“You weren’t born to be king, Loki. You were born to cause pain and suffering and death.”
Us Loki fans really knew what we were doing in 2012.
Loki is Marvel’s third TV series on Disney+, following the surprise hit WandaVision and major MCU tie-in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This next show follows the titular fan-favorite villain Loki, adopted brother of Thor and enemy-turned-antihero whose legacy spans three Thor films and two Avengers films.
The series follows Loki after a surprise escape in Avengers: Endgame, after the Avengers have time-traveled back to their first team-up to retrieve the infinity stones, two of which Loki was in possession of. 2012-Avengers-Loki grabs the tesseract in a moment of panic and uses it to escape, thus splintering into a new timeline where he does not yet know the events of Thor 2 or Avengers: Infinity War (in which he dies).
If this is sounding repetitive, that’s kinda the point.
The Loki S1E1 (“Glorious Purpose”) simultaneously operates under the assumption that everyone watching has seen all the appropriate Marvel films and spends a great deal of time recapping important plot points and Loki’s basic personality. Very simply: post-Avengers Loki is a far less developed character than the one who died at the beginning of Infinity War. He hasn’t lost his mother, or his home, or his brother yet.
At this point, Loki is completely alone and has just been taken down a peg, but he maintains his godlike narcissism. Loki S1E1 is very aware of this and makes it the central theme of the episode, literally titled “Glorious Purpose”—one of his fan-beloved catchphrases from The Avengers. The show wants you to know exactly who this Loki is—not the semi-humbled, self-aware antihero of Thor: Ragnarok or Infinity War.
This Loki is a coward and a survivalist at heart. Upon being taken into custody by the Time Variance Authority, responsible for resetting the incorrect timeline he created, Loki is suspicious, entitled, and self-serving. He mocks the bureaucracy of this organization he’s never heard of, and yet subdues himself when threatened by their horrifying person-dissolving weapons.
Loki’s ability to see through the bullsh*t of the complicated sci-fi crap of the MCU makes him an excellent comic force in this new show. He functions a bit like Cordelia on Buffy with that “we’re all gonna die” attitude. At the same time, his bloated sense of self-importance and impressive Asgardian presence makes him, well, a drama queen, which has always been fun to watch.
It does lead us to a pretty big question. Loki’s ability to flip-flop priorities on a dime makes him a delectable antihero, but many of us were concerned that the character simply wouldn’t be strong enough to lead a six-episode series with potential renewals… especially without that sweet sweet character development now missing with a version of this character who hasn’t yet experienced half the things we, the audience, have seen.
This brings us back to the repetitive nature of the Loki S1E1. The show has to, at this point, justify its own existence.
That’s where Owen Wilson comes in.
Wilson portrays Agent Mobius of the Time Variance Authority, tracking down especially dangerous time “variants” (people who have exited the authorized timeline) and putting them back in place. In classic crime show fashion, Mobius must enlist Loki’s help to track down their most dangerous new variant. Imagine throwing a Shakespearean villain into the middle of a buddy cop film.
A “reluctant partners” show was pretty much the only way to go if they were intent on introducing new characters; Loki’s companions would have to be higher-ranked or more powerful than himself for him to believably agree to work with them, and there would have to be some prize for him to win (authority or freedom) at the end of it all. It’s also a bit of a test drive with Owen-Wilson-shaped airbags—can Loki be an interesting protagonist?
Mobius is a pretty basic detective archetype: dry, quick-witted, generally no-nonsense with a more avant-garde style and sense of adventure. He butts heads with Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) and Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) of the TVA, who have a much more by-the-book approach to Loki’s dilemma (I have thoughts on Marvel’s treatment of Black women in its TV shows that we’ll save for another day when both actresses have had more screen time).
Wilson and Hiddleston have an odd, semi-cliche dynamic in Loki S1E1. It’s odd to see Wilson play the rare comic straight man in a pairing; Hiddleston’s character is by far the most unpredictable, and his intense, brooding, somewhat naive humor bounces off Wilson’s dry wit without really sticking.
As a means of convincing Loki to work with him, Mobius plays Loki a slideshow of the Asgardian’s “greatest hits” (i.e., his violent and failure-ridden past).
What we get next is all the good stuff, finally, tangibly investigating what Loki’s motivating wants and needs are. He was a bit one-note in Thor and The Avengers. We dug up some of his trauma and personal feelings in Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. What the Loki series seems to promise is the answer to why he acts the way he does. Does he even know what he himself wants? What will actually bring Loki peace and happiness?
Surprisingly, we get our answer within Loki S1E1’s 52-minute runtime.
