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‘Loki’ Shows What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Is Missing: Romance

The centrality of the romance in Loki makes it stand out within the MCU—and signals how much potential there is in this kind of storytelling, should Marvel choose to mine it

Disney/Ringer illustration

Loki is a litany of firsts for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The six-episode Disney+ series, per the mid-credits sequence in last week’s finale, is the first of Marvel Studios’ TV shows to earn a second season. (Its two predecessors, WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, were limited series, a category WandaVision now seems poised to dominate at the Emmys.) Loki also marks the first appearance of Jonathan Majors’s Kang the Conqueror, a Thanos-level villain introduced as He Who Remains, who is the mysterious force behind the Time Variance Authority. Majors is already set to reprise the role in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, making Loki a key inflection point in the wider expansion of the MCU. And in exploring the TVA, Loki is the first MCU project to center the concept of the Marvel multiverse, a parallel-realities model that seems pivotal to the master narrative going forward. Head writer Michael Waldron also penned the script for the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But in its self-contained story, Loki marked a different kind of first. The show picks up from the climax of Avengers: Endgame, when an unplanned escape by a version of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) runs afoul of the TVA, which aims to cut off any deviations from the thread known as the Sacred Timeline. (In the Sacred Timeline, Loki is supposed to remain in Avengers custody, then die several years later in Endgame in the fight against Thanos.) Through the TVA, Loki learns of the concept of “variants”: versions of a person from alternate, unauthorized timelines. In Season 1, Loki—or rather, the version of Loki who serves as our protagonist—encounters several of his own variants. Some are older than the Loki we know best; some are younger; some aren’t even bipedal. But the most important variant to Loki and Loki alike has a different distinguishing trait: She’s a woman. Known in the comics as Lady Loki, the character goes by Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) in the show. And in just a few episodes, Loki falls in love with her.

For a franchise with so many A-list movie stars in tightly fitting spandex, the MCU is shockingly light on sex, love, or even the odd makeout session. What couples do exist within the larger repertory are often lacking in chemistry or are tangential to the story. (The Hulk and Black Widow made for thin gruel of a will-they, won’t-they, especially for characters played by actors as easy on the eyes as Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson.) Most exceptions—the affectionate banter of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; the tragic separation of Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter—are situated early in the MCU, before the mission creep of plot overtook more intimate expressions of character. WandaVision bucked the trend by showing the inner strife of a grieving widow, but much of its impact was retroactive; Wanda and Vision’s pairing always came off as rote in the movies and their bond gained real weight only in the rearview mirror. The MCU is an all-ages enterprise, so one could argue celibacy makes sense for an audience that includes children. But the same is true of Star Wars, which gave the world Han and Leia, plus a worthy successor in Kylo and Rey.

Loki, by contrast, breaks the mold. Loki and Sylvie’s connection is relatively short-lived; in the end, their relationship amounts to little more than a single kiss before it’s instantly torn apart. Still, their attraction is pivotal to the show and drives everything from character development to plot. Better yet, it’s compelling, with chemistry that far exceeds the bare minimum of two beautiful people in a room. The centrality of its romance makes Loki stand out within the MCU—and signals how much potential is in this kind of storytelling, should Marvel choose to mine it.

Marvel loves to market its projects as genre homage. WandaVision was a composite of 20th-century sitcoms; Spider-Man: Homecoming is a riff on John Hughes; Loki is the MCU version of Doctor Who, positively rife with timey-wimey stuff. But we’ve never gotten the MCU’s spin on Notting Hill or You’ve Got Mail. The reasons are clear enough: Marvel movies aim for stakes far larger than whether two crazy kids can make it, and only the darkest romance plots work as a setup for explosive combat. Still, when a series has a near monopoly on top-tier movie stars, ignoring an outlet for their copious charisma neuters their talent in more ways than one. (There’s also no need to go full Nora Ephron; simply weaving romance into an existing comfort zone, as Loki does, is more than the current Marvel norm.) Love stories would let Marvel take full advantage of its assets and fill in its blind spots to boot. Thirteen years in, the MCU is so unwieldy it’s hard to find an emotional entry point. Romance provides exactly that.

Loki uses an entry point into its armchair philosophy. The same existential questions that drive many stories about time travel also drive Loki: If there’s a singular timeline, is there such a thing as free will? And if there are multiple timelines, what unites or divides them? The idea of “what makes a Loki a Loki” is one of the show’s recurring motifs, cycling through answers with each passing episode. Maybe Lokis lie; maybe Lokis always lose; maybe, our main Loki suggests, they simply survive. Determinism—whether anyone is in control of their own destiny, or if there’s some intrinsic nature-over-nurture quality that remains regardless of circumstance—is a standard sci-fi theme. Exploring that theme through a love story between two different versions of the same being is at least a novel way into the concept, and a pleasingly perverse one. As Loki’s handler turned friend Mobius (Owen Wilson) points out, there’s no higher expression of narcissism than falling for yourself.

Except Loki’s crush is somehow quite the opposite. When the God of Mischief first learns that one of his own variants is terrorizing the TVA, his first instinct is to insist he must be “the superior Loki”—an egotism Mobius correctly bets will motivate him to enlist as a recruit, and that Loki eventually learns is a universal belief among all Loki-kind. But once he gets to know Sylvie, who’s been on the run from the TVA since she was a child, Loki gains the humility and self-awareness to understand he’s not the better half of their relationship. Sylvie’s had a much harder life and displayed much more grit and ingenuity in not just surviving, but posing a credible threat to one of the greatest powers in the universe. As much as Loki appears to be falling in love with his own reflection, it’s actually what sets him and Sylvie apart that ends up piquing his interest. (Those differences don’t have to include gender, by the way; a throwaway line in Episode 3 suggests Loki could very well have gone for one of his male variants, a twist that’s hard to imagine Marvel giving the green light to—but Disney’s sparing approach to queer representation is a conversation for another day.)

Loki executes this arc on a warp-speed schedule. Loki and Sylvie don’t even meet until the end of Episode 2; they then spend the entirety of Episode 3 together before getting separated at the start of Episode 4. It’s imperfect pacing, a false binary of rapport-building and forward momentum. Instead of a gradual build, Loki and Sylvie’s one-on-one time gets squeezed into a supersized walk-and-talk that puts the main plot on pause before thrusting the duo back into action. And in the end, the relationship gets shortchanged by a finale that cedes most of its running time to an exposition dump, setting up Season 2 (and more movies) rather than wrapping up Season 1 in especially satisfying fashion. It’s a testament to Hiddleston and Di Martino that they’re able to sell the attraction as convincingly as they do despite the bumpy ride.

Yet Loki doesn’t have to function flawlessly as a rom-com to leave lessons for the rest of the MCU. Loki’s affection for Sylvie plays a key role in softening a supervillain into an antihero, accomplishing in one series what the Sacred Timeline Loki took years of cameos and bit parts to do. Even under the cold, connect-the-dots logic that governs so much of the MCU, Loki’s romance leads directly to getting Sylvie in the same room as He Who Remains, where she then kills him and sets off the multiverse. As Loki’s Infinity Stones–as-paperweights gag suggests, magical MacGuffins can quickly wear out their luster. What if the MCU turned to other sources of motivation—ones that make use of an all-star cast while lessening a reliance on bigger-is-better CGI? The multiverse is incomprehensibly vast. Surely it contains a few smoldering glances.