Before the rise of streaming-on-demand, networks occasionally dabbled in the release of “webisodes.” These short, limited runs were companion works that tied into the main story, but weren’t necessarily essential to the enjoyment of the primary show. In gaming terms, think of it like a DLC: if you’re a fan of the original work, you’ll probably like these spinoffs as well, which dive deeper into the world and its lore. Webisodes, true to their name, were typically internet-only offshoots that had a lower budget and explored something that the primary show lacked the time (or large-scale interest, for one reason or another) to cover. Essentially: bonus fan content.
Disney+ greenlighting its Marvel TV shows always felt, a little bit, like that brand of bonus fan content. The Falcon and the Winter Solider, WandaVision, and now Loki focus on characters who aren’t big enough to have their own movies (yet, anyway), but are popular enough to be used as franchise expansions and connective tissue between the blockbuster films. WandaVision was always designed to connect to Doctor Strange 2, Falcon and Winter Soldier filled in gaps in a post-Steve Rogers world, and now Loki—whose lead is canonically dead in the main MCU timeline—goes backwards to give second life to the multiverse’s best villain. There has always been an opportunity here, with these TV series, to explore the characters more fully, or to just go completely wild with comic book storytelling (which WandaVision did with aplomb). But with FAWS and Loki’s bite-sized episode counts (Loki clocks in at six), it seems they can hardly get started before they are forced back into the carefully-controlled web of the MCU. Loki, perhaps most of all, feels hamstrung by this necessity.
Of all of the Marvel TV series on Disney+ so far, Loki has been the most highly anticipated. An OG associate of the Avengers universe, Loki remains the brightest spot of any movie he’s in. Tom Hiddleston has made the character iconic, and his portrayal—be it in Thor movies or Avengers get-togethers—is off-the-charts charming. It’s also the reason Loki has been the only truly successful Marvel villain to date, one who not only has a fully-realized backstory and emotional connection to the heroes, but who just keeps gloriously popping up (as the God of Mischief is wont to do). He’s not a one-off rushed through 120 minutes of storytelling, he’s a dynamic presence who has earned his own fandom.
And now, at last, he has his own show. In Loki, our Asgardian prince starts off in 2012 where he deviates from the “sacred timeline” of events by snatching the Tesseract and zipping away from imprisonment. He’s quickly apprehended by agents of the TVA (Time Variant Authority), who are charged with keeping the multiverse down to just one stream of approved reality. This Loki, now a “variant,” is essentially marked for extermination, until an agent named Mobius (Owen Wilson) advocates for him to help the TVA investigate a series of crimes suited to his unique skill set.
From there, Loki turns into a kind of buddy-cop procedural. Sure it takes a lot of convincing to get Loki on board, and no you can never tell whether or not he’s lying or what his ultimate game is, but that’s all part of the fun (and when the show is at its best). The series also introduces a somewhat different side to the trickster god; here he starts off as the straight man rather than a chaos monster. (“You’re really good at doing really awful things and just getting away,” Mobius says to him. “What can I say, I’m just a mischievous scamp,” Loki replies with his sardonic charisma). But for most of the first two episodes provided for review, Loki’s ambitions are stymied by the all-powerful red tape of the TVA’s bureaucratic doldrums. There’s a Cold War aesthetic here: colors are drab, corridors are badly lit with fluorescent lights, there are mounds and mounds of paperwork and forms to sign. It’s evocative, and provides a very quietly simmering humor (which some of the dialogue plays too big), but it’s no fun for Loki—and not exactly a great place for us to dwell in, either.
The key to Loki—both the character and the show—is always Tom Hiddleston. He is the king of arrogant grandstanding, withering looks, and the ability to turn on a dime and make you feel overwhelming pathos for him. In the first episode, Loki is more or less shown a film reel of his life thus far, including events that come after when he was ambushed by the TVA (i.e. the later Thor sequels and Avengers movies). His genuine reaction to this “correct” timeline is shorthand that gets Loki emotionally to the place where we last left him in the movies, rather than where he was in 2012 when he was trying to rule Earth. That fits thematically with the show’s time narrative—that all pasts, presents, and futures are one—but it’s still obviously forced exposition that serves as both a “previously on” and all-important explanation of where Loki fits into the MCU’s own timeline.
In this way and others, the show retains that webisode vibe, like it exists just to introduce a few new characters who will be important in later Marvel movies rather than the Loki-focused extravaganza many of us were hoping for. Hiddleston and Wilson have a decent rapport, though Wilson’s trademark lack of energy is only augmented by the dreary setting, meaning Hiddleston has to work that much harder to make Loki’s wit spark effectively. Further, the normally excellent duo of Wunmi Mosaku, as a no-nonsense Hunter, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a no-nonsense judge (there is a pattern forming), are the only other two TVA employees of note who we meet in the show’s first third; unfortunately they aren’t given the chance to leave any sort of impression. But Loki is saved by the strength of Hiddleston, who delights in Loki’s hubris, vanity, and wounded soul.
All of this to say: despite its foibles so far, if you like Loki, the character, you’ll probably like Loki, the show. It’s not as groundbreakingly bonkers as WandaVision, but it’s also not as dourly macho as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. “So far” is the crux of things, though; there are surely plenty of twists and surprises still to come, even though these first two episodes suggest the show will be the expected mix of comic book references and four-quadrant appeal that Marvel/Disney live and die by these days. One perhaps wishes for more when it comes to Loki. Then again, he’s known for not living up to his own expectations at times. “For a guy born to rule, you sure do lose a lot,” Mobius notes. But by Odin he sure is a charmer.
Loki premieres Wednesday, June 9th on Disney+
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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