Television

The Loki Finale Proves Marvel’s TV Shows Are Already in a Rut

The series remade a charming villain as a dull, passive hero.

Loki and Sylvie, holding swords.
Loki (right), with Loki. Marvel Studios

Perhaps it’s in character that Loki is ultimately a little bit of a letdown. The new series, which just wrapped its six-episode first season, has certainly conjured up some memorable moments, as well as breaking free of the anodyne quality that can plague some of Marvel’s larger efforts (the score, by Nathalie Holt, and the show’s visual design are standouts). But it doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing, as its finale exposes the same weakness that the Marvel series that preceded it—WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier—have both been hobbled by. At the end of the day, the series’ primary purpose is to serve as connective tissue. And what’s worse, the show also neuters its lead character’s appeal.

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Since being introduced in Thor, Loki has been both a fan favorite and one of the biggest villains (turned antihero, in more recent installments) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s easy to understand why he’s so beloved—beyond being portrayed by the innately charming Tom Hiddleston, Loki falls into the tantalizing category of being misunderstood. The amount of trouble he causes is made at least partially forgivable given the fact that, rather than being a stoic, Thanos-esque villain, Loki had a sense of humor and roguishness appropriate for his position as the God of Mischief.

Loki the show puts Loki the god into the tough position of being the hero. Despite being the show’s titular character, he’s rendered relatively passive, as things largely happen to him rather than because of him. Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), essentially a female version of Loki plucked from an alternate reality, plays a more active part in attempting to unravel the mystery of the Time Variance Authority, but as a character, she falls flat. Having been on the run her whole life, charm is less a part of her personality, and she’s so single-minded that even the series’ ultimate villain, a multiversal version of Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), the MCU’s new Big Bad, calls her out on it. To further deaden the effect of their bond, as they grow close to each other, both Lokis are guilty of a degree of showing, not telling, that feels almost laughable. Lines like, “I betrayed everyone who ever loved me,” and, “You can’t trust, I can’t be trusted,” feel like being knocked over the head—these are already things that we understand to be integral to the character of “Loki,” and making them explicit, speaking the subtext out loud, renders the effect of the realizations inert.

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Even the dynamics of what makes their rapport so interesting—the idea that Loki would be so selfish and narcissistic as to fall in love with himself, and Sylvie’s protest that she isn’t a Loki—end up feeling either watered down or abandoned. By the end of the series, Sylvie seems to have no problem being perceived as a Loki, and their relationship, though they do share a kiss, never really feels as taboo and strange as the TVA’s Mobius suggests it to be. Why is that? Well, because Loki’s primary purpose isn’t truly to finally give its main character the space to explore his inner life—if anything, the first episode is where that particular motor sputters out—but to set the stage for what’s to come in the next Ant-Man and Doctor Strange movies. Can’t have a Multiverse of Madness without introducing the multiverse first, right?

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Ultimately, Loki’s most fascinating episodes are when some new concept is introduced, whether it’s the reveal of the TVA’s true nature or the gaggle of Lokis in the series’ fifth episode. The scenes with the apoca-Lokis are a particular standout, as their costume choices and weaving dialogue establishes several strong characters with a deftness that’s lacking in the more franchise-centric goings-on. Classic Loki, Boastful Loki, and Kid Loki, as they’re so dubbed, arrive like bombs of fun upon the screen. (Richard E. Grant, as Classic Loki, is particularly wonderful, and the one character who brought me close to shedding a tear over a Loki’s fate.) They’re not so tied to moving the Marvel-verse forward—one of them bites the dust within the hour, after all—and are freer to be closer to the Loki we first came to know and love. (Even watching Loki have to deal with his other selves and confront his worse tendencies in the process feels better executed here than in his conflicts with Sylvie.)

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At the end of the day, the big new thing that Loki really builds up to Kang. The series’ ending makes that abundantly clear, as a sorrowful moment in which Loki reflects upon Sylvie’s betrayal is quickly overshadowed by the realization that, because of what she’s done, he has entered into a timeline where Kang is indeed a much larger, presumably malevolent force, and where Mobius no longer recognizes him. Loki is just a means to a Kang end. Not all mid-franchise movies or series feel so much like bridges, but all of the ones Marvel has debuted on Disney Plus have fallen into the same kind of trap. Both WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier presented interesting, fresh ways of considering their characters, with Wanda navigating her grief through recreating old TV shows, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier trying to come to terms with what a new Captain America would be, but both devolved into the same kind of set-up that Loki does. In trying to piece together the bigger picture, their individual installments are losing steam.

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