In September 2018, Marvel Studios announced plans to produce limited series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and released on Disney’s soon-to-launch streaming platform, Disney+. These series were an opportunity to spotlight secondary or supporting characters from the MCU films, as well as explore some interesting if inessential connective tissue between films. The first series, WandaVision (2021), spotlights Wanda Maximoff, a supporting Avenger, and takes the time to examine the grief and trauma that would result from experiencing the events of superhero films. Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) forefronts Captain America’s two closest allies after Cap choses to step aside in Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019), and also examines issues of race, refugees, and heroism in the complex modern world. Both series slow things down, dig into their characters and track a more nuanced emotional journey in between the major world-ending threats of the films.
The third Marvel Studios limited series, announced in November 2018, is far more strange. Firstly, it stars one of the MCU’s chief villains, Loki, who had appeared in five MCU films up to that point. Loki was unquestionably popular, but up to this point, it was rare for comic book films or series to centre around villains. Joker (Phillips, 2019) and Venom (Fleischer, 2018) are notable exceptions. Secondly, it stars an MCU villain who died in his last appearance in the MCU, Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), which was released six months before the series was announced. So it was uncertain how exactly this series would fit into the larger MCU narrative. This uncertainty made Loki the most intriguing of the first spate of Marvel Studios series, and it did not disappoint.
The series is awash with time travel, alternate dimensions, alternate Lokis, and a retro bureaucracy that would make Douglas Adams proud. But it is also a philosophically-rich examination of the nature of villainy, choice versus predetermination, and whether it is possible for someone to change after society assigns them a role. It is the property that officially introduces the concept of the multiverse to the MCU, a concept that had become incredibly popular in superhero films and shows at that time. But rather than a means to include gimmicky fan service, in Loki the multiverse serves as a device to engage with deep character exploration and philosophical ideas. In the process, it shows the potential for superhero narrative tropes to be used in service of interesting, original, and deep storytelling.
The classic Marvel Comics version of Loki was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee for Journey Into Mystery #85 (October 1962). This issue was the third appearance of the Marvel Comics version of Thor, and Loki was introduced as Thor’s adopted brother, the adopted son of Odin and the god of mischief. Legendary artist Jack Kirby was fascinated with Norse mythology, even attempting to introduce Thor as a superhero in DC Comics in the ‘50s. For Kirby and Lee, a Thor comic allowed them to incorporate centuries-old mythology with the modern mythology that they were building in comics, while also exploring the most off-the-wall fantasy elements that they could imagine.
Loki is the chief antagonist in countless Thor stories. He is born the son of Laufey, king of the Frost Giants, sworn enemy of Odin and his kingdom of Asgard. Loki is abandoned as a runt but taken in by Odin. He grows up with a chip on his shoulder, however, as Asgardian society values the exact characteristics embodied by the strong, courageous Thor. Loki, on the other hand, excels at scheming and magic. Out of his discontent come many tricks or attacks in an attempt to undermine Thor or take over Asgard.
His mischief soon reaches Earth. In one early adventure, Loki attempts to trick Thor by causing Hulk to attack a train. These events inadvertently lead to the formation of The Avengers in Avengers #1 (September 1963). Over the years, Loki’s goals occasionally align with Thor’s, and they team up. Loki also takes various forms over the years, spending some time in the body of Lady Sif or as a child version of himself. This is all relevant, as Loki introduces many alternate versions of Loki taken straight from the comics.
But more relevant to the series is Loki’s history in the MCU films. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) first appears in Thor (Branagh, 2011). In that film, Loki arranges for Frost Giants to infiltrate Asgard to spoil the coronation of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as king. This sets into motion events that lead Loki to discover his true origin, the son of a Frost Giant. He also sees that Thor is banished to Earth, clearing the way for Loki to become king. Thor returns, humbled by his experiences, and foils Loki’s plans. Loki escapes into the cosmos where he encounters Thanos (Josh Brolin), who offers to make Loki ruler of Earth if Loki retrieves an Infinity Stone, the Tesseract. In The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), Loki attempts to take the Tesseract. His actions, mirroring the comics, assembles the Avengers for the first time, and they defeat him. Loki is captured and brought back to Asgard to face justice, still angry, venomous, and desiring a throne. This is a very key moment for Loki, to which we will return.
