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Marvel

Loki, Ep. 6: For All Time. Always.

It’s the end (for now) of our episode-by-episode look at Loki.  As always, spoilers lie in wait, threatening evil and ruin.

Years ago, back when I’d find myself in a movie theater two or three times a week, I took in a late showing of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).  It was a week night in a suburban theater, so but for one other fellow way on the other side of the room, I had the place to myself.  If you’re unaware or have never seen it, Passion concerns itself with the last day of Jesus’ life, culminating with his crucifixion.  Gibson’s movie runs 127 minutes, including credits, and I’d wager that at least 90 of those minutes are given over to flesh-shredding, blood-spattering, bone-cracking mayhem and torture of the most graphic sort.  If mainstream American filmgoers have ever been exposed to a movie more relentlessly cruel and violent than this one, I can’t imagine what it might be.  There are virtually no concessions to audience expectation.  Passion‘s dialogue is primarily in Aramaic, a dialect that very few people still speak…and by some accounts I’ve read, Gibson had to be persuaded to add subtitles!  Nor are there any accommodations made to catch anyone up on the story or provide any context.  If you know the details and the principle characters surrounding Jesus’ arrest and death, great; if you don’t, too bad.  I remember sitting there in the theater, watching this deeply strange and unsettling film, and thinking:  Who the fuck is this movie for?  Like, seriously…who’s the intended audience for this thing?

Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Now, full disclosure here:  while I couldn’t say I remotely ‘liked’ Passion of the Christ — I’m not sure the word like could or should possibly apply to this movie — I did and do admire it as a singular, personal work of art.  It’s utterly uncompromising.  That a half-witted hoard of religious nutbars and right-wing randos with a torture porn fetish latched on to the film shouldn’t necessarily count against it (though if you do wish to count it, I’m not the one to argue you out of it).  Whatever Passion‘s faults, insincerity and an unwillingness to commit to its own narrative are not among them.

Which is where Loki comes in.

Because though Loki exists at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from Passion in terms of intent, commitment, and effectiveness, I found myself asking the exact same question about it:  Who is this show for?  Setting aside that portion of fandom that reflexively grants their uncritical love to any- and everything Marvel Studios pumps out as an affirmation of their own identity, I’m curious who — if anyone — is watching Loki and thinking, Goddamn, but this show’s really got it going on.  Honey, look…there’s an alligator!  What will those scamps at Marvel Studios think of next?!

After six episodes comprising one season now in the books, I couldn’t begin to tell you what Loki was about or what, if anything, it was aiming for.  We’ve got a God of Mischief who’s neither mischievous nor remotely god-like, and who’s…what?  On his way to becoming a better, more trustworthy and civic-minded person by falling unironically in love with a version of himself?  Only once does anyone acknowledge or even mention the inherently weird perversity of a person falling in love with themselves; other than that, the show elects to play Loki and Sylvie’s chaste middle-school love affair completely straight.  What might love look like between a pair of immortal nihilistic liars who might not be capable of change?  It’s an interesting question, but not one Loki shows any interest in exploring.  (More than once during the course of this series, I found myself wishing we could dispense with all this Loki / TVA nonsense in favor of watching two characters played by Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino fall in love over witticisms and tea in the cafe around the corner from Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill bookstore.)

Even by the MCU’s usual standards of zero nutrition carnival food, Loki comes off as something like diet cotton candy.  It’s conceptual emptiness deluxe:  a sugar-substitute confection of color and puffed air that takes more calories to consume and digest than it provides.  The show’s technical execution — direction, photography, editing, etc. — is more than adequate, and at times even dazzling, but the banality of what’s being executed never lets Loki take flight.  It’s motion without meaning, spectacle without depth, a show whose parts add up to less than zero.  There’s no point at which Loki commits itself to…well, anything.  It’s not drama, it’s not comedy, it’s not satire or adventure or suspense or romance.  There’s no there there.  Just a tepid mix of light comedy and rote moralizing in a context-free vacuum.

Ah, well.

Following their enchantment of Alioth in the Void at the end of time last episode, Loki and Sylvie gain access to the sub-void beyond the end of time.  A ruined asteroid floats at the center of this sub-void, ringed by a representation of the Sacred Timeline.  Upon this ruined asteroid stands a dark and ominous castle.  Sylvie and Loki approach the castle, but before Sylvie can kick the door in, it opens of its own accord and they’re granted entrance.

The Citadel at the End of Time.

They’re greeted by Miss Minutes, the cartoon graphic app from the TVA, who welcomes them to the Citadel at the End of Time.  She congratulates them; they’ve had a long journey to get here, and He Who Remains, the master of the Citadel, is impressed.  According to Miss Minutes, HWR created all and controls all, and he has an offer for Loki and Sylvie:  they get to be reinserted back into the timeline where they can be together and essentially have everything they want.  Tempting, but the offer is rejected, perhaps because even Loki and Sylvie have the sense to realize that a being who created all and controls all wouldn’t need to bargain.  “We write our own destiny now,” says a defiant Loki.

“Oh, sure you do,” says Miss Minutes.  “Good luck with that.”  She disappears, reappearing in Ravonna’s chamber.  When Ravonna asks what took her so long, Miss Minutes tells her some things had to get worked out, but the files Ravonna needs are being downloaded.  Ravonna complains that the files in question aren’t what she asked for, but Miss Minutes tells her that HWR thinks this will be more useful.  “Happy reading!” Miss Minutes chirps, and disappears again.

Back at the Citadel, He Who Remains makes his dramatic appearance, emerging from an elevator.  He’s a disarmingly friendly and charismatic man (played by the disarmingly friendly and charismatic Jonathan Majors), clad all in purple, munching on an apple.  “This is wild.  The two of you…same person…I mean, it’s a little unnatural, but…”  He invites Loki and Sylvie up to his office.

“Not what you were expecting, hmm?” says HWR in the elevator, his back to his guests.

“You’re just a man,” says a disbelieving Loki.

“Flesh and blood,” HRW agrees, munching on his apple.  “Don’t tell me I’m a disappointment.”

“No,” says Sylvie.  “Just a little bit easier to kill.”  She swings her sword at his back, but he vanishes, reappearing just behind her, giggling.  She tries it twice more, each time with the same result.  The elevator opens to a large study or library, complete with a fire in the fireplace — it’s like Doctor Strange’s man cave, but moodier.  HRW invites them in, offering them seats in front of his desk, and serves them espresso.

He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).

At the TVA, Mobius has returned from the Void to confront Ravonna in her office.  Ravonna apologizes for having ‘pruned’ him, but says she couldn’t let him get in the way of ‘our mission.’  Mobius points out that there is no mission:  the Time-Keepers are fake, and everyone in the TVA is a Variant.  Ravonna insists that it can’t all have been for nothing, and tries to call for back-up.  Mobius tells her now that the truth is out, calling for help isn’t going to work out the way she thinks it will.

Cut to a high school corridor in 2018, the now-freed Hunter B-15 leading other TVA hunters on a chase that ends in the office of one Rebecca Tourminet…who looks exactly like Ravonna.  Hmm.  And this is where we might wish that we’d been presented with some sort of guide for what the rules are with all this time-traveling.  Is Ravonna a Variant or is she not?  If she is, then who is Rebecca Tourminet?  Are there versions of Mobius and Hunter B-15 still extant in their respective timelines?

In the Citadel at the End of Time, He Who Remains is explaining to Loki and Sylvie why they’re unable to kill him:  it’s because he knows everything that is going to happen, and is thus able to pre-program his TemPad to anticipate every attack.  Every step Loki and Sylvie took to get here, HRW says, was on the road that he paved for them; and everything that needs to happen, will happen, to put everyone in the right frame of mind to ‘finish the quest.’

“So it’s all just a game?” says Loki.  “It’s all a manipulation?”  You might imagine that a God of Mischief would be more than okay with everything just being a game and / or a manipulation — that he might in fact insist on treating things like a game or a manipulation even when no one else saw it that way or wanted to play — but I guess that’s some other God of Mischief in some other show.

“Interesting that your mind would go to that,” says HRW.  He asks Sylvie if she thinks she can trust Loki; if indeed, she’s capable of trusting anyone at all.  Loki has a peculiar obsession with the concept of trust that’s weirdly out of place given the ostensible nature and function of its title character(s).  This isn’t the last we’ll hear of this trust business.

At the TVA, Mobius tells Ravonna that he thinks people are ready to hear a little truth;[1]Given everything that’s happened in this country since 2016, I got a bitter little chuckle out of that one. namely, that the TVA is a lie.  Ravonna argues, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, that it’s a necessary lie; that without the TVA pruning the timeline, there’d be chaos.  Mobius counters that there’s nothing necessary about sending people off to violent death in the Void, and that what Ravonna’s afraid of isn’t chaos but free will.

“Free will?” Ravonna scoffs.  “Only one person gets free will:  the one in charge.”  She announces her intent to leave, opening a TVA dimension door.  Mobius tries to stop her, but she easily defeats and disarms him.  He asks her where she’s going.  “In search of free will,” she says, stepping through the door and presumably into next season, as this is the last we see of her.

Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

One of the odder traits of Loki is that the crux of every episode turns on a conversation — a truthful conversation, no less — in which people speak their minds at length and in genuine fashion:  Loki and Mobius in episodes 1 and 2, Loki and Sylvie on the train in episode 3, and so on.  As with everything Loki, the execution is usually sound enough, but the concept is all the way wrong.  We’d be hard-pressed to find a character less inclined (and maybe less able) to tell anyone the truth about what’s really on his mind than Loki.  Trust is for children and dogs is maybe the only thing the showrunners put in their title character’s mouth that really fits.  In any case, in a season finale that’s practically all conversation, we come at last to the one that’s central to this episode.

