The Time Variance Authority in Loki believes, much like the series’ eponymous God of Mischief, that it is burdened with glorious purpose: to protect the “Sacred Timeline.” The TVA conceptualizes the Sacred Timeline with an old-school monitor that tracks any diversions from the status quo, which are then contained by the organization’s time cops to keep the universe flowing in its intended direction. (The Sacred Timeline is determined by a trio of all-powerful and unseen space lizards known as Time-Keepers; minor details.) It might as well be a stand-in for how the actual MCU operates.
Whenever a Marvel project veers into a promising and somewhat experimental new direction, the MCU quickly reverts to its own version of a Sacred Timeline with a familiar, crowd-pleasing resolution defined by generic CGI action sequences, minimal consequences, and a tease or two into what will come next in the pipeline. (Side note: In this analogy, is Kevin Feige a space lizard?) WandaVision’s first eight episodes leaned into decades of sitcom tropes set in an offputtingly cheerful town that made the show weirder and more unsettling (and at times, legitimately creepy) the further it went along. But ultimately, the series wasn’t exempt from the MCU formula, culminating with a series-worst finale that was frustratingly conventional compared to everything that came before it. There’s no denying the MCU has been a massive commercial success, but its biggest critics can—and do—point to these shortcomings as an example of its creative limitations. Consider: It took an Oscar-winning filmmaker to open Marvel to the idea of natural landscapes.
But while it’s unclear just how self-referential the TVA is intended to be—especially considering the organization seems more sinister with each passing episode—the MCU is showing signs of breaking from its status quo. After all, the TVA finds Infinity Stones, the shiny MacGuffins that drove the MCU’s plot for over 20 movies, so insignificant that they’re used as paperweights. What was once the most important part of the MCU has been reduced to a punch line in a Disney+ series: an admirable self-own.
The TVA is the key that unlocks the next phase of the MCU, which is all about embracing the multiverse, which should be obvious even without the knowledge that Loki creator Michael Waldron also cowrote the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s only fitting, then, that such a potentially chaotic storytelling direction is being shepherded by one of the MCU’s most enduring chaos agents: Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. (Or more accurately, a Loki “variant” from the past who escaped with the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame.) Halfway through the show, Loki is trying to juggle being a character study of a fan-favorite antihero and an instruction manual of sorts for understanding Marvel’s Phase 4. But unless you’re as obsessed with the concept of time as Christopher Nolan is, on paper the Phase 4 explainer is the show’s least appealing element—something akin to an interdimensional homework assignment. It’s why Loki’s greatest asset thus far is Mobius, the TVA agent played by Owen Wilson who’s been burdened with most of the show’s expositional duties.
Like the rest of the TVA’s workers, Mobius is unstuck from time and has a strange air about him: charming yet blissful in a way that makes it seem like he’s either unusually content or brainwashed. (Given the revelation in Loki’s third episode that the TVA’s employees used to be regular people with regular lives, it’s probably the latter.) It’s the kind of vibe that suits Wilson, a disarmingly aloof presence who, like Mobius, you can absolutely believe doesn’t care about the rest of the MCU. Mobius is an amusing foil for Loki, who has always had a very high opinion of himself, because Mobius gently reminds the Norse God of his purposelessness in the grand scheme of the universe.
The odd-couple pairing has been delightful, with Loki acting as more of a bewildered audience surrogate while Mobius casually lays out concepts that will likely define the MCU’s immediate future. Tonally, it’s a cross between Marvel’s usual comic book influences and the philosophical elements of The Good Place. (Heck, even Pillboi is a TVA employee.) But just as crucially, the hokey discussions about omniscient space lizards, Nexus Events, and bureaucratic time-cop procedures haven’t gotten in the way of Loki’s own journey of self-discovery.
Perhaps the show’s standout moment so far happens near the end of the premiere, when Loki sees what happened to the Sacred Timeline–approved version of himself after 2012’s The Avengers. Reminiscent of the tear-jerking sequence in Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey’s character watches his children grow up in a series of videos after he spends too much time near a black hole, Loki is moved when he watches his other self find closure with his father and brother before experiencing existential panic when he sees his variant’s brutal and unceremonious death at the hands of Thanos.
Beguiled by the immense power of the TVA and the Time-Keepers, Loki teams up with Mobius to stop another Loki variant from destroying the Sacred Timeline, briefly turning the show into a time-hopping procedural. (There’s a pitstop at Mount Vesuvius.) But Loki’s third episode, “Lamentis,” throws yet another curveball, sending Loki and his female variant, who goes by Sylvie, onto a faraway moon that’s about to be destroyed in the year 2077. It’s on that doomed rock where Loki opens himself up, highlighted by a clumsy “love is a dagger” metaphor that underlines why he never trusts other people. (Sylvie is more tight-lipped, but reveals enough to confirm that both characters are bisexual.) For Waldron, who used to work on Rick and Morty, maybe he sees a bit of Rick Sanchez in Loki—in the sense that both characters clumsily try to mask their insecurities with self-destructive behavior and bad-guy posturing.
“Lamentis” may not be what some viewers expected after two episodes of Loki and Mobius’s buddy-time-cop routine. Mobius isn’t anywhere to be seen, and the larger conversations about the TVA’s role in stopping a theoretically apocalyptic multiverse are mostly dropped. (Tragically and most crucially, we are deprived of Owen Wilson monologues for a week.) Instead, “Lamentis” is a two-hander between two Lokis, the type of stand-alone episode more traditionally slotted into a series with a bigger episode count.
But the fact that Loki spends one of its six episodes as a pared-down side mission is indicative of its real priorities. In the same way that WandaVision centered its story on Wanda Maximoff’s grief, Loki wants to unpack its title character. What makes a Loki a Loki? Is Loki innately good or bad, or does it depend on the variant? Do they have the capacity for change? Are they all destined for an underwhelming end like the Loki who MCU fans first fell in love with until his death in Avengers: Infinity War? Will Loki have a part to play in the Doctor Strange sequel where he doesn’t stab someone in the back for once?
It’s head-spinning subject matter, but befitting for a series that goes deep on a notoriously untrustworthy trickster while also trying to acclimate viewers to the MCU’s chaotic new normal, where there are multiple universes and, by Christmastime, the possibility of multiple Spider-Men. How Loki, both character and show, fits into the broader Phase 4 plans remains to be seen. But with a new lease on life and an interdimensional playground to explore in a stand-alone series that’s off to a promising start, the God of Mischief may still have a glorious purpose.