I haven’t been hugely impressed by Marvel’s recent TV shows. I found WandaVision‘s first few episodes hard to get through, and the later action never really made up for it. And the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier didn’t draw me in. So I was slow to watch Loki. But after hearing repeated recommendations, I decided to give it a try, and ended binging through the first season in a day. (It’s only six episodes.)
The series starts off with the scene in Avengers: Endgame where the heroes have travelled back in time, to 2012 immediately after Loki’s defeat in the first Avengers movie, to retrieve the Tesseract. However, things go sideways, and in the fracas Loki finds the Tesseract suddenly at his feet. Being the opportunist he is, he grabs it and immediately teleports away.
Avengers: Endgame establishes that time travel is possible in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) but any attempts to change the past are pointless, because they just result in new timelines, leaving the original unchanged. However, that movie never got into what happens if in fact a new timeline is started. But Loki’s escape does just that.
It turns out that there is a secret organization, the “Time Variance Authority” or TVA, whose mission is to stop new timelines from forming. Their stated goal is to preserve “the sacred timeline”. They have devices which, when activated, essentially “prune” (erase) a new budding timeline. They also arrest the “variant”, the person whose actions initiated the new timeline, and put them on trial. The reason stated for this in the first episode, is that a war once broke out between the multiversal timelines, threatening all of reality. To keep the peace, only one timeline is allowed to exist.
When he escapes, Loki becomes a new variant, introducing a new timeline. But he is immediately arrested by the TVA and the new timeline pruned. Loki is put on trial and is about to be pruned himself, when he is rescued by agent Mobius, a TVA investigator, who needs his help in tracking down a variant who is murdering TVA agents. When Loki asks why him, he’s informed that the murderer is known to be another variant of Loki himself.
Of course, this is a story about the Loki from before his redemption in the original timeline, so he acts true to form. First he attempts to intimidate the TVA with his power, and quickly discovers the TVA has technology that renders those powers moot. Next he attempts to charm, connive, and weasel his way out. None of the strategies work. He ends up deciding to cooperate when he discovers that one of the TVA agents has all the Infinity Stones in a desk drawer. He and his coworkers use them as paperweights. Obviously the TVA has tremendous power, and Loki is clearly scheming on how to capture it.
But things start getting weird(er) when Loki encounters his other variant. That variant turns out to be…different. And it gradually becomes apparent that the TVA is not what it seems. The show gets progressively more bizarre from there, eventually playing out on a scale that reminded me of some of the farther out Doctor Who stories.
One reason I think I enjoyed this show is it didn’t feel like a superhero story, and I don’t just mean that the protagonist is an anti-hero. Throughout most of the story, Loki’s powers give him little if any advantage. The overall feel is more science fiction than superhero.
The idea of policing the timeline is an old one in science fiction. It goes back at least to Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, and I suspect if someone dug, they’d find it occurring in some form or fashion in the old pre-World War II pulps, which pretty much explored every concept, albeit often with terrible writing. Although the motivation that exists in most of those other premises is to preserve a certain future. With the time branching, that isn’t an issue. The goal of keeping one timeline is an interesting variation.
But there were some things about the premise I never quite understood. Some of the variants clearly come from timelines that had forked years before they were arrested, and it isn’t implied that their very existence as a substantially different person from the original, in and of itself, was the issue, implying some tolerance for multiple timelines. It’s also never made clear whether the TVA only applies to human history, or the entire history of the universe, and so polices the timelines of alien cultures as well.
This is why I’m usually leery of time travel and multiverse stories. They’re difficult to do well. But as with Avengers: Endgame, there might have been explanations for these things that just happened very fast and so I missed them, or it might be a case where it just needs to be thought through more carefully.
Anyway, I enjoyed the show a great deal and recommend it. Have you seen it? If so, what did you think?