Loki and Questions of the MCU’s Multiverse

I just watched the first episode of Loki and decided to sit down and write about it.  This NEVER happens for me!  Normally I’ve too many thoughts to order as I write or life is too busy to go from reading/viewing to writing to posting or both.  Either way, here we are :).  I didn’t go into Loki planning to write about it.  But as I watched several serious questions began swirling around in my head.  And I figured, “What the Hel?  Just write.”  So here we are.  If you’ve not seen it, I won’t discuss any major surprises but I’ll be exploring the basic plot setup and the questions it’s presentation of the multiverse gives us.  Coolio?  Coolio.  Let’s jump into all the first episode of Loki gives us to consider about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s concept of the multiverse, shall we?

The episode follows the version of Loki from Avengers: Endgame who escaped Avengers custody after the Battle of New York in 2012.  He grabs the Tesseract and rabbits, causing Tony and Cap to travel to New Jersey in 1970 to get both the Tesseract and more Pym Particles from Camp Leigh, the military base where Steve Rogers was trained in the ‘40s and a facility for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the ‘70s.  But Loki, we learn, teleports to Mongolia where he is soon arrested by agents of the Time Variance Authority.  And…I’ve got questions.

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Loki has some questions, too, as he sees the TVA arrive in Mongolia. / Photo Credit – Marvel Studios’ Loki

Now, before we go any further, I want to make something clear.  By and large Marvel’s not disappointed me.  Marvel Studios is far from perfect.  There are some very real problems with how they’ve handled some of their female characters.  They do play into fat-shaming.  Save the Disney+ shows, nothing they’ve done on TV (from Netflix to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Hulu) is recognized by or connects to the movies.  And yes, the rules of time travel in Endgame make less sense the more you think about them.  But I have great faith in Marvel Studios.  In over ten years, by and large, they have continually created fun stories that operate on many levels and coherently connect to one another.  So all of my concerns from Loki’s first episode may well be cleared up by the end of the first series.  Still, I wanted to talk about this all the same and see if a) anyone else struggled with this and/or b) if anyone can explain something I’ve missed that makes all this work as is.

After his apprehension by the TVA agents, Loki is taken to the inexplicably-yet-wonderfully 1970’s-esque Time Variance Authority, placed in a prisoner jumpsuit, and left to wait in line for his time before the judge.  As soon as he yells out, “This is a mistake!  I shouldn’t even be here!” an introductory video cues.  In a charming and disarming southern drawl it tells him:    

Hi there!  You’re probably sayin’, “This is a mistake!  I shouldn’t even be here!”  Welcome to the Time Variance Authority.  I’m Miss Minutes and it’s my job to catch you up before you stand trial for your crimes.  So let’s not waste another minute.  Settle in.  Sharpen your pencils.  And check this out!  Long ago there was a vast multiversal war.  Countless unique timelines battled each other for supremacy, nearly resulting in the total destruction of, well, everything.  But then the All-Knowing Time-Keepers emerged, bringing peace by reorganizing the multiverse into a single timeline – the Sacred Timeline.  Now the Time-Keepers protect and preserve the proper flow of time for everyone and everything.  But sometimes people like you veer off the path the Time-Keepers created.  We call those variants.  Maybe you started an uprising, or were just late for work.  Whatever it was, stepping off your path created a nexus event which, left unchecked, could branch off into madness leading to another multiversal war.  But don’t worry!  To make sure that doesn’t happen the Time-Keepers created the TVA and all its incredible workers.  The TVA has stepped in to fix your mistake and set time back on its predetermined path.  Now that your actions have left you without a place on the timeline, you must stand trial for your offenses.  So sit tight and we’ll get you in front of a judge in no time.  Just make sure you have your ticket and you’ll be seen by the next available attendant.  For all timeAlways.  Thanks for visitin’ the TVA, don’t hesitate to let us know how we’re doin’!

Obviously, we’re all supposed to get excited about the little nod to Wanda and the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness film because they said “madness” and “multiverse” in there.  And yes, that’s cool.  But, unless I’m missing something, this little exposition event basically invalidated everything that we’ve ever seen in the MCU.

