A Marvel Series That Cares Little for Marvel’s Universe

For more than a decade, the studio’s films and shows have been paragons of careful continuity. So far, Loki does away with that.

Loki restrained by two guards from the TVA
Marvel Studios

This article contains mild spoilers for the first two episodes of Loki.

For 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe built up the Infinity Stones as objects of grand power, capable of manipulating all existence when united. In Avengers: Infinity War, they turned half of the cosmos to dust; in Avengers: Endgame, the surviving heroes chased them down across time. In Loki, the Disney+ series released today, they’re nothing more than colorful paperweights.

The cheeky gag befits a series about a trickster god, but it’s a surprising one for Marvel to pull. The studio has never dismissed its own storytelling this way—more than a dozen films insisted on the profundity of the stones. Yet in a single scene, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) learns that the objects he’s long sought—and by extension, the objects fans have long been conditioned to care about—are mere office supplies at the Time Variance Authority, the bureaucratic entity that has captured him. Not only that, but Loki’s told that the TVA controls time itself, and thus has “allowed” his every move. His actions have never been his own.

By placing a fan-favorite character in an unfamiliar world populated with unrecognizable characters, and then promptly introducing him to an existential crisis, Loki challenges Marvel’s tried-and-true formula of lighthearted action plus airtight continuity. Each of the studio’s films and TV shows has not only told its own story but made sure to connect to the others through shared characters, common settings, and scenes that advance an overarching narrative. WandaVision was stylistically weird as a sitcom pastiche, but the series remained tethered to the MCU’s conventions, as a dutiful sequel to Endgame and a precursor to the next Doctor Strange film. Loki, however, is neither epilogue nor prologue, at least not in the two episodes screened for critics; its structure, ideas, and visual language feel unconstrained by the MCU’s blueprint. Instead, the series traffics in true comic-book storytelling. It’s an experimental, self-contained, and thoroughly welcome reprieve.

After all, Hiddleston’s not even playing the Loki that audiences know, but a Loki “variant” from another timeline—in other words, a version of the villain without all of the MCU-imposed character development. He’s been boiled down to the central components of his personality—petulant, entitled, mischievous—and given room to be chameleonic as soon as the series begins. In Episode 1, he’s a fish out of water, verbally sparring with his handler, the TVA agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), in what amounts to a supervillain therapy session. In Episode 2, he becomes the TVA’s key to hunting down another Loki variant, putting on the guise of an untrustworthy informant. Plopping a well-defined character into audacious scenarios feels classically comic-book-ian: The younger Loki trying to prove that he can be redeemed in the Loki: Agent of Asgard comics is very different from the politician who campaigns on a platform of lies in the miniseries Vote Loki, for instance, but neither iteration abandons his impish core.

The look of the new Disney+ show, too, evokes comic-book versatility: The TVA’s headquarters is awash in mid-century-meets-futurist architecture, while its agents’ missions will take them to branched timelines riffing off the aesthetics of works such as Before Sunrise and Inglourious Basterds, according to the head writer Michael Waldron. As a result, the show looks nothing like previous Marvel properties.

Loki also complicates the MCU’s tendency to situate its central conflict between two characters who represent opposing values. In the show, Loki’s threatened not by a superhero but by another Loki version whose trickery he begrudgingly admires. And the greater threat appears to be the TVA itself: Everyone Loki meets at the organization comes off as somewhat inhuman—alien not just in lifestyle, but in personality. If even the wackiest MCU characters emanate some humanity, the TVA staff remain strangely apathetic, even cruel. One TVA captive gets disintegrated for arguing with an agent; the hunters—agents who prune the branches of errant timelines—use devices that wipe out all living things affected by a variant.

Such brutal efficiency, the show suggests, comes from the all-powerful nature of the Timekeepers, a trio of unseen figures who created every TVA agent and who keep the so-called Sacred Timeline intact. The administration’s staff worship the Timekeepers like gods, believing wholly in their mission to keep the flow of the universe’s events to one trajectory. The TVA conducts its affairs so tightly that an office drone Loki meets has never heard of a fish, and Mobius admits that he yearns to ride a jet ski but cannot for unspecified fears of damaging the timeline. These are small, seemingly throwaway revelations that ultimately feel more sinister than absurd. At the TVA, continuity is essential, but suffocating.

That’s a provocative idea from a studio that’s known for meticulously planning every step of its storytelling. And it’s a risky one: As much as Loki may buck tradition, it remains a Marvel show, watched by fans who celebrate that granular attention to the bigger picture. Waldron also worked on the script for the Doctor Strange sequel. The chances that this six-episode season eventually yields a tie-in to that Sacred MCU Timeline are high.

Yet two episodes in, Loki plants the idea that order as exemplified by the TVA—and in a meta way, by the MCU—is nowhere near as fun as leaning into the chaos of comic books. Whenever Loki disrupts the TVA’s strategy and encourages Mobius to tag along, he introduces a sense of play that Mobius begins to relish. Similarly, Loki, in drawing inspiration not from the established MCU method but from the looser narratives of comic books, feels like a refreshing reset for the franchise. The series indicates to fans that it might not be essential for everything to be thoroughly connected. Perhaps some stories can be enjoyed as, say, stand-alone variants.