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Marvel's Loki is about time, free will and the MCU itself

In the beginning, there was chaos. Multiple strands and storylines overlapped, creating widespread confusion and doubt. Then, some people with a clear vision got together and decided to sort everything out – they pruned the timelines, organised the wayward strands of the story, and ruthlessly controlled every aspect of existence.

This is the background to Loki, a new television show starting on Disney+ today that’s the latest addition to the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. But it’s also the story of the MCU itself.

The show builds on a brief seed planted during Avengers Endgame, the blockbuster finale to ‘Phase Three’ of the MCU, which saw Iron Man and friends travel through time to retrieve the Infinity Stones – powerful objects which when collected together would allow them to undo the destruction of half of all life in the universe perpetrated by ultra-villain Thanos.

But, during their attempt to retrieve one of these objects from 2012 New York (The Tesseract, a glowing blue box that drives the plot in many of the Marvel movies) they accidentally let it fall into the hands of Loki, the Asgardian god of mischief, played with a sneering menace by Tom Hiddleston. Loki, whose character had died in the present day, absconded with the Tesseract and used it to escape to parts unknown – creating a messy paradox, and a branch in time.

Loki, the television show, introduces us to an organisation called the Time Variance Authority, which exists to snip such loose threads – and ensure the sanctity of the ‘sacred timeline,’ which is shaped and protected by three shadowy “space lizards” known as the Time Keepers. Its soldiers, called ‘Minute Men’ travel through time to track down ‘variants’ who have deviated from their set path, like 2012 Loki, and destroy them.

If, unlike me, you didn’t spend lockdown evenings slogging through all 23 Marvel movies plus associated television shows, you’re probably utterly bewildered by all that. But don’t worry, the first episode of Loki explains everything with a Jurassic Park-inspired cartoon voiceover early on (absolutely the greatest form of plot exposition, I can’t believe more films don’t do this).

Without giving too much away, the 2012 variant of Loki ends up trapped within the bureaucracy of the TVA, and forced to work with Mobius – a kind of hardened time detective, played by Owen Wilson, to work out who keeps killing the TVA’s troops.

The first two episodes are promising – Hiddleston and Wilson antagonise each other well, and make a more entertaining pairing than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in Marvel’s previous television outing, who seemed too stiff and soldier-like for believable repartee.

As with WandaVision, the costume and set designers have excelled themselves – from the timeless, maze-like bureaucracy of the TVA with its olive-and-beige 70s stylings, through various periods in time from Ancient Rome to a corporate mega-mart in the 2050s. And the first two episodes only scratch at the surface of a vast world, you get the sense that there’s a lot more depth here that could be explored in later entries. There’s even some meditation on destiny and the nature of free will – although it’s hard to take seriously in Wilson’s ‘here, buy this sofa’ drawl.

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But, while it’s entertaining, the show hints at a wider problem facing the MCU as it moves into the next phase of pandemic-delayed cinematic releases: fatigue. Even having watched everything the studio has put out, there was still a lot of pausing and looking things up on Wikipedia: ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Which one is the Soul Stone?’ ‘I thought he was dead?’

The MCU has been brilliant at drawing from the rich, but often quite confusing comic book source material, and picking out key storylines without getting too bogged down in the multiple universes and alternate Earths that have sprung up over the years as different writers took their turns with iconic characters.

As it’s grown with each new release, it’s been able to bring new characters to the screen and turn them into draws in their own right: the Guardians of the Galaxy are the prime example, but there are a slate of movies coming out in Phase Four featuring characters that most people won’t have heard of before.

Under Kevin Feige, it’s even been able to prune other timelines and draw them into the fold: Spider-Man was brought into the MCU after some intense legal wrangling with Sony, the Fantastic Four are on their way. It won’t be too long before the X-Men arrive, despite their own 20-year series with another studio only recently concluding.

There have been rumours that Feige might try and retroactively bring all of those movies into the fold – Alfred Molina is reprising his role as Doctor Octopus from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 in the upcoming MCU title Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the Doctor Strange sequel coming out next year has the subtitle ‘Multiverse of Madness’.

But that risks creating splinters in the decades-long story arc of the MCU. In Endgame, the characters went back in time to fix what had happened in Infinity War, but they ended up leaving a loose end that became the spark for the television series Loki, which itself relies on frequent flashbacks and allusions to previous movies.

As it tries to integrate unheard of and familiar characters into its wildly lucrative shared universe, the MCU faces a problem: how to go over old ground without messing up its own sacred timeline.

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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