Reviews | Written by Paul Mount 15/07/2021

LOKI, Episode Six – FOR ALL TIME. ALWAYS

Marvel Studios stands at something of a crossroads at the moment – and it’s quite possible that it doesn’t even realise it yet. Across 24 feature films over 10 years, they have carefully curated an extraordinary run of adventures featuring comic book characters who have encapsulated and dominated the zeitgeist and redefined our understanding of superhero cinema and also developed an interlocking mythology that has grown in confidence and boldness with virtually each new entry in the series. But the odd foray into alien invasions, time travel, and magical shenanigans aside, the films have largely presented relatable characters with extraordinary abilities and placed them in a recognisable (albeit massively heightened) ‘real world’ setting. By and large, it’s been the Stan Lee template writ large and it’s been pretty magnificent most of the time. However, there’s no denying that there’s a certain ‘formula’ to the product; narrative tramlines the storytelling follows; regular beats that each film seems to hit as they endeavour to connect with the largest possible audience. Many have been wondering for some time if Marvel has the nerve to stretch its wings a little, to think outside its hugely-successful box and dig a little deeper into the comic book toybox, especially as many of its big hitter characters have now either retired from the series or been killed off.

WandaVision earlier this year made it quite clear that Marvel’s Phase 4 is looking to go to some darker and more challenging places and, along with Loki, started seeding ideas and story elements that will bear fruit in films and TV series further along the line. But these ideas are very definitely not the wham-bam superhero action Marvel has perfected across the last decade and they inevitably raise some questions as to quite how weird, bizarre and downright out there we’re going to go and, perhaps more importantly, if the audience is going to be able to hang on for the ride or will be shaken off or will just plain lose interest in stories that require a significantly more detailed recollection of arcane plot points from previous productions or may be just too far removed from the MCU’s 'reality' to engage and captivate in the manner of the more straight-forward heroes vs villains narratives.

The finale of Loki is very much a case in point. For All Time. Always finally provides some explanation for what we’ve been watching across the previous five episodes in a very talky, largely action-free episode that even the most determined Marvel devotee will have needed to watch twice in order to fully appreciate its nuances and ramifications. Having gained access to the mysterious 'Citadel at the End of Time', Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) finally secure an audience with the man behind it all… the mysterious He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), who explains the origins and purpose of the Time Variance Authority and the concept of the multiverse and the dire consequences its existence could have for the entire universe. It’s heady and absorbing stuff and, as we know, it’s all going to play out across forthcoming Phase 4 titles. But we can’t help wondering what yer actual casual Marvel fan, the ones who, ten years ago, wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Iron Man and an iron and to whom the word Thor suggested little more than an irritating chafing condition, is going to make of this massively expanded and frankly potentially mind-boggling new multiverse of storytelling possibilities. Variants of this, alternate versions of that, characters leaping from universe to universe (we suspect)… manna from heaven for long-time comics fans but all a bit bewildering for the comic world virgins who have come on board in recent times. There’s a parallel here with Russell T Davies’s inclusive, comprehensible and relatable Doctor Who reboot, which drifted into a confusion of underdeveloped time travel paradox stories and unresolvable, uninteresting complex story arcs under the stewardship of his successor Steven Moffat. Doctor Who lost a lot of its popular currency and to this day is struggling to entice it back. Is Marvel risking the same sort of audience attrition by venturing into more surreal and less linear storytelling? Time will tell, of course. No-one wants Marvel to tread water but there’s a real risk that they could drift out of their – and their audience’s – depth if they offer up too many stories that don’t work as standalone pieces and require the audience to have devoured every moment of every product in every medium. A cinema audience that hasn‘t seen  WandaVision and Loki is quite likely to be a bit bemused by the time Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange And the Multiverse of Madness roll around and in the end, we have to trust that Marvel will find a way to make these stories play for audiences who don’t live and breathe Marvel lore. We’re relying on you to not drop the ball on this one. Kevin Feige and co…

Loki itself, then, wraps up in a way that’s both satisfying and frustrating – even as it teases us with the promise of Season Two. But teasing is what Loki has really been all about, laying the foundations for future stories but in the process sometimes forgetting to tell a proper one itself. What it has excelled at, though, is some good character work, especially for Loki himself, who finally realises that he has to turn his back on his ‘bad’ side – characterised here by Sylvie, who remains determined to be the bad-ass – if he is to do the right thing for the universe. Jonathan Majors, who fans know is already cast as Kang the Conqueror in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania here appears as a benign variant incarnation of the character. In Loki, he’s a bit glib and flippant but this is probably to emphasise the version of the character we’ll be meeting in due course and it falls to him to finally join the dots and explain what the entire series has been about and how the multiverse – the true nature of which we can only now begin to appreciate – came into being. It’s actually intriguing and thrilling stuff if you can get your head around it and ultimately, even Loki realises the dreadful potential of its existence, especially as it now expands out of control and beyond the capacity of the TVA to reign it in. The episode ends with Sylvie dispatching He Who Remains at his request but unleashing something far worse from the multiverse as Loki returns to the TVA and finds it – and its core personnel including Mobius K Mobius (Owen Wilson) and Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) – not quite the people he remembered.

Loki is very probably a series whose reputation will increase with the passage of time and once we have seen how everything that follows it and is connected to it plays out. As it ends, it’s hard to reconcile the flabby and sluggish third and fifth episodes with stronger instalments such as the first and fourth and, indeed, the finale. But whether or not you tuned into its weird aesthetic and challenging storytelling, there’s no denying that this was a big, broad, lavish, and massively impressive production, Marvel daring to think outside its very particular box and inviting its audience to take its time and join them on this new, uncertain adventure into uncharted waters. But the end result will either go one of two ways; Marvel will crash and burn as it loses the sympathies and attention of its wider audience or it will take them along into brave new worlds well out of their comfort zone and they will embrace it and love it and take it all in their stride. It’s a crossroads moment for Marvel and, like the multiverse itself, there’s probably no end to where they’re going next…