“Glorious Purpose”, the first episode of Loki, Disney’s latest Marvel related TV offering, became available for streaming today. I’m not sure if I’ll do episode by episode reviews of this one, because it’s a lot of work, but here are my thoughts on the premiere.
Warning! Spoilers behind the cut!
The first scene of Loki takes us back to 2012 and the events of the first Avengers movie and Loki’s failed bid for world domination via siccing the Chitauri on Lower Manhattan as well as the events of Avengers: Endgame, where the Avengers meddle with those events to acquire the Infinity Stones and undo the Thanos snap, which accidentally leads to Loki picking up the Tesseract and absconding with it.
However, Loki doesn’t get far. He teleports to the Mongolian steppes, tries and fails to impress some local women and is interrupted when a portal opens and several people in riot gear emerge, led by Wunmi Mosaku, whose character is only credited as Hunter B-15. They quickly grab the Tesseract and arrest Loki. B-15 puts a time control collar on him, too, just before punching him and then slowing down the time.
Next, Loki finds himself taken to the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare of the Time Variance Authority, TVA for short. The TVA does exist in the comics, though it’s one of the more obscure organisations in the Marvel universe. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw explains the comics background of the TVA and the characters associated with it at The Daily Dot.
Since the TVA is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, Loki is subjected to various humiliating treatments. He had his signature green and gold leather outfit disintegrated by a multi-pronged robot, giving us a glimpse of Tom Hiddleston naked with the not safe for Disney Plus parts hidden by strategically placed machinary and proving that while he’s no Thor, Loki is pretty well built himself. We don’t get to enjoy the view for long though, before Loki is stuffed into a shapeless prison overall. He’s then told to sign a stack of papers (that seems a lot smaller than it should be, considering that Loki is hundreds of years old and someone who loves to talk) recording everything he’s ever said. Next he’s asked to confirm that to the best of his knowledge he’s not a robot, before walking through some kind of metal detector-like device. “Are there people who do not know they’re robots?” an irritated Loki replies, before briefly wondering what would happen if he were a robot and did not know it. Finally, Loki and another TVA prisoner are told to take a ticket and stand in line in ridiculously oversized cordoned off waiting area. “There are only two of us here”, Loki points out, but then he witnesses the other prisoner (we never learn his name or crime, only that he is on the board of Goldman-Sachs, which is probably enough to convince us that this guy is guilty of whatever he’s been accused of) being disintegrated and shuts up.
At this point, everybody who has ever had to deal with senseless bureaucracy (and that’s literally everybody) will sympathise with Loki’s snarky replies and his barely veiled desire to just punch the whole TVA in the face. Particularly the “Are you, to the best of your knowledge, not a robot?” bit reminded me of when I went to the dentist to have a tooth extracted, which broke off, requiring surgery and three X-rays in a day. And every single time, the X-Ray technician dutifully asked me if I was pregnant (a question which so outraged me the first time I was asked it at about age 14 that I snapped at the technician, “No, of course not. What do you take me for? Do you think I’m a slut?”). By the third time, I was so exasperated that I snapped, “No, and I haven’t gotten pregnant in the forty-five minutes since someone last asked me that either.”
But there are still more humiliations in store for our favourite Asgardian/Forst Giant hybrid. Because during the waiting period, Loki – and the audience – are treated to an explanation of what the TVA is and does courtesy of a talking clock named Miss Minutes in a 1960s style cartoon public service announcement. The Miss Minutes clips captures the midcentury cartoon look with absolute perfection. I immediately was reminded of the “HB Männchen”, the beloved quick-tempered advertising mascot of the HB cigarette brand, which starred in many cartoon ad clips in from the late 1950s throughout the 1970s. And considering that the HB Männchen may well be the most prolific serial killer in postwar Germany (how many people started smoking in response to those cutesy ads, which portray cigarettes as the solution to all problems, and subsequently got ill?), I for one wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be a time criminal as well.
And so Miss Minutes sums up several decades of Marvel Comics lore in a brief cartoon by explaining that once there was a massive multiverse war between different timelines and universes. In response, the Time-Keepers emerged and founded the TVA to maintain the sacred timeline and prevent the creation of Jonbar points (not that they use that term) and new parallel timelines by eliminating temporal variants like Loki and the unnamed Goldman-Sachs dude. The cartoon promises that the variants will be returned to their original timeline after their trial, though it quickly becomes apparent that they will simply be disintegrated.
