With spoilers, we delve into the first two episodes of Loki season 2, Ouroboros and Breaking Brad. Can Marvel make us care about its increasingly complex multiverse…?
NB: The following contains inevitable spoilers for Loki season one and the first two episodes of season two.
Marvel is running out of time. That has felt like the general consensus of late for the broad, all-encompassing universe that has dominated popular culture across the last decade. If the second season of Loki is about anything thus far, it’s Marvel’s own attempts at damage control.
Just to turn the dial back a little, two years ago Loki arrived in the post-Covid period of steady television renewal, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe had – like everything else – been beset by delays and schedules to their big screen output, but which across 2021 had blazed a trail on the newly minted Disney+. WandaVision, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, latterly What If? and Hawkeye. It was a busy year.
Loki aired in the middle, which feels appropriate as perhaps the year’s core TV offering. Expectation for the return of Tom Hiddleston as Marvel’s favourite trickster, having been killed off by Thanos at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, was high. Especially given Avengers: Endgame saw him yanked from the timeline post-Avengers Assemble, at the height of his pithy, puny god-meddling. This would be the pure form of Loki once more.
Michael Waldron and Kate Herron, the executive producers of Loki’s star vehicle, immediately worked to interrogate the ‘glorious purpose’ of the character (the first episode was even called that). It saw him enter the TVA (Time Variance Authority) – an extra-temporal department who police the Sacred Timeline, the one true flow of history, of which the Loki (thanks to escaping it via the Tesseract infinity stone) is now a variant. That is, someone able to create a branched timeline who the TVA pluck from existence.
Through Loki’s charming dynamic with Owen Wilson’s laid-back Agent Möbius, the first season used this jumping off point to question whether Loki’s villainy was the defining aspect of his character. Loki saw the manner of his death in the natural order of events, was shown the murder of his mother (in Thor: The Dark World), and was told the consequences of his actions more broadly. It answered the burning question – how do you make a show about one of the MCU’s greatest villains?
The answer was simple: you cast someone like Hiddleston. Even with Loki at his smug, snarling best, he’s impossible to hate. There’s just too much Hugh Grant about him, too much public school suaveness, not to mention ironic wit. Hiddleston immediately clicked with Wilson as a duo, as they worked together to ultimately root out Sylvie (Sophia di Martino), a female Loki variant wreaking havoc, with whom Loki ultimately smokes out the truth behind the TVA – that they’re all variants under the control of He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), the ultimate variant of supervillain Kang, last seen in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. For us. That came after Loki.
If this is already sounding complicated, it’s meant to. How essential Loki as a series will be to the second narrative of the MCU remains open to debate, but as season two begins, it appears to be relatively pivotal. He Who Remains’ apparent death has unseated the Sacred Timeline, as we see in opening episode Ouroboros, causing the ‘temporal loom’ at the heart of the TVA’s magical construction to start branching out infinite timelines that threaten the very multiverse itself. And as Loki realises this, he begins bouncing around time to try and stop it.
Kevin Feige and his Marvel cohorts are heading full bore into a multiverse saga, much as audiences seem quite played out with the idea already. Everything Everywhere All At Once arguably stole Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness' thunder last year, presenting the strangeness of endless conceptual universes in an Oscar-winning manner to many audiences (if not this reviewer). Loki knows this, pinching revived breakout star Ke Huy Quan as the titular Ouroboros, the nerdy Q of the TVA, if you like. Think Marshall Flinkman from Alias, for those who recall that show.
Loki has quite a lot to carry on both shoulders as a result. Aside from attempting to make sense of the ever-expanding multiverse shenanigans, it arrives at perhaps the lowest point of MCU enthusiasm in years, in the wake of the dire Secret Invasion. That Nick Fury-fronted series displayed the limitations in Marvel’s TV approach to such a degree that the studio has now elected to move to an entirely different structural model, choosing to remake a sizeable chunk of a future series before it has even aired. Couple that with the allegations against Majors, positioned as the next big villain of the series and who will play presumably a key role in this series, Loki has more than one cross to bear.
