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Loki is streaming on Disney+.

WandaVision, the first Disney+/Marvel show, took place in an enclosed pocket universe created as a side-effect of the cosmic-scale events of big-screen Marvel movies, and gave players undervalued in ensemble pieces a worthy showcase. Loki takes an opposite approach: it is set across all space and time in what is soon to become a multiverse as ‘the sacred timeline’ breaks down (somewhat pre-empted by 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), allowing for the co-existence of multiple incarnations of characters and the replay of familiar scenarios with different outcomes. By these means, the overall franchise could offer something worthy of being called an Infinity War, rather than just hoping audiences think that sounds cool but aren’t too worried about what such a conflict might actually entail.

Instead of promoting second-tier characters like Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision, this series takes the more obviously appealing (but actually trickier) tack of giving a vehicle to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, the Asgardian god of mischief who has proved a reliable scene-stealer in Thor and Avengers movies.

Making an edgy outsider the centre of a story often means filing off the rough edges that made them interesting in the first place, but this show backtracks on that by picking up from a moment in Avengers: Endgame (2019) where the heroes change the established past. This makes Loki a target of the Time Variance Authority, a vast beige bureaucracy charged with eliminating such continuity errors, operating at such a level of omnipotence that infinity stones (the all-powerful macguffins of several phases of the MCU) are used as paperweights.

Apprehended, Loki is forced to watch highlights of films in which he softened, mended relationships with his adoptive family, and ultimately died doing the right thing. Not an easy scene for Hiddleston to play or the casual viewer to parse, it establishes that this Loki – the Loki of Loki – is a fresh character (a ‘variant’, in the TVA’s terms) and pursuing a different character path. The death of Rene Russo’s Frigga in the little-liked Thor: The Dark World back in 2013 is again a character-forming linch-pin, equivalent to what happened to Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben – though the question of what trauma makes a Loki, a feature of Norse mythology well before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came along, remains up for debate.

Owen Wilson as Mobius M. Mobius and Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Loki (2021)

Series ‘creator’ Michael Waldron, who has also scripted the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and British director Kate Herron, whose primary mission seems to be bringing the mischief and a Kirby-like sense of cosmic awe, experiment with ways to build a series around a villain as opposed to a hero.

At first, we have a literal illustration of the saw about setting a thief to catch a thief, with a straight-arrow police force needing Loki to track down a version of himself more committed to murder than mischief. In mismatched-partners mode, a warm, witty relationship springs up between the cynical, knowing, silver-tongued rogue and the idealistic yet not naive time policeman Mobius M. Mobius (a laid-back Owen Wilson).

Here, we get sparkling exchanges delivered by actors with very different but appealing styles. A prince of lies promises faithfully “not to stab you in the back” only to be rebuked with “You’ve literally done that, like, twenty-five times.” Loki footnotes that he now thinks backstabbing is too clichéd a mode of betrayal to bother with, which prompts Mobius to remind him that the Avengers formed to avenge Loki’s stabbing of someone (who, in a TV series on another network, turned out not to be dead – but let’s not go there), perhaps forcing him to consider the consequences of such villainy for his own cause.

Then, as the case gets more complicated, it becomes apparent that the TVA has a sinister side. The Loki variant set up as the series’ first Big Bad not only has a great deal of right on her side, but might even be “the better Loki” Mobius has hoped our Loki – or at least this Loki – might become. As Hiddleston threatened to steal Thor from the god of thunder, now Sophia Di Martino – formerly of Casualty and other bread-and-butter British TV gigs – gets a chance to match and perhaps outshine him as Sylvie, a spirited yet sly female Loki who is not only a plausible heroine but possibly the only love interest a complete narcissist can have. And that’s even before Richard E. Grant turns up in a splendid Jack Kirby head-piece as ‘classic Loki’. 

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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