Time agents and time cops charged with preserving and protecting the integrity of the timeline are an old concept in science fiction. Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time from 1938 is the earliest take on that particular subject I’m aware of. Isaac Asimov’s 1955 novel The End of Eternity was my first contact with the idea and literally blew my mind. It was my favourite novel as a teenager to the point that I pushed it into the hands of everybody I met and told them to read it, because it would change their life (most people were just annoyed). I still have a soft spot for The End of Eternity, though I no longer force random people to read it. Ever since then, time cops and time agents have popped up in various places from Star Trek and Doctor Who (Captain Jack Harkness was a time agent the first time we met him and ironically inspired by Marvel’s Agatha Harkness, so it’s been “Agatha All Along” once again) via DC’s Rip Hunter and the Time Masters and the Hazel and Cha Cha from The Umbrella Academy to last year’s Hugo-winning novella This Is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. Do they all work for the Time Variance Authority? It’s possible.
This is as good a time as any to talk about the visual aesthetics of Loki, which are absolutely gorgeous. The look of the TVA headquarters is part Verner Panton’s 1969 furnishings for the Spiegel publishing house in Hamburg (both the TVA headquarters and the Spiegel cantina even use Harry Bertoia’s famous wire chair, which you can still buy from Knoll International), part Brazil , part Socialist realism and Soviet era propaganda art (the murals and the courtroom) and part every school or university built in the late 1960s/early 1970s ever. Guardian reviewer Andy Welch points out the Mad Men style 1960s aesthetics of the episode and invokes famous midcentury designer Dieter Rams (I didn’t spot any of his designs, though there are a lot of midcentury design classics in view, e.g. the above mentioned wire chair and a spherical Keracolor TV set). Andy Welch also notes that the TVA scenes were shot at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Atlanta (built in 1985), which is a popular filming location. AV Club reviewer Caroline Siede also draws the comparison with Brazil.
Loki doesn’t have much time to take everything in, though, before he taken to his trial presided over by Ravonna Renslayer, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. It is notable that except for Owen Wilson, all main characters in this episode are played by British actors. Gugu Mbatha-Raw even gained some time travel experience in Doctor Who way back during the David Tennant era. When asked whether he pleads “guilty” or “not guilty”, Loki points out that he didn’t mess up the timeline, the Avengers did. And yes, he knows that they time-travelled, because Tony Stark’s aftershave is unmistakable and he smelled it twice. Ravonna points out that the Avengers did exactly what they were supposed to do (which begets the question why the TVA didn’t stop Thanos before he snapped half the universe out of existence). Loki, on the other hand, was not supposed to escape.
Just before Loki can be found guilty and sentenced to disintegration, he is granted a stay of execution by the intervention of a TVA agent named Mobius M. Mobius, played by Owen Wilson. Mobius M. Mobius is another established character from the comics, whose appearance was modelled after Marvel writer and editor Mark Gruenwald, who sadly died 25 years ago, aged only 43, and so never got to see himself played by Owen Wilson.
Agent Mobius has a problem. For TVA agents are being attacked and killed throughout history by a particularly dangerous Time Variant and their time reset cannisters are being stolen. When we first meet Mobius, he is investigating the aftermath of such an attack in a cathedral in Aix-en-Provence in 16th century France. The attack left several TVA agents dead. When Mobius questions the sole witness, a street urchin, who killed the TVA agents, the kid points at a stained glass window portraying the devil and a devil that looks remarkably like Marvel’s version of Mephisto at that. Mephisto was widely expected to pop up in WandaVision, which never happened, so maybe he’ll make his TV debut in Loki instead. Or maybe it’s all a misdirection. Because the kid also shows Mobius a gift that the devil gave him, a very anachronistic pack of chewing gum. And Marvel’s Mephisto isn’t really the type to hand out candy.
Mobius now wants Loki’s help in apprehending the devilish time agent killer. But first he wants to see what makes Loki tick. Loki tells Mobius that he was born to rule Earth, Asgard and the universe and tries to give him a variation of the “free will makes people unhappy” speech from Avengers. But Mobius isn’t buying any of that, so he subjects Loki – and the viewer – to a replay of Loki’s greatest hits. We see Loki losing to the Avengers, we see Phil Coulson get killed yet again (nothing about his resurrection though), we see Loki in a cell in Asgard and we see Frigga getting killed (which was partly Loki’s fault, as Mobius helpfully points out), which does affect Loki, because we know that his adoptive mother is probably the person he cares most about in the universe.
The bulk of the episode is actually made up of Tom Hiddleston sitting in a room – with or without Owen Wilson – watching clips from old Marvel movies, probably to introduce new viewers to the character’s rather tangled history, since the Disney+ Marvel shows are also marketed to and aimed at people who’ve never seen a Marvel movie before. Especially WandaVision, not the easiest introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, had a high percentage of viewers who were new to Marvel.
