Updated at 2:04 p.m. ET on June 14, 2021.
In the first episode of Loki, the trickster god of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—last seen escaping in a time-travel snafu during Avengers: Endgame—is captured and taken to a mysterious hinterland that exists outside of time and space and resembles nothing so much as a mushroom-colored 1970s airport. The walls are paneled in wood. The ceiling, covered in hundreds of circular light fixtures, stretches vastly into the distance, its composition pure Kubrick. Against this backdrop, a surly agent tells Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) to take a ticket and join the line. “There’s only two of us in here,” he replies, chafing at the order. “Take. A. Ticket,” the guard spits.
This claustrophobically bureaucratic place is the Time Variance Authority, a nontemporal zone set up to stamp out any time-travel shenanigans that threaten the integrity of the “sacred timeline.” The MCU has sent its heroes and antiheroes hurtling through space; it’s set them up as gladiators on garbage planets; it’s had them absorb the heat of stars and channel the power of the entire universe. But it has never, even in all of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s most twisted visions, sent them to the DMV. Until now. The setup is darkly funny: The MCU’s most chaotic and arrogant character, the one most resistant to any kind of authority, has found himself condemned to a purgatory of sign-in sheets, plexiglass tyrants, and piped-in Muzak. For Loki, it’s pure hell.
Loki is the third Marvel TV show to debut on Disney+ this year, following the emotive, experimental WandaVision and the earnest-but-uninspiring The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Early reviews have praised the quirky chemistry between Loki and his TVA handler, Mobius (Owen Wilson), along with the series’s breeziness and sense of humor. But the show’s unmistakably dystopian, sci-fi aesthetic, in which cityscapes fade into nothingness in infinite shades of brown, suggests that the TVA might be more malign than it seems. There are other allusions to autocracy too: In the scene where Loki resentfully accepts his ticket, framed posters on the walls bear graphic eyes that represent an all-seeing police state, and cheerfully menacing slogans: BEHAVE OR GET YOUR CLOCK CLEANED. In Loki’s first interaction with a TVA officer, she hits him in the face with a baton and then slows time to one-16th of its normal pace to prolong his pain.
The show’s optical grandeur and sinister bureaucratic elements are products of Kate Herron’s vision. The 32-year-old from southeast London was working as a temp for a fire-extinguisher company when she was hired as a director on the Netflix series Sex Education; Loki is her first major solo project. When she was in talks for the job, she presented bosses at Marvel with what amounted to a lengthy PowerPoint presentation on what she thought the show should be: the architecture of the TVA, the show’s music, even the dynamics of Loki’s character arc over the past 10 years. “I knew I was pitching them something that was stylistically a little bit different to what they’d done before,” she told me over Zoom. The aesthetic she had in mind was partly inspired by the Brutalist architecture in the area where she grew up, which has played a backdrop to dystopian classics including A Clockwork Orange and Children of Men.
The greatest challenge, she said, was the question of “how to capture this infinite space that is outside of time,” the alternate realm where the TVA exists. “It’s not a planet. There’s no sun. It’s almost a Vegas-like office city in a sense.” She pulled ideas from Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 absurdist sci-fi about a man trapped in a bureaucratic dystopia; from the 1927 German expressionist drama Metropolis, set in a futuristic megacity; and from Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi neo-noir, Blade Runner. Loki’s faded monochrome palette instantly sets it apart from other Marvel projects—instead of the technicolor pop of an Avengers movie or the vivid blues and whites of outer space, the series envelops viewers in discordant earth hues, brown on beige on umber. A rare note of color comes when Loki spies handfuls of discarded Infinity Stones in a desk drawer, a visual hint that the way power operates within the TVA is completely alien to how it’s always functioned in the MCU.
The tone is jaunty across the first two episodes, in large part because the character as written by the head writer, Michael Waldron, is so reliably brash and unfazed by any obstacle. But the TVA’s quietly sinister design hints at darker twists ahead. Nexus Events Must Be Pruned, another poster within the agency reads, referring to time-travel incidents that might cause fractures in time by setting off alternate branches of reality; viewers can only speculate what that “pruning” entails. When Loki tells Agent Mobius that “this place is a nightmare,” Mobius replies, “That’s another department.” The justice system within which Loki is tried is perfunctory and immutable; he stands to either be sentenced to stay forever in this perpetual officescape of retro technology and futuristic torture, or be liquidated for his crimes.
Loki’s distorted understanding of time uncannily captures the mood of the past year or so, and its odd ability to make months feel like eons and weeks like years. Herron left England when she was hired on Loki in 2019 and flew to Los Angeles, then Atlanta, where, to her surprise, she ended up staying for two years, after the pandemic shut filming down. The unexpected extra time left her with more opportunities to dive into scenes that had already been filmed, and to reexamine characters and tone. Loki seems likely to endure his new setting, given the nature of franchises and the fact that the show is named after him. But, Herron said, the world around him is newly unpredictable. “The TVA is a rug pull,” she said. “Everything people thought had power or held power in the MCU is actually very different now. It’s a new playing field.”