Caveats and Chaos.
A couple of caveats to this column.
First, to my regular readers (I’m grateful for each of you) I want to apologize for the slower influx of fresh content lately. My little house in the ‘burbs has been plagued with a solid month of plumbing/electrical issues, and has only returned to something resembling normal this week. However, I will try to throw a bit more content out there in the weeks to come, particularly in August, when I attend Star Trek Las Vegas for the first time in two years (!).
Secondly, as I’ve stated in previous Marvel-related columns, I’m only a casual fan of the cinematic/TV Marvel universe, and I don’t profess to be the end-all expert. Please forgive me if I get a name misspelled, or miss some deeper connection between characters/events somewhere. Apologies in advance to the hardcore Marvel faithful.
The sheer volume of Marvel material is such that I don’t think I have enough years left in my lifetime to become an expert, let alone watch it all. I enjoyed the Bronze-Age comics (“Fantastic Four,” “SpiderMan” “Incredible Hulk”) when I was a kid in the mid-to-late 1970s, and I watch and enjoy the movies/TV offerings whenever I can catch them. However, like some alien-abductee amnesia, I tend to forget all about them just minutes later. They’re breezy, flashy and enjoyable entertainment, but for some reason, they just don’t remain in my rusty cranial case as readily as Star Trek, Doctor Who or other franchises. Once again, apologies.
So, onto “Loki.” I’ve just seen the second episode as of last night and I’ll touch on it, but for now, I’d like to focus more on Episode 1, “Glorious Purpose,” which was written by Michael Waldron and directed by Kate Herron.
******SPACETIME-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*******
Loki, Episode 1: “Glorious Purpose.”
The pilot of Disney+’s “Loki” takes us back a couple of years to “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) which saw Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in custody for his theft of the Tesseract Cube—an arrest which occurred thanks to time-traveling “Avengers” who sought to stop their universe going to hell in a hand basket at the hands of omniscient overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin). Seizing a temporary moment of Hulk-induced chaos to escape, Loki grabs the carelessly dropped Tesseract Cube (the Marvel movies’ glowing MacGuffin) and uses its awesome powers to escape into the Gobi desert of Mongolia…
Note: Loki is, of course, loosely based on the Norse god of mischief who is both a prankster and shapeshifter—changing form and gender at will (something the series has already played with in its second episode “The Variant”—more on that later). Loki is essentially a less brooding, more impish version of the traditional devil. Tom Hiddleston clearly relishes playing the cunning trickster with all his heart, even appearing in character at San Diego Comic Con back in 2013.
Landing in the desert, Loki is startled by the arrival of heavily-armed “Minutemen” from the “TVA” (Time Variance Authority). The TVA are, for all intent and purposes, the Marvel universe’s answer to Doctor Who’s Time Lords—an omniscient (and deeply bureaucratic) temporal oversight committee which exists outside the realm of our spacetime in order to ensure history stays on its one, true course (at least according to the TVA). These Minutemen, led by the badass Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Musaku), have technology that Loki’s bag of tricks can’t touch. The TVA Minutemen out-god the god of mischief. Using their crafty assortment of hi-tech temporal charges, the Minutemen reset the timeline and teleport back, along with their prisoner Loki, to the extra-dimensional realm of the TVA.
Arriving in a universe that exists outside our spacetime, Loki is met with an all-new reality that is equal parts “Brazil” (1985), “Mad Men” (2007-2015) and “Defending Your Life” (1991). It’s as if Purgatory were designed by the defunct Pan-Am Airline and Franklin Lloyd Wright. There are bulky cathode-ray TV tubes everywhere, and the attendants are largely attired in button-down shirts and ties. Even the incandescent bulbs in the lobby to the processing center cast a warm, 1950s phosphorescence. Just as “WandaVision” meticulously captured the mood and feel of early TV sitcoms, “Loki” conjures a mishmash universe that is a mix of time periods, but with a heavier emphasis on retro. It is in this strange new world of the TVA that “variant” Loki finds himself navigating a sea of tortuous bureaucracy, beginning with a stack of paperwork consisting of his entire transcribed life.
