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Loki, Ep. 3: Lamentis

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Spoilers, you say?  Why, yes…and plenty of them!  So be sure to watch the episode first.

With a title like ‘Lamentis,’ a reasonable person might well anticipate this episode of Loki would be all about regrets and the paths not taken.  If you make no claims to being reasonable, I’ve got some good news for you:  the title refers to a planet, and that’s it.  None of that tricky subtextual foreign movie shit going on here, no sir.  What you see is what you get.  No more and maybe even a little less.  And if you do make claims to being reasonable, well…you can go ahead and check your high-falutin’ notions about theme and metaphor at the door.  Trust me, you won’t be needing them.

I find myself struggling with Loki in a way I didn’t with its predecessors, WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  That’s because those previous shows, even at their worst, were about something, certain and sure-footed in a way that Loki isn’t.  What issues WandaVision and Falcon had were ones of execution, plot logistics and the like (Falcon in particular was shaky in its details).  Loki, though, is flawed in more fundamental ways, beginning with its title character.  I don’t know how I’d improve any of this without scrapping the whole mess and starting over.  It’s conceptually ill-conceived at the molecular level.

I don’t expect slavish fidelity to source material in comic book adaptations — anyone who wants the comic book experience can simply go read a comic book — but I’m mystified by the decision to render a character who’s complex, subversive, funny, perverse, brilliant, and fun into a witless dipshit whose only outstanding traits are delusion and incompetence.  What’s the thought process here?  Why turn the God of Mischief into just a regular guy…and not a particularly interesting or capable guy, at that?  It’s not just this series, mind you; it’s Loki’s — and Thor’s, and Odin’s, and Asgard’s — treatment in the MCU in general.

I don’t get it.

I don’t mean I don’t understand what’s going on; the plot, what there is of it, is clear enough.  I mean I don’t know why this show exists, what it’s after, where we’re going with it.  Why was it made?  What are we supposed to take from it?  It’s not an action vehicle.  It’s not clever enough to exist as satire, not funny enough for comedy, and doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to even remotely qualify as dramatic.

So what is it?

Now, it’s understood that no one’s expecting high art here, so you can spare me the tired argument that I’m applying critical sensibilities to stories that are at once both above and below such considerations.  I get it that no one ordered themselves a Disney Plus subscription in the hopes of broadening their artistic or intellectual horizons.  Martin Scorsese compared Hollywood franchise properties to theme parks, and along those lines, we can accept that Loki, like every Marvel Studios project before it, is the cinematic equivalent of carnival food:  high concept entertainment deep fried in marketing oil.  Nutrition isn’t the point.  I’m not even sure flavor is the point.  This isn’t to say these productions are utterly devoid of art — there are creators who’ve obviously poured a great deal of effort and even love into some of them — but where and when we do find art, it’s a happy accident; the residual by-product of people who are, in technical terms, very good at what they do.

Problem is, even if we toss out all pretensions to art and just go with entertainment, Loki often fails to hurdle even that relatively low bar.  Nothing wrong with carnival food, but it should at least be well-made, tasty and fun to eat.  We will get to something well-made and fun to eat before this episode is over, though we’re going to have to wait until the very end to get it.

Episode 3 opens with a bit of enchantment, set right before our Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the TVA arrived last episode.  The variant lady Loki (Sophia Di Martino) — who we’ll learn is calling herself Sylvie — is sitting with Hunter C-20 (Sasha Lane), abducted last episode, talking over a couple drinks in a bar.[1]Brain freeze, a.k.a. sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, does not ‘freeze the synapses in your brain.’  That’s not a thing.  Sylvie is attempting to find out from C-20 precisely where the Time Keepers are and how well they’re guarded.  I’m not sure how C-20 would know any of that, but sure.

Hunter C-20 (Sasha Lane) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) at the bar.

Two things of note in this bar scene:

First is that the daylight portion of it shares a purple-ish color scheme with what we’ll see later in the episode on Lamentis.  I’m not convinced it means much — I’m not convinced it means anything at all, in fact — but it’s a purposeful choice that’s at least interesting, if for no other reason than that it’s purposeful.  We’ll take what we can get with this series.  The night portion of the scene features a lot of green and yellow, colors associated with Loki.  Set design and photography are often strengths of Marvel projects, even when the narrative end of things are not quite up to par.  You can see where the money went.

