Welcome to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki. Be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
One of the downsides that come with adapting comic book source material into live action movie material is an often unpleasant and entirely unavoidable clash with realism, defined as the quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life. The great strength of comics as a medium lies in its capacity to manipulate perception in specific and distinctive ways: to distort time at will, expanding or compressing events for narrative effect; to play fast and loose with the visual properties of objects and people (an obvious plus for super-hero stories); and the incorporation of more than one point of view at a time, something I think might be unique to comics.
None of the medium’s natural strengths translate to film.
In movies and television, we’re restricted to a single point of view — what the camera shows is what we get — and even the most fantastical stew of CGI-generated imagery still moves along in something like real time, typically anchored by human actors with both feet still planted in a world of predictable gravity and mundane physics.
Cinema offers its own set of benefits, of course. If the movies can’t duplicate comics’ shifting points of view and sleights of hand with time, neither can comics match the movies for immediacy and kineticism. It’s one thing to imagine the way a thing moves and sounds; it’s something else altogether to see that thing on a wide screen and hear the deep rumble of it over a movie theater’s sound system.
The point here is that movies by their nature can’t help but impose some level of realism over their subject matter and the way that subject matter is presented. Even in animation, where nothing shown onscreen ‘exists’ in any real world sense, it’s still information presented to the viewer in a linear way with a singular POV, with every viewer receiving that information in the same way and at the same pace. None of this is to say that the shift from comics to movies is inherently negative; it isn’t. What we’re talking about here is a process that involves the exchange of one medium’s natural strengths and weaknesses for another’s…but it is a factor, one that the Marvel Cinematic Universe both benefits from and contends with.
Most Marvel properties and characters are rooted in obvious, easy to explain concepts. It’s part of their enduring charm. The explanations for said concepts may be (and usually are) utterly preposterous, rooted in pseudo-science or half-baked mystical nonsense, but they’re explanations all the same: simple, sturdy, and requiring little to no further cosmological tinkering to work. Practically everything we see in the MCU may be unrealistic, strictly speaking, but it nevertheless fits just fine within the practical ‘what you see is what you get’ framework of the MCU. If one allows for the existence of super soldiers and talking space raccoons and sorcerers supreme in the first place, the rest of it — most of it — isn’t that big a jump…
…until we get to Thor and Loki and the gods of Asgard.
The introduction of Asgard to the MCU brings with it an entire mythological eco-system and a whole new set of requirements for the suspension of disbelief. There’s a complexity, an irrationality to all things Asgard that, coupled with the primal corporate instinct to avoid at all costs invoking the ire of a small but always vocal minority of religious nutbars, has often left Marvel Studios squirming with palpable discomfort. It’s easy enough to fit Captain America, say, into the ‘real’ or ‘normal’ world and still have it look and act more or less like the real or normal world. Asgard, though? That’s a much bigger ask, and can perhaps only be accomplished by bleeding the myth of the sweep and charm and fantasy that made it worthy of inclusion in the first place. Or, as the case may be, reducing the whole matter to farce.
But I digress.
My point is, the MCU is a cinematic franchise whose fundamental appeal is one of realism: through the magic of cinema and high production values, we’re afforded the opportunity to see something that had only ever existed on a page brought to a semblance of life. It’s not an accident that Captain America, the MCU’s most successful franchise concept, lies at one end of that realism spectrum, while Thor, its least successful concept, narratively speaking, lies at the other. Captain America fits smoothly into the MCU’s natural cinematic lean towards realism. Thor and Loki and Asgard don’t.
Consider: the word gods shows up but once in Thor (2011) and once again in Thor: The Dark World (2013), and in both cases only to disavow the notion of godhood altogether. The first Thor movie appears with some mythological elements still intact: it has Nine Realms, the rainbow bridge Bifrost, Yggisdril the World Tree, Jotunheim, frost giants, etc. By the time we get to Thor: Ragnarok (2017), however, most of those elements have either been left behind, or have suffered extensive surgery, excising nearly all trace of mythic context from the narrative corpus (looking at you, Valkyrie).
