Loki Review: Existential Nightmares

The uncreatively named Loki is the third Marvel show to air on Disney Plus. Honestly it had some heavy lifting to do, since WandaVision, quirky as it was, gave up on it’s unique premise by the end of it’s season and Falcon and the Winter Soldier just turned out to be generic. So, did Loki fare any better than it’s predecessors?

In many ways yes, and in many other ways no. To figure out why, I’ll do an episode by episode run through of the series.

Episode 1:
During the events of Avengers Endgame, a past version of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) picks up the space stone and teleports away from their custody. The film picks up with this variant of Loki being arrested by a group called the TVA for creating an alternate timeline. The TVA are police force that operate across time and space to make sure the timeline of events written by their makers is never deviated from, since doing so could create a multiverse. They think multiverses are bad since no one knows how one multiverse will react to another, and because their religion basically decrees that if they don’t prevent the existence of alternate timelines then a war will start wherein all timelines will fight for supremacy.

That’s a lot to take in, I know. But for now, just know that they are police in space who arrest alternate versions of people and stop weird time travel stuff from happening. So if you don’t live out your life in the exact way they decree that you should according to their time line, you’re toast. Free will? Apparently that isn’t a thing in the MCU now, since the TVA note that everything the Avengers got up to was written in the timeline billions of years ago. More on that later.

Anyways, Loki is to be executed since he, even unknowingly, deviated from the timeline that should have seen him arrested by the Avengers and later killed by Thanos. However, Detective Mobius (Owen Wilson) pulls some strings to get Loki attached to his case, revealing that he needs Loki’s help to hunt down another version of Loki who is waging war against the TVA.

Viewed independently from the MCU this is a very solid foundation for a show, but when viewed within the wider picture it does make plot holes across other movies arise… Such as that if Loki wasn’t supposed to escape during Endgame, that means Steve Rogers and Tony Stark weren’t meant to travel to the army base in the 60’s in order to retrieve it from there instead. This is because if Loki shouldn’t have escaped, then the space stone should have been retrieved from Stark Tower. Therefore, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark travelling to the 60’s to retrieve it shouldn’t have happened either since it was an illegal event caused by another illegal event. This would make Endgame’s versions of Steve and Tony variants who the TVA should also arrest and execute.

In any other case I could genuinely dismiss this plot hole as one of those things you don’t think about in any time travel movie/show because doing so just isn’t fun, but the fact that it pertains not only the very first ten minutes of this lengthy show, but also to the premise the whole story is built upon makes it a little hard to look past.

Episode 2:
In this episode, Loki joins Mobius in search of the variant of himself attacking the TVA. Much to my surprise, seeing Loki in the role of the detective was a fun experience and made this episode a highlight me. Not only is he on the scene examining clues, but also doing the less exciting stuff like flicking through folders and records to further the investigation, all the while plotting his escape from the TVA.

He figures out that the variant can only hide in time within apocalyptic events, since the lack of survivors left behind would mean that no one would see or remember the variant in a place they shouldn’t have been, and thus no branching timeline would be created for the TVA to notice and use to track them. It’s actually quite smart. Eventually they track the variant to a hurricane event and go in search of them there. When Loki makes contact with his variant, a female version of himself called Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), he chooses to pursue her to another apocalyptic event to hide from the TVA.

This is probably one of the shows strongest episodes because of it’s tight focus and how it doesn’t rely on exposition about the nature of time travel as much as any other episode, instead allowing the characters to stumble upon and discover new ways to manipulate time travel diegetically, that truly make it feel like you’re watching a detective show and not generic Marvel shlock.

I will say though, that since the TVA has been monitoring time and space for billions of years that it seems highly unlikely they would be unaware that apocalyptic events are a blind spot in their security. Was Sylvie truly the first person in billions of years across all of time that thought to do that? I doubt it.

Also I was a bit disappointed that Sylvie was only a female version of Loki. In the start of the episode we see images of previous arrested versions of Loki that look like mythical creatures and monsters from traditional mythology, so I was expecting something more than just a lady in a tight costume. That’s not to slant Sophia Di Martino, however, who does a good job in the role, just to say that there was a missed opportunity here to give us a really weird and experimental depiction of the God of mischief.