“For nearly every living thing, choice breeds shame and uncertainty and regret…”
Though tedious to play back for invested Marvel fans, it is satisfying that the show acknowledges that Loki is kind of a sh*t villain. He’s historically been unsuccessful and tends to finish out his storylines bruised, embarrassed, or dead. He’s much more successful as an antihero because his convictions, though selfish, are extremely powerful when working in tandem with others.
As Loki fields questions from Mobius, we begin to see under that shell that only started to crack for the audience in Thor: The Dark World when he interacted with his mother. Loki is projecting. He wants to rule because he has always been ashamed and uncertain and regretful. He lowkey (haha) wants to be told what he’s doing is right.
It’s rushed, but it makes sense—no one wants to watch him go through the exact same character arc from the films again. We get it all out of the way, quick and dirty, in this first episode.
I’m still trying to gather my thoughts on Hiddleston’s performance. His characterization of Loki is, as always, absolutely delightful. Hiddleston’s Shakespearean training, which landed him the role, sparkles in contrast to the dull bureaucracy around him; this is the first movie or show we’ve seen where nobody is treating him like a god. It makes his descent into honesty (almost) believable.
Hiddleston shines in the climax of the episode, as Loki watches scenes from the future he could have had if he hadn’t escaped with the tesseract. He watches his mother die, partially by his own hands; he watches his father admit his love for himself and Thor. In a truly heart-wrenching moment, Loki even views his own death at the hands of Thanos.
Even in small breakthrough moments of emotion (mainly after Frigga’s death in The Dark World), we have seen very little of Loki’s genuine feelings. It’s this moment, as Loki watches himself and his loved ones die on a screen, that brings something truly new to the table: Loki cries.
It’s rare for an action-fantasy show to allow its male protagonist to cry at all, particularly not in a pilot episode. By breaking that rule, Marvel allows itself a little meta moment with its audience. We are finally seeing beyond Loki’s veil—the trickster god is out of tricks (or is he?).
The veneer falls away. We are privy to the actual greatest fears of a character who puts up a front even when he’s alone. The teary, heightened gasp Hiddleston lets go when Loki watches Thanos snap his neck made me gasp in return as I watched. We’re finally, actually, after a decade of cynical eye-rolls and fake-deaths and mischief, seeing a new side to this character.
That’s not the only metatextual conversation Marvel is trying to slide through here, either.
Much of Loki and Mobius’s discussions about Loki’s past have to do with the nature of villainy; Mobius tells Loki to “be honest about why you do what you do,” and asks him to reckon with the way he seems to enjoy inflicting pain upon others.
This serves potentially as a little wink to the audience. Loki fangirls coming out in a storm after The Avengers was a surprise to many. Most of us (oh yes, I among them) couldn’t quite pinpoint what we found so appealing about such a whiny, entitled, violent character. Is Tom Hiddleston hot? Absolutely. Is Loki bizarrely charismatic to be able to play off such a ridiculous costume? Without a doubt.
As Loki is asked to come clean about his true feelings, so, too, is the audience. We are finally rewarded for having waited for this absolute monster to show his true emotions (as you may recall, the last time he was emotionally honest he got his neck snapped by a genocidal purple alien, poor baby).
The show is trying to justify its own existence to its audience, and Loki S1E1 makes its intentions very clear: “here’s what our show is about, here’s why you want to watch, here’s how we won’t disappoint you.”
Furthermore, and in an even less thinly-veiled metaphor, Marvel is taking some time to examine the way it writes villains. The use of an all-powerful being to dictate the “sacred” timeline that must be obeyed opens up questions of destiny that the MCU has been grappling with for a long time. With the notable exceptions of Erik Killmonger in Black Panther and Thanos in Infinity War, almost every Marvel villain has been pretty blah. Sometimes they get a tragic backstory to accompany their horrific acts of violence, but there isn’t usually any compassion extended to these characters beyond their childhood.
By raising these questions of time, Loki’s tendency to lie, and the very nature of fate, we are allowed to ask: why does Loki have to be evil?
Loki S1E1 starts with the type of self-reflection usually earned at the end of a series., and “Glorious Purpose” ends with Loki admitting his deepest truth: that all of his villainy comes from loneliness and fear. He is projecting his weakness onto others as an excuse to rule and to claim the power he has always wanted and never had.
It doesn’t have to be his destiny.
Brilliantly (if they execute it well—please, oh please), Marvel is tying its meta-examination of villainy to Loki’s personal, internal conflict.
Or, maybe, I’ll just get to watch Tom Hiddleston crazy-laugh in a short-sleeved jumpsuit and a collar for five more hours. Either way, it’s a win.