In the comics, the gods of Asgard are just that: gods. They live in a heavenly, if exceedingly war-like, realm of magic and fable and legend that’s not accessible to mortals. They contend with giants and demons and trolls, their immortal lives drawn on an epic scale. (They even speak in a different, fancier font than everyone else!) The slickest and smartest (and, it must be admitted, least honest) of the gods of Asgard, the Loki of the comics is the Prince of Lies, the God of Trickery and Schemes, the master of the confidence game in both its short and long varieties. Loki largely exists to obliterate the status quo. Any status quo, even one from which he stands to benefit. He’s a relentless agent of chaos. The God of Fucking Things Up for the Sake of Fucking Things Up.
The Loki of the movies…? Not so much. Mostly what Loki does in the movies is lose, badly and often, in ways both large and small. Movie Loki has been fatally reduced to a chump. He’s a square; a mark. Less the God of Mischief than the God of Self-Deception and Delusions of Grandeur. Virtually every time we see Loki in the MCU, someone’s getting over on him. How and if Loki (the series) manages to bridge the gap between the trickster god of comics and mythology and the rather dim-witted comedic punching bag we’ve seen to this point in the MCU will ultimately determine its success.
Our story opens with a flashback to the time-traveling events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), with the Avengers’ quest to retrieve the Infinity Stones and reverse the effects of Thanos’s erasure of half the life in the universe. The plan runs into something of a snag thanks to the Hulk’s displeasure at being told to take the stairs, and the Tesseract — a blue cube containing the Space Stone — winds up at the feet of the captive Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who picks up the cube and vanishes…
…re-emerging to fall from a hole in the sky. He lands in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert (he apparently doesn’t have the best grasp on working the Space Stone) in a visual callback to Tony Stark’s similar crash landing in Iron Man (2008). Some puzzled locals show up to see what’s going on. Loki takes the opportunity to jump on a rock and proclaim his mission statement: “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”
Before Loki or the less-than-suitably-awed locals can do or say much of anything else, shimmering dimensional doors appear, with black-armored police types stepping through it. They identify themselves officers of the TVA — the Time Variance Authority — and promptly, forcefully arrest Loki for “crimes against the Sacred Timeline.” They slap a time-looping collar on him and hustle him through one of the dimensional doors they arrived in, leaving behind a lantern-like device to “reset the timeline.”
TVA headquarters has a distinctly 70’s vibe to it, all done up in the rust ochre that seems to characterize that decade’s color scheme, with a lot of conspicuously archaic analog devices in evidence, sporting levers and knobs and big clunky buttons. It’s decor and technology by Fallout.
Loki is subjected to various indignities of processing, given a TVA prison jumpsuit in place of his ‘fine Asgardian leather,’ and kept in line by the time-looping collar: if he tries to run, a push of a button brings him right back to where he started. On the way to his arraignment, Loki learns from a PSA that plays on a loop that long ago, there was a vast multiversal war featuring countless timelines that nearly resulted in the destruction of everything. According to the TVA, the all-powerful Time Lords brought peace by reorganizing the multiverse into a single timeline, what they call the Sacred Timeline. Now, the Time Lords protect the proper flow of time for everyone and everything…but occasionally, someone drifts off course. These drifters are called Variants, and their discursions from the Sacred Timeline create new timelines called Nexus Events, which the Time Lord-created TVA exists to forestall and / or eliminate. How much of any that is true remains to be seen, of course.
Before we get to Loki’s arraignment or trial or sentencing — as we’ll soon see, it’s an all-in-one sort of deal — we’re introduced to Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), a self-described specialist in the pursuit of dangerous Variants, investigating the murders of several TVA agents, or Minutemen, in a church in France in the year 1549. It’s the sixth attack of a TVA team in the last week (though what does that mean for an agency that runs time and operates with ready access to any and all points in it?). A young local boy claims the Devil, represented in a stained glass window, is responsible for the murders.
