Loki introduces the Time Variance Authority in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it has ramifications for the canon.
The TVA is an ancient organization that works outside the ordinary flow of time to preserve “the sacred timeline” and to trim variants and branching universes. As a helpful introductory video explains, there is one true timeline of events, and the TVA operates to ensure that events flow as they should. Ironically, this also includes time travel itself. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) argues that the Avengers meddled with time in Avengers: Endgame, he is told that they were “supposed to.”
The central metaphor of Loki can be read in a variety of interesting ways. Loki’s journey to defy his destiny and validate his own existence is a classic story of self-actualization and self-determination. Loki’s efforts to step outside the narrative role defined for him can also play as meta-textual commentary on the agency of supporting characters in these sprawling narratives. However, Loki also presents itself as a metaphor for where the MCU finds itself at this moment in time.
Loki is streaming in a lacuna. Black Widow is currently scheduled to release in cinemas in July, and it is already the longest gap between the release of MCU films. Still, even without the unexpected delays caused by pandemic, Marvel Studios was entering a new phase. After all, Endgame had been a massive cultural phenomenon and culmination of over a decade of storytelling. There was a strong sense that the company couldn’t follow it by just offering more of the same.
The next slate of MCU films was not going to be a direct continuation of the same arc. Spider-Man: Far From Home was essentially an extended coda to Endgame, dealing with the fallout from that film. Black Widow will be a prequel movie, spotlighting a character who died in Endgame. Chloe Zhao’s The Eternals will span “tens of thousands of years.” Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will essentially reboot the Mandarin (Tony Leung) from Iron Man 3.
This happened in parallel with the development of shows like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for the streaming platform Disney+. While much of these shows served as extended trailers for upcoming movies, there is an interesting recurring through line simmering across these projects. Marvel seems to be suggesting that maybe fans shouldn’t treat concepts like continuity and canon as inherently sacred.
One of the defining attributes of the MCU has been its internal continuity, the care with which the franchise has constructed a single expansive narrative across an ongoing series of films, with characters popping across movies as necessary and little hints from earlier entries paying off in later installments. While there’s a tendency to overstate the intricacy of that internal continuity, particularly when it comes to the more marginal spin-offs and internal recasting, it is still impressive.
However, at a certain point, continuity becomes constricting and suffocating. There is occasionally just too much “stuff” to catch up with. Kids who weren’t even born when Iron Man was released are now on the cusp of high school. Adults who were just on the younger edge of the key 25-39 audience demographic are now on the other side of it. At a certain point, even the act of keeping up with all this content threatens to feel like homework.
Of course, this isn’t the classic “superhero fatigue” argument. The box office numbers for Spider-Man: Far From Home and what streaming metrics exist for WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suggest that audiences are years away from that. Still, there’s precedent for what happens when a company doesn’t stay on top of this situation: look at the decades of soft and hard reboots from comic book publishers like DC and Marvel trying to tame unruly superhero continuity.
There are other reasons why a more relaxed approach to continuity might appeal to Marvel Studios. Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox brought properties like the Fantastic Four and X-Men home to the company, and it would be difficult to retroactively incorporate such core intellectual properties into existing continuity. Branching outwards would also allow the studio to nostalgically cash in on earlier superhero films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Bryan Singer’s X-Men.
Loki and the other streaming shows on Disney+ all appear to be grappling with the weight of continuity and canon. WandaVision is about many things, including the suffocating conformity of sitcom nostalgia, but it also captures a sense of the MCU itself. Rebecca Alter argued convincingly that WandaVision could be read as a metacommentary on the “Marvel fanboys’” who have “taken culture hostage and they’ve trapped everything in this reality bubble and roped every creator and every viewer into it.”
While the show suffers from a failure to advance its arguments in any substantive way, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also feels like metacommentary on the characters who had been forced to the margins of the films. The series offered more space to previously supporting players like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), and Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) while also drawing in the real history that the early films had avoided.
This all comes to a head in Loki, in which the title character is confronted with a fascistic organization that works to maintain the purity of “the sacred timeline,” the way that things have always been and are always meant to be. The armored soldiers of the TVA are just a more openly aggressive twist on the monstrous oppression that Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) inflicted on Westview. They dictate how things should be and will remove any personal agency or autonomy to maintain that status quo.
The TVA in Loki is an obvious metaphor for the art of protecting and curating “the true canon.” After all, veteran TVA operative Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) is consciously styled after veteran Marvel writer and editor Mark Gruenwald. The story of the TVA is the story of a particular strain of fandom, with battles over competing continuities eventually giving rise to a single true timeline of events. It is made explicit that this timeline is the MCU leading up to Endgame. It is the continuity of the MCU.
Loki repeatedly likens the protection of continuity to religion. This makes sense even outside of Loki’s status as a god, given the origins of the term “canon.” At one point in the first episode, Loki’s trial is cut against Mobius’ visit to a crime scene in a church. The depiction of biblical imagery of stained glass windows in the church is contrasted with murals depicting the mythic Timekeepers taking control of the timeline that decorate the courtroom. Statues of the Timekeepers loom like angels.
The continuity that the Timekeepers have created is described as “the sacred timeline.” Mobius’ belief in the Timekeepers and the mission of the TVA is repeatedly framed in religious terms. Loki questions Mobius’ refusal to challenge those who gave him life and purpose, and Mobius responds that “it’s real because (he believes) it’s real.” It recalls the “quasi-religious fervor” that defines a certain kind of modern fandom, a reminder of the origins of the term “fan” in the word “fanatic.”
The TVA in Loki is ultimately just an expression and manifestation of the same impulses that drive certain segments of fandom to demand that movies they don’t like be removed from the canon, that power fantasy of serving as the ultimate gatekeeper of what “matters” and what doesn’t get to exist within “the sacred timeline.” Loki is still in its opening act, but the show suggests the audience should be wary of such an institution. After all, they are introduced trying to erase the show’s title character.
This is a distinct approach, particularly given the ways in which Disney has found a way to monetize this continuity fetishism, using both spoiler phobia and the canon as marketing gimmicks to drive online interest. As with both WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier before it, it seems unlikely that Loki will settle on the most radical conclusion to these themes. It is entirely possible that Loki will broach these bold ideas only for the larger universe to retreat from them.
It is also entirely possible that the Loki endgame might be the fracturing of the sacred timeline, leading to a wave of movies like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man 3, only to ultimately settle on the creation of “an even sacred-er timeline” canon that conveniently folds in all the useful intellectual property, offers a soft reboot, but which promises a continuity that will be both loosely connected to and just as curated as the continuity that preceded it.
That would be a shame, as these sorts of characters and projects are most interesting when they stray from the one chosen path. It might be worth adding a little (God of) mischief to the multiverse.