interdimensional order, whose idea of a personality is reading a magazine dedicated to jet-skis, even though he has never had enough free time to engage in the hobby.
Waldron’s background has prepared him to execute recursive loops of silliness and the combo of Hiddleston’s florid exasperation and Wilson’s wry skepticism can be used to respond to any circumstance.
It’s a classic odd-couple pairing of leads and a perfect play on the respective screen personae of Hiddleston, verbally dextrous and capable of making total nonsense sound Shakespearean, and Wilson, droll and precise, able to unravel with five words any tapestry of logorrhea Hiddleston might spin in 50. If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier led with soaring plot, but frustrated people simply wanting to watch Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan banter, Loki establishes Hiddleston and Wilson sitting across from each other at tables as its trademark set-up.
Before things finally get exciting at the end of the second hour, Loki generates most of its action out of clips from various MCU movies, leaving Waldron with lots of exposition to unfold — probably more background detail, existential musings and rules-of-the-universe explaining than either previous Disney+ Marvel show attempted in their full seasons. The first two episodes put Loki through orientation, training and research on the TVA and on the actions and capabilities of the variant he’s meant to be hunting.
Waldron finds just enough different ways to keep inserting more information, and director Kate Herron effectively makes Loki feel like more than a series of mythology dumps. There are dark flourishes of Coen Brothers-esque humor by way of Philip K. Dick-style paranoia that arise from the bureaucracy of the TVA. The retro-futuristic production design from Kasra Farahani gives the impression of a world in which no expense was spared in 1972, and then nothing was subsequently updated. The TVA has a look of epic claustrophobia — browns and grays spiked by occasional bursts of color — and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw has fun playing around in the shadows as composer Natalie Holt’s score milks every bit of oddness.
After two episodes, Loki is at a tipping point. Having set everything up to an exhausting degree, things could be lined up to get really entertaining — if not zany in a Rick and Morty way, perhaps fun in some of the timeline rupture-of-the-week ways The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow has enjoyed with a similar premise and much less seriousness. The show has barely begun to take advantage of Mosaku and Mbatha-Raw as anything more than frustrated authority figures or to find enough outlets for veteran scene-stealer Eugene Cordero, positioned for a breakout as comic relief in an already amusing show.
Or Loki might just be a lot of Hiddleston and Wilson talking, which might still be engaging for six episodes, but will surely require Marvel course correction, once the audience murmuring begins.
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