Michael Waldron: Loki (2021) | poster excerpt
Tom Hiddleston in Loki (2021) | poster excerpt

Fantasy Series ‘Loki’ Introduces MCU to the Multiverse

The Marvel Studios Disney+ series Loki uses the multiverse to dive deep into its central character and explore interesting moral and philosophical ideas.

Michael Waldron
Marvel Studios
9 June 2021 – (US)

The Humbling of Loki

The first episode of Loki, “Glorious Purpose”, opens with Loki’s escape from the Avengers in Endgame. He lands in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, where he immediately tries to lord over the locals. But then Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) of the TVA steps out of a portal, identifies Loki as a “variant” and arrests him. He is processed (signs off on everything he has ever said, proves he is not a robot, takes a number), and awaits trial. He learns that the TVA is run by three lizard-like time-keepers, who ended a terrible multiversal war. They use the TVA to prevent any variations from the Sacred Timeline, lest any deviation leads to a new war. At his trial with Judge Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Loki truthfully asserts that he was only able to break from the timeline because the Avengers were time-travelling. Renslayer asserts, however, that the Avengers were meant to time-travel whereas Loki was not, according to the Time-Keepers, which Loki finds rightfully absurd.

Loki is about to be disintegrated (“pruned”) before Mobius (Owen Wilson), a TVA agent, requests to interrogate him. Mobius is on the trail of another, more dangerous Loki variant, and hopes this Loki can help. Throughout the rest of the episode, Mobius interrogates and breaks down Loki. Loki keeps looking for an angle or an escape, but the TVA knows everything about him and Mobius is immune to his lies. It becomes like a therapy session, with Mobius cutting directly to why Loki does what he does and why he always fails.

Mobius is also able to show Loki videos of the rest of his life (neatly using footage from other films). Loki sees how he causes the death of his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), how Odin dies, how he and Thor reconcile, and finally how Thanos kills him. This breaks Loki down, and begins his humbling. It also establishes that the TVA will accept no sequence of events in which Loki does not cause his mother’s death and is not strangled by Thanos, which seems cruel. 

Episode two, “The Variant”, presents the show as a procedural, with Loki and Mobius as a buddy-cop team on the trail of the dangerous Loki Variant and Renslayer as the stressed-out chief going taking a chance on Loki. Loki’s goal now is to find a way to meet, then usurp, the Time-Keepers, even if it means doing great detective work for the TVA. Through their investigation, Loki deduces that the Variant is hiding in times and places that are about to experience apocalypses. The Variant will not draw the TVA’s attention because the apocalypse (such as Mount Vesuvius erupting all over Pompeii) will wipe out any changes to the timeline. Mobius and Loki determine that the Variant is hiding in a superstore shelter that will be wiped out by a hurricane in 2050. Loki confronts the Variant, a female version of Loki who goes by Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), just before she sets off numerous charges to splinter the timeline. Sylvie runs and, despite Mobius’ warnings, Loki follows.

Episode three, “Lamentis”, discards the procedural show for more of a Doctor Who-type of an episode. Sylvie has spent her life trying to take down the TVA. She splintered the timeline as a distraction to infiltrate the TVA and kill the Time-Keepers. Loki intervenes, wanting to strategize, but they are caught and forced to escape. They land on Lamentis-One, a planet about to be obliterated by crashing into another planet. Their teleporter breaks, trapping them there (very Doctor Who). Really, this plot is a contrivance for the show to slow down to explore Sylvie and Loki. Sylvie shares very little about her life, but she wants to destroy the TVA. She rejects the traditional Loki scheming, and even the name, in favour of brute force. Loki, on the other hand, overshares his life, his love for his mother, and his plan to overthrow the Time-Keepers. Regardless of their differences, they are slow to trust. The episode ends with their plans to escape Lamentis failing.

Episode four, “The Nexus Event”, opens with Sylvie as a girl being taken from Asgard by Renslayer. Her deviation was being born a female Loki rather than a male. She escapes and goes on the run for the rest of her life. On Lamentis, Loki and Sylvie nearly kiss as the planet falls apart. Two Loki variants falling in love is enough of a red flag to alert the TVA and they are captured. This episode plays like a paranoid thriller where the conspiracy falls apart. Sylvie has discovered that all of the employees of the TVA are variants, and this news begins to unravel everything.

Hunter B-15 rescues Sylvie so she can learn about her past life. Mobius is shocked to discover Renslayer has been lying to him. When Mobius helps Loki escape, he is pruned. Loki and Sylvie are then brought before the Time-Keepers, but they escape and discover that the Time-Keepers are simply automatons. Loki tries to comfort Sylvie, but he is pruned. He wakes up in a wasteland and is confronted by four other Loki Variants.