Loki’s ensuing appearances soften the character quite a bit. In Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013), Loki spitefully directs invading Dark Elves through Asgard, which leads to his beloved mother’s death. Loki then teams up with Thor to exact revenge, and he is seemingly killed. He actually fakes his death and poses as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to take the throne of Asgard. In Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Thor discovers this deceit, Odin dies, and their long-exiled sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), returns to take Asgard. As they fight to take it back, Thor gives up trying to stop Loki’s schemes and accepts that Loki will never change. Ironically, this freedom seems to make Loki his best self. When Thanos attacks them at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, he kills Loki.
That is the end of Loki’s life, but not the end of his story. In Avengers: Endgame, the Avengers travel back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones. They attempt to retrieve the Tesseract after Loki’s defeat in The Avengers in 2012. Unfortunately, things go wrong, the Tesseract is dropped at the captured Loki’s feet, and he uses it to escape. Unbeknownst to anyone, including Loki, this event creates an alternate timeline in which Loki escapes. The proper Loki was brought back to Asgard to face justice, but the escaped Loki is considered a “variant,” a deviation in the approved timeline. And to the agents of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), the monitors and preservers of the Sacred Timeline, any deviations must be eliminated.
That is the starting point for Loki, which follows a version of Loki, when he was at his angriest and most venomous, as he encounters the all-powerful TVA and other alternate versions of himself. He grapples with a force that has decided the course of events for every living being and punishes those who stray from their preordained path or dare to change their ways. And Loki is also forced to take a good hard look at himself, his choices, and his motivations as he sees himself from the outside. It is a great setup for a show.
Indeed, it is well-executed by head writer Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron. Like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, one writer oversaw Loki and one director directed all six episodes, giving the series a cohesiveness that makes it seem more like a 4.5-hour film than a series. However, Waldron was intentional about each episode feeling like a distinct part of a larger story. There is a clear, conscious effort to approach each episode as a certain style of a show, and then subvert expectations when the next episode switches gears. There is also an inherent brilliance to taking a character as well defined as Loki, rewinding him back to an earlier stage of his development, and then seeing where he could go in a new environment. The show is, of course, anchored by Tom Hiddleston’s performance which, after a decade of playing Loki, is as nuanced and lived-in as one could hope.
But perhaps the best aspect of the show, after the great premise and the ideas it explored, is the aesthetic. The design of the Time Variance Authority (TVA) is phenomenal: based around mid-century Brutalist architecture, but furnished with the design and Earth-tone colours of the ‘60s/’70s. The technology of the TVA is imagined as advanced versions of analog devices, how ‘70s and ‘80s technology would have developed if digital technology had never emerged. But also, to have the greatest power in this imagined universe, the arbiters of predetermination throughout space and time, be presented as a well-organized, expansive, mildly-infuriating bureaucracy is inspired. It is a noteworthy homage to the work of sci-fi satirist Douglas Adams, famous for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
The masterstroke of the series is its use of the multiverse. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Perschietti, Ramsay, and Rothman, 2018) brilliantly introduced the multiverse concept into superhero cinema, using it to explore the nature of heroism and tell a coming of age story. It is a masterpiece. But since then, the multiverse concept has increasingly been used as a mechanism to include previous, fan-favourite versions of characters into new films. This is seen in the DC television crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 2019, Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts, 2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022), and in the upcoming The Flash (Muschietti, 2023).
The use of the multiverse concept is not fan-service in Loki. It is first and foremost a plot contrivance that allows the writers to explore Loki on a deeper level by confronting him both with TVA agents who know everything he has ever done and ever will do, but also with alternate versions of himself that he can judge from the outside. It is immersion therapy into the self.
Loki is also a show about cutting off a potential multiverse, pruning any “unwanted” branches to the approved timeline, that is centered on a breathtakingly self-absorbed character who refuses to believe he is not the arbiter of his own destiny. Loki believes he can do or be anyone he likes, but an all-powerful organization exists to keep him exactly as they want him. That is frustrating to a character like Loki, but also quite sad. What if a person known for being a villain tries to become better, but society insists that they remain the villain? That is not fair or just. Then again, our actions and choices are the outgrowths of our character. If we consistently act in character, then it starts to feel as if our choices are predetermined and free will is an illusion. These are the ideas that can be addressed by a smart application of multiversal concepts.