Episode 3
This is where the show takes a nose dive. Loki and Sylvie hide from the TVA on a planet that’s about to be destroyed and, after a while of trying to kill one and other or assert their dominance as the “superior Loki” decide that their survival is more likely if they join forces. While learning about Sylvie and how her life on Asgard was different to our Loki’s life was interesting… Pretty much nothing else in the episode is at all.

I don’t care about this exploding planet or the people on it. For some reason the show won’t just let the premise of being stuck on a dying world be a threat of its own, so throws in contrived fight scenes and pointless action between our Loki’s and faceless goons. The only action scene in this episode that worked was the final one because there is a genuine sense of hopelessness as we realise Loki and Sylvie are too late to escape the planet on the final evacuation ship. Everything else is forced and dumb. If more effort went into not only adding more character moments, or even just more depth to the moments we did get in this episode, I feel as though the final action scene could have been a better finale. Not only that, but it could have been a better pay off to a slower paced episode.

This is an ongoing problem with the show, that also plagued Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Fight scenes happening because the creators fear you’ll lose interest unless something flashy happens. It shows a real lack of confidence in the material being handled. And while the writing is hardly the most riveting thing I’ve ever listened to, I’d rather have uninterrupted scenes of what it has to offer over this meaningless schlock where Loki stabs people whose faces are never seen, identities are never known in completely inconsequential circumstances. Even so, the forced action in this series is not comparable to the utter nonsense that happens in Falcon and the Winter Soldier, so I suppose that’s a plus.

The episode ends with Loki and Sylvie growing feelings for one and other, which causes a massive deviation from the main time line and attracts the TVA to them. The TVA then arrest the two and bring them into custody before the planet explodes. Why aren’t they just killed? Or left on the planet to die? I don’t know.

Episode 4
I had to look up Episode 4 twice because I forgot what happened in it… twice.

Loki becomes more humble and less of a dick because Mobius makes him get kicked in the groin repeatedly, trapped within a bad memory. Sylvie tells everyone in the TVA that they’re all variants and not the original versions of themselves, which only one security guard and Mobius believe. It turns out to be true and is a big plot point when it first happens, but is eventually just sort of forgotten about. It’s treated as a motive for why Mobius would want to rebel against the TVA, but I find it hard to believe that a man who accepts that he and no other person in existence has free will would rebel because he finds out he’s a variant. Surely, in his mind, if he were to rebel it would be because it was written in the timeline, and thus he wouldn’t randomly decide to do so based on the word of a Loki variant? Like, you’re willing uphold these authoritarian laws over all of existence, but are not comfortable believing you’re not the original you? And why does it matter who the original version of you is, if every version of you, from their own perspective, is the original version? Okay, this is confusing… But basically, the existential themes with this show are coming into direct conflict with the very tightly focussed individual character drama. And… It’s bad.

Anyway, Mobius gets wiped from existence for finding out he’s a variant (But surely him finding out must be part of the sacred timeline and thus not warrant him being wiped, since it didn’t cause a branching alternate timeline to occur?) and then Loki and Sylvie are taken to meet the Time Keepers, who are the deities overseeing the TVA. Loki wants to rule the TVA because it’s the most powerful thing ever, and Sylvie just wants to kill the Time Keepers for oppressing her for her entire life. They kill the Time Keepers who are revealed to be robots and not the real overseers of the TVA. At first this revelation literally did nothing for me…

But then seeing that even the most loyal and highest ranking members of the TVA weren’t wise to this had me intrigued. And that was the height of emotion I felt for this whole episode.

Loki gets wiped from existence (except he doesn’t because it’s only episode 4 so he obviously isn’t dead, which inadvertently confirms Mobius is also 100% safe), and then Sylvie runs around the TVA… doing stuff. I don’t know. I was bored in this one.

Episode 5
Surprise! Loki and Mobius aren’t actually wiped from existence. They are just sent forward to the end of the universe, where a big space dog is devouring reality. Loki teams up with other versions of himself who have also been sent there by the TVA and struggles with the fact that all Loki’s are cursed to be power hungry murderers who will forever be lonely due to their insistence on backstabbing literally everyone. As far as exploration of Loki’s character goes, this is the best it gets in the show and the cosmic scale at which it happens – seeing hundreds of versions of yourself all doomed to suffer this fate because it is a certainty written in time – is pretty great.

