The second instalment of the Tom Hiddleston time-shifting series Loki proves it is the best thing from Marvel in years. By Anthony Carew.

Marvel’s Loki

Ke Huy Quan, Wunmi Mosaku, Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson in Loki.
Ke Huy Quan, Wunmi Mosaku, Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson in Loki.
Credit: Disney

After the climactic release of the historically successful Avengers: Endgame – the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the penultimate release in their “Infinity Saga”, the culmination of 11 years of brand-building, the second-highest-grossing film of all time – Marvel decided what the world really needed was more Marvel.

Armed with classic Hollywood hubris – the misguided conviction that the public would never tire of what they were selling – Marvel Studios rolled television production into their main business model, with “Phase Four” delivering more television shows than movies. The effect was a flooding of the market and a dilution of the brand, not to mention the release of the worst MCU movie, Eternals.

Forcing narrative crossovers between television shows and movies had the adverse effect of turning the former into homework and the latter into ads for the former. This practice was an act of artistic self-sabotage, ruining what could’ve been Marvel’s most sublime film, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, by burdening it with a host of tonally-off, studio-obligated B-stories crowbarred in to promote upcoming television titles.

After a run of disappointing films that weighed down once-fun franchises with po-faced gravity – Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – and a slew of ordinary television shows – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Moon Knight, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Secret Invasion – we’ve officially reached a state of Marvel fatigue, with questions looming around the state of the superhero industrial complex.

It’s in this cultural moment that Loki, the acclaimed solo show for the titular character, arrives for a second season. It doesn’t just have to live up to an inspired first season but also has to push back on all the bad vibes, a difficult task given the heavy presence of Jonathan Majors, the breakout star who was arrested in March on domestic violence charges.

The good news is that, whether or not it can be spun as state-of-Marvel narrative correction, season two is a worthy successor. Blessed by the fact its titular character, Tom Hiddleston’s charismatic God of Mischief, remains a slippery figure, Loki is allowed to move forward with no clear lines drawn between good and bad, protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain. Characters hold convictions until they don’t, make choices that will have ramifications, agitate for themselves, then for the greater good, and try to navigate a world whose rules shift beneath their feet.

It’s largely set, once again, in the Time Variance Authority, a comic bureaucratic labyrinth charged with policing multiversal time lines. Offering obvious symbolism at a time when Marvel is struggling to retain coherence in the midst of its “Multiverse Saga”, the TVA prizes the one true “Sacred Timeline”, pruning infinite possibilities back for the sake of cosmic narrative purity.

The TVA is an inspired retrofuturist space steeped in Eastern Bloc mid-century design and early Terry Gilliam films, satirising the pernickety dictums of workplaces and government offices – “limit your lunch break to 17 minutes!” proclaims one poster. From its dated tech – ’70s-style computer monitors, reel-to-reel tape machines, chrome hi-fis – to its curved surfaces, coloured floor tiles and lurid-emerald key lime pie, it’s a rare work of inspired production design by a studio otherwise synonymous with green-screening its way to rush-job eyesores built by an army of non-unionised offshore digital effects artists.

Everything in the TVA looks shabby and neglected, evoking its place as an office lost to time. The plot machinations of season one found an Avengers-adjacent Loki commandeered by the authority – Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), upper-management Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and others – to pursue a variant of himself, Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), through time and space.

It ended with an explosion of multiversal time lines and revelations about the true history of the TVA: its top-down system of authority a matrix of illusion, its mind-wiped employees existing in a state of suspended limbo, its time line-culling operation seeming a lot like a morally questionable act of mass slaughter.

In the fallout from that climax, season two finds characters questioning whether the TVA is an entity worth preserving or destroying, not to mention the meaning of their own existence and the ramifications of choice. It’s a study of free will and moral responsibility, housed in 45-minute episodes of action-oriented television. Its chief writer, Eric Martin, both lionises liberty and weighs up its gravity, while happily dealing in the all-American fear of governmental oversight.

The collapse of the TVA’s artificial reality – “everything you’ve been doing is wrong and all your gods are dead”, Mobius deadpans in classic Wilson fashion – leads characters to their own convictions. Mobius seeks peaceful resolution. Renslayer seeks to preserve her power and the authority’s agency (“all that matters is order versus chaos”). The once-bellicose B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) has a moral reawakening. The dogged Dox (Kate Dickie) is more committed than ever to the cause. The weaselly X-5 (Rafael Casal) wants to explore his new-found independence and maybe become a movie star. The oddball tech guy with the on-the-nose name, Ouroboros (Ke Huy Quan), is there to both provide comic relief and to save the day from a temporal calamity that may destroy all worlds, or something to that effect.

Loki’s playful riffing on time means every benign use of the word pops – “it’ll take some time”, “remember that time”, “take your time”, “time to go” – and its first four episodes dance along the Earth’s time line at various points of history – 1868, 1893, 1977, 1982 – with plentiful hijinks, dabbling in genre tropes, meta use of Loki’s skills of illusion and misdirection, and creepy fast-food-franchise sponsored content.

Looming over all is the presence of the big bad of Marvel’s Phase Five, Kang the Conqueror, played still, to this point, by Majors. He’s seen here in two variants: a squirrelly 19th-century nutty professor named Victor Timely and the all-powerful end-of-time figure met at the end of last season, He Who Remains. These twin characters are connected but separate enough that they symbolise the series’ focus on free will. One may be fated to become the other, but does that mean that he – and the future – can’t change?

The great charm of this season is that it cultivates the feeling that it could head anywhere and be anything. Loki doesn’t just explore free will as a theme, it actually feels as if it artistically possesses it. While it may not be enough to combat the waning influence of comic-book screen output, this season does feel like a disarming counterpoint to recent Marvel Studios product. Rather than feeling conscripted or forced, a puzzle piece that exists solely to build a bridge between branded content, Loki remains its own thing: a nimble exploration of big themes in a colourful, comic, oddball package.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Changing times".

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