Second is that Hunter C-20 says she remembers this place, the bar where she and Sylvie are sitting, sucking down brain-freezing drinks.  That’s curious.  How and why would a creature created by the Time Keepers remember a place like this?  That question will at least be addressed, if not answered completely, before this episode is over.  As for the enchantment, the bar is a place pulled from the entranced C-20’s memories; in reality, C-20’s body is right where we saw it last, at a Roxxcart in Haven Hills, AL, circa 2050, in the middle of a class ten apocalyptic event.

After the execution of her reset charge scheme at the end of last episode, we saw Sylvie step through a dimension door, Loki not far behind her.  Her destination, we learn, is the TVA itself.  With all available Minutemen deployed out into the field to ‘protect the timeline,’ Sylvie arrives to find mostly empty halls.  The few guards that remain are no match for her.  Clearly, Sylvie not only has a different gender, but a whole different skill set — kung fu and enchantment — than the Loki with whom we’re familiar.

Conveniently arriving near the locker where his knives were stored by Hunter B-15 last episode, Loki retrieves them and sets about tracking his counterpart.  He catches up to Sylvie, who’s just dispatched two more guards with the superiority of her kung fu, outside the doors of Ravonna’s office.  The two Lokis start fighting, with the guy who got tossed around by a bumpkin last episode somehow holding his own against the woman who just Matrix-ed her way up and down the halls of the TVA.  Turns out Loki can fight exactly as well (or not) as the script calls for in any given scene.  You need him to get manhandled by Country Hoss?  No problem.  Hold his own against Sylvie?  Sure.  Get picked up and literally thrown out the window of a fucking train by nameless goons?  Why not?

The two Lokis are interrupted by Ravonna and a pair of guards, brandishing those nightlight batons that make cool cocking rifle sounds but don’t actually do cool cocked rifle stuff.  I ask again, gentle reader, how much easier would the TVA’s life be if they equipped themselves with weapons that didn’t require them to physically fight at close range with their opponents?  They wouldn’t even have to invent or develop or maintain such weapons; just dip into the time stream and take whatever they want.[2]It happens in real life without disrupting the time stream, so the TVA should be able to manage.  A single AK-47 or anti-personnel grenade in this situation — hell, maybe even just a gas-mask and some pepper spray — and this whole Loki variant matter gets solved right quick.

Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and minions.

Ah, well.

What happens instead is a feeble attempt at a hostage situation, Sylvie threatening to kill Loki if Ravonna comes any closer.  Ravonna tells her to go for it — possibly the most sensible thing anyone from the TVA has ever said — and attacks.  Before Ravonna can land a blow, however, Loki pickpockets a ‘TemPad, a device that can send the user through time and space to specific destinations, and uses it to open a dimension door, through which he and Sylvie fall…

…into a dark room somewhere.  Sylvie recovers her TemPad temporarily, only to find that it’s out of power when she tries to send Loki off into the time stream.  After another bout of harmless tussling and plenty of grunting — it’s like watching two refugees from Downton Abbey engaging in a frustratingly polite and futile fistfight — Loki manages to get the TemPad again.

“Just give it back,” says Sylvie.  “You don’t even know how to recharge it.”

“Of course I do,” says Loki.  “You’re not the only tech-savvy Loki.”

“Don’t ever call me that.”

“Tech savvy?”

“No, a Loki.”

Loki makes the TemPad disappear in a flash of green light, but before he and Sylvie can renew their struggle, a small meteorite zips through the roof and into the ground at their feet.

“Was that one of your powers?” says Loki.

“Where did you send us?” says Sylvie.

The answer:  Lamentis-1, a moon that in 2077 a planet is “about to crash into and destroy.”  According to Sylvie, of all the apocalypses saved on the TemPad, Lamentis is the worst.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on Lamentis. So much purple…

The pair escape the tent-like room they were in and take refuge in a more secure mining shack.  They reluctantly agree to work together, seeing as how each needs the other to get off Lamentis.  Sylvie complains that Loki interrupted a plan that was years in the making.  If only she’d have thought to charge up her TemPad while doing all that planning, think how different things might’ve turned out.

