Into the Time Theater with Loki
You know, when I think about time travel my mind often comes back to the fact that we humans have already built a time machine: the camera. Time travel is one of cinema's great powers. Filmmakers, whether via theater or home screens, assemble and present snippets of time to elicit emotions and evoke thought. It's less a glimpse of reality's past, more a representation of one's captured memory. It's not any less meaningful than actual time travel. As any art tends to do, storytelling through a screen expresses the feelings of its creators' in a more concise and true way than a mere visit in time ever could. Okay. That sounds lofty, but in service of the time travel genre, Marvel Studios is in a position to mine snippets from over a decade of their multi-billion dollar cinematic universe (the MCU). We saw this used to great effect in Avenger's Endgame and now we're seeing it in their latest Disney+ series, Loki. But will it prove to be worth the time....lol.
***Spoilers for episode 1 & 2 of Loki ahead ***
I'm most engaged with Marvel cinema when it leans into the sci-fi and tries something new. Case in point: WandaVision (even with its lackluster third act, moments of bloated exposition, and a disappointing b-story) is my favorite Marvel thing at the moment, because it was so out-of-left field compared to the rest of the franchise. Its pastiche of sitcoms was so well-executed and apropos for Marvel Studio's first foray into the TV landscape, that I mostly forgot its problems. The far more grounded The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, never quite grabbed me. It didn't follow through with its themes of race or American imperialism. It was too cowardly to commit to its villain's ideas and instead fell back on a status quo affirming message. Like in Black Panther, once again the antagonist's violent means were presented as proof that radical change is misguided.
Loki sees Marvel swing hard back into sci-fi and so has me intrigued once again. Having seen the first two episodes, I will say it's a strong start. Its premiere episode ("Glorious Purpose") picks up from the consequences of 2019's time heist, Endgame: A 2012 Loki escapes Avenger's custody, messing with the "sacred" time stream, and therefore gets snatched by the time cops ("Minutemen") of the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Owen Wilson plays Mobius, a TVA detective to Tom Hiddleston's Loki, the devious criminal. By the end of the episode, it's made clear that Mobius needs Loki's help to catch a killer on the loose (a variant of Loki themself). It's basically a time traveling spin on the classic crime drama, à la Silence of the Lambs.
It's the dynamic between Mobius and Loki that's at the crux of the show thus far and it's bolstered by top-tier performances from Hiddleston and Wilson. In the interrogation room (actually Time Theater 25) not only do we get a sparring of wits between a maverick time agent and an egotistic supervillain, we get what I imagine is the central conceit of the series. As Mobius shows Loki his past and future, the supposed god is faced with the idea that he has no power to steer his destiny and is like the "subjects" he wishes to rule: a pawn in the "Time-Keepers" grand plan, a subject absent of free will. Loki, of course, rejects such a notion and actually laughs after watching their own death in the time theater. We've already seen Loki's attempts of redemption within the "sacred timeline" in previous movies, but will the series definitively ascend Loki, or perhaps a variant, beyond the trickster role and into the status of a hero?
Mobius shows some skepticism of the TVA and the Time-Keepers in the next episode, as he assures his superior, Rayonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) about his methods to leash Loki in order to catch the Loki Variant. While she is certain Loki is an incorrigible "evil, lying scourge," Mobius suggests Loki can mix things up and may be tired of playing the same part. He even points out that he has never met the Time-Keepers, as if doubtful of their existence or that their authority is justified.
The show is hinting heavily that the TVA, and the Time-Keepers at its head, are not what they seem and may be the real villains. Knowing this makes the whole police procedural formula a bit more tolerable. Really, I'd like to see less of the TVA setting as we go on, which may be the case: Loki's exit at the end of episode two is promising. The story is a lot more exciting when its time-traveling and breaking new ground. The sooner we move on from the nightmare bureaucracy trope (seen recently in Soul and Zootopia) the better. Also, has anyone else noticed that the '70s retro aesthetic has been making the rounds in sci-fi media lately, like in pre-Disney owned X-Men series Legion or Netflix's Maniac or the video game Control? The reveal that Loki was the one behind the infamous thief D.B. Cooper played out like another easter egg for the well-fed boomers. Just saying, from a time traveling agency, I expect references outside a limited time range.
There's a lot of focus on the workplace drama in these first two episodes, which I first had me thinking: copaganda. But it looks like Mobius is the kind of character who will turn on the fascistic agency in the final episodes. Though I wouldn't be surprised if the show ends up advocating for reform over abolition. That said, the show does seem to critique the time cops, aka the Minutemen, a name originally used for the colonist militias in the American Revolutionary War, and often used for right-wing militias in contemporary reality and fiction. Are the writers simply playing with words or knowingly alluding to right-wing extremism? During a chase scene in episode one, a clerk calls out a time cop for nearly vaporizing/killing him on accident. That certainly reads like a commentary on excessive force. Further, in the next episode at the Roxxcart, Mobius ("the good cop") reprimands a unemphatic Minuteman for scaring the soon-to-be-dead. "They should be scared," says the bully. "Not of us," Mobius retorts.