Next, Loki is taken down to an airport security-style scanner that is hooked up to a ton of cables in a dingy, florescent-lit room. A bored attendant (Aaron Beelner), clearly out of patience, just wants Loki to hurry the hell up and pass through the scanner so he can call it a day. It’s established that most of the inhabitants in the TVA live their entire lives there—like ‘guardians of forever’, but without the slightest hint of romanticism or sci-fi heroics. The TVA oversees all of time much like a bored pet shop employee makes sure all of the snakes and tarantulas are fed before the customers arrive; mildly dangerous work, yes, but nothing to get worked up over.
Before he’s taken before a perfunctory court for final disposition, Loki waits in the lobby where a monitor gets his attention using an animated, “Jurassic Park”-style information dump delivered by a talking southern belle emoji named “Miss Minutes” (Tara Strong). Miss Minutes brings Loki (and the audience) up to speed on where and why he is. We learn that the TVA was formed after mysterious robed “Time Keepers” (who look like characters out of 1973’s “Star Trek: The Animated Series“) decided to impose a ‘core’ order following a disastrous temporal war.
Note: Using the broad, southern accented Miss Minutes as a storytelling device works well enough (a direct nod to Jurassic Park’s “Mr. DNA”), even if her roots as raw exposition are plainly visible. Once again, the lobby has a very retro-early 1960s look to it, even using a color palette seen in early seasons of “Mad Men” (of which I am a huge fan). I appreciated that Miss Minutes gives the audience the broad strokes of the Time Variance Authority without telling us too much—a mistake arguably made with Doctor Who‘s Time Lords and their home planet of Gallifrey. “Loki” only has six episodes scheduled in its run, so hopefully it will leave some mysteries locked in the vaults of the TVA.
Loki is taken before a judge named Revonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a surprisingly young but seemingly experienced woman who has no patience for the delaying tactics of the “variant” Loki. She is ready to pass a summary judgment on her latest case before Loki makes his defense, arguing that it was the Avengers who attempted to reroute history to their own ends, not himself. Not buying it, the judge is ready to bang the gavel before Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson, looking a lot like “Mad Men”‘s John Slattery) intervenes. Mobius acts as Loki’s de facto defense, asking the court for special dispensation since Loki might be key to a temporal investigation he’s currently pursuing. Reluctantly, Renslayer agrees. Loki makes things worse on himself with repeated, unsuccessful escape attempts, which are more like mild irritants to the TVA than causes for genuine concern, as each escape attempt is easily thwarted by B-15 and her Minutemen. So long as Loki wears his collar, he is vulnerable to “the twister,” a device which yanks him back from each attempt at teleportation.
Agent Mobius then takes Loki on a brief tour of his new surroundings at the TVA as the two walk past windows overflowing with utopian architecture and flying cars. Mobius tries to impress upon the humiliated demigod the futility of his escape attempts, assuring Loki that they’ve studied his entire life.
Note: The greater entirety of this TVA resembles “The Jetsons” meets “Star Trek Beyond”‘s Yorktown starbase…a gleaming heaven just outside the windows of a bureaucratic purgatory.
Securing the collared Loki in a large, darkened interrogation room, Mobius shows him some of the ‘highlights’ of his antics with the Avengers which led to his being captured. Images from the 2012 feature film “The Avengers” play on a large monitor behind them. They both see how Loki’s thirst for power with the Tesseract Cube led to his opening an inter-dimensional gateway over New York City, allowing swarms of alien invaders to pour in. However, the unrepentant Loki refuses to yield. Riffing on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, the ever-patient Mobius shows Loki another story from his past…
Aboard a passenger plane in 1971, we see a business-attired Loki chatting up with an attractive flight attendant just before he hijacks the plane and parachutes away carrying a suitcase stuffed with cash. Turns out our boy Loki was, in fact, “D.B. Cooper” (aka the real-life Dan Cooper), a mysterious man responsible for an infamously unsolved hijacking where he parachuted off the plane into the woods of southwestern Washington state, never to be seen again. Loki was snatched from the air shortly after leaving the plane, allowing his suitcase full of money to pop open and scatter to the winds. Apparently, Loki was only there because he “lost a bet.”
