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The Loki Finale and the MCU’s Glorious Purpose

On the trickster god’s cosmic penance.
July 15, 2021
The Loki Finale and the MCU’s Glorious Purpose

Plot points for the first season of Loki are discussed in this essay, so consider yourself warned for spoilers.

There’s always something weird about watching or reading characters in a movie or TV show or book or play argue about fate and free will. After all, if there’s anything in this world that does not have free will, it’s a creation whose entire history, everything they will or won’t be, is committed to a page, a page read either by an actor or by a reader, a page that is as immutable as the deeds considered by Saint Peter while he weighs your heart against Maat’s feather. (Forget it, I’m rolling.)

And so it is with Loki, the finale of which debuted this Wednesday on Disney+. This is not to say there wasn’t a lot to enjoy about the show: It’s admirably weird in the sense that shows like Rick and Morty can be admirably weird and it brought a sense of stakes to the idea of an infinite multiverse (not an easy trick to pull off!). Plus, it delivered Owen Wilson back into our lives after a notable absence as a brill-topped bureaucrat.

It was just a little weird to see a bunch of characters who don’t have free will arguing about free will in a show that, by the by, posited free will doesn’t matter quite as much as chance mutations, anyway.

After all, this was a series that, in its penultimate episode, delivered an alligator Loki, a child Loki who killed Thor, a black Loki, and a Withnail and I Loki and is a show predicated on our beloved Lad Loki (Tom Hiddleston) falling in love with a Lady Loki named Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). It is not a matter of “free will” that turns a Loki into an alligator or a woman; it is something else entirely. Fate, free will: This is beside the point. We are fated down every path of the multiverse—every path that can be taken is taken, therefore all paths are prewritten, therefore free will is a construct—just as every character’s fate is hashed out in a writers room after every possible path is considered and rejected.

Still, there was something entertainingly absurd about the enterprise, a sharp contrast between the bureaucratic blundering of the Time Variance Authority (TVA) charged with “pruning” the sacred timeline as it branched unexpectedly out and the freewheeling nature of Loki and his variants. That the quick-tongued Hiddleston found himself paired with the more laconic, though not quite laid back, Wilson is, I think, the main reason the show worked at first. It was a buddy-cop action-comedy in those first couple of episodes, a cosmically minded 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon.

And then Loki lost its way a little, shifting from Hiddleston and Wilson to Hiddleston and Di Martino as the central focus. A whole episode wandering around a doomed planet, with “our” Loki goofing off and getting drunk in front of what were, honestly, some of the worst effects I’ve seen in some time . . . it just killed the momentum of the show. I’ll even concede it was dramatically important so long as I’m allowed to acknowledge I kinda-sorta wanted to bail on the whole thing. It wasn’t until stuff got well and truly weird, once we got to the land-after-time—you know, the place that had a crashed Thanos helicopter in the background, just one piece of detritus from all the alternate universes in the world—that the show picked up again.

I mentioned Rick and Morty and, I’ll be honest, that’s because I saw someone on Twitter note that the showrunner, Michael Waldron, was also a writer for that animated series. But it wasn’t shocking that they shared a pedigree. After all, both programs have a fascination with alternate worlds and endless variations. And, crucially, they’ve both managed to figure out how to get us to care when anything and everything is possible, when characters are, roughly, interchangeable. Maintaining not only dramatic stakes but also an emotional bond with viewers when infinite worlds mean that anyone can die an infinite number of times and yet return a scene later is no mean feat.

As to “what it all means” or “what’s up next for the show,” well, a version of me in every other timeline has already written a succinct and elegant summation. Too bad you’re stuck in this one.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association