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Loki watches Miss Minutes’ presentation video. / Photo Credit – Marvel Studios’ Loki

What this is saying is that everything that happens happens because it’s part of the Sacred Timeline created by the Time-Keepers.  It’s their narrative.  And if something happens that’s not part of the story, the TVA arrives to wrap-up the variant and set things right.  After Loki is picked up in Mongolia, we hear talk of setting “a reset charge” and if/when they need to “reset the timeline.”  While we don’t know exactly what this entails, we here it come up several times in this first episode.  So what they are explaining to Loki (and by extension the viewer) is that everything that happens happens because it’s supposed to and if something goes awry – anything from someone “start[ing] an uprising” or being “late to work” – the TVA steps in to set it all back on course.

In court, Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the judge presiding over Loki’s case begins, “Laufeyson, Variant L1130 a.k.a. ‘Loki Laufeyson’ is charged with sequence violation 72089.  How do you plead?”  His taking the Tesseract and leaving was a “sequence violation” that led the timeline needing to be “reset.”  As Loki tries to pin the crime on the Avengers (and even goes so far as to request a taskforce and the resources needed to end them (classic 2012 Loki)), Judge Renslayer cuts him off saying, “We’re not here to talk about the Avengers!  What they did was supposed to happen.  You escaping, was not.”

So every single moment we’ve seen since the MCU began with Iron Man in 2008 has been predetermined by the Time-Keepers.  Remember when Doctor Strange looked at 14,000,605 alternate futures and found only one where they beat Thanos?  It really didn’t matter because the TVA would have always stepped in to make certain that happened.  Remember how worried they were about messing up the timestream?  Bruce Banner has a whole conversation with the Ancient One about it at the Sanctum Sanctorum in 2012!  Turns out it’s not really a big deal because the TVA wouldn’t let anything go wrong.

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Judge Ravonna Renslayer presides over Loki’s trial and explains the ways of the multiverse to the God of Mischief. / Photo Credit – Marvel Studio’s Loki

But how can the Ancient One or Doctor Strange or the gods and goddesses of Asgard – particularly the all-seeing Heimdall – or Thanos or Ego the Living Planet or any of the celestial beings with unfathomable knowledge not know about the TVA?  Why have we not heard of it before?  They address this in the show, too.

Before his sentence of death can be carried out, Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson (oh, how I’ve missed Owen Wilson (I’ve not seen him in anything in a while and I’m so happy he’s in the MCU now :D))) intervenes.  He thinks Loki can be of use in another way.  As he explains who and what they are to Loki, the God of Mischief is incredulous:

Loki – “If the TVA truly oversees all of time, how have I never heard of you until now?”

Mobius – “Because you’ve never needed to.  You’ve always lived within your set path.”

Loki – “I live within whatever path I choose!”

Mobius – “Sure you do.”

We’ve never heard anything about the TVA in the MCU before because everything in the MCU has happened along the set path of events.  Peggy Carter falling for scrawny little Steve Rogers and, in her grief, going on the be a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. despite the patriarchal attitudes of the time?  Tony overcoming his great personal character defects to have a committed relationship with Pepper?  Thor Odinson becoming worthy of lifting Mjölnir?  The Avengers rising from fractured chaos to become a family and save the world?  The Guardians rising from fractured chaos to become a family and save the galaxy?  Natasha becoming the heart-and-soul leader of the Avengers?  Peter finding his footing as a hero?  Wakanda coming out into the world?  Carol mastering her powers?  Every death…every sacrifice…every triumph…has all happened because it’s the story the Time-Keepers wrote.

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Agent Mobius with Loki in his office at the TVA.  At this point, I am as unimpressed with this whole idea as Loki is. / Photo Credit – Marvel Studios’ Loki

As if that wasn’t jarring enough, in an attempted escape Loki learns the TVA gets “a lot” of Infinity Stones, so many “some of the guys use ‘em as paperweights.”  He finds dozens of Infinity Stones piled together like so many bobbles in a mailcart.  So the forces that moved the ENTIRE first generation of stories within the MCU are proven to be utterly meaningless to and powerless before the forces that govern the Sacred Timeline and its maintenance.  This is underscored once Mobius finds Loki back in his office, tossing the Tesseract in the air and catching it over and over:

Mobius – “You try and use that?”

Loki – “Oh, several times.  Even an Infinity Stone is useless here.  The TVA is formidable.”

Mobius – “That’s been my experience.”

Over the course of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame we saw a lot of our heroes die in an attempt to stop the Mad Titan and his Black Order from gaining control of all the Infinity Stones.  Loki was killed by Thanos.  Gamora was killed by Thanos.  Vision was killed by Thanos.  Natasha kills herself (in a moment with so many terrible implications) so Clint can get the Soul Stone.  Tony kills himself in using the Infinity Gauntlet to wipe out Thanos and his forces.  Steve returns all the Stones to their place and, in so doing, decides to live his life in the past with Peggy.  Infinity Stones drove over a decade of stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  They were always on the periphery and at the center of Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, and of course Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.  So nine of their first twenty-two films completely revolve around the Infinity Stones.

