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How to Challenge a God That Knows Everything

The team behind ‘Loki’ discusses how they’re charting the next phase of the God of Mischief’s story

Liam Eisenberg

Listen to this feature on The Ringer-Verse podcast.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is on a philosophical bender. That’s what happens when the narrative guardrails that connect 23 movies disappear. For 13 years, Kevin Feige was a mason and his magical MacGuffins were the bricks that made up the most extensive interconnected movie universe in Hollywood history. Whether it was a time-displaced war veteran, a talking raccoon, or a grape-colored dictator, every Marvel character was on a quest for the same thing at some point in their story—the Infinity Stones. These six different rocks could warp reality, rewind time, and, most dramatically, wipe out half the universe’s population. It was epic, silly, and the bane of Martin Scorsese’s existence.

So when the first episode of Loki effectively turns the Infinity Stones into a meta–punch line, it’s jarring. Loki—Thor’s brother, the Asgardian God of Mischief, and perennial antihero of the Marvel Universe—is apprehended by the Time Variance Authority. The organization is a bureaucratic police force ruled by godlike beings called Time-Keepers, tasked with preserving the “Sacred Timeline.” Inevitably, Loki gets suspicious and opens a filing cabinet only to see the stones he spent numerous movies chasing after, powerless and collecting dust.

“Some of the guys use them as paperweights,” a worker tells Loki.

The moment is the most accurate representation of the beautiful futility of superhero storytelling, a medium of unending stories, multiverses, and multiple timelines. It’s a landscape where the person, or object, or thing you were promised was the most powerful force in existence can be retconned at any moment. That pivotal scene in Loki’s first episode arrived after the series’ head writer, Michael Waldron, and his writers’ room saw an early cut of Avengers: Endgame. “That bit with the Infinity Stones is, in a way, our way of saying, ‘That’s the past. Now we’re in the future,’” says Waldron, who is well-versed in TV shows about alternate timelines from his time as an assistant on Rick and Morty. “Certainly, with Loki, this is a guy, nothing is more tantalizing to him than power. And so, to see, ‘Holy shit, Infinity Stones are just paperweights in this place’what does that mean about what this place is?”

Conceptually, Loki is far from a simple premise. It’s a time-travel procedural that’s as existential as it is comedic. The themes fly as loose and fast as the dialogue: Is anyone truly good or evil? Does free will exist or are we all imprisoned by destiny? What does it mean to believe in something higher than ourselves without any proof? But without the looming presence of the apocalyptic jewels, the characters of the Disney+ slate of MCU TV shows are left to contend with less cosmic challenges like grief, race, and now with Loki, matters of identity. For six films and two decades, Loki fought against the corporeal, but as his story draws to a conclusion, the God of Mischief must go to war with the past, the future, newfound powerlessness, and a universe that’s ready to move past him.

As a character, Loki operates like a prism. His existence and sole purpose is to illuminate the virtues and pains of other characters. It doesn’t matter if it takes Chris Hemsworth four films to perfect his portrayal of Thor when the God of Thunder’s mere opposition to Loki’s over-the-top selfish and arrogant behavior says it all. So when Loki flips the dynamic and puts the part-time villain, full-time antihero in the role of the protagonist and puts Mobius—the seemingly all-knowing time detective played by Owen Wilson—in the role of the foil, it fundamentally changes the core of the character. “It was a really interesting, fresh, new dynamic,” Tom Hiddleston explains about the difference between acting beside Hemsworth’s Thor and Mobius.

“Chris and I were cast pretty much on the same day, at the same time in our lives. We felt like we knew we were playing brothers and brothers that are emotionally involved with each other, and they get caught up in each other’s different emotional journeys,” Hiddleston continues. “Whereas Mobius is detached, and he can stand outside all of that and commentate on it and offer an opinion without judgment. A family member is always going to be kind of drawn into the emotional drama. Whereas he’s like, ‘It’s OK, I’m here. I’m listening.’”

Waldron has a more blunt assessment: “Tom can’t be the only one who talks.”