Sylvie estimates that she and Loki have about twelve hours before Lamentis is destroyed.  They travel to a nearby town that’s mostly abandoned, but learn from a woman on its outskirts that there’s a train leaving for a massive evacuation vessel.  That’s convenient, and certainly good news for our desperate travelers.  History says no one makes it off the planet, but it’s possible that a vessel the size of the ark could provide the power to recharge the TemPad.

The line for the train is remarkably orderly considering the world’s about to end.  You might imagine that the civilians would be willing to try overpowering the guards in an attempt to hijack or be allowed on the train, and / or that the guards might be clustered together in some sort of defensive posture anticipating just such an attempt, but no.  While there’s some complaining, it’s mostly about having to wait in line for such a long time, and first class getting seated first.  No one seems all that bothered about the prospect of their home planet’s impending doom, whether they have a ticket for the train or not.  I guess they just do it different on Lamentis.

Loki and Sylvie manage to get on the train with a combination of illusion projection (or duplication casting, or whatever we’re calling it) and enchantment.  The inside of the train is spacious, a swanky bar with a kind of Baz Luhrman on downers vibe.  Loki and Sylvie talk about magic, their mothers, and their love lives, and just…no.  These are supposed to be gods of mischief.  Who would know better than Loki not to believe anything that came out of Loki’s mouth?  It’s empty, meandering nonsense.

Sylvie falls asleep and wakes up to Loki leading the train car in a rousing chorus of some drunken song or other.  So much for keeping a low profile.  Someone complains to the manager — thanks a lot, Karen — which leads to guards showing up to ask our heroes for tickets they don’t have.  The fight that ensues ends with Loki getting picked up and thrown out a window and off the train.  Still needing to retrieve her TemPad, Sylvie follows him out the window.

She needn’t have bothered.  Not only has Loki squandered their ride to the evacuation vessel, his ignominious exit from the train has destroyed the TemPad.

Q:  Why doesn’t Sylvie separate Loki’s head from his shoulders and leave it rolling around in the purple dust of Lamentis, once she learns he’s broken the TemPad?  Surely, she could do things much more efficiently on her own without a graduate of the Star-Lord School of Mission Failure dogging her every step.  If not for Loki, she’d probably have already killed the Time Keepers and be sucking down margaritas at the far end of history.  So why keep him alive?

A:  It’s just not that kind of show, gentle reader.  Consequences aren’t a thing here.  Also, it probably just never occurs to her, because thinking isn’t really a thing here either.

Two Gods of Mischief at wit’s end.

Out of time and any better options, Loki and Sylvie elect to head for the evacuation vessel.  Why not?  History says the ark is destroyed before it leaves Lamentis, but as Loki points out, “It never had us on it.”

The walk to the ark is a long one.  Loki points out that Sylvie knows a lot about him, but he doesn’t know the first thing about Sylvie.  “I just need to know if I can trust you,” says Loki, the God of Lies and Mischief, to an alternate version of himself from another reality.

To put his mind at ease and even the scales, Sylvie tells him how she enchants people.  She has to make physical contact and then grab hold of their mind.

“How?” says Loki.

“Depends on the mind,” says Sylvie.  “Most are easy and I can overtake them instantly.  Others, the stronger ones, it gets tricky.  I’m in control, but they’re there too.  In order to preserve the connection, I have to create a fantasy from their memories.”

“And you call me a magician,” says Loki, in what sounds like genuine wonder.

“That young soldier from the TVA, her mind was messed up.  Everything clouded.  I had to pull a memory from hundreds of years prior, before she even fought for them.”

“What?” says Loki.  “What’d you say?  Before she joined the TVA?”

“Yeah.  She was just a regular person on earth.”

“A regular person?”

“Loved margaritas,” says Sylvie.

“I was told that everyone who works for the TVA was created by the Time Keepers.”

“That’s ridiculous.  They’re all variants, just like us.”

“They don’t know that.”

By this point, Loki and Sylvie are close enough to hear the final boarding calls for the evacuation vessel.