But some guys use ‘em as paperweights in the TVA.  They have so many of them.  It’s not even a big deal.  Even an Infinity Stone is useless here.  I kind of feel like the consequences I hung on for the last decade weren’t as dire as I felt before I watched this show. In fact, within this narrative, I feel like none of it matters.

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The pile of Infinity Stones Loki finds in the TVA’s mailcart junk drawer. / Photo Credit – Marvel Studios’ Loki

Before the TVA Infinity Stones are useless and the TVA governs/approves/controls everything from your starting an uprising to your being late for work.

Do you see why I’ve problems with this?  There’s no such thing as free will inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That’s what this episode is saying.  Any choice any character ever made, by virtue of it being there, is the choice they were supposed to make – the TVA approved choice.  So what’s the point?

The first episode of Loki left me with a lot of questions.  But these aren’t the fun “What’s happening??” questions raised by the first episode of WandaVision nor the “Who will carry the shield?” questions of importance that flowed from the first episode The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.  These questions make me worry Marvel Studio’s bitten off more than they can chew here.  These are questions that make me worry their approach to the multiverse – something which will seemingly play a central role in all their stories going forward – will be as convoluted as their approach to time travel in Avengers: Endgame.

I’ve never been ok with the “Don’t think about it!  It’s just fun!” approach to storytelling.  It’s a shoddy justification for shoddy storytelling.  I may choose not to think about something but a story should be logically coherent.  It should operate within the rules it sets in its own universe.  It should follow it’s own laws.  Yes, I don’t have to think about a story that’s “just fun.”  But if I choose to think about it, it should work.  The MCU seems to be in dangerous waters now.  Free will is seemingly gone and with it any value in the character development we’ve watched since 2008.  The central plot point of a decade of stories – that for which so many of our heroes fought and died – has been rendered as inconsequential and boring as a paperweight.  And I’m not even getting into my lack of emotional investment in this Loki as this isn’t even the Loki I’ve cared about since 2011!  That Loki died in Avengers: Infinity War.  This is just end-of-The Avengers-Loki, a way to bring him back and reinsert the tensions of his would-be-villainhood into his character again. We get to watch him maybe grow in the same ways again and it’s supposed to still matter?

As I said at the top, while I have allllllll these questions and worries going forward, I still have faith in Marvel Studios.  Heck, Marvel has managed multiverses in the comics for decades.  Hopefully the MCU uses those as a guide.  I really hope, once this series has reached its end, all this will have been proven wrong.  Maybe the TVA aren’t real?  Maybe it’s just someone messing with Loki?  Maybe it’s all a trick of Kang or another time-travelling character, creating an illusion to rule through fear, as they discuss in the episode?  Maybe it’s something I can’t even imagine yet?  I don’t know.  But I’m hopeful!  I believe in you Marvel Studios!  And I really hope you have answers ahead which prove my worries unfounded.

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Much like Loki’s relationship to Mobius, so too do I enter into an uneasy relationship with Loki and what it’s presenting about the nature of free will, character development, and the multiverse within the MCU. Here’s hoping it works out well for all of us. / Photo Credit – Marvel Studios’ Loki

Oh, and if you’d like to know more about the concept of the multiverse, both in real life science and in comic books, you can read this post here where I use Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos as the frame through which to talk about the Spider-Verse!

12 thoughts on “Loki and Questions of the MCU’s Multiverse

  1. I’m pining my hopes on the TVA being the big bad here and full of propaganda and waiting to see where this goes. The predestination thing does worry me as I agree with you it would take a lot away from the characters I loved and their stories. We shall see!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you’re right! I can see that being the case, too. They kept punching that line about weaker beings using lies and fear to control others (or something to that effect). I hope Loki’s first assessment of the TVA ends up being correct and that’s what they’re doing, using lies and fears to control others.

      Bonus, if that ends up being what’s going on I’ll have to start all the conversations I have with people about the show by saying, “Yep, Gemma totally called this in a comment ages ago…” XD.

