Even for me, a lifelong superhero comics fan for whom frequent big budget live-action adaptations was once a far-fetched dream, Marvel Fatigue is a very real thing. As Patrick Willems recently summarized in his video essay “Who is Killing Cinema? — A Murder Mystery,” Marvel Studios’ innovative decision to link all of their films and TV series into one shared ongoing narrative, essentially turning their entire slate into a single product, is beginning to backfire. Fans who once felt pressured to catch every new release rather than fall behind are starting to jump ship altogether, rather than pick and choose installments that might interest them. But, take it from an old comics fan who was reading ten Marvel books a week for a while, the impression that keeping up with an ongoing mythology is an all-or-nothing proposition is mostly marketing and confirmation bias, and once you free yourself from that misconception, sagas like this become more fun, on the whole. It’s okay — better, really — to be a casual fan of this stuff, and to cherry-pick only the titles you hear good things about.
Loki, for instance? Still really good.
For those who didn’t jump on board for its first season back in 2021, Loki stars Tom Hiddleston as an alternate version of his God of Mischief from the Thor and Avengers films, but as messy as that sounds, the series doesn’t require familiarity with the MCU at large. (Quite the reverse, actually; Loki seems to be the backbone of Marvel’s ongoing Multiverse saga, but there’s no evidence as yet that the rest of the line is required viewing to enjoy Loki.) The series is set outside of normal time and space, at the offices of the Time Variance Authority, an organization charged with “pruning” temporal anomalies and maintaining the proper flow of history. Or, at least, what they’ve been told is the proper flow of history, as this ripe-for-procedural-television premise is quickly flipped upside down, casting everything the TVA stands for into doubt. Between the off-beat tempo of its humor, the anti-authoritarian bent of its politics, and the avocado-and-chrome retrofuturism of its production design, Loki is Doctor Who by way of Terry Gilliam. And, from the looks of its season premiere, it’s still Marvel’s last must-watch product.
Minor spoilers ahead for the Season 2 premiere, “Ouroboros.”
“Ouroboros” picks up immediately where last season left off, with Loki returning to the TVA after his encounter with He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors, whose days in the MCU may be numbered). He, lovable desk jockey Mobius (Owen Wilson) and conflicted enforcer Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) must now face the possibility that their entire mission of deleting offshoot timelines is tantamount to genocide on an interdimensional scale, all in the service of He Who Renains preventing any alternate versions of himself from coming to power. Now that he’s been killed by Loki’s rogue variant Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), the timeline is fracturing into an infinite number of threads, and the TVA is divided as to what that means. Is the explosion of new timelines an end to an atrocity that has claimed an incalculable number of lives? Is it the catalyst for the end of all of reality as we know it? Is it both? For the moment, they’ve got a more immediate problem, which is that Loki is bouncing uncontrollably through time, and if they don’t figure it out soon (whatever “soon” means for a bunch of time travelers) he’ll be lost forever.
While this complicated, reality-bending plot is difficult to pick back up after two years away, it takes no time at all to be reminded of why Loki made such a splash with its first season. To begin with, Tom Hiddleston is fully committed to this new, more sympathetic version of the character who made him a household name, single-handedly selling the human stakes of the tangled science fiction plot. He’s being torn apart, literally (and in one of the most jarringly gruesome visual effects I’ve seen recently), but the physical toll of his “time slipping” is nothing compared to his emotional exhaustion after learning the truth about the TVA, fighting his twin/maybe girlfriend, and briefly believing himself erased from all living memory. Hiddleston and his buddy time cop Owen Wilson snap immediately back into their warm and weary rapport, and Wilson brings every bit of his trademark lovable sad sack energy to the improbable Mobius M. Mobius. Joining the cast this season is recent Oscar winner Kuy He Kwan as bright-eyed TVA tinkerer Ouroboros, a role that feels written specifically for him. Even absent clever scripting and sturdy production, it would be a treat just to watch these actors work together.
But, as it happens, Loki is a genuinely smart and distinctive-looking program. This season’s thought experiment seems to be: What do you do when you discover that your only purpose was to do something terrible? Keep doing it, even though no one’s making you, because that’s all you know? Or begin looking for a new purpose? It’s heady stuff, but the grim tale of realities created and destroyed is conveyed through an off-kilter half-sterile, half-whimsical tone, perfectly embodied by its Space Age set design, where everything is smooth curves and soft colors and yet menacing like the HAL-9000. Composer Natalie Holt’s blend of theremin, analog synths, and Nordic folk instruments creates a uniquely weird atmosphere, accentuated by stumbling hand-held tracking shots of characters wandering down the halls of what appear to be real physical sets, by god! Amidst the increasingly homogenous Marvel output, nothing about Loki seems boilerplate.
Admittedly, I’ve been burned before. Most Marvel series start off strong, before devolving into VFX soup in their final two episodes. Loki’s first season did not have this problem, but then again, it was also the first MCU series designed to run for a second year. Perhaps the decline is still inevitable, and has merely been kicked down the road a spell. In the meantime, however, Loki remains the only current Marvel Studios product that has my full attention, and I’m ready to follow it down whatever winding path it lays out.