2 out of 5
Created by: Michael Waldron
covers season 1
Back in the day when most television was episodic – and especially not directly connected to cinematic “universes” – I was down on a lot of ‘boob tube’ fodder, and totally threw myself into film. I couldn’t see shows as being near capable of the depth of character and scope of story movies offered. As years have gone on and I’ve learned to appreciate the skill of telling moderately connected stories across 22-count bottle-episode seasoned series – not to mention the many shows that broke this mold, as well as exposure to international fare which wasn’t quite as subject to the norms of US TV – I’ve also been wowed by the expansion of modern television via prestige series on premium and cable networks, and then the binge model favored by streaming platforms. I started to see this as the de facto way to tell stories. Yeah, shows definitely suffered from bloat and listlessness if they were aiming for further seasons, but it was guiltily harder to dedicate my time to movies when television was seemingly offering infinitely richer experiences, and at a faster delivery rate.
But we’ve passed the “golden era” hump, now, and there’s a glut of media available in bite-sized and epic lengths, exclusive to platforms or not, released in cinema and at home at the same time, and etc. And then when I see a show like Loki, that – to me – utterly fails at characterization, and pacing, and setting, and somehow blanderizes the easy entertainment of time-bendy stuff, my opinion from years back flip-flops, and I realize how astonishing it is that many filmmakers have been able to deliver such immersion and senses of vastness or wonder boiled down to a tiny 90-120 minutes, compared to Loki taking 5 – 6 hours and accomplishing near zippo.
And I’m not a Marvel hater, and I was looking forward to this, though I’m also not a Marvel fanboy, and so I don’t think I had any extra expectations. Wandavision and Falcon were okay; I just wanted this to be okay also, but maybe with some extra doses of charm ’cause we’re leaning into Tom Hiddleston being charming. From a very top down perspective, you can even say this is something of a copy of Wandavision’s structure: a lot of individual-episode weirdness that starts dropping hints regarding some Big Bad Controlling Everything, and then that BBCE is totes comic book cheek that will likely inform some future MCU Phase 4 decisions. The first difference, though, is that Wanda and Vision were never breakout stars in the Marvel flicks, and so their show actually had to do some legwork to develop them as characters; Loki, meanwhile, was totally a breakout star, to the extent that his comic appearances created a feedback loop to tap in to the new Loki lovers, and so Loki the show proceeds with assuming we’re all-in on the character: this isn’t about character building, it’s just about luring you in, making the “relationships” it tries to “develop” in the series very, very empty, despite having good actors portraying them. The other big difference – and something of a spoiler here – is that Wandavision at least had an ending. Loki’s whole 6-episode existence is just to bring us up to a reveal. So if you’re following along, yes, that means we’re first lured in under somewhat false pretenses – it’s a show about Loki! But not really, he just happens to be in it! – and then we’re brought up to the doorstep of a story and just left there, waiting either for season 2 or some movie to put it all together.
On top of this general emptiness, we now layer on a blanket of disconnect. Whether due to trying to cram big plot pieces into a short 6-episode run, or perhaps some kind of time / budget constraints, the way this thing is shot and stitched together is just… off. There’s a faux-oner action shot in an early episode, and reviews pointed out how a lot of that oner is just our stars standing around while the camera kinda spins pointlessly. This is a good encapsulation of how the whole season functions. While that action scene suggests some movement between locations, very often we are deposited in what are suggested to be fantastic locales, and then we just linger. It’s as though the camera was only afforded 1 or 2 setups, and all of the dialogue captured in 1 or 2 long takes, and then it’s edited together into a scene. There’s no time afforded to really establishing any sense of place, and back-and-forth and banter has a stiff, cuecard-esque pacing. “Jokes” suffer the worst – we’re treated to reactions and suggestive musical stings / camera angles before the punchline, whether spoke or visualized, is effectively delivered. Given the caliber of our actors (especially Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, and Wunmi Mosaku), this style occasionally lucks in to some valuable moments – and the final episode is mostly successful, since we can finally stop with all the distraction and dancing around and get some legitimate character and story beats – but on the whole, these are just moments, and very fleeting ones.
Another bright and bulbous flag suggesting the offness of things comes via the lack of patience given to its central premise: when Loki messes with the timestream, he’s branded a “variant” by the TVA – the Time Variance Authority – and subjected to punishment as deemed by some time lords. …Unless he wants to help TVA agent Mobius (Wilson) track down some other rogue variants, since Loki’s are apparently especially problematic across timestreams, and thus who better to track down the bad ones than our favorite Loki version? This is a sick setup for a faux-cop procedural starring Loki, jumping in to different times and being silly. But that never happens. Instead, every joke about an agency that monitors time is stuffed into the first few minutes, and then the rest of it is a lot of hand-waiving and empty spectacle.
I take a breath, and I state: I get it, though. Marvel tested the waters with its first two Disney+ shows, proving they could pull of this interconnected movie / TV universe thing. Those were fairly isolated shows, though, so now it’s time to try out a show that will presumably have a more direct impact on those movies – something you “have” to watch to be able to watch the next thing. This starts to become closer to the modern day comic model Marvel employs, in which every issue is part of an event that just crosses over into another event. I have trouble understanding how these succeed, but Marvel keeps doing this, so I suppose they do – and now it’s time to mimic that on TV. I can deal with it in a 6-episode format, though at this point it’s mostly out of curiosity. And the spotty sections where Loki works make it passable as distraction. But if future series continue down this structural path, I sense my patience with that will wane, and then maybe I will become a Marvel hater.