Episode five, “Journey Into Mystery”, is the blockbuster superhero climax episode. Loki discovers that any variants or branch timelines that are pruned are actually just dumped into the Void at the end of time. The Void is patrolled by Alioth, a purple smoke monster that permanently deletes things. The only living beings that seem to have survived in the Void are Lokis. Classic Loki (Richard E. Grant), Kid Loki (Jack Veal), Boastful Loki (DeObia Oparei), and Alligator Loki (an alligator with Loki horns) retrieve Loki and help him hide. Meanwhile, Sylvie and Renslayer fight until Sylvie escapes to the Void. She encounters Alioth and believes she can enchant the monster long enough to get past it, to the real creator of the TVA. Mobius appears and helps her.

Loki, meanwhile, has to deal with endless other Lokis betraying each other and fighting. He plans to kill Alioth but quickly agrees to help with Sylvie’s plan. Mobius is disillusioned, having thought the TVA were the good guys and the ends justify the means. He returns to the TVA to destroy it, while Classic Loki helps Loki and Sylvie get past Alioth, hand-in-hand, to the Citadel at the End of Time. 

Episode six, “For All Time. Always.”, is a surprisingly quiet, philosophical final episode that basically boils down to a conversation. At the TVA, Mobius confronts Renslayer. She is a true believer in the TVA and wants to make it work. Meanwhile, at the Citadel, Sylvie is uncharacteristically apprehensive about barging in and Loki is uncharacteristically speechless. They finally meet the “man behind the curtain” of the TVA, who is identified only as He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors in a gleefully charismatic performance). He Who Remains can shift out of the way of any attack and knows everything that anyone will do. He, thus, exudes supreme confidence. He tells a befuddled Loki and Sylvie that there was once a scientist on Earth in the 31st-century who discovered the multiverse. This scientist managed to contact his own variants, who all helped each other. But eventually, some variants sought to conquer and the multiversal war began.

One variant, He Who Remains, discovered Alioth, defeated the rest of the variants, ended the war, and established the TVA to prevent his evil variants from attacking. But now, he has grown weary. So he paved a path that led Loki and Sylvie to him. They will kill him, but then they have a choice. If they believe him, they can manage the TVA, continuing to cut off the multiverse and prevent war. If they don’t believe him, they can allow the TVA to crumble, the timeline to splinter, and possibly invite a multiversal war. Loki has always been seeking a throne, and this is the ultimate power, but he has changed. He hesitates and wants to talk it over. Sylvie, on the other hand, wants to finish what she has started by killing He Who Remains and letting the TVA crumble. She does just that and sends Loki back to the TVA. Loki expects to find it falling apart, but it is still operating. What’s worse, it seems to reset and no one, not even Mobius, remembers him. Then, twist ending, Season Two of Loki is announced.

Loki uses its premise to perform a deep dive into the psyche of its central character. Everyone in the show is either a variant of Loki or a member of the TVA that sees through all of Loki’s tricks and facades. His constant attempts to gain the upper hand are foiled at every turn. This amounts to a great humbling for a character known for his self-aggrandizing confidence. Further, Loki is constantly reminded that he is not even the star of his own story. When Loki claims that the TVA is “not how my story ends,” Mobius responds, “it’s not your story. It never was.”

Loki’s designated role in the Sacred Timeline, by order of He Who Remains and the TVA, was to constantly fail in order to let others, such as Thor and the Avengers, reach greatness in opposition to him. Even when he meets Sylvie, he assumes that she has been attacking the TVA in an effort to get to him. But she immediately disabuses him of that notion, “this isn’t about you.” Everyone feels like they are the main character in their own life, but the TVA and the other Lokis exist to tell Loki that he is not.

His motivations are even called into question until they are shown to be hollow. Mobius very bluntly asks Loki what he wants and when he will be satisfied. What ‘throne’ will be enough? Throughout the series, Loki is told that he always loses and that he enjoys hurting people and spreading misery. But he comes to admit that weak people use cruelty to gain power and that he is a narcissist who fears being alone. When he meets a dozen other Lokis in the Void, he comes away calling them monsters. So what an opportunity it is for a “colossal narcissist”, as Mobius calls him, to fall in love with himself in the form of Sylvie.

Loki has lashed out from a sense of entitlement for a throne that was never meant for him. Sylvie, on the other hand, was torn from her family and home as a child by a powerful organization that treats her like a mistake. What is Loki’s entitlement next to Sylvie’s righteous rage? Even He Who Remains seems impressed by Sylvie’s lifelong determination while he refers to Loki as a flea on the back of a dragon, “in for one hell of a ride!” By episode five, Loki is scoffing at the idea of getting a throne (“then I’ll be ‘happy’”) and in episode six he does not immediately accept He Who Remains’ offer to run the TVA.

He has evolved to see the limits of his persona, to accept that there are bigger things than him. He has even learned to love somebody other than himself. But, then again, Sylvie kind of is him, so I’m not sure that counts.

While Loki’s growth through the series is nice to see, there is a fundamental flaw in the humbling of Loki: it is based on the way He Who Remains and the TVA have positioned Loki in the Sacred Timeline. He is destined to lose, destined to spread misery to allow others to thrive in opposition to him, but only because that is how the TVA wants it. If he ever manifested any differently, he would have been pruned.