He Who Remains tells Loki and Sylvie that he understands their moral objections to the TVA, but while his methods are deceptive, the TVA’s  essential mission isn’t.  Without the TVA, HWR explains, “everything burns.”  Loki asks HWR what he’s so afraid of.

A long, considered pause, and then HWR says:  “Me.”

“And just who are you?” says Sylvie.

“Oh, I’ve been dubbed many names by many people.  A ruler.  A conqueror.  He Who Remains.  But it’s not as simple as a name.”  Eons ago, HWR tells them, before the TVA, one of his variants lived on earth in the 31st century.  A scientist, this variant discovered there were universes stacked on top of his own.  Other versions of this scientist were learning the same thing, and they made contact with one another.  For awhile, there was peace.  They shared technology and knowledge, each using their universe’s own advances to improve the others.  “However,” says HWR, “not every version of me was so pure of heart.  To some of us, new worlds meant only one thing:  new lands to be conquered.  The peace between realities erupted into all-out war, each variant fighting to preserve their universe and annihilate the others.”

It was almost the end, HWR tells them, of everything and everyone.

“And then the Time-Keepers came along and saved us all,” says Sylvie, bitterness in her voice.

“No,” says HWR.  “This is where we diverge from the dogma.”  That first variant, he explains, discovered a creature created from all the tears in reality.  A creature capable of consuming time and space itself:  Alioth.  HWR harnessed Alioth’s power, weaponizing it to end the Multiversal War.  He then isolated this timeline — the so-called Sacred Timeline — and created the TVA to stop any further branching, resulting in ages of cosmic harmony.

“You came to kill the Devil, right?” says HWR.  “Well, if you think I’m evil, just wait until you meet my variants.  And…that’s the gambit.  Stifling order or cataclysmic chaos.  You may hate the dictator, but something far worse is going to fill that void if you dispose of him.”

“Or…you’re a liar,” says Sylvie.

“Or I’m a liar,” agrees HWR.

“So you just continue to prune innocent timelines?” says Loki, and again, you can feel the tension between concept and execution here.  Why would a God of Mischief care about innocent timelines, or subscribe to the notion that innocence itself was anything other than childhood’s lack of experience or the perpetual stupidity of people without the wit to get up to anything interesting?  I can well believe that Loki would object to having his free will curtailed, but I don’t know why he’d give a damn about anyone else’s.

A small circle of trust with Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

HWR proposes that Loki and Sylvie take his place at the head of the TVA, and do the pruning themselves.  He presents them again with their dilemma (in case they, and we, missed it the first time around):    kill him and destroy the TVA, which results in not one devil, but an infinite number of devils; or Loki and Sylvie take his place and run the operation.

Wait…what?

Assuming that He Who Remains is telling the truth — and there’s good reason to assume he is, because as we’ve covered before, people don’t lie in Marvel movies unless it’s made abundantly clear that they’re lying — why choose Loki and Sylvie, of all people, as his replacements?  One could make the argument that this is the way events play out, have always played out, will always play out — that time, essentially, is a set course — but there’s very little in this series to suggest that that’s the case.  The branching timelines would suggest that different actions simply create new versions of reality.  And if, as HWR claims, he’s simply tired of running things, why not choose Ravonna as his replacement?  She’s dedicated to the cause, has all the qualifications and experience one could want, and can step into the job immediately.  As for the two Gods of Mischief, why not a third choice?  Namely, option C, All of the Above:  take over the TVA and kill He Who Remains.  Alas, that never seems to occur to either of them.

“You treated real people’s lives like some kind of game,” an indignant Sylvie says to HWR.  It’s bold talk for a Goddess of Mischief.  For one, treating people’s lives like some kind of game is pretty much her cosmological job description.  For another, if we can trust what we were told way back in episode 1, Sylvie has killed at least two dozen TVA hunters, knowing full well they were brainwashed Variants.

HWR tells Sylvie it was nothing personal.  Sylvie says it was personal to her, and a frustrated HWR tells her to grow up.  “We’re all villains here.  We’ve all done horrible, terrible, horrific things.  But now…we…you…have a chance to do them for a good reason.”  The camera closes in on He Who Remains, and for the first time he looks somewhat uncertain.  “We just crossed the threshold,” he says.  The camera pulls back out, far enough to include us looking over the inside shoulders of Loki and Sylvie.  This is one of only two times in this episode that the camera pushes in like this.  In general, a close-up indicates something personal or important, so we can surmise that in this moment, He Who Remains has a realization that’s so intensely personal to him that he practically forgets there are people in the room with him.

HWR admits he fibbed.  He knew everything that was going to happen up to a certain point…but that point has just passed.  Now, he says, he has no idea how the rest of this is going to go.  “I’m being candid,” he says cheerfully.  Outside the Citadel, the Sacred Timeline begins to branch.

“So that’s it?” says Loki.  “That’s it?  This is what happens at the end of time?  And now you’re just gonna sit there with all that freedom and let us decide your fate?”

“Yes!” says HWR. “What’s the worst that can happen?  You either take over and my life’s work continues, or you plunge a blade in my chest and an infinite amount of me start another Multiversal War, and I just end up right back here anyways.”

Sylvie is out of her chair in a flash, aiming a killing blow with her blade at HWR.  Loki stops her, asks her to hang on a moment so they can talk about it, but Sylvie’s in no mood for talking; she’s for finishing what she started.  She attacks again, and Loki stops her again, while He Who Remains looks on, amused.

Loki thinks that He Who Remains is telling the truth.  What if by killing him they make things worse?  Sylvie concludes by this line of reasoning that what Loki really wants is the TVA throne, which Loki denies.  “What was I thinking, trusting you?” she says.  Loki counters, saying that she never trusted him, and here we are again with this show’s bizarre obsession with the concept of trust.  They’re both fucking Gods of Mischief.  No one in their right minds would or should trust either of them, and who would know better not to trust a God of Mischief than another God of Mischief?  Loki and Sylvie both have lived for decades, if not centuries or millennia, as back-stabbing, treacherous narcissists, and now they’re crying about people not trusting them?  It’s ridiculous.

“Why aren’t we seeing this the same way?” says Sylvie.

“Because you can’t trust,” Loki says, “and I can’t be trusted.”

“Then I guess we’re in a pickle.”

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) share a good-bye kiss.

She attacks, and now the pair begin fighting for real.  Sylvie appears to get the better of it, but again, just as she’s about to kill He Who Remains, Loki gets in the way of her blade, begging her to stop.  He throws his own weapon away, and manages to calm her somewhat.  Loki tells Sylvie he doesn’t want to hurt her, nor does he want a throne; he just wants her to be okay.  She starts to cry, and then kisses him, with sorrow and longing.  “But I’m not you,” she says, breaking the kiss.  She opens a TVA dimension door behind Loki with her TemPad, and kicks him through it back to TVA headquarters.  Before he can recover or jump back through the door, it closes, leaving him shocked and broken hearted.  It’s a good moment for Tom Hiddleston, who isn’t typically asked to do much more in this role than speak clearly and look indignant.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) prepares to kill He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).

Free from interference, Sylvie asks He Who Remains if he isn’t going to beg for his life.  HWR seems more perversely delighted than frightened or disturbed.  He allows he could beg for his life…but doesn’t.  With nothing more to be said, Sylvie simply looks him in the eye, draws back her blade, and plunges it into his heart.  Pretty hardcore for a Disney joint.  He Who Remains just laughs…or laughs as much as a person can laugh with a small sword sticking out of their chest, puncturing vital organs.  “See you soon,” he tells Sylvie, and dies.  Her life’s mission complete, Sylvie sinks to the floor and begins to cry, while outside the Citadel, there’s a cracking sound as timelines begin to branch in their fractal millions.

Perhaps sensing the change in the air or the currents of destiny suddenly flowing another way, Loki rouses himself to search the halls of the TVA for Mobius.  He finds him in the archives section, Mobius in mid-conversation with Hunter B-15.  “That’s, what, 63 new branches in this unit alone?” he says.

“Does he want us to just let them all branch?” asks B-15.

He?

“At this point,” says Mobius, “how are we even gonna stop it?”

“We can’t!” shouts Loki, interrupting.  Mobius looks puzzled as Loki breathlessly tries to explain.  “It’s done, Mobius.  We made a terrible mistake.  We freed the Timeline.  We found him beyond the storm.  A Citadel at the End of Time.  He’s terrifying.  He planned everything.  He’s seen everything.  He knows everything.  It’s complicated, okay?  But someone is coming.  Countless different versions of a very dangerous person, and they’re all set on war.  We need to prepare.”

“Take it easy,” says Mobius, who clearly doesn’t recognize Loki or understand a word he’s saying.  “You’re an analyst, right?  What division are you from?  What’s your name?  Who are you?”

The realization that he’s likely in a whole other timeline from where he started begins to dawn on Loki, and when he looks where the giant statues of the Time-Keepers were, what he sees instead is a statue of He Who Remains.

Kang the Conqueror.

And…scene.  Roll credits.