“Do we trust each other?” says Sylvie.

“We do, and you can,” says Loki, who told Agent Mobius two episodes ago that trust was for children and dogs.

With the evacuation vessel announcing five minutes to launch, the natives are somewhat restless, chanting to be let on.  “They’re going to let these people die,” says Loki, which I’m pretty sure is exactly what he was planning to do back on the train before he broke the TemPad.  Also, history-wise, all these people dying is already in the books.  Isn’t that whole point of it being an apocalyptic event?

Loki and Sylvie’s desperate, spectacular attempt to get to the ark is far and away the best filmmaking we’ve seen in this series.  Our heroes fight their way through panicking crowds, combative goons, deadly meteorites, and collapsing buildings, getting all the way up to the foot of the evacuation vessel…only to see history abruptly reassert itself as a huge chunk of the disintegrating planet over their heads crashes right through the ark, destroying it.  Eyes glazed with exhaustion and defeat, Loki and Sylvie watch as their last, best hope crashes down in flames.

The end of the world as we know it.

Cue credits, and Bonnie Guitar’s 1957 hit, ‘Dark Moon.’

Typically, the more scrutiny and thought applied to one of these super-hero efforts, the more readily apparent its flaws, but the opposite effect happened with the last three minutes of this episode:  the more I looked at it, the better it got.  Loki and Sylvie’s quest to make it to the evacuation vessel in time is a three minute and change one-take shot that runs from the 33:07 mark to the credits at the end of the episode.  It’s not really a one-take shot — technically speaking, it’s actually a series of shots spliced together to mimic one long take — but why nitpick?  It does the job.  It’s exciting, visually interesting, and for once imparts a sense of urgency to the events on-screen.  But for a very effects-heavy one-take at the beginning of Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015) that lasts almost exactly a minute, I believe this is the only one-take shot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.[3]This doesn’t count Daredevil‘s Raid-inspired one-takes on Netflix.

There’s some really fine sound editing here too.  There’s a lot going on, sound-wise, and this could’ve easily just been a confusing wall of noise.  Instead, we’re able to clearly hear each individual component.  Impressive.  And in addition to the sounds of people and objects in the environment, note how the music rises, increasing in tempo and urgency, beginning at 35:35 and then ending ten seconds later with the destruction of the ark.  That’s good stuff!

We can see and hear a similar effect in conjunction with sound editing and music — note the rising refrain starting at roughly the 2:50 mark — here in this spectacular four-minute one-take from Creed (2015), by director Ryan Coogler (who also directed Marvel’s Black Panther):

I know I’ve given this series and this episode in particular low marks, but credit where credit’s due:  the last few minutes of this episode are for real.[4]In addition to our actors, Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino, the people most responsible for this scene are director Kate Herron, director of photography Autumn Durald, and editor Calum … Continue reading

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Last call for geek stuff:

Loki: Agent of Asgard #11, Apr 2015, by Al Ewing and Lee Garbett.
  • Sylvie’s tiara has one of its horns broken off.  It’s as yet unexplained on the show, but in the comics, Loki’s tiara was broken in similar fashion after a beating by his brother Thor.  That happened in Loki:  Agent of Asgard #10, Mar 2015, by Al Ewing and Lee Garbett.
  • There is a Lamentis in the comics; it’s out on the far edge of Kree space, and made its first (and so far as I know, only) appearance in Annihilation:  Conquest Prologue #1, Aug 2007, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Mike Perkins.  Its reference here in Loki is just about as deep as a deep cut can get.  Very, very obscure.

And that’s a wrap.  Questions, comments, death threats, and whatnot, please let me know!  See you next week!

References

References
1 Brain freeze, a.k.a. sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, does not ‘freeze the synapses in your brain.’  That’s not a thing.
2 It happens in real life without disrupting the time stream, so the TVA should be able to manage.
3 This doesn’t count Daredevil‘s Raid-inspired one-takes on Netflix.
4 In addition to our actors, Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino, the people most responsible for this scene are director Kate Herron, director of photography Autumn Durald, and editor Calum Ross.  There’s also a small army of sound technicians, set designers, stunt people, and special effects specialists.  A lot went into this scene!

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