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  2. I, too, was troubled by the idea that there is no free will in the MCU, but I am hopeful that this idea will come into play more as the series progresses. Loki seems really uncomfortable with the idea, and I think the viewers are supposed to feel that way, too. I hadn’t considered the TVA as villain before reading the comments, but it does make sense. Maybe the Variant killing Minutemen is actually the hero. He’s discovered the secret of the TVA and is trying to take them down?

    I guess I am willing to do some handwaving for the show, though, because I certainly feel like we had to handwave all the previous time travel. It doesn’t really make sense if you think about it. Steve went back in time and, I suppose, married Peggy, but that didn’t change anything else in the timeline, like her descendants? Or…Cap not being around in the future? Also, wouldn’t his going back in time create a branch that the TVA is supposed to nip? Or that branch is allowed “because it was supposed to happen.” Who knows. I feel like we’re kind of making stuff up as we go here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I feel like we’re kind of making stuff up as we go here” is, I think, the approach the MCU took as soon as they got time travel involved. It absolutely can work in a narrative! Doctor Who. Outlander. That Stephen King book about JFK. But you need to be really methodical about how you plan out that system (and even within a carefully planned out system it’s still all but impossible to do that flawlessly always). I don’t think, for all their planning with everything else, the MCU took that approach with their time travel. The Peggy and Steve thing drives me nuts, too. Like you said it’s either a) changing everything in that timeline or b) they are in an alternate timeline and, if so, how does he get back to give the shield to Sam??

      I do love the idea of the Variant killing the Minutemen being the hero! Trying to take down the corrupt force that is the TVA! That is a brilliant twist and one I’d be very excited to see play out on the show. Your point about our discomfort mirroring Loki’s makes a lot of sense, too. Here’s hoping it’s freewill for all by the time Loki’s done his thing!

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      1. Ugh, I didn’t even consider that Steve handing over the shield meant it’s not an alternate timeline. I guess none of it makes sense then.

        I feel like reading this blog is so illuminating! I don’t think I’d have as much Marvel background knowledge or MCU theories without all the great commentary by yourself and the commenters!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you! To frame this in the language I’ve been learning to use in therapy, I am in a place now where I can receive all of that and it is so appreciated :). It makes me sincerely happy to know I’m cultivating that sort of culture in my little corner of the internet.

        And your comment here totally shaped how I watched the second episode of ‘Loki’ and the piece I wrote after I watched it! I won’t say anymore as I don’t want to spoil anything until you’ve watched it. But your theorizing here really helped unlock things for me! So thank you for that, too.

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  3. I am very very skeptical about this Loki show. It feels a lot like a cash grab on the creator’s part to me. Due to Loki’s reception, and how fans adore him and his character, I feel like they really rushed to put something out with him as the main focus. The biggest problem with exploring the multiverse, and in this way is that I think Marvel will lose a lot of their fans, especially if it gets too convoluted or hard to understand. Think about it, it felt like EVERYONE watched Marvel movies for the last decade or so. And in turn, they are watching the shows following that cycle on Disney+. And we are talking about not just the die hard comic fans, but every day average watchers too. But if this show is too complicated to understand it could potentially devastate and take out the next generation of movies/shows before they are even off and running.
    I had a hard time with the Steve/Peggy storyline in End Game as well, but like other commenters have said, I was able to just say “yeah alright” for the bigger picture which was the conclusion to this cycle of stories. But attempting to unravel that in this Loki show feels very dangerous. That all the hype surrounding the next Spider-man and the potential for exploring the multiverses could preemtively be shattered and abandoned because of what happens in this show.

    I do really hope that the bigger picture of Loki is in fact that the TVA is a fallacy and that Loki is being messed with. But I suppose only time will tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are absolutely right. Marvel, I think, is in a precarious place right now. As you said, EVERYONE watches and loves the Marvel movies. Now they are all watching the Disney+ shows, too. And, in the beginning, one of the things soooooo many people said was they loved the movies because they were easier to understand than the comics with decades of confusing continuity. I think the MCU can find itself in a similar place if they aren’t careful how they handle the next few years of stories.

      Your point about it becoming too confusing and/or too frustrating to follow is spot on. And we live in an age of SO MUCH CONTENT. All it will take is a few movies that miss the mark or shows that become too boring or too complex (or both) for people to care to sort it all and they will turn to something else. There are plenty of series/sagas that would love to be the next MCU.