Meanwhile at the TVA, Sylvie sends herself to this place too in order to avoid arrest. Mobius, Loki and Sylvie figure out that the big space dog is devouring stuff to stop anything from reaching the end of time, and thus if they can bypass the dog they can reach the end of all existence. The end of all existence, they figure on a whim, is where the real Time Keepers are, for some reason. So they team up with some other Loki’s and all learn that being a backstabbing murderer is bad because you’ll forever have trust issues, have a group hug and fight a big space dog together.

It’s probably the best action scene in the show because it doesn’t exist to fill time or desperately keep your attention, and because it involves using illusions, conjuration and enchanting instead of generic martial arts. IT’s more creative than any of the rest of the action in the show, and I appreciate that. Also, you know, their enemy is capable of destroying all of space and time. After a while of fighting they overcome the big space dog and open a gateway to the end of time. While Loki and Sylvie go there, Mobius returns to the TVA to confront his superiors.

This was paradoxically one of the more comedic and yet serious episodes. It’s littered with easter eggs, jokes and quips, but also deals with Loki hating himself and trying to overcome the largest odds he’s ben up against so far in the show. It’s a good episode.

Episode 6
Loki and Sylvie meet God. And God is insane. He lives in a haunted mansion and literally knows everything that has, is and will ever happen. He speaks as though he’s reciting a script and then reveals that’s because he literally has a script of how his conversation with Loki and Sylvie is going to go. I call him God, but the show really doesn’t give him a name. Some call him “he who remains”, and more often just refer to him as “him”. He’s some nameless guy living at the end of time with all the knowledge in the universe…

Except he has intentionally prevented himself from learning anything beyond what happens when Loki and Sylvie show up. He’s like billions of years old and doesn’t want his job anymore so he explains himself to our protagonists:

He was a genius who discovered how to travel to alternate dimensions. Some were friendly… Others wanted to start an inter-dimensional war that killed billions. This war was fought between variants of himself, the smartest and most knowledgeable man in the galaxy. Though he could not end the war, the version we meet in the show sealed his timeline, that is to say the MCU’s timeline, off from the other timelines in order to protect it from the giant war raging across reality. That is why the TVA exists to destroy branching timelines and eliminate variants – so that no more multiversal wars can occur on his timeline. Then he basically says he’s insane and depressed and offers the protagonists a choice:

Kill him, end his misery, and watch as the TVA becomes unable to control all the alternate timelines that would open as a result, leading to the inter-dimensional war coming to the MCU. Or let him retire peacefully and take control of the TVA for themselves in order to protect the MCU from the war. Problem is… It’s really up in the air whether this guy is lying or not and it’s up to our two Loki variants, the biggest backstabbers alive, to figure out if he’s lying or being truthful and how to act accordingly based on that information.

Now, Loki is very level-headed. He wants to kill the guy but recognises that the consequences of making the wrong choice. Not only that, but Loki also seems aware that there is no positive outcome: Either no one gets free will ever, ever, ever, or everyone gets freewill at the cost of an inter-dimensional war fought between the most insane and smart people in the universe coming to their timeline.

Sylvie, on the other hand, is so consumed by revenge that she just doesn’t care and wants to kill the guy. Now, that might sound stupid at first (I certainly thought so), but once you consider this choice he’s presented her with is the first thing he has never known the outcome of, and thus the first time she has ever experienced true free will, you can understand her desire to exercise it.

And this is it. The ultimate existential nightmare. Billions of alternate realities warring forever either to protect themselves, in search of conquest or just because they can, or literally no one ever being able to experience free will for the rest of their natural lives because the TVA will send them to the end of the universe if they deviate from the written timeline. Ultimately, Sylvie deceives Loki and casts him out from the haunted mansion so he won’t stand in the way of her killing “he who remains”. When she does so… Nothing happens.

We cut back to Loki in the TVA with tears streaking down his face. He runs over to Mobius and starts yelling like a crazy person: “There’s billions of over variants of an insane genius coming to wage war across every reality in existence!” To which Mobius responds by asking who Loki is and what he’s talking about… It seems Loki wound up in a different reality from the one we’ve spent the show in thus far. He looks over the TVA and sees a huge statue of “he who remains” inside and…

The show ends.

Thoughts
As far as Marvel goes, thematically this is probably the most hopeless and dark thing they’ve ever put out there both for better and worse. Better because I genuinely enjoyed the exploration of free will, one’s ability to change and the fact that this show’s depiction of God is, more or less, some insane dude who wants to die where he stands or retire somewhere nice. I mentioned in my post about university that this sort of existential stuff really interests me in media, and it’s for that reason that I liked Loki so much.

