Monday 26 July 2021

REVIEW: Loki Season One

Loki is a far better series than it has any right to be, even considering that they have the endlessly entertaining Tom Hiddleston as their star. For all the twists and turns, it's ultimately quite predictable, and is hugely derivative of any number of things that came before. What you'll mostly see as an influence depends on your fandom and reading material. Of course, for me, I couldn't escape how much this was like a high budget Doctor Who, riffing on such concepts as individuals who exist across different incarnations, a vastly powerful civilisation that rules time, a villainous time traveller who begins to learn redemption... It's all there, but it's not like Doctor Who was ever wildly original with much of its material anyway. No, much of this goes way back to the early annals of sci-fi, with huge debts to Asimov's The End of Eternity, Norton's The Crossroads of Time, and Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, to name but a few. And of course, everything in here is based, to a greater or lesser degree, on Marvel's comics. 

But originality isn't all it's cracked up to be. This takes the time-travelling, dimension-hopping melting pot of influences and mixes it up into a new combination, full of colour, beauty and pathos. Derivative as they are, the Time Lords Masters Bureau Variance Authority are a brilliant concept, rendered with style and wit. Loki's had his journey from troubled prince to supervillain to uncertain hero before, but here it plays out completely differently. It's never anything other than hugely entertaining, even in the somewhat slow, rather flawed final episode. Having the restraint to keep the series down to a mere six episodes helps keeping everything moving and never gives us a chance to get bored. 

This has all standard elements of the MCU: highly choreographed fighting, absurd plot contrivances, spectacular visual effects that get way to busy by the end of thing. Yet, the MCU's most important element, the real key to its success, is its characters, their relationships, and the actors who portray them. This is perhaps why the last episode feels like a bit of a cop-out, introducing as it does a major new character without earning his presence, even if that in itself was also predictable. Still, there's a fine balancing act in play here, between the small and intimate and the vast and cosmic. This series sets out the scope of Phase Four in a way that WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier only hinted at. Everything in the first three phases is revealed to be nothing more than a sliver of a huge universe. The first episode knocks the stuffing out of Loki by proving to him that the TVA is an organisation of phenomenal power, hammering it home with the revelation that minor agents use Infinity Stones as paperweights. 

I had assumed, before the series began, that we'd be seeing a return to the outright villainous Loki of The Avengers, given that this variant had jumped from immediately after those events. While we do get that for a spell, it doesn't last long. This Loki's redemption is fast-tracked, the sheer futility of his "glorious purpose" being shown to him by the catastrophic consequences of his actions in the main timeline. More so, however, it's his relationships with the people he meets during his bizarre quest that lead him to change. In Mobius, Loki finds his first genuine friend, someone who has no time for his God of Mischief shit but all the time for him as a man, if he ever allows himself to be one. Mobius is beautifully realised by Own Wilson - who ever thought we'd get a subtle, understated performance like this out of him? Mobius goes on his own journey of discovery, of course, with Loki's presence being the catalyst. The tenuous friendship he shares with Ravonna Renslayer - the absurdly over-the-top name for a quietly intense and dangerous character, played perfectly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw - is at once touching but clearly can't survive his new friendship with Loki and the revelations it brings.

Hiddleston's performance is heartfelt and affecting, hilarious and tragic at turns, and he's come on years from his performance on the first Thor, and he was pretty damned excellent then. The real hit of this series, though, is Sophia di Martino. Sylvie could easily have been a slim, contrived character. A female alternative of Loki, written as essentially a combination of Lady Loki and the second Enchantress from the comics, she rises above the gimmicky character she could have been and becomes a fascinating character in her own right. di Martino's fluid, emotionally wrought performance makes it, along with her chemistry with Hiddleston, but she's an intelligently written character with a far more rational motive than Hiddleston's Loki. She presents in a very different way, too, with di Martino using her gently northern accent as a distinct contrast to Hiddleston's posh RP. Her downtrodden survivalist character is a world away from the Asgardian prince, and her more down-to-earth style completely different to the Etonian old boy's superiority-based characterisation. And yet, the design, writing and performance show similarities throughout, so you can absolutely believe they're two versions of the same person. Again, the Doctor Who similarities are obvious. And a blonde, northern female time traveller from a race of cosmic beings... it's hard not to see Sylvie as better-realised version of the Thirteenth Doctor.

