Reviewing Loki three months after its initial release poses something of a minor problem. This is due to the fact that the overall experience of the series shifts dramatically once you’ve seen all six parts. Watching each episode weekly feels like a jigsaw puzzle gradually falling into place. Having the complete collection of said parts firmly in place transforms the puzzle box structure into more of an MCU phase four establishing party. If you had an eye on audience attitudes toward Loki during the weeks of its release, you’d probably notice the consensus transforming from universal praise to mild disappointment by the time July 14th came about. This is largely in part due to the reason outlined above.
But let’s slip back in time for a moment and try to pretend that the last five episodes of Loki have yet to air. It’s Wednesday 9th June, and Disney+ have just dropped one of their most anticipated Marvel TV projects of 2021. Titled Glorious Purpose, Loki’s debut takes place immediately after the first Avengers film. It also it takes place slap-bang in the middle of Avengers: Endgame, but that’s time travel for you. Loki has just been captured by Stark and co after he is defeated in the 2012 Battle of New York. While a future version of earth’s mightiest heroes attempt to pluck the Infinity Stones out of history in order to reverse Thanos’ population-reduction scheme, a series of gaffes results in Asgard’s most murderous of scamps slipping away into the cosmos.
Shortly after his escape, Loki is placed under arrest by the outlandishly enigmatic and equally powerful Time Variance Authority. His crime? Not following the flow of the sacred timeline. Loki’s refusal to follow the plot Kevin Feige and the gang over at Marvel put in place for him during Phase 2 and 3 of their cinematic masterplan is a no-no in the eyes of the TVA.
When talking about this episode, a lot of people have compared it to the BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who. It’s a comparison that’s accurate for a variety of reasons. To start, the most superficial comparison is the soundtrack. Loki makes liberal use of theremins throughout its orchestral score, and while such an instrument was never actually used to compose the original Delia Derbyshire (despite popular belief) this does create an audible atmosphere not all that dissimilar to the 1963 to present day series.
If we look a little deeper, the TVA’s obsession with preserving the “sacred” timeline reseembles that of the Doctor’s own people; a race of Gallifreyans known throughout the cosmos as Time Lords. Like the TVA, the Time Lords believe the universe must follow a strict narrative flow containing immovable fixed points that guide the universe from A to B. The fall of Roam, World War II, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and even the rise & fall of the it Channel 4 reality series Big Brother all belong as immovable points in the history books according to the Doc’s people. The TVA are no different in this respect. So obsessed are they with keeping things as they are, the moment a person so much as considers doing something that may veer the course of history down a unique path, their agents are dispatched to pluck their beings out of that timeline, lock them away from the rest of reality, and reset that timeline with a new version of that person in the hope they’ll stick to the original script. Much like the Time Lords, the TVAs reasons for going to such extremes in order to preserve a fixed course of events holds little logical reason. While the Time Lords give next to know explanation beyond the hollow “because you just can’t, okay!”, the TVA seemingly use religion to justify their actions. For all the power and technological brilliance this agency possesses, their ultimate drive in life is to follow the scripture of a mysterious ground of beings known as the time-keepers who claim a monstrous war between the multiverses will break out if they let history follow its own path. While their justification may be a little more descriptive than the Time Lords, their so-called logic still boils down to “because you just can’t, okay!”.
There is another close comparison to Doctor Who that is perhaps overlooked when making this comparison, which is Loki’s decision to drive a grandiose story within a deceptively minuscule setting. Due to its limited budget, much of Doctor Who – including the slightly more flashy post-2005 continuation of the show – has to make use of small settings and characters capable of delivering hefty chunks of exposition. The scope of Doctor Who is byzantine in its scope (an immortal alien travels through time and space in an interdimensional, shapeshifting vessel), whereas the budget it’s given to realise such a vision is quite the opposite. As has been pointed out numerous times throughout Elizabeth Sandifer’s seminal essay series, Tardis Eruditorum, Doctor Who writers often aim to find innovating and engaging ways of having actors stand around on television sets whittling on about the sheer epicness of the plots they find themselves within.
What’s most remarkable about Loki’s opening episode is despite the show having its pampered paws perched firmly in the wallet of wealthy ol’ Mickey Mouse, it makes liberal use of Doctor Who’s “standing around onset approach” to storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, there are some snazzy visuals knocking about the place during Glorious Purpose – the establishing shots of the TVA’s homeworld being the most prominent example – yet for the most part, this is an episode in which Owen Wilson and Tom Hiddleston engage in a university seminar in which they discuss Loki’s philosophical and psychological stance within the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s opening decade.