Kang the Conqueror

____

This, that, and the other…

  • Though He Who Remains is never explicitly referred to as Kang the Conqueror, that’s exactly who he is.  The purple color scheme, the ‘ruler, conqueror’ line, the 31st century origin story, and the armor on the statue at the end of the episode…all of it points to Kang the Conqueror.
Avengers #8 (Sep 1964), by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers. First appearance of Kang the Conqueror.
  • Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Kang’s first comics appearance was Avengers #8, Sep 1964.  Maybe.  In the comics, there’s plenty of evidence that different people — Immortus, the Scarlet Centurion, Rama-Tut — are all Kang at different points in time.  Oh, and he’s probably related to Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, and maybe to Doctor Doom as well.  It is, as Loki says at the end of this episode, complicated.  Jonathan Majors gives Kang a cheerful eccentricity that’s not found in the comics version of the character, where he’s more like a futuristic Genghis Khan with a time machine.
  • In addition to Lee and Kirby, Kang’s origin story in Loki borrows from several other sources in the comics.  The main ones are Steve Englehart’s[2]If his name sounds familiar, Steve Englehart was the writer who put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together.  He’s also the fellow who wrote the Secret Empire stories in Captain America, … Continue reading Kang stories in Avengers #129 – 135, Giant-Size #2 – 4 (Nov 1974 – Jun 1975); Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer’s Council of Kangs story in Avengers #267 – 269 (May – Jul 1986); and Kurt Busiek and various artists’ Avengers #41 – 55 (Jun 2001 – Aug 2002), which features Kang doing some legit conquerering and culminates in a straight-up ass-whupping courtesy of Captain America.  Finally, Jonathan Hickman toyed with the idea of a council of variants getting together to share ideas and solve problems, though he did it with Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #570 – 611 (Oct 2009 – Dec 2012). 
  • Though I haven’t seen it mentioned or alluded to anywhere, this final episode of Loki put me in mind of the conclusion of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, in which another pair of heroes are put in a kind of moral checkmate by an all-seeing, all-knowing villain who makes his home in a distant citadel.  Like Loki, Watchmen too deals with matters of time (though not, we should note, time travel or alternate timelines).  One of the reasons that Watchmen‘s treatment of time works is because clear, concise rules are laid out for the reader.  That’s not the case with Loki, where the nature of time and how it works remains fuzzy from beginning to end.

And that’s that it for Loki.  As always, hit me up with your questions, comments, death threats, insults, and suggestions.  Anything you’d like to see dealt with in future installments of Opposite of Cool?  Let me know!

References

References
1 Given everything that’s happened in this country since 2016, I got a bitter little chuckle out of that one.
2 If his name sounds familiar, Steve Englehart was the writer who put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together.  He’s also the fellow who wrote the Secret Empire stories in Captain America, providing the tone and broad subject matter that would inform Captain America:  Winter Soldier over four decades later.  And if all that weren’t enough, Englehart also co-created Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, with Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos.  The MCU owes a tremendous debt to the works of Steve Englehart, to put it mildly.
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 4: The Nexus Event

Welcome to our continuing episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  As always, there are spoilers ahead.

Writing Opposite of Cool is a weird mix of love and assessment, investment and detachment.  It usually involves an attempt to accurately view a given thing while standing eyeball-deep in the middle of it.  Film adaptations need to be assessed on their own merits, but when it comes to Marvel, my own intimate familiarity with the source material makes comparison between print and film versions unavoidable.  I’m almost always fighting the urge to deal with the show I wish I was watching instead of the show in front of me.  It’s possible I’d like Loki a lot more if I were coming at it without any prior knowledge…though let’s allow that without prior knowledge, I probably wouldn’t be watching it in the first place.

I have a friend who started watching Loki before I did, while I was still toiling away on Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  Like a lot of people who watch these Marvel movies and shows, she doesn’t read comics.  She had questions.

kelly kapoor how dare you gif | WiffleGif

The first was, Should it even be possible for a mortal agency like the TVA to capture a god like Loki?  I’m not sure the TVA quite qualifies as a mortal agency, but sure, I think it’d be possible to capture this particular god if he didn’t see his captors coming and / or he fatally underestimated their capabilities.  Essentially, they could do it if they surprised him and got lucky.  But understand, capturing Loki wouldn’t be the problem; it’s keeping him that would prove the real difficulty.

The second question was, How could the TVA design technology sufficient to thwart Loki’s powers?  This is kind of tricky.  In the comics, at least, the only real ‘powers’ possessed by Loki are those native to his species.[1]In the Norse myths, Loki does a great deal of shape-shifting, changing into birds and fish and the like.  There’s a lot of shape-shifting in general among the figures of Norse … Continue reading  As the child of frost giants, Loki is untouched by frost and cold.  Like his Asgardian cousins, he is immortal,[2]Technically, the Asgardians aren’t immortal, they’re just extremely long-lived; they eat golden apples to extend their life-span.  Seriously!  See Neil Gaiman’s ‘The … Continue reading and immune to all earthly ailment.  By human standards, Loki is immensely strong and durable, but he’s physically normal (at best) by Asgardian or frost giant standards.  His strength and durability are less powers, in other words, than they are just traits of his species.  Where Loki ruins the curve is his intelligence and knowledge of sorcery.  I can buy that magic wouldn’t work in the halls of the TVA, but Loki’s real ‘power’ lies in how clever and charismatic and shockingly unburdened by decency he is.  He’s the God of Trickery, the ultimate master of scams and schemes and confidence games.  He practically invented lying, and what he didn’t invent, he most certainly perfected.  So unless the TVA utilized something that could affect Loki’s mind, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for keeping him in check.

The third question — the one to which all the other questions were really leading — was What is a god, anyway?  

And that…that’s a goddamn good question.

If I’m not mistaken, the official line from the MCU is that the gods of Asgard aren’t gods aren’t all, but are instead some species of jumped-up alien.  In Thor:  The Dark World (2013), Odin (Anthony Hopkins) bluntly states:  “We are not gods.  We’re born.  We live.  We die.  Just as humans do.”  I’ve speculated at length in earlier entries of Opposite of Cool as to why Marvel Studios elected to go this route, so I won’t rehash it here; but suffice to say that this relegation of Asgard to the realms of the mundane is drastically different from the comics.  The Aesir of the comics aren’t simply more powerful and longer-lived than their human counterparts; they exist on a different plane altogether, elevated not just in prowess, but also in their concerns and outlook.  Everything about them is different.

It may be easier for us to describe the gods by what they’re not:  not human, not normal, not mundane.  They’re something else.  Something other.

If we can skim the surface of theology for a moment — and if you’ll pardon the blasphemous pretension that we can possibly gain some clarity about pagan figures of myth from the Bible — there’s an idea about holiness that I believe I ran across in Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.[3]Specifically, The Five Books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  I was unable to find evidence of the specific idea I was searching for there;. I was, however, able to find some echoes of it at Christianity.com in an article entitled ‘What is Holiness?  How Can We Be Holy?’:

Holiness is a word that can make us feel uneasy.  It seems lofty, threatening, alien.  We instinctively sense that God’s holiness has dangerous overtones.

and

The Hebrew word for “holiness” is qōdes, a word that highlights the realm of the sacred in contrast to everything common and profane. The adjective qādôš, “holy,” refers to God and what belongs to him.

Even more to the point, expounding on the same idea, there’s ‘Biblical Concepts of Holiness’ from The JPS Torah Commentary by Baruch A. Levine, which I found at MyJewishLearning.com:

Holiness is difficult to define or to describe; it is a mysterious quality.  Of what does holiness consist?  In the simplest terms, the “holy” is different from the profane or the ordinary.  It is “other,” as the phenomologists define it.  The “holy” is also powerful or numinous.  The presence of holiness may inspire awe, or strike fear, evoke amazement.

For most of the people reading this, the word holiness denotes a quality of moral purity…but that’s a later gloss.  The meaning that we’re dealing with for our purposes is as Professor Levine defines it:  a state of being that encompasses the sacred, indescribable qualities associated with God, distinct from the everyday profane world of matter.

Odin, All-Father of Asgard, from Journey into Mystery #123, Dec 1965, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Vince Colletta.

The idea of beings who live their immortal lives on an elevated plane fundamentally alien to mortal men runs all through Thor creator (adaptor?) Jack Kirby’s work.  Kirby also created the Eternals (adapted for yet another Marvel film slated for release in November 2021), and Galactus and the Silver Surfer, as well as the New Gods for DC.  All of these characters are bigger than life — small wasn’t in Jack Kirby’s vocabulary.  Anthony Hopkins may have elected to play Odin “like a human being,”[4]Hopkins:  “I just play Odin like a human being, with maybe a little more dimension.  I grow a beard, look hopefully impressive, and keep it as real as possible.”  From the … Continue reading but in Kirby’s hands, Odin is a near-omnipotent pillar of creation, the All-Father of Asgard:  massive, regal, and all-powerful.  There’s nothing even sort of ‘normal’ about him.

The gods even speak differently, with Thor co-creator Stan Lee employing a sort of King James / Shakespeare-lite style of archaic English for the immortals.[5]As with all things Stan Lee, I suspect he employed this device with one foot in sincerity and the other in parody.  Realistically, it makes no sense at all for Norse and Greek gods to speak in this majestic, highly stylized English, but A) realism was never the point, and B) the practice winds up serving the same function that having nobles speak in poetry and commoners speak prose serves in Shakespeare:  it sets the gods apart.  Even their speech is elevated.

The elevated high English of the Gods of Olympus, from Thor #129, Jun 1966, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Vince Colletta.

What is a god, anyway?  The answer:  not us.

Which leaves our God of Mischief (and us, watching him) in kind of a weird place.  Because while Loki often refers to himself as a god in this series, he’s consistently portrayed as a more or less ordinary dude.  There’s none of the majesty or grandeur we find in the comics; certainly nothing different from the profane or ordinary.  Instead of awe and fear and wonder, there’s this lusterless space filled with whatever Marvel Studios is aiming for with this character:   slapstick combo w/ medium diet rom-com, hold the gravitas.

Our episode opens in Asgard…but not the Asgard with which we’re familiar.  This is the Asgard of Sylvie’s past.  She’s a little girl, playing with miniature dragon figures and a toy longship when a TVA dimension door opens.  In strides Hunter A-23 — the once and future Ravonna — and three TVA goons.  “There’s our Variant,” says Ravonna.  “On the authority of the Time Keepers, I hereby arrest you for crimes against the Sacred Timeline.”  The TVA apprehend the girl and hustle her through the door, leaving a reset charge behind.