Back at the TVA, Loki is ushered in for his trial, charged with sequence variation 7-20-89.My feeling is that number alludes to something, but I’ve yet to discover what. “How do you plead?” asks the judge.
Loki, scoffing: “Madam, a god doesn’t plead.” For a guy who’s been clubbed, put in a jumpsuit against his will, and fitted with a time-looping dog collar all before the series was ten minutes old, Loki sure does a lot of scoffing.
“Are you guilty or not guilty, sir?”
“Guilty of being the God of Mischief? Yes. Guilty of finding all this incredibly tedious? Yes. Guilty of a crime against the Sacred Timeline? Absolutely not, you have the wrong person.” Loki suggests that the culprits the court should be after are the Avengers; they’re the ones who traveled through time and interfered with the natural order of things. He’s got a point, but the court doesn’t agree. Her Honor finds Loki guilty and orders him to be reset, which appears to be a fancy euphemism for put to death (but may also serve as metatextual comment on the process Loki will undergo during the course of this episode).
Fortunately for Loki, Agent Mobius arrives to have Loki remanded to his custody, and conducts him to an office to hold a sort of interview with him that serves as both origin story and transformational self-reflection. Loki remains doubtful about the process.
“Not big on trust, are you?” says Mobius.
“Trust is for children and dogs,” says Loki. “If the TVA truly oversees all of time, how have I never heard of you until now?”
“‘Cause you never needed to,” says Mobius. “You always lived within your set path.”
“I live within whatever path I choose!”
“Sure you do.” Owen Wilson’s natural breeziness serves him well here in playing Mobius. There’s something about the way Wilson phrases things — not just in this role — that suggests neither agreement nor disagreement, or sincerity or insincerity. It’s a verbal shrug of the shoulders, like nearly every statement he makes has a If you say so disclaimer attached to it.
Mobius asks Loki what he plans to do if returned to his own timeline. Loki says he’ll complete his quest to be king.
“You want to be king?” says Mobius.
“I don’t want to be, I was born to be,” says Loki.
“I know, but king of what, exactly?” Mobius wonders why someone like Loki would want to be king. Loki gives the reason he gave in Avengers (2012) about the pitfalls of freedom and the perils of free will: “For nearly every living thing, choice brings shame and uncertainty and regret. There’s a fork in every road, yet the wrong path always taken.”
“You said ‘nearly every living thing,'” Mobius says, “so I’m guessing you don’t fall into that category?”
More scoffing from Loki. “The Time Keepers have built quite the circus, and I see the clowns are playing their part to perfection.”
“Big metaphor guy. I love it! Makes you sound super-smart.”
“I am smart,” says Loki, and you wonder if even he believes that, given that we’ve literally never witnessed him saying or doing a single thing that could be considered remotely smart.
“Okay,” says Mobius. He pulls up a video file, what he calls a sampling of Loki’s greatest hits, beginning with the conclusion of Avengers. “It’s funny. For someone born to rule, you sure do lose a lot. You might even say it’s in your nature.”
When Mobius suggests, with good evidence (again from Avengers), that Loki likes hurting people, making people feel small and afraid, Loki objects: “I know what I am!”
“A liberator,” Loki says. “I don’t have to play this game. I’m a god.”
“Of what, again? Mischief, right? I don’t see anything very mischievous about this.”
Mobius talks about Loki’s penchant for escape, how he’s really good at doing awful things and then just getting away. That introduces a bizarre flashback bit with Loki as D.B. Cooper that looks and sounds great. Weirdly, it’s easily the most character-appropriate moment Tom Hiddleston has ever been allowed to have as Loki: he’s suave, articulate, devilishly handsome, and charismatic as the day is long. In truth, gentle reader, I’d just as soon have ditched this TVA business altogether in favor of an episode devoted entirely to the doomed love affair between our charmed and charming flight attendant (Erika Coleman) and the God of Mischief, but alas…that wasn’t the hand we were dealt. Whatever the aesthetic benefits of the scene, however, it’s still kind of a hot goddamn mess, and serves as a microcosm of the MCU’s treatment of Asgard: glossy but depthless, kind of amusing, goes nowhere (though I assume we’ll see our stewardess again before this series is over). Loki hijacked a plane because he lost a bet to Thor? What kind of God of Mischief loses a bet to Thor? Does this dude ever win at anything?