Basically, “Glorious Purpose” is the Marvel equivalent to what we used to call a “cheapie episode” back in the day, but which is apparently called “clip show” now, an episode that largely consists of clips of other episodes with some kind of framing device thrown in. Of course, few clip shows ever look as good as “Glorious Purpose” – there is a reason we used to call them “cheapie episodes”. Still, it takes some balls to use one of the most disliked TV episode formats of all time as the premiere of a brand-new and very expensive streaming video show. It’s the sort of thing only Marvel and maybe Star Wars can do and get away with.
Of course, it helps that Tom Hiddleston is incredibly charismatic and one of those actors you would watch reading the phone book. It also helps that Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson have great chemistry with each other. This is not the first time they’ve appeared on screen together BTW. Ten years ago, shortly before the first Thor film came out and catapulted Tom Hiddleston to stardom, he played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s time travel movie Midnight in Paris, which starred Owen Wilson.
And indeed, Guardian reviewer Lucy Mangan and Daily Dot reviewer Gavia Baker-Whitelaw note that even though “Glorious Purpose” looks – well – glorious, not a lot happens except that Mobius gives us a recap of Loki’s history. We do get a bit of new info, namely that the infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper, who hijacked a plane in 1971, demanded the then princely sum of 200000 USD ransom and parachuted out of the plane into the wilderness of Washington State never to be seen again, was none other than Loki (so it was not Mad Men‘s Don Draper, as was rumoured for a while). And why did he hijack a plane? Well, turns out that he lost a bet with Thor. We know that the FBI exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I do think Thor and Loki should apologise to them for all the resources wasted in tracking D.B. Cooper.
Loki also escapes for a while and even regains the Tesseract, only to find that a) it doesn’t work at the TVA headquarters and b) Infinity Stones are nothing special for the TVA, they have lots of them lying around in a drawer and use them as paperweights. This more than anything humbles Loki, so that he voluntarily returns to the room to watch the end of the highlights of his life. He watches Odin die, which clearly affects him, and then watches himself die at the hand of Thanos. Considering that as far as Loki is concerned, he was working for Thanos only a few hours ago (though I don’t remember if Loki even knew that he was working for Thanos or whether he only met the Alexis Denisoff character who was his emissary) that’s got to sting.
Mobius also delivers the devastating news that Loki doesn’t actually have a glorious purpose of his own. He merely exists as a foil to help others (Thor, the Avengers) fulfill their glorious purpose. That line also sums up the way the Marvel movies often treat their villains, namely as disposable antagonists intended to initiate character development in the heroes. This is also why so many of the Marvel villains, even those played by top flight actors, are ultimately forgettable. Because they were never the point of the story. Loki is something of an exception here, because he was brought back again and again (he has supposedly died on screen three times by now, which is almost Jean Grey record), largely because Tom Hiddleston’s natural charisma made him a fan favourite. Whereas no one remembers Obadiah Stane, Whiplash, Ghost, Yellowjacket, Dormanu and a dozen other lesser Marvel villains.
Finally, Mobius gets Loki to admit why he does what he does. He doesn’t really like to hurt people (which will be a great consolation to Phil Coulson and Hawkeye, I’m sure), he just wants to make them fear him, because he feels powerless and weak. It’s the classic psychology of the bully, except that I’m not sure if it really applies to Loki. Because I’ve always viewed him as someone who is acts out, because he’s desperate for attention from Thor and Odin. Both Thor and Odin clearly care about Earth, so Earth often gets caught in the crossfire. Loki’s “I don’t want to play anymore, let’s have a drink” reaction at the end of Avengers confirms this. He really doesn’t get why everbody is so upset.
That said, I’m also not sure if it was a good idea to set Loki directly after the events in Avengers, undoing much of a character development he received in latter movies. Because Joss Whedon portrayed Loki far more as a one-dimensional psychopath than the writers of the various Thor movies.
Once he’s broken down Loki, Mobius also reveals why he wants Loki’s help. Because he believes that the dangerous temporal varient he’s been tracking, the one who’s been murdering TVA agents, is none other than another version of Loki. This is unexpected, though the devil imagery could also refer to Loki’s horned helmet. And handing candy to a random urchin is far more a Loki thing than a Mephisto thing.
The last scene shows the dangerous variant striking again, this time by luring some TVA agents to 19th century Oklahoma and setting them on fire. We even see the variant, though he or she is wearing a hooded cloak.
So far, Loki looks really stunning and is also a lot of fun, even though very little happened in the first episode. I guess the next episode gets into the meat of the story. So far, Loki is more offbeat than the fairly conventional Falcon and the Winter Soldier, though whether it will be as delightfully weird as WandaVision remains to be seen. If nothing else, Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson should ensure a fun ride through time.