This article contains light spoilers for the first two episodes of Loki on Disney+.
Loki is the story of a narrative loose end, a character in search of their own story.
Loki finds the title character (Tom Hiddleston) co-opted into the Time Variance Authority. The TVA is an organization that dedicates itself to the maintenance and preservation of “the sacred timeline” in keeping with the dictates of the Timekeepers. The organization believes that there is one true timeline, an arc of history that must be protected from potential disruption and interference. There is a way that things are meant to be, and the TVA polices that status quo.
Loki is obviously a time travel narrative. The series jumps through time, using helpful graphics situating the audience in the timeline. The version of Loki who appears in the show is not the same one that audiences followed through Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, but instead a time-displaced version from The Avengers who escaped into the timestream following the heroes’ meddling in Avengers: Endgame. As such, this Loki is something that should not exist.
However, as Loki digs into the title character, another idea comes to the fore. Loki is one of the most interesting and compelling characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he has never been a character in control of his own narrative. He has always been a supporting character, whether an antagonist in Thor and The Avengers or something more complicated in The Dark World and Ragnarok. He has always been a plot function and never the center of attention.
Marvel Studios traditionally introduces major characters independently before folding them into larger ensembles. The core cast of The Avengers were introduced in their own films: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. Although Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) was teased in the post-credits stinger of Avengers: Infinity War, she got her own solo movie in Captain Marvel before appearing as part of the larger universe in Avengers: Endgame.
There are exceptions. Spider-Man (Tom Holland) appeared in a supporting role in Captain America: Civil War before spinning off into Spider-Man: Homecoming, but Spider-Man is one of the most recognizable brands on the planet and so needed no introduction. Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) was also introduced in Civil War before starring in his solo movie. However, by and large, Marvel Studios likes to define its characters and their arcs before throwing them all together.
This puts Loki in a more unique position. Unlike the other major characters in the MCU, Loki has arguably only ever been defined in response to characters with greater agency within the narratives. As Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) points out, Loki is a character whose primary function is to fail in his evil plans “all so that others can achieve their best versions of themselves.” His villainy in Thor is what made Thor worthy. His invasion in The Avengers is what brought the Avengers together.
As if to underscore how beholden Loki is to others’ narratives, the show opens by replaying footage from Endgame that is itself restaging an unseen sequence from The Avengers. Mobius’ interview with Loki feels more like criticism than interrogation. Mobius boasts that he wants to figure out “what makes Loki tick.” He sits down in a “time theater” and plays back sequences from the previous Marvel movies in which Loki has appeared to try to figure out a consistent character arc.
Mobius watches footage from The Avengers and questions how that characterization fits within the God of Mischief’s larger arc. “I don’t see anything mischievous in this,” he remarks over footage of Loki tearing a man’s eye out with a sadistic grin on his face. It’s a fair criticism. Loki’s big speech about the evils of freedom delivered to a crowd in Germany before fighting Captain America (Chris Evans) would probably have been more in-character from the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
Loki is not the first time that the MCU has approached this question of Loki’s autonomy or agency. In Ragnarok, Thor chastised his brother for his unwillingness to grow and develop. “Oh brother, you’re becoming predictable,” Thor complains. “I trust you, you betray me. Round and round in circles we go.” He elaborates, “I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief, but you could be more.” The tension lies in whether Loki can be more.
Loki acknowledges that its title character borders on cliché. A recurring joke has Loki plotting to overthrow the Timekeepers and take control of the TVA for himself, a plot so transparent that Mobius has taken it for granted. When Mobius chides Loki for inevitably plotting to stab him in the back, Loki dismisses that as “such a boring form of betrayal” only for Mobius to point out that Loki has literally stabbed dozens of people in the back. It’s a familiar tune and a tired story.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe has been its unfortunate literal-mindedness when it comes to the more interesting and engaging aspects of its source material. This is arguably most obvious when looking at the treatment of the Asgardians in the Thor franchise. In the comics, they are literally gods. They are deities. They are legends manifesting on reality itself.
However, the MCU has largely treated the Asgardians as nothing more than sufficiently advanced aliens. Early sequences of Thor present the gods arriving on Earth as “ancient astronauts.” While investigating evidence of Asgardian magic in Arizona, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) references science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, “Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.” When Thor describes the Bifrost and the rainbow bridge, Jane reframes it as “an Einstein-Rosen bridge.”
Many of the more interesting comic book portrayals of the Asgardians, including those from which Loki draws, have treated the Asgardians as stories. They are narratives conjured into being by those who worship them and confined by the limitations of the mythologies in which they find themselves. That gives Loki considerable power as the Lord of Lies. “What’s a lie?” asked the character towards the end of Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s Loki: Agent of Asgard. “A lie is a story told. That’s all.”
Loki is built around this idea. After all, the comic book version of the Time Variance Authority was set up to monitor the internal continuity of the shared comic book universe, with Mobius drawn to resemble in-house continuity expert Mark Gruenwald. They aren’t actually preserving the timeline but preserving the story, as they make the point that they didn’t interfere in the time travel shenanigans of Endgame because that was “supposed to” happen.
The TVA is framed as a religious institution. The timeline is described as “sacred.” Mobius worships the Timekeepers, the beings who created him for that purpose. As Loki points out, this is not rational or scientific. Mobius responds, “The TVA is my life, and it’s real because I believe it’s real.” The question of free will comes up repeatedly over the course of Loki — whether the characters make any real choices or whether their actions are the result of the narratives in which they find themselves.
This is obviously an idea with considerable metaphorical weight. The TVA are effectively curating “the canon,” using their power to determine which stories matter and which stories don’t. There’s something appealing in the idea of Loki as a piece that doesn’t fit, a character who makes no sense, a dangling thread that refuses to be cut. In some ways, the TVA feels like an extension of the suffocating suburban conformity suggested in WandaVision.
The core question of Loki is whether Loki has any agency as a character or if he is destined to remain a supporting character in others’ stories. He initially tries to weasel his way out of trouble by shifting blame to the Avengers. “We’re not here to talk about the Avengers,” Judge Ravonna Lexus Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) cautions him. However, she also is quick to warn him, “It’s not your story, Mister Laufeyson. It never was.” It’s a line that sets up a compelling conflict for the series.
Loki suggests that maybe the God of Mischief can finally wrest control of his own narrative.