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.
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 time. Always. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!