Back in the interview, Mobius tells a frustrated Loki that he wants him to be honest about why he does what he does, that he seeks a deeper of understanding of “what makes the fearsome God of Mischief tick.”
Loki says he knows what the TVA is: an illusion. “It’s a cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear. A desperate attempt at control.” Loki insists his choices are his own, even after hearing his own words from Avengers on the replay file: The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power…
“Precisely,” says Loki, God of Projection. “I was…I am on the verge of acquiring everything I am owed, and when I do, it’ll be because I did it. Not because it was supposed to happen, or because you, or the Time Variance Authority or whatever it is you call yourselves, allowed me to. Honestly, you’re pathetic. You’re an irrelevance. A detour. A footnote to my ascent.”
Mobius shows Loki scenes from a future he hasn’t yet lived: the death of his foster mother Frigga in Thor: The Dark World. A death Loki inadvertently helps cause. “The TVA doesn’t just know your whole past, we know your whole life, how it’s all meant to be,” say Mobius.
Loki throws a little tantrum when Mobius mentions his mother and gets time-looped for his troubles. “You weren’t born to be king, Loki,” says Mobius. “You were born to cause pain and suffering and death. That’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it will be.”
Mobius helps Loki up off the floor — which is a perfect opportunity for Loki to pocket the time-looping device — and then the interview is interrupted by the TVA hunter who arrested Loki in the first place. She and Mobius step outside for a moment, and Loki makes good his escape from the interview room.
With Mobius and a team of hunters in pursuit, Loki retraces his steps and recovers his Tesseract, only to find it doesn’t work in the no-time (no-place?) of the TVA. Worse, he finds evidence of the Infinity Stones of other timelines, common as dirt and utterly useless. It’s a sobering discovery. He time-loops back to the interview just as the hunter in charge — IMDB identifies her as Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) — arrives to reset him.
Alone in the interview room, Loki restarts the video file that was being played by Mobius. He sees his mother’s death from Thor: The Dark World, sees his father Odin’s farewell and his redemptive team-up with his brother from Thor: Ragnarok…and finally his own violent death at the hands of Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War (2018), which is where the file ends, obviously.
Loki is still laughing about it, tears in his eyes, when Hunter B-15 finds him. “What’s so funny?” she says.
“Glorious purpose,” he says bitterly.
Loki gets the best of the ensuing fight, using the time-loop device to take his collar off and put it on Hunter B-15. No doubt thinking of the truncheon to the face he took at the beginning of this episode, Loki revs up the time-loop effect as high as he can manage and banishes Hunter B-15 to another part of the TVA complex.
It’s Mobius who finds him next, just sitting there with the useless Tesseract in his hands. Loki tells him that he doesn’t enjoy hurting people. He does it because he feels he has to. “It’s part of the illusion,” he explains. “A cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear.”
“So you do know yourself,” says Mobius.
“A villain.” It’s not the first time Tom Hiddleston’s take on Loki has had echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and here it is again: the idea that villainy as a character trait, at least for Loki, was not chosen so much as it was imposed by whatever laws of the universe make a creature the god of something.
Mobius tells Loki that he can’t offer him salvation, but maybe something better: a function. “A fugitive Variant’s been killing our Minutemen.”
“And you need the God of Mischief to help you stop him?”
“The Variant we’re hunting,” says Mobius, “is you.”
The episode’s final scene takes place in 1858 Oklahoma, with a team of Minutemen arriving to find a spear-like item dating from the early third millennium. Smelling oil, they assume someone from the future found a time machine and came back in time to strike it rich. They’re about to destroy the item and reset the timeline when they discern a figure out in the darkness.
