Marvel’s ‘Loki’ Switches up the Style of a Famous Villain for a Chase Through Time

Despite having the reputation of being a massive franchise machine, Marvel continues to take artistically creative, even bold turns with its emerging slew of streaming shows. Just take a look at their new series “Loki.” Since it branches out of the “Thor” line of MCU films, it could have easily been retread to testosterone action involving Nordic fantasy heroes. Instead what we get is a rather atmospheric detective thriller wrapped inside a time travel adventure. It even takes its time, preferring to set-up a plot rather than just rush into it. The visuals hint at surprising influences while the performances are as focused as anything in a more “serious” procedural.

It of course does help if you’ve been avidly following all the major happenings in the MCU. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the God of Mischief, was last seen zooming out and escaping from the Avengers in that grandiose epic “Endgame.” His tool for vanishing through time was the Tesseract Infinity Stone. You may recall the Infinity Stones were coveted by galactic warlord Thanos in his quest to reset the cosmos. Loki’s stunt has made him a target for the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which is essentially a time-monitoring police agency. TVA agents capture Loki and bring him to trial in their realm, which monitors all timelines to make sure everything is flowing smoothly and as structured by three gods, the Timekeepers. With his powers now restricted, Loki finds himself a prisoner and hauled before a temporal court to answer for his time traveling as well as other mischievous deeds (like trying to destroy Earth). But a TVA agent named Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) might have some use for Loki. It turns out there’s a renegade on the loose, a variant, time hopping and committing deadly crimes. This variant is actually another Loki, or so it seems. Mobius takes charge of Loki to see if they can find out where this fugitive might be hiding within time itself.

“Loki” follows in the footsteps of Marvel’s most acclaimed show to date, “WandaVision,” in how it tells a strong story but uses experimental aesthetics that nearly border on arthouse. In the movies Loki is more of a typical, mad villain. He’s the envious brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and is forever plotting to eventually take the throne of their Nordic homeland, Asgard. Aside from a few necessary references to the past “Avengers” movies, “Loki” is its own independent entity. Gone are the colorfully cosmic realms of the “Thor” films. Director Kate Herron goes for a richly atmospheric look that nearly seems to wink at David Fincher’s Netflix show “Mindhunter.” The production design continues our cultural obsession with vintage. TVA offices all have computers and monitors from the ‘80s, while the music score by Natalie Holt has an electronic tinge reminiscent of Tangerine Dream or Giorgio Moroder film soundtracks. The TVA realm is a city of intricate, futuristic structures, flying vehicles and highways, yet it looks lifted from an old pulp magazine as well. A small cartoon hologram, Ms. Minutes (Tara Strong), looks like a talking coin animation lifted from a ‘80s cartoon. For the devoted MCU disciples there are plenty of winks to the other films, including a hilarious update on more Infinity Stones. 

The visual fun helps flesh out a plot that can get quite complicated, but in the way time travel stories always tend to turn into mazes. Loki is grabbed by Mobius to essentially chase himself, but this requires they figure out where another Loki would hide within the many, infinite timelines that can form in, well, time. A lot of sci-fi jargon about vortexes and paradoxes are thrown around. But the narrative never drags because it becomes an exciting time travel chase while also further developing Loki as a character. Now a prisoner and under the supervision of Mobius, Loki becomes one of the more humanly tragic characters in the MCU. He has a massive ego that has always made him arrogant, but now he’s faced with his own pathetic features and sad faults. Tom Hiddleston almost makes us have empathy for the villain when he tries to evoke his powers in front of a TVA judge (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the guards just laugh. Complimenting Hiddleston’s performance is Owen Wilson as a convincing time cop who is both focused and dryly funny. It’s a perfect fit for Wilson, who gets to show off his range while partaking in the MCU without having to put on spandex.

Since “Loki” is a time travel show it inevitably goes from era to era. Mobius looks for the variant in the 1500s, then the ‘80s and the second episode culminates in an intense standoff amid a hurricane that will slam a particular city in the year 2050. When Loki conjures a theory involving apocalyptic events, he and Mobius take a stroll through Pompeii right before Vesuvius erupts. “Loki” has that kind of good combination of fun and creativity. It’s an MCU entertainment on every level, but it takes chances in also borrowing from thrillers you never think about while watching an “Avengers” entry, like “The Silence of the Lambs.” There is no denying this is part of the grander Marvel scheme to set us up for more films yet to come, but like real comic books these MCU shows are engaging additions to the bigger picture. What is making them stand out is how the popcorn material is produced with content that goes for some real artistry. “Loki” will hit the spot for Marvel fans waiting for the next batch of theatrical releases, but it’s also not stale and proves that being a franchise doesn’t have to mean limiting real creativity.

Loki” begins streaming June 9 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Disney+.