Young Sylvie is put through the same TVA process we saw Loki put through in episode 1.  She’s brought before the judge, but instead of an intervening Mobius, Sylvie makes her own luck.  She bites Ravonna, stamps hard on her foot, and steals her TemPad.  Before anyone can do much of anything other than make eye contact with her — you get the feeling faces are being burned into memory — Sylvie has opened up her own dimension door and disappeared through it.

Ravonna recollects all this in the present, before gathering herself to appear before the Time Keepers in their ever-so-misty throne room.  We’re not privy to Ravonna’s conversation with the Time Keepers, but we see her exit from the chamber, looking upset.  Mobius asks if she’s okay.  She says she’s not; appearing before the Time Keepers is a jarring experience in the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances.

“But they can’t blame you,” says Mobius.

“They can, and they do,” says Ravonna.  She points out that one dangerous variant nearly breached the chamber with the Time Keepers before escaping with another variant that Ravonna herself gave permission to Mobius to keep around.  No bueno.

Mobius concedes the point, and the difficulty of keeping the Sacred Timeline stable, but says if the Time Keepers want him to find Loki and Sylvie, he needs access to Hunter C-20.

Ravonna says access is impossible.

“Look,” says Mobius, “when we found her, she kept saying, ‘It’s real, it’s real.’  Over and over.  I need to find out what that meant, and what else she saw when she was with the Variant.”

Ravonna tells Mobius that C-20 is dead.  Mobius is surprised, says he doesn’t get it.  C-20 seemed fine when last he saw her.  Ravonna tells him C-20’s decline after her rescue was steep, and that nobody knows about her death; they don’t want people to panic.

“Every moment those variants are out there, we’re all in danger,” Ravonna tells him.  “Find them.”

Back on Lamentis, Loki has found Sylvie, who’s chosen a quiet(er) spot away from the main city to watch the end of the world.

“I’m sorry,” he says, sitting next to her.

“I remember Asgard,” Sylvie tells Loki.  “Not much, but I remember.    My home, my people, my life.  The universe wants to break free, so it manifests chaos.  Like me being born the Goddess of Mischief.  And as soon as that created a big enough detour from the Sacred Timeline, the TVA showed up, erased my reality, took me prisoner.”

I was under the impression that the TVA reset charges only affected offending objects and people within a given vicinity.  That’s how we’ve seen them work up to this point, so I’m not sure what to think about Sylvie’s statement.  It’s possible she’s just mistaken, though you wouldn’t think she’d still be laboring under any misconceptions on this score.  She’s had ample opportunity to test and observe the effects of the TVA’s reset charges; she may well know more about what they can and can’t do than the Hunters who usually carry them.  She might be lying, though that seems unlikely; I can’t think of any character in the MCU who’s ever lied without making it transparently obvious that they were doing so, and in any case, there wouldn’t seem to be much point to lying in this particular time and circumstance.  So Sylvie may know something we don’t, or it may be that the showrunners are playing fast and loose with the effects of the reset charges.  In the comics at least, the TVA doesn’t have the power to just up and erase whole swathes of reality.  Do they have that power in this show?  Who knows?

Sylvie relates her escape from the TVA as a child, and how she ran for a long time.  “Everywhere and everywhen I went caused a Nexus Event, sent up a smoke flare.  Because I’m not supposed to exist.  Until eventually I figured out where to hide.  And so that’s where I grew up.  At the ends of a thousand worlds.  And now…that’s where I’ll die.”

Credit where it’s due:  the special effects of the dying planet in the purple sky above Lamentis is spectacular, awesome in scale and scope.  They did a really good job here.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) prepare for the end on Lamentis.

Loki and Sylvie reach for one another, one last fleeting connection at the end of the world…and back at the TVA, a red line on a monitor begins branching from the main timeline.  The two Lokis are but moments from dying along with Lamentis when they’re found and rescued / apprehended by the TVA.

I’ve got questions.  While I really like the idea of love and kindness and comfort between two versions of the same God of Mischief causing a major Nexus Event, I’m curious as to how this works.  I thought the whole point of hiding in an apocalypse was that nothing one did would matter, because there’s no possible change to the timeline (and again, this is less objection on my part than just curiosity).  Along the same lines, if you’re the TVA, why not just let the two Lokis perish on Lamentis?  Problem solved.  I could buy the idea the TVA has to know what caused the Nexus Event, or that the independent Mobius saves Loki and Sylvie for reasons of his own, but we’re not given much indication one way or the other.  As always with the MCU, it’s hard to discern the purposeful from the overlooked or simply mishandled.

Loki and Sylvie are separated at the TVA, each taken to a different chamber.  Mobius accompanies Loki, the pair hurling recriminations at each other; there are evidently some hurt feelings here.  Before Loki is forced through yet another dimension door — this one, as we’ll soon see, a punishing time loop — Loki tells Mobius that the TVA is lying to him.

The pocket dimension Loki is forced into is a small sliver of Asgard.  While he’s getting his bearings, an angry Sif (Jaime Alexander) enters stage right, holding a lock of her own (badly) cut hair.[6]You can read the mythic version of how Loki cut off Sif’s hair in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, ‘The Treasures of the Gods.’  She’s very angry, and has every right to be.  She calls him a conniving, craven, pathetic worm, and gives him a convincing smack across the face.  “I hope you know you deserve to be alone and you always will be,” she tells him.  He’s protesting against the efficacy of the TVA’s punishment when she gives him a brutal knee to the crotch and then punches him before storming off.  Ouch.  No problem, says Loki; when this happened in real life, he picked himself up, took a nice hot bath, had a glass of wine, and never thought about any of it again.  He’s quickly disabused of that option, as every 20 seconds or so after one encounter ends, another angry Sif appears, saying the same words and going through the same actions.  Again…ouch.

Meanwhile, back in what passes for reality at the TVA, Mobius pays a visit to Ravonna’s office, requesting to interview Sylvie while Loki ‘marinates’ in the Time Cell.  Ravonna tells him to just stick with his Loki and figure out what caused the Nexus spike.  Nobody gets to speak with Sylvie; she’s just too dangerous.

Mobius runs across Hunter B-15 in the halls outside Ravonna’s office.  She asks if Loki said anything to Mobius, and Mobius tells her that Loki said the TVA was lying to him.  Something in that answer seems to click with B-15, who’s even more tightly wound than usual, but she doesn’t share her concerns with Mobius.

In the Time Cell, Loki admits to yet another angry version of Sif that he knows he’s a horrible person.  He’s a narcissist who craves attention and is scared of being alone.  Sif foregoes the knee to the nuts and the punch in the face this time around, but delivers the more devastating blow:  “You are alone and you always will be.”  It’s like a curse.

Mobius retrieves Loki from the Time Cell, and begins asking him about Sylvie.  A curious feature about Loki:  so far, the heart of every episode has been a two-party conversation.  It was Mobius’ interrogation of Loki in the first episode, their conversation in the cafeteria in the second episode, Loki and Sylvie on the train in the third episode, and now this scene.

“So you’re, what?  Partners?” asks Mobius.

“Absolutely not,” says Loki.  “She’s difficult and irritating, and she tries to hit me all the time.  No.  Not partners, no.”

“Yeah, I guess you don’t do partners…unless, of course, it benefits you and you intend to betray them at some point.”

“It was a means to an end, Mobius.  Welcome to the real world.  Down there, we’re awful to one another to get what we want.”

“Now I gotta have a prince tell me how the real world works?  Why don’t you just tell me what caused the Nexus Event on Lamentis?”

Loki has neither the desire nor much incentive to tell Mobius anything of the sort…until Mobius plays the Sif / Time Cell card.  Loki gives Mobius a transparent tale of purest bullshit, about how he and Sylvie have been partners from the start.  The plan is proceeding nicely, and that when Sylvie has played her part, Loki will dispose of her.

“Well, we saved you the trouble there,” says Mobius.  “She’s already been pruned.”  Mobius tells Loki his own tall tale of B-15 eliminating Sylvie.

“Good riddance,” says Loki, struggling to maintain a poker face.

Mobius laughs.  “Look at your eyes.  You like her.  Does she like you?”

“Was she pruned?”

“I mean, no wonder you have no clue what caused the Nexus Event on Lamentis.  Both of you are just swooning over each other…”

“Mobius, tell me the truth…”

“It’s the apocalypse.  Two variants of the same being, especially you, forming this kind of sick, twisted romantic relationship.  That’s pure chaos.  That could break reality.  It’s breaking my reality right now.  What a [sic] incredible seismic narcissist.  You fell for yourself.”

“Her name was Sylvie.”

“Ah.  Sylvie.  Lovely.  How do you spell that?  Is that with an I-E or just an I?”

“Is she alive?” Loki shouts.

“For now,” says Mobius.

Loki sighs with relief.  “Mobius, listen, if what Sylvie told me about this place is true, it affects all of us.  You’re all variants.  Everyone who works at the TVA.  The Time Keepers didn’t create you.  They kidnapped you from the timeline and erased your memories.  Memories she can access through enchantment.  So before this, you had a past.  Maybe you had a family, a life.”

There’s a long silence.  “Nice try,” says Mobius, but you can see the words have hit home.  “That was good.  You two…what a pair!  Gosh!  Unbelievable.  Wherever you go, it’s just death, destruction, the literal ends of worlds!  Well, I’m gonna have to close this case now, ’cause I don’t need you anymore.  Yeah, or as you might say, our interests are no longer aligned.”

