Within an entire pantheon of muscle-bound heroes and cosmic do-gooders, it’s Loki – the greasy little emo rat – who’s become a surprise jewel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s crown. Thor’s adopted and insatiably bitter brother, who has a drive to become master of all domains, is beloved for his flowery turns of phrase (“mewling quim” is an old favourite) and his slightly pathetic, runtish quality. Over the course of the series, he’s shifted further down the conveyor belt of villain to antihero. Three deaths later – two fake, one real – and he has officially cemented his place at the centre of the Marvel franchise.
Enter Loki, the third in Disney+’s slate of Marvel shows. It’s a wonderfully clever bit of narrative engineering – one that sets up the next chapter of the MCU without making the whole affair feel like homework. And, crucially, it mines Loki’s familiar charms while letting his audience see him in an entirely new light. The Loki we meet here is a product of the Avengers’ time-jiggling in Endgame, making him a variant that exists on his own timeline – when our heroes travelled to 2012 in order to retrieve the Tesseract, Loki was able to grab the powerful artefact in the subsequent fracas and disappear.
Loki’s first episode begins here (the second was also shown to critics), though he’s almost instantaneously apprehended by the TVA (Time Variance Authority) – a cosmic bureaucratic organisation whose duty is to maintain “the sacred timeline”. Anyone caught out of their proper place must be punished. Its headquarters are unlike any location we’ve seen before in the MCU: a brutalist maze that’s consciously unepic in its design. Aside from the occasional establishing shot that hints at a nauseatingly infinite chain of command, the place is quite claustrophobic – all low ceilings, vomit-coloured Seventies decor, and headache-inducing fluorescents.
Instead of letting Loki become an exposition dump for whatever universe-bending, multiverse shenanigans the MCU has planned for its future, the show’s creator, Michael Waldron, and director, Kate Herron, have laid out a rather elegant framework for their plans. Here, all the complex lingo and lengthy explanations feel like a natural extension of the world of the TVA. Loki fits loosely into the New Weird – a hard-to-define genre that’s increasingly found a home in the videogame industry, in titles such as Control, Disco Elysium and Dishonored.
They, along with Loki, blend the surreal, the scientific and the fantastical. Each is rooted in the mundane in a way that ultimately feels uncanny. The TVA may be a mysterious, unworldly entity, but it still functions as an ordinary office, with rows of cubicles and a central canteen. Loki is processed in a way that’s not unlike getting a driver’s licence – he takes a number and joins the queue, while an instructional video featuring a Bambi-eyed cartoon clock (Miss Minutes, voiced by Tara Strong) chatters away in the background.
It’s somewhere after this point that he meets Mobius M Mobius (Owen Wilson), a senior TVA agent who helps spin Loki on to a promising new trajectory. While the series isn’t short on compelling characters (Wunmi Mosaku is a highlight as a high-ranking variant hunter working hard to keep some illusion of control), this is largely a character piece, exploring what happens when a man who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room meets the actual cleverest person in the room. That sudden, piercing vulnerability opens up a whole new side to Loki.
Hiddleston, who could play this role in his sleep, adds a dash of softness and maturity to this iteration. Even his wig’s calmed down, the gelled spikes having been traded for the curls of a romantic poet. Wilson makes for an unconventional but thrilling sparring partner. It would seem like their energies don’t match – Hiddleston is effusive, while Wilson is wry and restrained. Yet they work, as inexplicably as the world they inhabit. Loki’s premise may not be as bold as Wandavision, nor as crowd-pleasing as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but it’s proven to have the strongest opening of the three. Now it just needs to maintain that bit of wizardry for the rest of its series.