All the while, viewers have been learning the terminology of the TVA, like the use of the word "pruning" to indicate the eradication of a branch off the timeline, but also used as a synonym for "erasing" or killing a variant. This way of softening language is not unlike the dystopian Newspeak. As the audience surrogate, Loki acknowledges and calls out the TVA propaganda:"sounds like a nice way of saying disintegrate everything in its vicinity." The special effects, though, of the reset charges, they're pretty cool. I especially like the slow-mo effect of the Time Collar we see in the first episode. That's new. But, yeah, that's cruel and unusual torture, another example of a fascist authority.
The TVA doesn't want you to think they're all bad. I'm sure they like to talk about their inclusion and diversity. The two prominent woman at the TVA are of color. Minuteman... Minutewoman Hunter B-12 (Wunmi Mosaku) leads the time cops on the field. She asserts her authority over Mobius several times, whether its confiscating the daggers he handed to Loki or taking over as Loki's chaperone at Roxxcart. The person with the highest position we've seen (and the only one we know who communicates with the Time-Keepers) is the woman Mobius answers to: Rayonna Renslayer. At the stand Mobius sincerely remarks:"I feel like I'm always looking up to you. I like it. It's appropriate." Indeed. But any good leftist knows that identity politics can be used as a smoke screen for nefarious acts.
By the climax of episode two, hopefully most viewers are skeptical of the TVA, as it seems we are meant to sympathize with their enemy, another woman? The Variant. In a twist the internet saw coming, the Loki the TVA has been hunting was a woman all along? Or at least the role is played by Sophia Di Martino, a woman. Some are calling her Lady Loki, but the credits of the Castilian Spanish Dub suggest another character. I'm sticking with what we've been shown up to this point and will refer to them as The Variant.
I'm not sure how far the heads of Marvel want to go with gender politics in the MCU, but it seems they're not quite exploring beyond the binary in Loki. It's true that we see Loki's sex recorded as "fluid" in their paperwork at the TVA, but as played by Tom Hiddleston he has always been referred to as "he" or "him" and presented as a man. Mobius and other agents always use "he", even when referring to all other Loki variants. In fact, we're only shown male variants by the TVA, a way to demonstrate their closed-mindedness and to keep the audience from catching on. I have been and will probably continue to use all the pronouns interchangeably as part of my head canon.
"Fluid" indicates that Loki's gender fluctuates, but does not necessarily mean he's non-binary. Perhaps within the MCU, Loki only chooses to be either man or woman. With the introduction of Di Martino's Loki, I think Marvel Studios is more interested in challenging male-centered stories from the perspective of women. Her last words to Hiddleston's Loki at the end of the episode are, "This is isn't about you." To me this reads as a woman using a feminist refrain against a toxic man. The twist itself plays out like a calling-out of sexist assumptions from the viewer and more importantly those in power: the TVA.
In the final scene of the episode The Variant "bombs the sacred timeline" as she sends away all the stolen reset charges. She basically creates a chaotic multiverse without an effective way to trim all the branches and then exits a cosmic doorway, presumably to find the Time-Keepers whose location she extracted from a kidnapped Minuteman. Loki follows, abandoning Mobius and the rest. It's a great cliffhanger that gives Loki the opportunity to embrace his chaotic nature and defy the TVA's control. It closes an arc and leaves you wanting to see what's on the other side of that doorway.
I'm eager to see Di Martino and Hiddleston share the screen in the upcoming episodes. Her possession power in this episode is the kind of sci-fi horror I'd like to see more of in the MCU. It demonstrates the acting chops of the cast in a fun yet creepy way. As for the TVA, again, I'm hoping Mobius goes rogue and we spend more time traveling the multiverse. The time police may very well get their comeuppance, but I have no faith in the MCU to be harsh on any real world institutions. As they did with SHIELD and SWORD in previous entries, the heroes fight the made-up agencies, yet ally with the FBI and CIA. They did get close to lambasting one real life villain in the first episode. The prisoner who got zapped for not having a ticket at the TVA cried out, "My dad is on the board of Goldman Sachs." Killing a Wall Street Exec would've been too much for Hollywood Execs; they had to go for a spoiled son.
Worst case scenario, we explore time and space with Loki variants. I've appreciated the humor so far. At first viewing that salad scene seemed like it was going a tad too long, but now that I think about it, I can't help but giggle over the visual of Loki with those salt and pepper shakers. The writing overall has been top-notch; kudos to Michael Waldron and Elissa Karasik. That 1985 renaissance fair setting was hilarious. And of course praise to Kate Herron for directing. And... uh.. it's almost midnight. The next episode is about to drop...