Two guards enter to push Loki into the Time Cell again.  “You know,” says Loki, “of all the liars in this place — and there are a great many — you’re the biggest.”

“Why?  ‘Cause I lied about your girlfriend?”

“Oh, no.  That I can respect.  I mean the lies you tell yourself.”

It’s a well-written scene, so far as it goes — all these ‘heart of the episode’ scenes have been good, at least on the surface.  My problem here is that we’ve got a trickster god who only ever seems to be the victim of tricks, who can’t seem to tell a decent lie to save his life (literally, in this case).  Virtually every single time we’ve ever seen Loki in the MCU, someone’s gotten over on him.  The Black Widow, Tony Stark, the Hulk, dark elves, Sylvie, and now Mobius.  In every case, Loki’s been revealed as a chump; a stumbling, gullible mark who’s too busy sneering about his own superiority to even notice that he’s getting fleeced.  Mobius is able to both lie at will and see right through any lie told to him by the God of Lies.  Loki should be the best liar, bar none, mortal or immortal, to ever draw breath.  It should be all but impossible to detect his lies, or to put a lie past him.  And Loki, of all people, getting indignant over the sanctity of the truth at the end of this scene?  Again:  what are we doing here?

Following her enchantment at the hands of Sylvie back in episode 2, we find Hunter B-15 is increasingly shaken over what I presume are the resurgent memories of her old, pre-TVA life.  She grants herself an audience with the captive Sylvie.  “Come with me,” B-15 tells her, opening a dimension door and disappearing through it.  An intrigued Sylvie follows her through.

Mobius (Owen Wilson) and Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Meanwhile, in Ravonna’s office, she and Mobius are having a quiet drink, celebrating what looks like the end of the Variant Loki case.

“If you could go anywhere, anytime, where would it be?” asks Ravonna.

“I can go anywhere, anytime.”

“You know what I mean.”

A long pause, then Mobius says, “Why wouldn’t you let me interrogate Sylvie?”

Ravonna says she couldn’t take the chance on Sylvie escaping.  Mobius tells her Sylvie wouldn’t have escaped.  Ravonna points out that Loki escaped during Mobius’s first interview, and presses again for where Mobius would go given all of time and space from which to choose.

“I like being here now, with you, doing the work,” says Mobius.  Maybe Mobius is a Loki variant.  He’s certainly better at being Loki-like than Loki is.

“Fine,” says Ravonna.  “I received word from the Time Keepers.  They want to personally oversee the variants’ pruning, and they want you there too.”  Certainly nothing ominous about that.

“It’s about time,” says Mobius.  “Great.”  Another pause.  “When did you first notice what was going on with C-20?”

Ravonna does a whole lot of deflecting.  C-20 was fine, and then she wasn’t.  That’s the story.  “C-20, the Variant…all these questions.  What are you getting at?”

Mobius says he doesn’t know, just that something seems a little off.  Let’s recognize again that Owen Wilson has an inordinate gift for sounding like he means something other than what he’s precisely saying.  He brings a deep ambivalence to every role I’ve ever seen him play, like all his characters suffer unresolvable internal conflicts about every situation they find themselves in.

Ravonna switches gears, tells Mobius the truth is that the Sylvie scares her, and she didn’t want to see anything happen to Mobius.  C-20 had lost her mind, wasn’t even able to form words at the end.  She just didn’t want to see that happen to Mobius.  She adds some more about friendship and the fight for the Sacred Timeline.  It’s a good speech, says Mobius.  He makes some noise of his own about being her favorite analyst, and when he asks where she’s going to put her latest trophy — Sylvie’s sword — he takes advantage of Ravonna’s distraction to pocket her TVA terminal, exchanging it for his own.

The dimension door Hunter B-15 and Sylvie step through leads back to the Roxxcart in Haven Hills.  B-15 asks Sylvie what she did to her.  Sylvie tells her that she showed B-15 her life before the TVA.  B-15 wants to believe it’s a trick, a deception, but no; Sylvie tells her she can’t create memories (though if she could, how would you ever know, and why would you have any reason to believe her one way or the other?).  B-15 asks Sylvie to show her.  Sylvie does.  “I looked happy,” says B-15, weeping.  I wish we could’ve seen some of these memories — I think it would’ve been more effective — but I guess we’ll have to take B-15’s word for it.

“What now?” asks B-15.  What now, gentle reader, is maybe we ask why Sylvie has killed upwards of two or three dozen TVA agents instead of un-enchanting them.  Even discounting the multiple murders, this memory restoration thing seems pretty effective, and had she played her cards right, Sylvie could’ve placed several of her own sleeper agents inside the TVA to devastating effect, or just had them accompany her on her Time Keeper assault.  All kinds of ways a proper Goddess of Mischief could’ve gotten her thing on.

Mobius has made his way to the TVA’s file section to take a surreptitious look at Ravonna’s terminal.  He finds a video file with a lucid and very much alive C-20 talking about her memories from before her time with the TVA — that’s what was real — and realizing that she, along with everyone else at the TVA, is a variant.  “I’m ending this,” says a woman’s voice.  The voice is revealed to belong to Ravonna, her face appearing in the video before it ends.

Realizing that everything he thought was true is a lie, Mobius’s next stop is the Time Cell to retrieve Loki.  He tells Loki that he thinks the Nexus Event that he and Sylvie caused could bring the whole TVA down.  Mobius asks Loki if he swears that Sylvie didn’t implant the memories in C-20.  Not that Loki would know any better than Mobius, but Loki says he believes Sylvie.  Mobius is rightly less than totally re-assured.  “So I just have to trust the word of two Lokis?”

“How about the word of a friend?” says Loki.  Good God.

“You were right about the TVA,” says Mobius.  “You were right from the beginning.  And if you want to save her, you need to trust me.  Can we do that?”

Mobius tells Loki he can be whoever and whatever he wants to be, even someone good.  I’m not sure that’s true — the very idea that gods and goddesses of mischief exist at all would strongly suggest otherwise — but it’s kind of Mobius to say so.

Ravonna and a squad of TVA thugs are waiting for Mobius and Loki when they emerge from the Time Cell.  “I think you have something of mine,” says Ravonna.

“You know where I’d go, if I could go anywhere?” Mobius says after handing the terminal back.  “Wherever it is I’m really from.  Yeah, wherever I had a life before the TVA came along.  Maybe I had a jet ski.  That’s what I’d like to do.  Just riding around on my jet ski.”

“Prune him,” says Ravonna, and her chief thug dials up his nightlight glowstick and does exactly that.  Mobius disintegrates in a nimbus of sparks and light.  The thugs march Loki off to the chamber of the Time Keepers.

Death (?) of Mobius (Owen Wilson).

Ravonna goes to retrieve Sylvie, who’s waiting patiently, her hair still wet from the rain at Haven Hills in 2050.  B-15 is nowhere in evidence.

“Who was in here with her?” asks Ravonna.  Told it was B-15, she orders an alert put out; B-15 too has been compromised by the Variant.

Sylvie’s marched out of her chamber, and joined with Loki outside the corridor to the elevator leading to the Time Keepers’ sanctum.  Riding in the elevator, Sylvie asks Ravonna, the former A-23, if she remembers her.

“I do,” says Ravonna.  “What do you want to say to me, Variant?”

“What was my Nexus Event?  Why did you bring me in?”

“What does it matter?”

“It was enough to take my life from me, lead to all of this.  It must’ve been important.  So what was it?”

“I don’t remember,” says Ravonna.  It’s as good a time as any to begin asking why Ravonna, who at the very least knows the full truth about the origin of the TVA’s agents, is so committed to the Time Keepers’ cause.

The elevator doors open, and Ravonna ushers Loki and Sylvie into the throne room of the Time Keepers…and sure enough, Loki wasn’t wrong; the Time Keepers do have a kind of funktastic space lizard thing going.  “Gracious Time Keepers,” announces Ravonna, “as promised:  the Variants.”

“After all your struggle,” says Space Lizard #1, “at last you’ve arrived before us.”

“What do you have to say for yourselves before you meet your end, Variants?” says Space Lizard #2.

“Is that the only reason you brought us here?” says Loki.  “To kill us?  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been killed, so go ahead.  Do your worst.”

“You and your bravado are no threat to us, Variant,” says Space Lizard #3.

Sylvie tells them she doesn’t think they believe that.  “I think you’re scared.”  She tries walking toward the Time Keepers, but Ravonna has her on the time loop leash.

Space Lizard #1 tells Sylvie she’s wrong, and nothing but a cosmic disappointment.  “Delete them,” he tells Ravonna.

Nothing left to say and nothing left to lose, Sylvie again starts making her way to the Time Keepers, only to be kept at bay by Ravonna and her time leash…at first.  Enter Hunter B-15 through the elevator behind Ravonna with her own time leash remote control, which she uses to dismantle Loki and Sylvie’s collars altogether.  “For all time,” says B-15.  “Always.”  She tosses Sylvie her sword, swiped from Ravonna’s office, and it’s on.  B-15 goes down early, so it’s Sylvie and Loki vs. four TVA space lizard bodyguards.  Sylvie, the better fighter, dispatches her two opponents early, and begins fighting with Ravonna.  She knocks out Ravonna with a punch to the face as Loki finally dispatches his opponents.

With no one still standing between them and Sylvie and Loki, the Time Keepers try stalling.  “You’re a child of the Time Keepers too, Sylvie,” says Space Lizard #1.  “We can talk.”

Sylvie thinks otherwise, and throws the sword Loki’s given back to her through the throat of Space Lizard #1, decapitating him.  The Time Keepers just laugh, and then shut down.  The head that rolls down the stairs to land at Loki’s feet is the head of a robot, still sparking where the sword went through the neck.

