Warning: contains spoilers!
You’ll probably read a lot of reviews which state that the latest Disney+ MCU series Loki is like David Tennant era Doctor Who. It really isn’t. I mean, I can see where the similarities are drawn; Loki has the Time Keepers, who’re a bit like the Time Lords (that never appeared in the Tennant years), there is a rocket ship escaping a doomed planet in one episode which has a generic similarity to Utopia and the TVA are a little bit like Who’s rarely-seen Shadow Proclamation. But it’s all very vague and the only real similarity is that Tom Hiddleston wears brown trousers and a blue shirt in some of the later episodes. No, Loki is an entirely different beast with a modernity of storytelling and production style that Doctor Who in more recent years could (and almost certainly should) have adopted, but wilfully elected not to.
Now that that is out of the way, let’s get down to Loki, the latest Disney+ spin-off from the MCU starring Tom Hiddleston as the titular God of Mischief. Having been killed in Avengers: Infinity War and then unkilled in Avengers: Endgame, Loki now exists as an anomaly in the universe, which brings him to the attention of the TVA (Time Variance Authority), who diligently clean up the time stream by rounding up any ‘variants’ and bringing them to justice. Seems like he’s far from alone though, because when he’s roped into helping track down a rogue variant, it turns out that she is an alternate female version of himself called Sylvie (played by Sophie De Martino) – who is only one of many alternate versions of Loki that the TVA have tracked down and disposed of. But Sylvie has a secret that could bring the whole infrastructure of the TVA crashing down.
It’s not as easy as people think to make a villain the main character of a film or TV show – especially the latter. It’s boring to have them just doing villainous things all the time and you have to create a pseudo-hero for them to come into conflict with, who ends up being something of a cipher because you know that the title character is always going to come out on top to some extent. Loki chooses the much wiser ‘bigger fish’ option, in which the title character’s villainy is put into perspective when he comes into contact with another, more villainous person or organisation. Loki’s villainy in the Thor and Avengers movies has always been based around a spiteful belief that he was better than everyone else and it isn’t fair that he has been denied everything to which he believes himself rightfully entitled. Coming face to face with multiple other Lokis (Loki?) makes him realise that he’s just a cog in a much bigger universal machine.
Tom Hiddleston has always been excellent at playing Loki as more than just a ‘black hat’ villain, adding generous helpings of comedy into the mix whilst still keeping him as someone who you wouldn’t turn your back on for a second for fear of getting a knife in it. Here he adds extra dimensions to the character, turning him from pure villain to anti-hero and even bringing an element of romance into the mix. Sophie De Martino wisely chooses not to play Sylvie as a female version of Tom Hiddleston and creates an intriguing character who also goes on a journey from villain to anti-hero. One of the most fascinating things about Loki is that there is no clearly defined villain for most of the story; characters who seem like bad guys to start with, end up being good guys, or at least not as bad as they first appear – and the true top-tier villain of the piece does not actually appear until the final episode.
Elsewhere on the acting front, Owen Wilson is a revelation as the TVA agent Mobius. Wilson’s career seems to have segued effortlessly from playing laid-back young dudes into playing softly-spoken middle-aged father figures and he’s instantly likable as the downtrodden Mobius. When the character ‘dies’, it’s absolutely gutting! But when he comes back, it’s a punch-the-air moment of pure joy. Mobius’ boss in the TVA is Ravonna Renslayer played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who’s made quite an international career for herself since appearing as Martha Jones’ sister in Doctor Who over a decade ago. Renslayer is another character who goes on a journey, at first seeming like a likable bureaucrat, but ending up as something altogether darker. In fact, the more you look at it, the more you realise that no-one in this story is quite as they first appear.
The music and production design is one of the great triumphs of Loki. The headquarters of the TVA could easily have been a generic sci-fi building, all gleaming surfaces or dark metallic corridors, but instead they give it an absolutely glorious 1950s retro feel, with dials and levers and a distinctive nicotine-stained brown and beige colour scheme. It’s absolutely lovely and instantly looks different from anything else on TV at the moment, bringing to mind Terry Gilliam’s Brazil crossed with Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville. Natalie Holt’s distinctive score is similarly unique, with the title theme eschewing the big sounds that have become synonymous with superhero films in favour of a clicking, whirring musique concrete that sounds like the inner workings of some unfathomable machine. The terrific thing about all of the Disney+ Marvel shows so far is that they have all been distinctly different – WandaVision was nothing at all like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which in turn was nothing at all like this.
You can say what you want about Disney, but they have really scored with the MCU where they’ve sadly missed the mark with Star Wars – they consistently give the fans what they want and manage to still be fresh and experimental. This seems to be a lot easier to do with the streamed TV series than the movies, which probably isn’t what the money men want to hear, as they still consider the movies to be the number one money-spinner. But the two strands work perfectly together and feed into one another in a very effective way. Loki establishes the concept of the multiverse into the film series, something that has been very effective at papering over the cracks in the comic continuity for decades and will be very useful when recasting characters or bringing them back from the dead in the film and TV series.
If I had a problem with Loki, it would be that the final episode is rather anticlimactic. The series keeps up a good pace throughout its first five episodes, but slows to a talkative crawl in its final instalment. When the big bad is finally revealed, I can’t say that he’s a character I’d ever heard of before (although I’ve read that variants of him are well-known Marvel Comics villains) and he does not come across as particularly threatening in this form. The final ending of the serial is left flapping like a saloon door in an old western, allowing entry to the second series, which has already been announced. An open ending can be fascinating when you know it leads directly into a sequel, but I can’t help thinking that this would be a little bit disappointing if you didn’t know that there was another one on the way.
Loki is another big hit for Disney+ and another block in rebuilding the MCU, which seems to have stumbled to a halt with COVID’s effect on the big screen releases. There’s an ambitious raft of new adventures ahead, both on the big screen and the small screen, with future Disney+ releases including What If…?, Ms Marvel, Hawkeye and She-Hulk. They seem to be concentrating on building the female characters with the latter three (Hawkeye is partly the Kate Bishop version) and that’s fine by me; I’ve always loved She-Hulk and hope that they can retain some of the humour of the comic strip. But, of course, there’s also series 2 of Loki, which should answer some of the questions left by this first year. Whether this will arrive before or after Loki’s appearance in Thor: Love and Thunder remains to be seen (as it’s not included on any of the schedules), but either way, I’m really looking forward to it.
Loki is currently streaming on Disney+.