With new showrunners Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the helm, Loki wisely motions to plunge our Asgardian variant into a zippy TVA-based romp. It almost has the whiff of a bottle episode given how contained its locations are. The finale of season one, For All Time, Always…, climaxed with a handy dollop of Kang’s backstory for the broader mythology, but hardly made for thrilling viewing. Loki, so far, works best with two aspects in play – bouncing around time periods of note and the partnership between Loki and Möbius. These are both aspects the first two episodes of the season lean into.
The mixture isn’t quite right yet, admittedly. Ouroboros leans a bit heavily on the appeal of Quan, arguably in the throes of a career renaissance, but I’m not convinced he’s the world’s greatest screen presence. I suspect he gets a gigantic 80s nostalgia bounce in many people’s minds. Equally, there’s the scantest appearance of Sylvie here, meant to establish temporal loop elements (I’m confident that Loki gets ‘pruned’ here by… Loki, in the future, but we’ll see) and there’s nary a sight of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Renslayer in either of these episodes, despite her character being increasingly crucial to the plot.
This immediately makes me wonder if Mbatha-Raw was partially unavailable and a scaled-down presence from her could be in the offing, which would be a shame. You can totally understand why they might work to scale back Majors being on screen (though as the dominating statues of Kang in the TVA show, the actor remains omnipresent), but Mbatha-Raw was one of the first season’s best assets. Two episodes in, the show already needs her back, as evidenced by how largely pointless much of episode two, Breaking Brad, ultimately feels. You wonder if Benson and Moorhead, plus writer Eric Martin, had to play for time and rework aspects based on availability.
This isn’t uncommon in television, but given Marvel TV properties lean toward movie production, and have short enough runs to not embroil film actors in long, tied-down contracts, it seems unusual. This is just supposition. Renslayer and a variant (or variants) of Kang are sure to show up soon given where the story is heading, but Breaking Brad (delightful in-joke title aside) feels incredibly dispensable for the most part. It gets us to revelations and whereabouts for Sylvie and Renslayer, choosing to zero in on the Brad Wolfe character (played by Rafael Casal, best known as the creative force behind series Blindspotting) for an inordinate amount of time.
Some of the ideas here are fun. Brad being a successful 1970s movie star allows for some enjoyable hi-jinks in the faded glamour of 70s London (take your guess at which film star of the period Brad is meant to evoke), which again pairs Loki and Möbius, allowing them to trade on their natural, sparring charisma. Then it simply returns to the TVA, with protracted (if at times fun) interrogations of Brad, using him as a mechanism to re-litigate much of what the first season was about – the question of Loki’s nature. “You’re the villain,” he stresses to Loki, who no longer believes that, to his credit. He genuinely cares about Möbius, Sylvie and the threat Kang poses.
To me, episodes such as Journey Into Mystery where Loki enters the void at the end of time and meets numerous Loki variants (including Richard E Grant in 60s garb), all of whom help him escape, did this better. That remains the standout hour of the show so far, allowing Loki to see the humanity behind the costumes and the pompous persona. Breaking Brad simply wants us to keep asking the question to retain a sense of uncertainty about Loki’s motives, while at the same time serving as the vanguard to stop General Dox (Kate Dickie) from committing multiversal genocide to solve the problem.
Therein lied another issue I’m currently having with Loki: I’m struggling to care. When the TVA see the impact of Dox’s actions, as the branched timelines all disappear, Wunmi Mosaku’s Hunter B-15 gasps “all those lives”, as everyone watches in horror. We’re meant to feel the same but… why would we? It’s much easier to care about two people in a room than it is billions of conceptual people dead in infinite timelines.
This is where the Marvel scale in Loki threatens to overcome everything else, and where the multiverse storytelling has its shortcomings. Loki needs to ensure we remain primarily invested in Möbius, Sylvie, Renslayer et al rather than trying to make us care about the wider picture.
Ultimately, Loki’s second season feels like Marvel attempting to remind us that, for all of the branches to its storytelling, there’s meant to be an order to things. If the MCU is an unwieldy beast right now, in danger of imploding, Loki’s second season will hopefully help set the record straight. To succeed, Loki needs to level up its game as we head toward the mid-section.
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