“Fake,” says Sylvie in wonder, picking the head up and examining it.  “Mindless androids.”

“It never stops,” says a tired, frustrated Loki.  “Then who created the TVA?”

“I thought this was it,” says Sylvie, throwing the robot head aside.

Given a moment to spare, when they’re not in mortal danger from time-traveling thugs or the end of the world, Loki tries to put words to his feelings.  “Sylvie, I have to tell you something.  We will figure this out.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because…back on Lamentis…this is new for me.  Um…”

“What?  What is it?” she says.  Loki touches her shoulders, drawing closer to her…but before he can say or do any more, he’s disintegrated, pruned from behind by a revived Ravonna.  Sylvie quickly disarms her and threatens her with the business end of the glowstick.

“You’re going to tell me,” says Sylvie.  “Everything,”

Cue credits to Brenda Lee’s ‘If You Love Me (Really Love Me).’  We need to give it up for whoever picked the music for these ending credits scenes, because they fucking nailed it.  I’m guessing Music Supervisor Dave Jordan…?  He has a long resume that includes most Marvel-related projects — including the Netflix projects — and about a hundred others besides.

But wait…!  There’s a post (mid?) credits scene!  An apparently not-dead or reduced to atoms Loki awakens to some ruined urban landscape.  “Am I dead?” he wonders aloud.

“Not yet,” says a voice, “but you will be if you don’t come with us.”

Loki sits up to see a quartet of figures studying him.  At least two of them are variant Lokis.  One — played by Richard Grant! — is a classic-looking Jack Kirby Loki.  Another looks to me like a version of Kid Loki.  The kid is holding a caiman — sort of a little alligator — sporting a little Loki helmet.  Not sure what’s up with that.  And there’s one more fellow wielding a hammer built out of what looks like a large wrench.  The hammer would argue for a Thor variant, but the look of him, what he’s wearing and holding, might argue for Phastos, an Eternal.  If so, that’d be another extremely deep cut for this show; Phastos is legit obscure.

I’ll admit, I’m intrigued.  Kid Loki and Richard Grant.  Who wouldn’t find that interesting?

____

But for the very end, not a lot of comic-related errata this go-round.

  • Kid Loki, a younger and somewhat better-intentioned incarnation of the trickster god, made his first appearance in Thor #617 (Jan 2011), courtesy of Matt Fraction and Pasqual Ferry.  Much of Loki’s character development since this point has involved Loki trying to find a way to gain a greater level of control over his own destiny.  If you’re the God of Mischief, Lies, and Tricks, is that all you’re allowed to be?  Or is it possible to be something more, to call your own shots and decide your own course?  The jury’s still out.
  • Phastos the Eternal is an inventor and weapons-maker.  He’s sort of the Tony Stark of the gods, if you will, minus the armor.  The Eternals are a race of god-like immortals, created by the enigmatic space-spanning Celestials.  Strange side-note:  in the comics, Thanos is an Eternal.  He’s from a different offshoot of Eternals than Phastos — a different branch of the family, if you will — but an Eternal all the same.  Phastos made his first appearance in Eternals #1 (Oct 1985) by Peter Gillis, Sal Buscema, and Al Gordon.
  • Nothing to do with comic books, but I couldn’t help noting the similarities between Loki and Sylvie’s fight in the Time Keepers’ throne room and Rey and Kylo Ren’s fight in another throne room from The Last Jedi (2017).

And there it is.  Fire away with any comments, questions, or corrections.  We’ll see you next episode!

References

References
1 In the Norse myths, Loki does a great deal of shape-shifting, changing into birds and fish and the like.  There’s a lot of shape-shifting in general among the figures of Norse mythology.  For our purposes, I’m largely restricting my explanations to the Marvel Comics character.
2 Technically, the Asgardians aren’t immortal, they’re just extremely long-lived; they eat golden apples to extend their life-span.  Seriously!  See Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Apples of Immortality,’ Norse Mythology, p. 179.
3 Specifically, The Five Books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
4 Hopkins:  “I just play Odin like a human being, with maybe a little more dimension.  I grow a beard, look hopefully impressive, and keep it as real as possible.”  From the production notes of Thor:  The Dark World.
5 As with all things Stan Lee, I suspect he employed this device with one foot in sincerity and the other in parody.
6 You can read the mythic version of how Loki cut off Sif’s hair in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, ‘The Treasures of the Gods.’
Categories
Marvel

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

____

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!
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 2: The Variant

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.

Before we start, let’s recognize that Disney’s anti-piracy game is strong.  Whatever brief window there was that allowed me to take screenshots to better explain the visual tricks of the trade is now apparently closed.  I’ll do my best to work around it, but alas…things were a lot easier when I could just grab what I was looking for right from the scene in question.

Last week’s episode ended in a lethal ambush of TVA Minutemen by the variant Loki, and this week’s episode begins the same way.  This time it’s in 1985, in a tent at a Renaissance Fair in Oshkosh, WI.[1]Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer on whom Agent Mobius is based, was an Oshkosh native, so I imagine the location was chosen for his sake.  The ambush is set to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ — shades of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Baby Driver (2017), but without the clever syncopation — and this time, in addition to dead TVA agents and stolen reset charges, the variant Loki kidnaps a still-living agent, C-20 (Sasha Lane).  Why?  Who knows?  I’ve got questions, gentle reader.  So many questions, which we’ll get to in due course.

Back at the TVA, Miss Minutes — a sort of animated TVA instructional program that’s somewhere between an artificial intelligence and a hologram — is quizzing Loki on what happens when nexus events branch past red line.  According to Loki and Miss Minutes, when a nexus event branches past red line, the nexus event can no longer be reset, which can ‘lead to the destruction of the timeline and the collapse of reality as we know it.’  And that’s never happened?  Ever?  What exactly would the collapse of reality as we know it look like?

In response to the Oshkosh attack, Mobius gathers a team that includes Loki and Hunter B-15.  According to Mobius, the TVA has ‘pruned,’ or eliminated, more versions of Loki than almost any other variant.  The powers of these Loki variants generally include shape-shifting and illusion-projecting (which our Loki insists is actually duplication casting, a completely different power)…but not, you’ll note, time traveling.  Hmm.

Loki asks why the TVA doesn’t simply arrive at a point in time before the ambush.  Mobius says that nexus events destabilize the time flow; with the branch still changing and growing, they’re obliged to show up in ‘real time,’ whatever that means.  Quizzed about reset charges, which ‘prune the affected radius of a branched timeline, allowing time to heal all its wounds,’ Loki notes that pruning sounds like a nice way of saying disintegrate everything in its vicinity.  Mobius doesn’t dispute the point.

If I’m understanding all this correctly, the TVA in Loki is dedicated to the maintenance of a single time line.  In this model, envision time like a long stretch of river.  The TVA knows where the river starts, where it ends up, and every twist, turn, rapid, and shallow along the way.  The TVA’s job is to maintain the flow of this river — what they call the Sacred Timeline — and to stop any potential distributary streams, i.e., nexus events, from becoming separate rivers in their own right.  Got all that?

The Gang Visits the Renfair.

Two things with the TVA and this Sacred Timeline business:

One, all of this is a lot different from the comics, where the TVA oversees (or tries to oversee) all of time and all of its infinite branches, across the entire universe, only stepping in when something or someone threatens to damage the structure of time and space in a manner that genuinely could collapse all of reality.  The TVA of the comics doesn’t subscribe to any sort of This is how it was meant to be philosophy.  In a universe of infinite possibilities and branching timelines, there’s no such thing as This is how it’s meant to be.  Nor are the TVA much concerned with life or death or moral conduct.  They’re bureaucratic monitors, not enforcers; less police, and more like the DMV, say.  When they do attempt to enforce something, they outsource it to mercenary specialists.

Two, with the TVA of the show and its singular maintenance of a singular timeline, there shouldn’t be any now or then.  Going back to our Sacred Timeline as a river analogy, so far as the TVA is concerned, all things are simultaneously happening, have already happened, and will happen.  The TVA is dealing with the entire river at once, and not experiencing its flow from any one point on its shores.  The TVA knowing an event isn’t supposed to happen doesn’t make sense unless they have knowledge of what should happen.  Another way to look at it is that the TVA are caretakers of a Sacred Book, and they’re constantly poring over it to make sure no one has amended the text.

The team moves to investigate the crime scene in the tent, discovering that Hunter C-20 is missing.  They’d have probably discovered that a lot faster had anyone thought to bring a flashlight, but we forge the chains we wear in life.  “He’s taking hostages now?” says Mobius.  “The Variant’s never taken a hostage before.”

One of the Minutemen suggests that maybe the variant Loki pruned C-20.  “A Loki couldn’t have gotten the jump on C-20,” says an indignant Hunter B-15.  It’s a bold statement, considering a Loki has gotten the jump on at least eight entire teams of Minutemen in the past ‘week’ or so.

When the Minutemen prepare to spread out to search for C-20, Loki tells them that if they leave the tent, they’ll end up like their predecessors.  “I see a scheme,” says Loki, “and in that scheme I see myself.”  Uh huh. 

If anyone in the TVA had more than two brain cells to rub together, they’d know right off the bat that Loki’s full of shit.  One, Loki’s always full of shit, and two, why should Loki care if a bunch of Minutemen get waxed?  He’d probably wax them himself if he thought he was up to the job.  Instead, the TVA agents stand around listening while Loki gives a Littlefinger-inspired speech that’s a mess of self-aggrandizing hot air, and then they prune the timeline with a reset charge.  Mobius’s investigative team knew the variant Loki was responsible for the attack before they left the TVA, so literally the only thing their investigation turned up was that C-20 is missing instead of confirmed dead.

