In Rian Johnson’s 2012 film “Looper,” two versions of the same man sit across from each other. The younger version of Joe looks at his older self, who recently traveled back through time, and, naturally, has a lot of questions. But Joe’s older, wiser version has no interest in answering them. “I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it, then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.”
Not wanting to break down the ins and outs of time travel does two things for “Looper”: In the scene, it better emphasizes the priorities of the older character (played by Bruce Willis, who can’t help but exude no-bullshit urgency anyway); he’s there with a purpose, and he’s not about to waste time blabbing about the grandfather paradox. But outside of the scene, to the audience watching, the refusal to explain time travel also serves as a refusal to get caught up in explaining something beside the point. It’s a decision to prioritize story, characters, and forward momentum, rather than get super nerdy in an extended Q&A about how everything that has happened and will happen, can happen.
“Loki” plays with straws. It loves straws. The latest MCU entry for Disney+ dumps a bevy of colored straws, bendy straws, crazy straws, and all the compostable, biodegradable, and otherwise non-turtle-killing straws onto the table from moment No. 1, and invites everyone to start twisting them together. Straws aren’t beside the point, they are the point. On the one hand, the sheer bravado behind this choice — to thoroughly detail the hows and whens of time travel — fits snugly with the arrogance inherent to our eponymous God of Mischief. On the other, Loki would hate being forced to affix each tubular drinking aide to the next, in a very particular order, for hours and hours on end, which is much closer to what watching “Loki” feels like.
Created by Michael Waldron (“Rick & Morty”), the six-episode limited series picks up where it has to: between time. For those who don’t remember, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) died at the hands of Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” but when the Avengers revisited their greatest hits in “Endgame,” the villainous brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) got a second chance. An errant bounce of the Tesseract allowed Loki to escape not only from his arrest following the Battle of New York City (in the original “Avengers”), but to escape into a moment before he died.
If all that is a bit much for you, hold onto your butts. “Loki” starts with that errant bounce and, almost immediately, Loki is scooped up by the Time Variance Authority, or the TVA. These black-and-orange armored time cops work for the Time Keepers: divine beings charged with maintaining the flow of time (the “Sacred Timeline”) in order to protect the universe from imminent destruction. Whenever something happens that’s not part of the Sacred Timeline, a Nexus event occurs and the TVA is dispatched to the disrupted time and place to set things straight. If a variant is involved, they’re picked up and made to stand trial at TVA headquarters, which is exactly what happens with Loki. He wasn’t supposed to pick up the Tesseract and escape. He’s a variant, so now he has to atone for his mistake.
How? Well, that’s when things get a bit simpler. As has come to be tradition when a new Marvel show launches, plenty of people will tell you “Loki” is very weird and very different and very significant to television. Parts of these claims are true (just how true depends on your subjective judgment, dear reader), but the story engine driving “Loki” is rather simple. “Loki” is “White Collar,” or “The Rock,” or “Psych” — or, if you want to take it more seriously, it’s “Catch Me If You Can,” but just the ending, when Leonardo DiCaprio agrees to help Tom Hanks with all those FBI cases. “Loki” is any movie or TV show where a criminal is enlisted by the authorities to help solve a difficult case. For this particular humdinger, Agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) asks Loki to help find a “variant” who can’t stop killing TVA agents.
That very little progress is made in the case — over the first two episodes, aka over two hours of storytelling, aka over one-third of the entire series — should tell you how much time is devoted to explaining things. Rather than engage at the task at hand, “Loki” wants to engage with the TVA, timelines, and time travel in general, and by “engage” I mean “explain.” There’s an orange, animated clock named Ms. Minutes that takes Loki through a cartoon instructional video all about “the Sacred Timeline” and its “Time Keepers” and “Nexus events”; there’s about a dozen TVA officers who always answer Loki’s recurring query of “what’s going on”; there’s walk-and-talk explainers, flashbacks, and even in-character quizzes, where Mobius asks Loki questions about the TVA to make sure he understands, which is really just one more way to make sure we understand.
Courtesy of Disney+
It is, to put it mildly, exhausting. Waldron and director Kate Herron throw in as many flourishes as they can to try to turn exposition into entertainment, but there’s only so much you can do after deciding to answer every single question about time travel. The TVA HQ’s humdrum, buttoned-up, and brown-toned aesthetic, filled with old office files, tin soda cans, and ’80s era equipment that’s been given a semi-modern spitshine, is a welcoming environment to do homework, though the office (and the rest of “Loki”) could use a few more lights. Owen Wilson is a master of disarming charm, shrugging and back-slapping his way through constant shop talk, and at least one music choice is so dance-inducing it’s like dropping a disco ball in the middle of study hall.
Still, it’s essentially impossible to hide exposition when there’s this much of it, and the chatter becomes as distracting as it is endless. It’s enough to make you wonder, “Why are they so obsessed with talking about time travel?” The answer so far is that “Loki” isn’t really about Loki, so much as it’s about introducing the TVA, the logistics of time travel, and how the MCU’s Phase 4 timeline will end up with a “Multiverse of Madness,” which Waldron just happens to be writing next. (One of the keywords Ms. Minutes drops in her TVA intro is that Nexus events could “lead to a Multiverse war” — hmm, where have I heard that word before?) There’s even a line in the show where Loki, sensing control is being wrested away from him, shouts, “You ridiculous bureaucrats will not dictate how my story ends!” To which the bureaucrats respond, “It’s not your story. It never was.”
It’s as easy as it is disheartening to imagine Marvel executives dressed in TVA uniforms, prodding this once-rebellious character back into place so they can keep their grand plans in place, but Loki manages to develop at least one personal throughline. “Loki,” to a limited degree, wants to define its lead’s “glorious purpose,” and perhaps debate the concept of fatalism in general. Does the God of Mischief just like making trouble for his super-serious older brother, or does he truly enjoy hurting people? Does he want to rule so he can save his subjects from “the oppressive lie” of choice, or does he just want to inflict more pain on as many of them as possible? Is he even in control of his own choices, or was he simply born bad?
Whether or not it’s too late for Loki to become a hero instead of a villain is a valid question, and when the series takes the time to consider it, all that talking is a bit more engaging. But it’s worth noting that “Looper” also tackles the question of fatalism vs. free will. There’s a little boy at the center of the movie, and people who’ve seen him grow up, people from the future, know he’s going to become a killer. A bad guy. A villain. What viewers — and Joe — are forced to wrestle with is whether or not the boy they see before them has only one path in front of him or many. Does Joe believe in something enough to want to change it, or will he accept time’s set routine? Do we?
In “Loki,” that choice is held at such a distance that any internal changes already feel secondary. The MCU is fatalistic, and Loki’s purpose is to introduce the TVA, the Multiverse of Madness, or whatever glorious purpose Marvel needs. At least, that’s how it feels when you spend all your time playing with straws.
“Loki” premieres Wednesday, June 9 on Disney+.