The figure — presumably the murderous Variant Loki — stands in the dark with a lantern, resembling the Hermit from the Tarot. Whether intentional or not by the showrunners, the evocation is an apt one. The ninth card of the Major Arcana, the Hermit’s meaning suggests that you are in a phase of introspection where you are drawing your attention inwards and looking for answers within. You are in need of a period of inner reflection, away from the current demands of your position.I found this exact text on several Tarot sites, but was unable to determine the original source for it. If anyone knows who actually wrote it so I can cite it properly, I’d be … Continue reading I’d say that fits.
The Variant Loki, if that’s who it is, drops the lantern, igniting the oil on the ground and burning the TVA hunters to death. Are they even human? Earlier in the episode, we’re told the Time Lords created all the agents and works in the TVA. They certainly look human. They seem to die and suffer like humans too.
Like Ratatoskr, gnawing at the roots of the World Tree…
- Loki’s first official modern appearance in the comics was Journey into Mystery #85 (Oct 1962), created (or reimagined) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Stan’s brother Larry Lieber. Loki has undergone some serious man’s reinterpretation over the last dozen years or so, becoming a more nuanced, complex character; by my reckoning, this more modern vision of Loki first appeared in J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel’s Thor series, which began in 2007.
- For anyone wanting to read more about the Norse myths featuring Odin and Thor and Loki and the rest, there are a great many books available on the subject. I recommend Neil Gaiman’s brief and easily digestible Norse Mythology. And if you’ve never read Gaiman’s Sandman (1989 – 1996) in which the gods of Asgard play some part, well….you really should do that, and not later, but now.
- Conceived as a sort of cheeky in-joke about the constraints and rigors of Marvel Comics continuity, the first agent of the Time Variance Authority made his appearance in Thor #371 (Sep 1986), courtesy of Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema. Mobius and the TVA in all its inefficient, bureaucratic glory first appeared in Fantastic Four #353 (Jun 1991), again by Walt Simonson.
- At the time the TVA was created, the late editor and writer Mark Gruenwald was the continuity guru of Marvel Comics, so part of the TVA in-joke was that Mobius was drawn to look like Mark Gruenwald. The gag continues here in Loki, with Owen Wilson looking more than a little like a better-looking, movie-star version of Gruenwald. If Gruenwald’s name sounds familiar to you, that’s because we just got done referencing him in the posts for Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Gruenwald was the creator of both the Flag Smasher and John Walker, the U.S.Agent.
- In the comics, while the TVA is certainly ready and willing to proclaim sole dominion over all matters time-related, in reality (?) they’re obliged to contend with the likes of Kang the Conqueror and Immortus and other time-travelers and manipulators. I suspect we’ll find quite a bit of bullshit in the TVA’s official story before we’re through with Loki.
- D.B. Cooper was an otherwise unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 Northwest Orient Airlines flight between Portland and Seattle on November 24, 1971. After a stop at Seattle-Tacoma Airport to collect $200,000Over $1 million in today’s money. and four parachutes, the plane took off again, ostensibly headed to Mexico. Somewhere over heavily-forested southwest Washington, the hijacker opened the rear door of the plane and jumped out into a stormy Pacific Northwest night…and that’s the last anyone ever heard of him. The case remains unsolved. This information was taken from the D.B. Cooper Wikipedia page, which I reckon is as good a starting place as any for anyone eager to lose themselves down this particular conspiratorial rabbit hole.
And that is that! As always, if you’ve got questions, complaints, comments, or death threats, lay ’em on me. We’ll see you for episode 2!
|↑1||My feeling is that number alludes to something, but I’ve yet to discover what.|
|↑2||I found this exact text on several Tarot sites, but was unable to determine the original source for it. If anyone knows who actually wrote it so I can cite it properly, I’d be grateful. Info on the Hermit and the Tarot in general can be found at Tarot Bites.|
|↑3||Over $1 million in today’s money.|