Note: The ‘revelation’ that Loki was the real-life D.B. Cooper was easily my favorite part of the entire episode, as it promised a fanciful look into where this miniseries could go. What other famous mysteries in time could’ve involved Loki? Maybe he crashed the rumored flying saucer at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947? Perhaps he was involved with Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March? So many possibilities, so little time…
We see other highlights of Loki’s future going forward from when he was abducted by the TVA in 2012, including the murder of his own mother Frigga (Rene Russo). Loki seems genuinely stunned and saddened by his own future bad behavior. Tears well in his eyes as he watches the images of his slain Asgardian mother appear on the monitor. But as Mobius reaches out to the seemingly distraught demigod, the dedicated trickster exploits the gullible agent’s sympathies. B-15 interrupts the interrogation, pulling Mobius away from the room (to Mobius’ chagrin) to report of a downed Minutemen squad. Mobius then realizes that Loki has snatched the control for his collar during their ‘hug’. Loki runs free through the complex, stopping to harass some of the low-level office drones of the TVA, who casually use highly sought-after “Infinity Stones” and other powerful, magical artifacts as “paperweights” (!). This reinforces the earlier notion that in this odd universe, such rare and magic artifacts are utterly useless. Loki realizes the TVA is the highest power he has ever seen, even more so than his former Asgardian realm (which he later helped to destroy in “Thor: Ragnarok”).
Note: I saw this one coming from a mile away; the hoary cliche of a prisoner stealing the handcuff keys (or gun, or or whatever) when pretending to fall, faint, or, in this case, pretending to need a hug. It’s an old cliche, yes, but sometimes cliches are the best shortcuts to make a story work.
The purpose of Loki’s temporary escape is to see what he’s not been allowed to see; the end of his core counterpart’s existence—revealing the full “glorious purpose” which he’s been scheming toward his entire life. As B-15 closes in on Loki to neutralize the “variant,” Loki slips his collar onto her and makes her temporarily disappear so that he can see his core future uninterrupted. After Frigga’s death, Loki sees his ultimate betrayal of Asgard, and his dying father’s testament of love for his sons (despite Loki’s acts). The worst comes last, as Loki then sees the end of his life—his death at the hand of Thanos (from the climax of “Avengers: Endgame”). Loki’s eventual fate is to have his neck snapped in the near-future. For the first time, Loki seems to feel genuine remorse for his past when he realizes his long lifetime of bad behavior isn’t a means to a grand ending; his story ends in a simple act of brutal violence. This revelation drains some of the piss and vinegar out of Loki, and he confesses that, despite his reputation, he doesn’t enjoy hurting people.
Note: One of the most interesting things about Loki is that one can never quite be sure when he is being sincere or when he is lying. He is a character who forever surfs on a never-ending wave of ambiguous intent. The safest bet is to assume he is always lying, of course, but then you don’t have a series. We assume Loki intends to overthrow the TVA and become absolute ruler over eternity, but there are moments when Hiddleston plays it so ‘real’ that we can get as easily suckered in as Agent Mobius.
We then see Loki agreeing to join Mobius and B-15’s Minutemen to help track down a troublesome variant throughout history—himself. Given Loki’s established powers as a shapeshifter and a host of other surprises up his mercurial sleeve, the TVA realizes it ‘takes a thief.’ The final moments sees Mobius, B-15 and her squad arriving with their probationary variant ‘volunteer’ to apprehend a hooded Loki on a dark, dangerous night in 1858 Oklahoma…
Setting up a premise that is sort of an anti-“Quantum Leap” (with a dedicated antihero forced to undo his own time-traveling shenanigans), “Glorious Purpose” ended with a lot of promise.