It did what WandaVision failed to do: It gave up it’s desire to end the show with a big battle in favour of presenting the characters an impossible choice. And it stings all the more that the more selfish of the two, Sylvie, took that choice away from Loki by casting him out, in a world where we have learnt that freewill is impossible to come by. Pondering this show also brings up other interesting implications for a season 2 (which I read was already approved) such as the fact that although one reality now has freewill, basically none of the other infinite timelines do or ever will depending on how their variants of “he who remains” decided to handle the inter-dimensional war.

I will mention that the cliff hanger has proved divisive among fans. Although it totally worked for me as a reminder to the protagonist of how hopeless and insignificant he is in this scripted universe, there is still some valid criticism of it to be made. First and foremost is that it is debatable whether or not it earned the cliff hanger based on how the quality of these episodes fluctuated so much. Then there’s the fact that it’s extremely abrupt, and you have to wonder how much of the decision to end it there was for the purpose of baiting a second season. Finally is the fact that cliff hangers are almost always divisive. Even if the majority of fans adored the ending, it would still have its detractors because it didn’t offer a definitive ending. But I think the potential is there, and the creativity is there, to turn what might be a disappointing ending for some into a solid second season if they improve on the areas I criticised in this review.

For me it worked because this show about insignificance didn’t end with Loki and Sylvie putting aside their differences and overcoming their tendencies, as Loki’s to do the wrong thing, but by them still giving into their flawed nature even when presented with the opportunity to change. Okay, sure, Loki tried to change. He wanted to rationalise his meeting with “He who remains”. But Sylvie, despite being the only person with free will in the universe during that finale, was still unable to break away from the murderous flaws that haunt all Loki’s across all of time. It begs the question that even if everyone in that timeline had freewill, would they know how to use it? Especially since nobody other than Loki or Sylvie know that everything was so tightly scripted? I mean, you average person didn’t even know he was lacking any and all free will, thus how could be be aware that he had been granted it when Sylvie killed “He who remains”? How would he know how to exercise it if he didn’t know it was missing to begin with? I just love how insignificant it makes the characters feel, and I appreciate how the show explores these themes deeper in the finale.

However this shouldn’t have been a Marvel show, it should have been entirely independent. Connecting it to the MCU is detrimental to literally everything else that came before it. From now on you’ll know that the Avengers didn’t beat Thanos because they had an iron will and desire to succeed, but because some crack-pot at the end of time wrote it on a piece of paper. Doctor Strange didn’t look into 14 million futures to find the one wherein the Avengers won out of intuition, but because an omnipotent genius decreed it would happen billions of years ago and that, if it didn’t happen, the TVA would have arrested this new variant of Doctor Strange and sent him to the end of the universe to be killed by a reality-eating space dog, before destroying the new timeline he had created entirely.

To long, didn’t read: The MCU is a fascist dystopia where nothing you do matters, even after you’re aware that nothing you do matters because the fact you are aware that “nothing you do matters” was something you were destined to eventually understand because a crazy man once said it would happen, and also has the rest of your life written out in a notebook somewhere. Scary stuff. For an independent show not shackled by the MCU, this would have been even more brilliant. But it takes away from the rest of the achievements made in the universe when you know nothing any of our heroes did was because they wanted to do it, so much as it was because they literally had to or they would be killed. Interesting to contemplate? Yes. Detrimental to seeing Iron Man sacrificing himself (presumably out of his own free will, which we now know wasn’t really the case), also yes.

And that’s why, for all it’s flaws, I like Loki. It’s story is existentially terrifying to comprehend without it even needing to be a horror, or dark and brooding. Out of place in the MCU? Certainly. A rollercoaster of episodes that go up and down in quality at a moment’s notice? Also certainly. But underneath it all is the one and only thing to come out of the MCU that will actually try to intellectually stimulate you, instead of just following a dumb formula.

As with most things in the MCU, I recommend it if you are a fan of Marvel and superheroes. If you’re not then don’t bother because the first two-three episodes won’t make any sense at all. If you checked out of Marvel a while ago and are looking to get back in, you can (probably) start here since it technically picks up after the Avengers, which came out in 2012, although it still references later releases since it takes place in a time traveller’s police station.

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