It never seems to occur to the TVA that the dead Minutemen might just be collateral damage, and that the real target of the variant Loki’s attacks are the reset charges each team carries.  That’s par for the course with the TVA — they’re a remarkably brainless bunch, even by MCU standards — but does it occur to Loki?  It should — in fact, it should be impossible for it not to — but does it?  As a general rule, the MCU doesn’t do duplicity.  Just off the top of my head, I can’t remember any instance in any MCU movie or TV show where what we saw or heard wasn’t essentially true.  It doesn’t leave me hopeful for a show about a guy who’s supposed to be the best liar creation has to offer.

Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Back at TVA HQ, Agent Mobius meets up with his supervisor, Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the judge from last episode.  She’s understandably a little conflicted about Mobius’s conscription of the God of Mischief.  “Look, I know you have a soft spot for broken things,” says Ravonna.

“I don’t think so,” says Mobius.

“Yes, you do,” says Ravonna, “but Loki is an evil, lying scourge.  That is the part he plays on the Sacred Timeline.”

“Maybe he wants to mix it up.  Sometimes you get tired of playing the same part.  Is that possible?  He can change?”

What Ravonna should say is, Are we still talking about Loki?  What she says instead is, “Not unless the Time Keepers decree it, and then it shall be so.”

“And how are the old Time Keepers?”

“How do you think?”

“I don’t know, ’cause I’ve never met them.”

Ravonna tells Mobius that the Time Keepers are monitoring every aspect of the case, and that Mobius is down to his last chance with Loki.

Mobius sets Loki to reviewing ‘each and every one’ of the Variant’s case files, to see if there’s anything the TVA missed.  “Well, you’re idiots.  I suspect you probably missed a lot,” says Loki.

“That’s why I’m lucky I got you for a little bit longer,” says Mobius.  “Let me park you at this desk, and don’t be afraid to really lean into this work.  Here’s a good trick for you:  pretend your life depends on it.”

The ensuing research scene owes a visual and sonic debt to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), mirroring as it does Detective Somerset’s trip to the library with Detective Mills’s concurrent research at home.  Even the music — Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major — is the same.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Loki (2021), d. Kate Herron, dp. Autumn Durald
David Mills (Brad Pitt) in Se7en (1995), d. David Fincher, dp. Darius Khondji

The threat of imminent disintegration does indeed seem to motivate Loki beyond his usual bluster and bullshit.  Looking into the destruction of Asgard, Loki notices that no time variance is detected.  Loki rushes to find Mobius, who asks him if he’s read every file pertaining to the Variant.  “The answer isn’t in the files,” Loki tells him.  “It’s on the timeline.  He’s hiding in apocalypses.”  Essentially, Loki explains, if a time traveler sticks to apocalyptic events, nothing the time traveler says or does will make a difference or be noted, as the environment and everyone in it is destined for destruction in any case.

To test Loki’s theory, he and Mobius travel to Pompeii and the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Loki contrives to make quite the scene, but sure enough, once the volcano erupts…zero variance energy, no branching in the timeline.  “The TVA would never even know we were here,” says Loki.  “If it were me, this is where I would hide.”

Mobius sums it up:  “Doomsdays.  The Variant’s been ambushing our soldiers and hiding out in doomsdays to cover his tracks.  In order for this theory to hold, the disasters have to be naturally occurring, sudden, no warning, no survivors.”

I’m not sure that tracks.  Couldn’t the Variant just as well hide in the distant, pre-human past?  And why would the disaster need to be naturally occurring?  Wouldn’t any sufficiently catastrophic and lethal event do?  Ah, well.  Why nitpick?

“How many of those could there be?” says Loki.  I’d have guessed about a zillion.  Mobius says he doesn’t know, but that he and Loki are going to find out.  Their endurance gives out before they find the answer — I guess even gods and creations of the Time Keepers are susceptible to fatigue, and aside from Miss Minutes, the TVA doesn’t seem to have any use for computers.  The pair find themselves in a TVA cafeteria, having a discussion that begins at jet skis, proceeds to faith, and concludes with one of those leaps of deductive reasoning you only ever see in the movies.

Mobius has a magazine at his desk that features jet skis, which Mobius admires as a beautiful union of form and function.  Mobius has never ridden a jet ski, but he likes to read about them, as they remind him of what the TVA is fighting for.

“You really believe in all this stuff, don’t you?” says Loki.

“I don’t get hung up on believe, not believe.  I just accept what is,” says Mobius.

“Three magic lizards…”

“Time keepers.”

“…created the TVA and everyone in it, including you?”

“Right.”

“See, every time I start to admire your intelligence, you say something like that.”

“Okay, who created you, Loki?”

“A frost giant of Jotunheim.”

“And who raised you?”

“Odin of Asgard.”

“Odin, God of the Heavens.  Asgard, mystical realm beyond the stars.  Frost giants…listen to yourself.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s exactly the same thing, because if you think too hard about where any of us came from, who we truly are?  It sounds kind of ridiculous.”

I’ll point out here that it’s not exactly the same thing, or even close to the same thing:  Loki literally is a frost giant, has personally been to Jotunheim, was raised in Odin’s household as a prince, and lived the majority of his life in Asgard.  None of that is a matter of belief or a tenet of faith for Loki — it’s all straight fact — whereas Mobius by his own admission has never actually met his creators.

“Existence is chaos,” continues Mobius.  “Nothing makes any sense, so we try to make some sense of it.  I’m just lucky that the chaos I emerged into gave me all this:  my own glorious purpose.  Because the TVA is my life; and it’s real because I believe it’s real.”

Loki concedes Mobius’s belief, but if everything is written — past, present, and future — then there’s no such thing as free will.  And how does it all end?  Mobius claims it’s a work in progress.  What then, Loki asks, are the Time Keepers waiting for?  (He doesn’t ask how it can be a work in progress if the TVA’s claim to know everything that’s supposed to happen is true, but I wish he would have.)  According to Mobius, while the TVA protects the past, the Time Keepers are ‘toiling away in their chamber, untangling the epilogue from its infinite branches.’

“I see,” says Loki.  “So when they’re finished, what happens then?”

“So are we,” says Mobius.  “No more nexus events.  Just order, and we meet in peace at the end of time.  Nice, right?”

There’s no way any Loki from any reality would find any of that nice.  “Only order?  No chaos?  Sounds boring.”  He’s not wrong.

“I’m sure it does to you.”

“You know, you called me a scared little boy,” says Loki, “but I know something children don’t:  that no one bad is ever truly bad, and no one good is ever truly good.”  It’s a god-awful, ridiculous line — you don’t even have to delve into the realms of super-hero fantasy to find people who are truly bad or truly good — but the mention of scared little boy triggers Mobius’s memory of the young French boy from episode 1.  The boy had some Kablooie candy given to him by the Loki Variant that obviously was not native to 16th century France.  According to Mobius, Kablooie was only sold regionally on Earth from 2047 to 2051.  Looking for apocalyptic events during that time span, Loki narrows the event down to Alabama in 2050.  I’m not entirely sure how he narrows it down to that, but he does.

Kablooie

Now, if I were Mobius, I might be thinking that the variant Loki had given that candy to that boy with a purpose.  If I were a particularly cynical and suspicious TVA agent, I’d worry that it was the Loki in front of me who was leading me to virtually every conclusion I had.  And I might even wonder if the Loki in front of me and the variant Loki were not in fact the same Loki at different points in time, or if the two were not perhaps in cahoots.

Mobius gets Judge Ravonna to sign off on a detachment for 2050 Haven Hills, Alabama.  Ravonna is rightly skeptical — “And this is all based on a theory from the variant who just blew your previous mission?” — but okays the mission, with the provision that the blame will fall squarely on Mobius if it doesn’t work out.  What would that look like?  Would Mobius be retired / recycled and replaced with a superior version?  Mobius 2.0?

The leader of the Haven Hills detachment is Hunter B-15.  After she nixes the idea of Loki being given his knives by Mobius, she gives the briefing:  “Roxxcart is a vast superstore common to the era.  It consists of a series of sprawling sections, including a large warehouse.  This warehouse is being used by civilians as a shelter trying to ride out the storm.  Remember, this is a class ten apocalypse.  While the Variant shouldn’t know we’re coming, he could be hiding anywhere and should be considered hostile.  So stay alert.  Every time there is an attack, the Variant steals a reset charge.  He’s planning something.  We just don’t know what.  So keep an eye out for the missing charges, and if you see a Loki, prune it.”

No one raises a hand to remind B-15 that the God of Mischief is a shape-shifter, so how would any of them know whether they saw a Loki or not?  Also, if the TVA is as certain as they seem to be that they’re going to find the variant Loki at this apocalyptic event, why not just drop a bomb, eliminate the entire mess at one go?[2]I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Chastain’s implacable Maya from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and … Continue reading  Maybe the TVA doesn’t have bombs, and rave-stick truncheons are the pinnacle of their weapons technology.  Who knows?

The Gang Visits Roxxcart.

It isn’t a terribly large team that’s sent to the apocalyptic event — it doesn’t look any larger to my eyes than the teams that the variant Loki has already successfully eliminated — and their firepower is further diminished when Hunter B-15 elects to split the team to search separate locations.  Maybe the TVA suffers from a personnel shortage as well as a weapons technology deficiency, the Time Keepers too preoccupied in their chamber to make more TVA agents.  Over the objections of Mobius — “Of course he’s a threat!  Do you not remember the Time Theater?  That’s why I want him with me!” — B-15 takes Loki with her.

Time Theater?

All of it is being watched by the variant Loki on the Roxxcart security cameras, who sets some kind of timer for 20 minutes before leaving.

