A grand whodunnit through time and space: Thoughts on Loki

(image courtesy IMP Awards (c) Marvel/Disney)

Character is king, queen, lord, lady and any other top of the heap appellation you might dream up when it comes to storytelling.

You can have your bangs and your booms, your breathtaking action sequences with the dial up as high as it’ll go and your full speed ahead, pedal to the metal narrative screams forward but leave out great characterisation and you have a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing much at all.

Entertaining though they are as diversionary pieces of entertainment, Marvel hasn’t always fully understood that lesson; sure their films have been bathed to an extent in emotional resonance and moments of vulnerable introspection but you often got the film that the main driver was the next big battle and character was almost entirely enthrall to that.

Not a problem necessarily since superhero films are geared to epic spactacle by their very nature, but in Loki, Marvel, which has also had a magnificent character-driven win this year with WandaVision, they prove beyond a doubt that you can invest a significant amount of screen time in your characters and lost not one iota of compelling narrative vivacity.

Loki, starring Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous god of mischief and the bane at times of his brother Thor, is such a good piece of character-driven storytelling that there are many times when you simply back in awe and appreciation at how well the writers developed on their brief.

The premise is as simple as it engagingly loopy.

Loki, who seizes the chance to steal the Tesseract during the momentous events of Avengers: Endgame, finds himself spirited away to the retro weirdness of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a somewhat authoritarian outfit of true believers whose sole aim, which they prosecute with zealous intent, is to keep the Sacred Timeline intact.

Consumed by fear of the chaos that would, they are told by the three Timekeepers who oversee the whole operation, if the Sacred Timeline was to devolve back into multiverse acrimony and confusion, they take anyone into custody who dares to break free from their assigned path and ensure they can’t do any harm to the unity of the assigned and carefully-controlled flow of time.

image courtesy IMP Awards (c) Marvel/Disney)

But one person’s sacred task is another person’s act of state-sanctioned terrorism, and as Loki begins to understand what it is the TVA does, thanks to his interrogation by Agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson), he comes to realise there is a lot more going on that simple (and of course it’s really not that simple at all), shepherding of the near-eternal, endless flow of time.

That much must remain a mystery in a show that has more than its fair share of thrillingly unveiled revelations, and which doles them out in a way that is not too fast, not too slow, and always executed with a profound respect for the superbly-realised characters that fill this wholly rewarding show.

Chief among them is Loki himself who, in the hands of incisively insightful writers and a brilliantly nuanced performance throughout by Hiddleston, becomes a fully three-dimensional character who is worthy of all the understandable time he has onscreen (which is, you will not be surprised, pretty much all of it).

There are a number of key scenes where Loki is forced to review some key events and relationships of his life – being in a time manipulative environment pretty much presages that someone somewhere, usually Mobius, is going to shove the past into your initially barely comprehending face – and as he does that, he comes to realise that much of what drives him is rooted in some dark parts of his psyche which haven’t earned him what he wants so much as they have cost him what he has.

It is enthralling watching the way in which this once one-note character, who was funny and mischievously entertaining but a villain no more, no less, becomes a vulnerable, changed man, someone whose innate nature doesn’t change necessarily but who gets to know himself in such a way that he can make decisions to give into its almost irresistible pull or not.

Now, you might think with a sigh-heavy groan, that Disney has succumbed to the current penchant for rehabilitating villains to the point where they cease to have the narrative-driving power they once did.

But while that might be true of some properties, in Loki, all that self-analysis and inadvertent therapy, which is writ large on Loki’s face to a fascinating degree, it simply makes for an entirely, arrestingly watchable protagonist.

(image courtesy IMP Awards (c) Marvel/Disney)

And without giving too much away ——- SPOILER AHEAD! ——- it happens across all the Loki manifestations that populate the first season (Richard E. Grant is brilliant as an older alternate line Loki while Sophia Di Martino is profoundly affecting as Loki variant Sylvie; anyone who deviates from the Sacred Timeline is known as a “variant”, a term at once benignly vanilla and pejorative as hell) particularly between Loki and Sylvie who first emerges as the “bad guy” of the piece before settling into a core driver of the narrative as someone out to expose the ferociously dark and twisted underbelly of the TVA.

Quite what that fetid unseen part of the retro bliss that is the TVA, at least visually, is must remain something for the watching of this six-part series, but suffice to say, as each episode unfurls – the series was originally released in weekly instalments but works very well as a long movie – you bear witness to some very sophisticated, revelatory storytelling that never once forgets that it owes it entire enthralling goodness to the veracity and fully-roundedness of its characters.

A key lesson for anyone keen to sacrifice characterisation on the alter of helter-skelter, untramelled action is that Loki, even in its quieter, more ruminative moments, and they are there in pleasing, wholly engrossing abundance, is a thrill ride from start to finish.

While it has its Marvel obligated battle scenes, which are as supremely epic as you could want, it benefits greatly from the times it steps away from the pell-mell clashes of weapon against weapon, body slammed against body because it is they that ultimately drive the forward momentum of the storyline.

It is the characterisation in short that makes Loki, which is funny, breathlessly imaginative and searingly, soul-shatteringly confronting and sad, and which ensures that by the time you reach it brilliantly-delivered final act, which is as complex and emotionally simple as the very best storytelling there is, you are completely sole on this faultlessly-built world, its premise and its execution and the fact that people are endlessly, gloriously complicated and that as a result even superhero shows benefit immensely from acknowledging this fact.

If they did, every show would be as fascinatingly clever, funny, heartfelt and vitally alive and engaging as Loki, another triumph for the house of Marvel which gives us characters first and vivaciously engaging narrative second (though a barely behind second) and is all the better for it, with a second season already promised and eagerly awaited.

Posted In TV

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