The fourth episode ends, of course, with the fabulous cliffhanger of Loki deposited abruptly at the end of time, faced with four other variants of himself. We're verging more on DC territory here, embracing the concept of the multiverse and endless versions of familiar characters. DC/WB have, of course, pretty much cornered the market in this sort of thing on screen lately, with the Arrowverse's huge crossover events on the CW, culminating on Crisis on Infinite Earths, but this crisis of various Lokis comes close. The writers, headed by Michael Waldron, wring it for all the pathos it's worth but happily embrace the absurdity of it all. Having Richard E. Grant, looking more animated than he has in years, portraying Classic Loki (a perfect recreation of his early comics look and persona but actually prime Loki's alternative future), is a masterstroke, but let's not forget the rest: Jack Veal as Kid Loki, being the only one who successfully killed Thor, is bound to be back in some capacity (Young Avengers on the horizon?); DeObia Oparei as the still-villainous but otherwise Thor-like Boastful Loki; and everyone's favourite, Alligator Loki. The only thing more delightful than the existence of Alligator Loki is the bit of trivia that the rest of them acted alongside a cuddly toy before the CGI was inserted in post-production.

We also have the face-off with President Loki and sundry other variants, clearly inspired by this moment from The Mighty Thor series, but it's the quieter interactions between Lokis that tells us the most about their character. Of course, Loki has always been a fluid character, in both the comics and the original Norse mythology. It's only right that the writers embraces this - there are few other characters in the MCU who could've withstood the approach in this series. Pretty much it's only Spider-Man (that's got to be the only person with more variants than Loki, right?) Playing with Loki's sexuality and gender is all part of the parcel. With crushing inevitability, some people are furious at a brief line suggesting Loki is bisexual, apparently blissfully unaware that he was completely fluid in sexuality and gender in mythology. He fucked a horse, for crying out loud. Alligator Loki doesn't seem so wild now. Of course, it might have had more impact if they'd had Loki share a romance with another male variant of himself, but we can't have everything.

Loki, Sylvie and Mobius are the centre of the series, but there are other interesting characters involved too. There's a clear opportunity for some fascinating stories developing from the revelations about Renslayer, and the turncoat time soldier Hunter B-15, who becomes something more interesting than she first appears as performed by Wunmi Mosaku. There's potentially a lot more that could be done with Sasha Lane's damaged Hunter C-20, and we need more Miss Minutes. In fact, we need more Tara Strong in any capacity.

After everything, the final episode is both a huge event and a bit of a damp squib. There were only ever two likely candidates for the identity of He Who Remains. The obvious one, for those not versed in the comics but watching the actual show, was another Loki variant. The other, for those of us steeped in comics lore, was Kang the Conqueror. This is who we got, although they never quite come out and say his name yet, but there we go. Jonatahn Majors gives it his all, although he dies just in time as his relentless OTT-larking about was on the verge of becoming intolerable. When he returns as Kang proper in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, it's likely he'll give a very different performance. While setting up the new big bad for the franchise is an understandable move, his presence in the story feels arbitrary in the way that another Loki variant wouldn't have.

Nonetheless, the ending, while predictable as ever, is a perfect cliffhanger. With the multiverse well and truly reestablished and allowed to run riot, history itself in the firing line and potentially infinite realities to explore, the MCU can expand into unknown territory. We're already expecting to see elements of this explored in Quantumania, Spider-Man: No Way Home and, most of all, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which will bring back both Loki and Wanda. Where Sylvie will come into this remains to be seen, but given a second season of Loki is guaranteed, we haven't seen the last of her. Or indeed, anyone: there's no character that now can't be brought back in one way or another. It doesn't get more comic-booky than that.