Walking through the giant Roxxcart store, Loki and B-15 come across a young man shopping for Azaleas (“It’s a hurricane sale,” he explains.  “Half off.”).  When B-15 gets close to him — which, you know, she wouldn’t have to do if she had a weapon with a range longer than her arm — the young man reaches out, a green energy aura passing from him to her.  He collapses, and the now-possessed B-15 turns around to face Loki.

“Is he dead?” our Loki asks of the collapsed young man.

“No.  They usually survive,” says the variant Loki / B-15.  “So.  You’re the fool the TVA brought in to hunt me down.”

While the two Lokis get acquainted, Mobius and his team locate the missing Hunter C-20.  “It’s real,” she says.  “I gave it away.  The Time Keepers.  I gave it away how to find them.”

After the possessed B-15 passes her possession on to a store clerk, our Loki tells the variant Loki that he’s going to overthrow the TVA, and he could use a qualified lieutenant.  The variant Loki declines the offer:  “I’m not interested in ruling the Time Variance Authority.”

“If you don’t want to rule the TVA, then what do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter.  You’re too late.”

Loki notices one of the reset charges on a nearby-shelf, and mistakes it for a bomb, despite having seen plenty of reset charges up close.  “I see,” he says.  “That’s your plan.  Lure us all here so you can blow the place up.”

While Loki’s talking, the possessed store clerk disappears into the shadows, and is replaced by a possessed burly redneck — he’s called Country Hoss in the credits! — who proceeds to beat Loki up.  Loki straight-up tussled with Thor in past movies, but now he’s getting his ass whupped by the Cable Guy.  Loki’s the son of a frost giant.  He shouldn’t be getting tossed around by the likes of Country Hoss, no matter how possessed Country Hoss is.

Loki takes his beating, but recovers in time to watch Country Hoss set the final reset charges.  “Brace yourself, Loki,” says Country Hoss, and then collapses, his possession at an end.  Loki turns to see the variant Loki herself — yes, herself — there in the flesh.  “This isn’t about you,” she says.

Variant Lady Loki (Sophia Di Martino).

The timers on the reset charges hit zero, and they all begin to go off at once.  Dozens of them, disappearing into little dimension doors that open up beneath him.

The screens at the TVA begin to light up like Christmas trees.  “Somebody just bombed the Sacred Timeline!” says one distressed TVA monitor.  He’s not wrong; branches begin spreading off the Timeline in dozens, maybe hundreds, of spots.

Back at the Roxxcart superstore, the variant Loki opens up a TVA dimension door — she’s pretty handy with their technology — gives our Loki a little wave, and steps through.  Mobius and his team come running hard on her heels, calling for Loki to wait.  Rather than stick around to face pissed-off TVA hunters and possible disintegration, Loki elects to follow the variant Loki through the dimension door just before it disappears, leaving the frustrated TVA agents behind.

Cue credits!

____

Let’s get pruned…

  • I don’t know how I missed it from episode 1, but the TVA’s set design borrows heavily from Fritz Lang’s influential Metropolis (1927).
TVA skyline, Loki.
  • I strongly suspect we’re going to find that there’s more than a little Wizard of Oz-style bullshit going on behind this Time Keepers story.  I also strongly suspect we’ll discover the variant Loki herself was or is a rogue agent of the TVA.  In the mythology, Loki is a shape-shifter, not tied to any one gender or even any one species, so I wouldn’t completely rule out the idea that the variant Loki is our Loki at a different point in time.  I don’t think it’s likely — probably too fussy for the MCU — but I wouldn’t rule it out.
  • In the comics, agents of the TVA are, with rare exceptions, all the same.  Part clone, part drone.  They don’t have personalities, don’t even have faces, and they’re not human in any sense of that term as we’d understand it.  Their ‘lives’ are spent monitoring their timeline, and that’s what they do.  In the show, Mobius says that everyone in the TVA was created by the Time Keepers.  So why create them as individuals?  The TVA agents in the show all look and act distinct from one another.  Casey at the front desk says he spends his life at the desk, but Mobius takes breaks to read jet ski magazines and eat lunch, and we see from this episode that he feels the effects of fatigue.  TVA hunters seem to experience pain and fear and death as humans do.  They can be knocked out, stabbed, beaten, etc.  They’re male and female.  Why?  Do the hunters get together to make little hunters?  Why wouldn’t the Time Keepers make all their TVA creations the same, and create them in vast multitudes?  If a hunter team gets eliminated, why not just make more hunters?
City skyline, Metropolis.
  • At the risk of coming across as a miserable, pedantic bastard, the TVA’s weapons (or lack thereof) make me squirm with the most severe displeasure.  All of history, past and present, to choose from, and the best weapon they could steal or invent is a stick with a night light on the end of it?  One that makes cocking rifle sounds but doesn’t actually do cocked rifle stuff?  The hunters would literally be better off carrying slingshots, or even paint-ball guns.
  • Loki’s first appearance as a woman was Thor #5 (Jan 2008) by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, and Mark Morales.  The female aspect didn’t last long; he’s still traditionally represented as a male character, with the understanding that such things are kind of fluid where Loki’s concerned.
  • Roxxcart is a huge WalMart-type super-store likely being run by Roxxon, the Marvel Universe’s official evil energy corporation.  Roxxon’s first appearance was Captain America #180 (Dec 1974), created by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema.
  • The variant Loki’s wave at the end of the episode made me think of Hermione Corfield from We Hunt Together (2020).
We Hunt Together GIF by Showtime
Hermione Corfield, We Hunt Together (2020).

And that’s that. Questions or comments, please let me know!

References

References
1 Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer on whom Agent Mobius is based, was an Oshkosh native, so I imagine the location was chosen for his sake.
2 I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Chastain’s implacable Maya from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and Velcro and all your gear bullshit.  I wanted to drop a bomb.”
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 1: Glorious Purpose

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.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

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.”

Iron Man (2008)
Loki (2021)

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.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson).

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.[1]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 murderer?”

“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?

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as D.B. Cooper.

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?”

“That’s right.”

“Why me?”

“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 Hermit, a.k.a. the Variant

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.[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 … 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.

Cue credits.

____

Like Ratatoskr, gnawing at the roots of the World Tree…

Journey into Mystery #85, Oct 1962, by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers.
  • 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 $200,000[3]Over $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!

References

References
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.
Categories
Marvel

WandaVision, Ep. 5: On a Very Special Episode…

Note:  Welcome back, unwary traveler, to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVisionAs always, there are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fifth episode.

A whole lot going on in episode 5, the longest episode thus far at 42 minutes:  family ties, growing pains, leggings, mom jeans — oh, those mom jeans! — and a couple unforgettably vulgar displays of power.  Let’s get after it.

Categories
Marvel

WandaVision, Ep.4: We Interrupt This Program

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  There are spoilers up ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fourth episode.  Also, if there are Marvel Cinematic Universe movies of recent vintage you haven’t seen — everything since 2018, say — you might want to check those out before continuing, as those will be pertinent to our discussion here.

Like lightning from a clear blue sky, in a plot twist I did not even sort of see coming, WandaVision ep.4 appears to offer up more answers than questions, and now I hardly know what to do with myself.  You do remember I said a certain scarlet associated person warps reality, yes?

Categories
Marvel

WandaVision, Ep.3: Now in Color

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  There are spoilers up ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the third episode.

When Avengers (2012) came out, I naturally got a whole mess of questions from people about who these characters were and what they were all about.  A few had some rough familiarity with the comics.  Most had none.  One friend, educated and insanely intelligent, knew of Thor not from the comics but from the actual Norse mythology he’d read.  “How is it,” this friend asked, “that these mortal heroes are the equal of Thor?”

Categories
Marvel

WandaVision, Ep.2: Don’t Touch That Dial

Note:  Welcome back to our episode-by-episode exploration of WandaVision.  There are spoilers ahead; this article assumes you’ve seen the show up through the second episode.

It occurred to me more than once, watching this episode, that to this point WandaVision encourages a kind of active conspiracy theorizing.  You’re presented with events and information that not only don’t feel quite right; you question whether or not they’re tethered to objective reality at all.  What, if anything, here can be taken as ‘fact’?  So you begin this elaborate game of connecting the dots, searching for meaning and connotation where it’s possible none exist.  Mind you, like any committed conspiracy theorist, I think in this case meaning and connotation do exist…but can I prove it?  Gentle reader, I cannot.  Not at this juncture, at any rate.  This must be what those Q-Anon adherents feel like, minus the lunacy, sedition, and racism.

Categories
Marvel

WandaVision, Ep. 1: Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience

Note:  There are major spoilers ahead.  This article assumes some familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so if you haven’t seen Avengers:  Infinity War, Avengers:  Endgame, and the first episode of WandaVision, do that first and then come back.

One of the weirdest things about the post-geek world we find ourselves living in is the way in which what was once the secret, shameful province of a select and outcast few has not only been embraced by mainstream pop culture, but has become, for the moment at least, a vital part of its foundation.  Thanks to the movies, you find people who’ve never read a comic book in their lives taking ownership of the likes of Captain America and Iron Man, and discussing the Marvel Cinematic Universe by the cold light of day, as if that’s a perfectly normal thing to do (which now, I guess, it is…but oh, my sweet summer children, ’twas not always so).  This phenomena is a little jarring for someone like me, who’s been living intimately with the idea of mutants, androids, super-soldiers, thunder gods, and crime-fighting teen-agers in spider costumes for pretty much the entirety of their life.  I’m not sure how many Marvel Comics I’m harboring / hoarding in my collection, but it’s somewhere well north of sanity…all of which is to say that I’m walking in the door of any MCU movie or television show pre-burdened with decades of history and unreasonably militant notions too powerful for mortal brains to contain.