There are a number of reasons why the show has taken this approach to the opening episode; none of which actually amount to “they spent all the money on the opening episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, as it may first appear. The first and perhaps least important reason is it’s pretty darn fun to pluck a character out of a series’ timeline and watch them react to how they fit into it all. It’s important to bear in mind this is a version of Loki who has another 8 years of character development ahead of him, which makes watching him react to his actual place within this series all the more entertaining to watch. At this stage he’s a malicious baddy with a bloodlust for domination, a jealousy complex for his brother that’s driven him into a state of insanity, and a sense of entitlement that would put even Donald Trump to shame. To have this version of the character soak up the events of The Dark World, Ragnarok and Infinity War in under 52-minutes, then have his fait ultimately revealed to him at the neck-snapping hands of Thanos, all while the camera broadcasts his every emotion is both a cathartic and emotional ride for audiences to embark upon. It’s very rare we get to see any character step outside the realm of their fictional world and absorb their place within that story, let alone one as anti-heroic and self-aggrandising as the God of Mischief himself.
Without trying to get too ahead of ourselves, we are beginning to enter a phase of the MCU in which the franchise is beginning to take the pre-existing material it’s produced over the past decade and use its very existence as a playground of sorts. We’re going to see this a lot more in the upcoming What If… series, but it’s here this form of re-contextualising pre-established material is utilised for the first time. Instead of simply taking source material from the comic books it’s based on, here we’re seeing Marvel take content from its own movie adaptations and reflecting them back onto itself, generating new ways of presenting that content in the process. It’s a fun and effective way of adding a fresh new perspective on stories we’ve already witnessed, doing so without actually having to reshoot any of it in the process.
The second and more important reason as to why Glorious Purpose is forcing past Loki to reflect upon his place within the MCU is down to Marvel trying to atone for turning Loki into a protagonist in the first place. When the first Avengers movie came out, the character of Loki was a murderous fascist who not only happily killed to obtain his goals, but actively experienced pleasure when brutally murdering innocent people. Without tiptoeing around it, he’s a pretty awful guy. Some would even call him a monster. Except popularity for this character grew beyond expectation, and before they knew it, Marvel found themselves shackled with Thor’s adopted monstrosity of a brother whether they liked it or not. Even when they tried to kill him off in Thor: the Dark World, audience reactions pressured them into writing him back in at the last second. Except they couldn’t keep bringing him back as a villain, as that would get boring pretty fast. Instead, Kevin Feige decided to give him the Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z treatment; shift him from villain, to anti-hero, then finally hero. While the transition to murderous space fascist to sacrificial lionheart won over audiences, there was still this character’s past to contend with. He may have atoned for his sins, but when those sins were pretty atrocious to begin with, can you really still be okay with giving this kind of guy his own show? surely death is the only way to redeem this kind of character. This is why Glorious Purpose takes us all the way back to pre-hero Loki. It essentially gives that version of the character a chance to confess and analyse the reasons why he committed those aberrant atrocities in the first place. The outcome after having him bear witness to his overall purpose within the MCU is to conclude that he acts the way does not because he’s a vile lunatic who gets giddy at the thought of mutilating innocent folk, but because he’s been misled by a moral outlook that’s been perverted at some point or another. His chance to review his time within the overarching MCU gives him the opportunity to reflect and confess at his most fundamental level.
All of this makes for an attempt at justifying Loki’s newfound status as the lead goodie in his own TV show, giving the early version of his character an opportunity to reflect and confess before fast-tracking him all the way back to post-Infinity War Loki, all while simultaneously having a bit of fun with with the cinematic source material in the process,
As well as all this, the episode furthermore uses these sequences to flesh out the concept of the TVA to audiences. Masters of an alleged dominant timeline, the TVA act as a bureaucratic entity that position all the franchise’s events as we’ve seen them unfold during the previous decade as a fixed scripts that cannot be altered. As we enter a phase of the MCU that promises to dive headfirst into the multiverse, we all know that a singular dominant timeline isn’t going to be the case for much longer. While the first three phases were all about laying down an immovable groundwork, by this stage we are all too aware that the next stage in the MCU plans to break this structure wide open. Even at this stage, with just one episode under our belts, it’s clear to audiences from the pilot alone that the Loki series aims to function as a metatextual representation of this transition from linear to chaos. The TVA’s perception of history following an unaltered path stands in for Kevin Feige’s masterplan during the first three phases of the MCU, whereas the agency’s inevitable demise represents the incoming phase four’s decision to shatter that approach going forward. Glorious Purposes therefore acts as one final look at the pre-established MCU timeline before the wrecking ball gets to work; a retrospective analysis of all that was in the shadow of the madness that’s soon to follow.
By the time Loki is given chance to reflect on the “one true timeline”, the inevitable arrives. The rules fall apart, and the former Asgardian monster is offered the chance to become a hero in its truest form. Problem is, the antagonist he’s asked to go up against in order to become a true protagonist adds yet another layer of incomprehensibility to the whole façade. The foe awaiting him in the following stories, it is announced, is yet another variant of himself. That’s right, after 52-minutes of justifying Loki’s place as a protagonist within this series, the show goes ahead and makes him a bad guy all over again.
And with that, all the credits role and all the rules hurl themselves out the nearest window.
We’re in for one heck of a ride kids.