A Few Words On S1.2: “The Variant.”
The second episode, “The Variant,” was written by Elissa Karasik and was once again directed by Kate Herron. The time-travel premise of “Loki” is flexed a little more in this disappointingly talky and slower-paced installment. The action begins in a Renaissance Faire in 1985 Wisconsin, where the ever-devious Loki undermines the mission, forcing the Minutemen to reset the timeline without stopping the variant (Loki’s other self). Returning to the TVA, Loki becomes obsessed with finding his variant and does research about anomalous catastrophes throughout history. He soon realizes the variant is hiding at the tail end of apocalyptic events–where his actions will be buried by the event’s aftermath. First stop (with Agent Mobius) is, predictably, Pompeii, 79 A.D., where Loki proves his theory by freely revealing himself to the locals just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius—which has zero effect on the timeline. Loki and Mobius later learn (thanks to some anachronistic leftover candy) that the variant is hiding in 2050 Alabama, where a tornado is about to wipe a town off the map. Arriving with the Minutemen, Loki possesses several bodies (an ability we saw in the movies), including a turn inside of B-12, before encountering the separate female ‘variant’ of himself (Sophia di Martino), who refuses his offer to join forces and overthrow the TVA.
Note: While “Glorious Purpose” crackled with energy, oddness and humor, “The Variant” is slower-paced and very talky. There is a lengthy scene at the TVA where it sounds as if Loki and Mobius are spouting dialogue just to hear themselves talk. Loki quickly deduces that his other selves are hiding in other apocalypses (setting up future episodes), but the characters take their time to get it in gear. It doesn’t help that the episode’s final act in near-future Alabama feels needlessly protracted as well, save for the nicely quirky ‘possessions’. The Alabama sequence takes place 29 years from now, but the store in which the characters await the variant’s arrival looks like a too contemporary CVS drugstore. I was further distracted by the thought of whether or not we’d still have brick and mortar stores in 2050 (?). “The Variant” is a lesser followup to a more whimsical pilot. I might just wait until this miniseries finishes before I catch up on the rest.
At Its ‘Core.’
The series’ “Doctor Who” by way of “Mad Men” premise, as well as its opportunities to explore different facets of the Loki character are (potentially) fascinating. This possession gag of the format also allows different actors to play Loki right along with Tom Hiddleston. A character leaping into various points along their own timeline sounds a lot like “Quantum Leap,” but unlike Dr. Sam Beckett, Loki is a deliberate instigator of chaos. Instead of ‘putting things right,’ he’s always angling for personal power as well as causing a little mischief along the way.
Tom Hiddleston clearly relishes playing the ‘bad boy’ antihero (his long locks and nervous energy remind me quite a bit of James Callis’ “Gaius Baltar” in the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica”), and he injects enough charm and likability for us to wonder what lies beyond his prankster facade. In some ways, Loki is Marvel’s answer to DC’s “Joker”— a chaotic devil who plays the game of life at multiple levels through multiple facets. The yin to Loki’s yang, Owen Wilson’s Agent Mobius has the tired energy of a lifelong bureaucrat who welcomes the opportunity for a little fun in his life—just not too much; I mean, think of all the paperwork that would cause, right? The other characters populating the TVA have yet to come into their own (despite a few insights here and there), though I welcome the opportunities Loki’s occasional ‘possessions’ might allow for even the most lackluster of characters to show off their respective actor’s talents.
Despite the first two episodes’ variances, there is still opportunity for this miniseries to mine some genuine time-travel adventure. Just hoping “Loki” doesn’t get bogged down in plot mechanics and exposition to ignore the fun. I look forward to seeing what other historical calamities might have Loki’s fingerprints all over them…
Safe Viewing Options.
“Loki” is, of course, available to stream exclusively on Disney+. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 600,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.