      They risk losing viewers just with too many crossovers, too! I never even thought of this but I had a conversation with a friend a few years ago. She really enjoys the Marvel movies but was, by her own admission, a casual viewer. She considered herself a fan but her life was too full of other things to be sure she saw every single movie as soon as it came out.
      So she ADORED ‘Black Panther’ but hated ‘Thor: Ragnarök.’ At first that made no sense to me. Everyone loves ‘Thor: Ragnarök’! But if you’ve not seen (let alone remembered everything about) every movie then that can become very confusing very quickly.

      So between their ever-increasing interconnectivity and increasingly complex ideas (that may or may not fall apart if viewers hold them up to any serious scrutiny (like the time travel in ‘Endgame’ and where this multiverse may take us)) the MCU may find people who have loved it for years tagging out.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I finally got around to watching the first three episodes!

    I haven’t seen the last two Avengers movies, so I’m still a bit hazy on some things that are happening in the shows that are related to those movies, but I kind of live with it. It also means I can’t be too bothered about whether the shows undermine the movies though.

    I also am confused about the TVA (even having seen two more episodes after this). I really dislike the idea that there is a Sacred Timeline that some random people wrote and assiduously maintain. I get the sense they’re occasionally trying to tie the idea into, say, Christian beliefs and whether an omniscient God can coexist with free will, but . . . they’re not the same thing. I think you can say, “Well, God knowing you are going to choose strawberry ice cream is not the same as MAKING you choose that flavor,” whereas the Sacred Timeline is obviously the Time-Keepers deciding you were going to choose strawberry, making you choose it, and resetting everything on the off-chance you do not choose it.

    And that’s both uncomfortable on a philosophical level and on a movie storytelling level. Everything that happened is because the Time-Keepers said so? I can’t decide if that’s boring or frustrating or both.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d say it’s a both. That’s what it feels like anyway. I am simultaneously annoyed by the idea and care less about all the stories if that’s the case.

      I love your breakdown of the difference between the belief in an omniscient God and the TVA (as they present themselves to Loki and the viewer). You’re absolutely right! If they want to dive into the philosophical exploration of fate vs. free will, this was not the way to do it. Because it’s not even the same thing at all!!! I do grant the show opens the door to some fascinating religious conversations (like the discussion Mobius and Loki have in the cafeteria in E2), but I don’t think the show itself really facilities that contemplation. It sets it up but then it sort of falters because ether the TVA are lying and they are just villains to root against or they are telling the truth but the Time Keepers aren’t a stand in for any serious religious belief in the transcendent.

      As to not seeing the last two Avengers movies…it’s a shame you don’t know anyone you could ask about this stuff ;D.

      Also…is it weird that I now want ice cream? Particularly strawberry ice cream? You used it as an example for our timeline being reset and rubbed out of existence but as I’m writing this comment I’m thinking of how far a drive it is to the Whippy Dip 2 (the closest local ice cream shop to me (the “sequel” I guess to the original further in town)) right now. Also, IF our timeline is reset because I pick strawberry ice cream I am going to mostly blame you. But I still think it may be worth it because strawberry ice cream sounds delicious right now…

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      1. Yes, I thought it was possibly going somewhere interesting, but it seems to have actually landed on, “Free will is good. We don’t have free will because the TVA is attempting to maintain a Sacred Timeline. So that’s bad.” I was hoping for something a little more complex.

        I should really just try to watch the movies sometime, but then I keep thinking that maybe I have to watch The Guardians of the Galaxy and whatever else I missed, and it becomes a whole thing! At least I finally got to Doctor Strange several weeks ago.

        I went to the store yesterday and didn’t get ice cream for some reason, and now I keep thinking about it and having regrets.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The ending of Doctor Strange and what it does with nonviolent resistance and subverting the Myth of Redemptive Violence is one of the most brilliant things the MCU has ever done and I adore it! As to watching all the movies, yep, that can be a lot. A few years ago my friend Hannah wanted to get into Marvel so she basically worked through them in chunks. She did all the one off movies (Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man (at the time)) first, then the duologies (Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man), and then waded into all the interconnected Avengers ones. She thought that was easier than trying to do all twenty some in narrative order.

        As far as ‘Loki’ goes, I was hoping for something a little more complex, too. And maybe they want to tell us they’ll get to that in Season Two but that always annoys me. However, I don’t think that’s the case. As the show’s unfolded it seems to be falling into the classic heroes-vs.-villains setup and it feels like the complex issues they could’ve explored were just there because of the TVA’s smokescreen.

        Also, Briana. BRIANA. How could you NOT get ice cream?!!? That will always bring regrets! I mean, our timeline didn’t get reset so there’s that. But I still think you need to rectify this as soon as possible.

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