Loki and Mobius’s relationship lies somewhere between epic space bromance and opposing forces of nature. The show excavates what happens when the chaos of a god meets order incarnate. Even as the Time Variance Authority physically defangs Loki by taking away his magic, equipping him with a temporal dog collar, it’s Mobius that dresses him down with a series of one-liners.

“Why does someone with so much range want to rule?” Mobius says to Loki with an almost loving exasperation. In one interrogation, Mobius does what the Avengers never could. He makes Loki’s “glorious purpose” as hollow as a drawer full of Infinity Stones. More specifically, Loki’s director, Kate Herron, sees Loki and Mobius’s relationship as a “chess match.” The Sex Education director merely had to let the two actors work.

“We’re like, ‘Has Loki met his match? Has he not?’ I think we do see that he clearly has met someone on his level,” Herron says. “We did a lot of rehearsal with both Tom and Owen, and it was really just getting the rhythm of the scenes right. It was almost like filming a mini play for some off-Broadway episode. Tom is a classically trained actor, has done a lot of Shakespeare. And then you’re putting him in a scene with Owen Wilson, who’s this indie darling and did Bottle Rocket and all these amazing comedy films. They have such different approaches to acting, which is why I think it’s so electric.”

Loki’s character arc within the TVA is like watching a Norse god smoke weed at a liberal arts college and ponder life in a way you can only when you have unlimited time on your hands. Hiddleston doesn’t sound exhausted at the thought of once again recreating a character he’s played for a decade; the 40-year-old actor instead looks rejuvenated.

“He’s been around in 60 years of Marvel comics, and I knew that there was no way in the space of one movie, the first Thor film, that I was going to get to touch on all these different aspects,” Hiddleston says. “Loki inside the TVA, it strips him of all the things that are familiar. Thor is nowhere to be seen, Asgard is far away. He’s stripped of his status and his power. And he has to ask, ‘What remains? What remains of Loki? Who am I without all the things that I know?’”

Loki is as much a story about the fluidity of identity and purpose as it is the ins and outs of time travel. In the first episode, Loki proclaims, “You ridiculous bureaucrats will not dictate how my story ends,” like a petulant child after discovering the TVA knows how every moment of his life will unfold.

“We started out just trying to define the broad emotional arc for Loki in this show,” Waldron says. “And then as you dig in, you’re writing the individual episodes, you realize more and more, wow, we can tackle these questions of free will versus destiny and everything. What better character to run his mouth about that stuff?”

To Herron, the existential bureaucracy and questions about identity aren’t far from her life. At one point, Herron uses her former life as a roving temp to explain not only the on-screen aesthetics of the Time Variance Authority, but also to note that they’re an organization that’s “not in the future, not in the past.” The description is also fitting for the show’s time variant protagonist, the future of Hiddleston’s portrayal as the God of Mischief, and the future of the MCU.

“I’ve always been really drawn into stories about identity and finding your people or your place in the universe,” Herron adds. “Will Loki always be defined by his past actions, or is there room for growth and change? And I think that’s something that’s very human. As people were always like, ‘Yeah, I’ve made a mistake. Can I move past that? Can I change, or will I always keep making the same mistakes?’”

Soon the MCU will be filled with a new generation of gods, captains, and intergalactic heroes. So it’s fitting that the deconstruction of one of Marvel’s original deities—the same one responsible for the Avengers and ending Phase 1—is meant to leave room for something new. For audiences, Tom Hiddleston’s future as Loki is merely one uncertain timeline of many. I ask Hiddleston to reexamine one of the most pivotal moments of his career.

“Do you think you were destined to play Loki, or was it free will?”

“I like to think it was free will, but maybe it was somehow predetermined,” Hiddleston responds. “Maybe somebody is up there pulling the strings. Do we have any agency over the choices we make, or are we somehow rolling along tracks that have been laid out before us, either by, I don’t know, our parents, our society, our genetic inheritance? God knows. Is there some TVA up there, somewhere watching with amusement, as we stumbled through our lives?”

Then before he exits the interview, Hiddleston turns and smiles. Loki is a series that asks a lot of its protagonist and just as much of its audience. “It’s a big question,” Hiddleston admits. Then, as if he’s seated in front of Mobius, he asks, “What do you think?”