Loki did something remarkable: it made me forget about the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work. The entire conceit of the MCU is that every story, whether it’s a blockbuster movie or a streaming television show, is in service to the greater narrative arc. You’re not just watching what’s happening to the characters on-screen, but also hints of what comes next. Loki doesn’t get away from that entirely, particularly with its conclusion that sets up the universe’s next big villain. But like the variants who inhabit Loki’s world outside of time, the six-episode first season carves out its own timeline — a few of them, in fact — making it perhaps the most standalone part of the MCU to date. You can enjoy it as part of the all-encompassing cinematic universe or as what it truly is: an excellent piece of science fiction.
Spoilers for Loki’s first season ahead.
The show doesn’t seem that standalone at first. It opens with a scene from Avengers: Endgame when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes off with a powerful device known as the Tesseract. From here, the story diverges from what we’ve seen in the MCU. Loki is apprehended by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which is sort of like a time-traveling FBI with one specific purpose: to protect the “sacred timeline.” From the TVA, Loki learns that he’s a variant, which is a fancy word for someone who deviates from the timeline set out by a mysterious trio called the Time Keepers, who control the flow of time and created the TVA in order to maintain its purity.
Typically, variants are pruned, a nice way of saying they’re killed in order to protect that timeline from diverging from the plan. But the TVA has other ideas for Loki. Another variant has been terrorizing the TVA, appearing at multiple periods throughout time and space in order to kill their agents. This variant also happens to be another Loki — making our Loki the perfect man to track them down. It’s a lot to keep track of. There are parallel worlds and multiple timelines, not to mention the fact that this is a show starring the least-reliable narrator in the Marvel universe. The mystery of the TVA steadily grows over the course of the show; it seems like everyone knows either a lot less or a lot more than they’re letting on.
Within this framework, the show jumps across genres, starting out a bit like a buddy cop series. After Loki is processed through the TVA’s charmingly banal bureaucracy, he forms an uneasy alliance with agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) in order to track down the killer variant. From there, Loki heads into more explicit sci-fi territory; one episode takes place on a dying moon that’s about to be crushed by a planet, while another is set in a void at the end of time that seems to be populated entirely by alternate versions of Loki. Things move with an incredible sense of momentum. Hiddleston’s Loki is constantly on the run, eventually switching allegiances to work with the variant he was meant to capture — who calls herself Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) — as the two decide to take down the TVA together. Once the TVA and its many confusing rules are established, this relationship between two Lokis, which starts out antagonistic before becoming more intimate, forms the thrust of the show. There are a few pacing issues, like a third episode that ends on a frustrating cliffhanger and a monologue-filled finale, but for the most part, Loki moves along at a satisfyingly brisk rate.
The show touches on a lot of lofty themes, like the idea of parallel worlds and whether free will can even exist in a multiverse. But grounding it all is Hiddleston’s take on Loki. This is the deepest, most intimate look we’ve had at the character so far, despite six film cameos spanning a decade. Here, he’s given a chance to grow across nearly six hours of screen time. Growth isn’t something typically associated with Loki. He’s a compulsive liar and a narcissist, someone so single-mindedly focused on himself that nothing else seems to matter. But in the show, that changes — in the most Loki way possible. He literally falls in love with himself. It sounds strange, but one of the most important arcs in the show is the budding romance between Loki and Sylvie, two versions of the same being. But of course Loki would finally find love in a variant of himself. But of course someone with such a violently self-hating streak would only find real self-actualization in a romance... with himself. He grows over the course of the show, but he’s still Loki after all.
The story of love, betrayal, and self-determination is buoyed by an excellent cast. Hiddleston adds a depth to Loki that we haven’t seen yet — he slowly peels back the trickster persona to reveal who he is when not causing trouble — and he has a magnetic chemistry with both Wilson and Di Martino; the former is full of playful banter, the latter a mix of tender moments and fierce battles. There’s also an alarmingly straightforward bureaucrat (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an off-kilter man behind the curtain who makes eating an apple look menacing (Jonathan Majors), a tough-but-conflicted TVA hunter (Wunmi Mosaku), and even a suspiciously friendly Siri-like character called Miss Minutes (Tara Strong) to round things out. Everyone just seems like they’re having a lot of fun.
It’s also incredibly charming — not only the excellent cast, but the universe and aesthetic, from the 1970s-style retro-futurism to gorgeous alien worlds that look like a Roger Dean painting come to life. Things get pretty weird, like when you meet a whole gang of Lokis, including an alligator and a Loki who actually managed to survive to old age (played by a Richard E. Grant who looks like he’s having the time of his life). Loki is a mashup of sci-fi influences — you can see everything from Brazil to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — that, while not entirely unique, at least feels distinct from the rest of the MCU. It’s playful and heartfelt in equal measure, and it all looks really cool.
This idea of isolating from the rest of the Marvel universe isn’t completely new. It’s part of what made WandaVision so appealing — at least at first. The otherness of the show’s sitcom-inspired world was refreshing. But steadily, more MCU-like elements crept into Wanda’s fantasy, until the show felt like what it truly was: a continuation of the Avengers storyline. Loki is much more of its own thing. There are references to characters and plots, of course, but they feel secondary. And even when the show does reveal its bigger purpose within the machinations of the MCU (it introduces Majors’ character, Kang the Conqueror, who is set to appear in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania a few years from now), it doesn’t pull you out of the story. If you’re not up on Marvel lore, you probably won’t even realize what’s happening. Rather it feels like a natural setup for the now-confirmed season 2.
In fact, if you’re somehow new to this whole Marvel thing, I’d recommend Loki as the place to start. It’s the best of what the superhero genre has to offer without all of the homework.