Pruning is an appropriate term because it is how a hedge or a bonsai tree is made to grow into the shape its keeper chooses. This is best indicated by Classic Loki, who escaped his death at the hands of Thanos. He realized he only spread misery, so he retreated to an isolated planet to live out his days alone. This was a changed Loki, who wanted to be better. But as soon as he left that planet, the TVA stepped in to prune him. Sylvie had done nothing wrong when she was pruned. She had only been born female rather than the male Loki “meant” to be on the Sacred Timeline.

Stifling Order or Cataclysmic Chaos?

This speaks to the larger philosophical underpinnings of the show: we are who society allows us to be. Once we establish our role in society, it is hard to break free. Someone born into difficult circumstances might turn to crime out of necessity or desperation. But once they are convicted of a crime, it often becomes even more difficult to change their circumstances. Doors are closed, jobs are refused, and the circumstances that led them to crime in the first place may become more pronounced. At that point, is the person choosing to commit crimes of their own free will, or has society forced them into a position where they have no other choice?

This is a reality-based theoretical, but it speaks to the larger arc of Loki’s character. Is he a villain because it is in his nature, or is he a villain because he is not allowed to be anything else? When Mobius sides with Loki against the TVA, he quickly says to Loki “you can be whoever you want to be, just in case anyone ever told you different.” That is the heart of Loki’s journey. Nobody has said that to Loki before, no one has allowed him to choose who he wants to be. But after a matter of days in a crazy form of Loki Immersion Therapy, he emerged a changed person, less narcissistic, less entitled, and even caring about others. That is all because he was freed from the shackles of the dictates of society and the TVA.

This leads to the final philosophical implication of Loki, which boils down to the security or liberty debate. If He Who Remains can be trusted (and that is a BIG if), the iron fist of the TVA maintaining the timeline is what stands between us and devastating multiversal war. As he puts it, it is a means of stifling order or cataclysmic chaos. The cost of protecting the multiverse from war is the removal of free will. That is a very high cost. Judge Renslayer seems to be aware of this bargain, but she has faith in the system. Mobius freely admits that he believes the ends justify the means at the TVA until he learns that he is actually a variant. But that one fact does not change his life’s work of pruning variants and maintaining brutal order throughout the timeline on behalf of poorly defined “Time-Keepers”.

There is comfort in the safety and security provided by order. It is much scarier to think that anything could happen at any time. Loki loves order, so long as he is the one in control. He may cause chaos, but it is the pursuit of an orderly kingdom with himself on the throne. Sylvie, on the other hand, fully embraces chaos. She wants to destroy the TVA and He Who Remains, and she does not care about the consequences. The fundamental difference, a propensity for order vs chaos, is what splits Loki and Sylvie at the end of the series. And that is a fascinating place to take the characters.

And that is Loki, thus far. It is a series with a killer mid-century aesthetic, fantastic central performances, and intriguing philosophical underpinnings. This geeky, comic-book concept is used to dive deep into its central character and explore interesting moral and philosophical ideas. All this is based on a heightened comic book villain who escaped from an Avengers film. This is the potential of these Disney+ Marvel series. Marvel Studios has been so successful that they choose to take a risk on something a bit more strange. WandaVision, my favourite MCU series so far, was similarly weird and fascinating, whereas The Falcon and the Winter Soldier played it safe and were a messy bore.

Loki is so full of ideas that what was planned as a single season expanded to two seasons during production. Unfortunately, head writer Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron are not returning for season two, but it will be run by Eric Martin, who was second-in-command to Waldron during season one. Hopefully, it will reach similar heights of zany multiversal action and philosophical depth.

Meanwhile, the MCU multiverse was central to the next Disney+ Marvel series, What If…? (2021), which made its cinematic debut in Spider-Man: No Way Home, the highest-grossing film of 2021, and is central to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (Reed, 2023). The latter will feature the return of Jonathan Majors as a variant of He Who Remains, Kang the Conqueror. So, in retrospect, Loki may prove to be one of the most important Marvel properties in this multiversal era of the MCU.

Credits Scene(s)

The mid-credits scene of episode six is simply a title screen announcing season two which, on the day of its release, was a total surprise to viewers who expected closure in the season finalé.

First Appearances

As of this writing, Owen Wilson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are confirmed to return for season two as Mobius and Judge Renslayer, but I would be shocked if Sophia Di Martino and Wunmi Mosaku do not also return as Sylvie and Hunter B-15, respectively

Arguably more significant is Jonathan Majors, who was announced as Kang the Conqueror, the main villain of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, prior to appearing in Loki. Kang is a major Marvel Comics villain and is potentially going to be positioned as the main villain of this phase of the MCU, not unlike Thanos.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order

Loki, like WandaVision and a couple of the MCU films, occurs immediately after the events of Avengers: Endgame. So it should be viewed early in Phase 4.

**See previous articles for other phases**

Phase 4

  1. [tbd]
  2. WandaVision
  3. Loki
  4. [tbd]
  5. Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Next Time: We head back to the movies for a long-overdue solo film.