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EntertainmentIs ‘Loki’ a True Marvel Variant? Or Just a...

Is ‘Loki’ a True Marvel Variant? Or Just a Fun Experiment?

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One thing Marvel knows how to do is expand a story. Think back to the nascent days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the early ’00s. The so-called Phase 1 was about building out the superhero roster with individual film narratives that would dovetail into a big crossover movie: “The Avengers.” A decade and a half later, the crossovers are old hat, the Easter eggs are expected, and a spate of new movies and TV shows continue to provide an influx of stories and characters that branch off into their own universes.

You could even say the M.C.U. resembles a branching timeline — that’s what a member of the Time Variant Authority, or T.V.A., the bureaucracy at the center of the Disney+ series “Loki,” would say. Because for all the interdimensional fun the series has, “Loki,” which wrapped up last week, is a philosophical dialogue that also functions as a metacommentary on Marvel’s storytelling. The show’s central theme about the value of order versus chaos reflects how the M.C.U., as it expands across Disney+ and beyond, alternatively presents and breaks from contained, linear narratives and rote character types.

Although Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the sometime nemesis and sometime ally of the Avengers, was killed by Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” the Asgardian now appears — resurrected! — in his own series. But it’s only a resurrection in a branding sense: The series centers on an earlier version of Loki, one who escapes the Battle of New York, from the first “Avengers” film, with the all-powerful glow-box (known as the Tesseract). His escape with the Tesseract causes a branch in the timeline, an offense that gets him first arrested by the T.V.A. and then recruited by one of the group’s agents, Mobius (Owen Wilson), to help catch a female “variant” Loki (Sophia Di Martino) who has been disregarding the rules of other timelines. In an inspired, if awkward, Freudian twist, the two Lokis fall for each other and team up to dismantle the T.V.A. before eventually finding themselves at odds.

From the beginning, “Loki” was an odd addition to the M.C.U. because it, like the recent “Black Widow” film, tried retroactively to give a back story and growth to a character who was already dead in the central M.C.U. timeline. More intriguing, it repositioned a character who had been an antagonist and a foil to Avengers like his adopted brother, the Norse golden boy Thor, as the hero of his own story, one that undermined what we had already seen happen in the franchise.

By making another version of Loki a hero, the series itself is acting as a variant. In general, Marvel has been using its latest Disney+ shows to deviate from the often wearying, even oppressive, timeline that the films have established. These side stories open up the world to more subtle, interesting narratives: “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” allowed their heroes to develop in terms of both superhero abilities and emotional depth.

But whatever their divergences, these stories always end up leashed to the main M.C.U. narrative — Marvel’s own inviolable timeline, which often yields an awkward result. “WandaVision” used its classic TV parodies to cleverly explore the contours of grief and emotional escapism until its “Avengers” adjacency apparently demanded a requisite explosive ending. Sam Wilson (Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) wrestled with trauma and its consequences, but the specter of Captain America, and the question of whether Sam would ultimately take up the shield, took over the story in the end.

In “Loki,” the Asgardian discovers that everything is predestined, even his identity. Loki is supposed to be a villain, and he is supposed to lose. There are no other options. What the series asks is, how does a character whose purpose is simply to accentuate, by way of contrast, the strengths and flaws of others, lead his own story?

The series certainly struggles to answer that question at first; Loki seems out of place in his own show. When the show allows him to be less of a reactionary character — he gets his own foils in the form of his many variants — he finally feels like the focus of the narrative. He evolves, proving that Loki can win and be honest and loving and compassionate. And just as “Loki” challenges how its title character is defined, so does the series break him out of the sole function he has served in the M.C.U. thus far.

As a loyal T.V.A. agent, Mobius, as he tells Loki, believes that his job is to maintain an ultimate sense of order — even if that order appears to rob the universe of free will. What happens when the timeline is all sorted out, without branches? “Just order, and we meet in peace at the end of time,” Mobius says.

“Only order? No chaos?” Loki responds. “That sounds boring.”

Marvel risks undercutting itself with “Loki” and with each bit of narrative chaos introduced by its latest shows. How can anything have emotional stakes when there is always a loophole or deus ex machina around the corner? (Indeed, “Loki” takes place in a closed loop, which by the series’s end has reset.) And at what point does narrative consistency fall apart and give us an indecipherable jumble of contradicting events?

The franchise wants to subscribe to both a traditional mode of storytelling and a bit of narrative chaos in the form of time travel, multiple universes and nonlinear shifts in time and space — all of which allow for deviations from the main story line. But the more variant stories we get, the more unstable and convoluted the whole structure becomes.

“Loki” is a fun touch of chaos for Loki fans, myself included, but it makes me wonder how much longer the relative order of the M.C.U. franchise’s central chronology can sustain the backpedaling and jumps and reversals, even within their own pockets of time. The vast megaverse that is Marvel already hosts countless characters and stories, and yet having one in which Loki is still alive is infinitely more fun.

But as delightful as “Loki” is conceptually, to me it felt like simply a fun, diverting experiment. What Marvel will do with the results of this experiment is another story. This season’s cliffhanger ending means that the full measure of the series’s success and impact is still to come, whether in the second season promised in the finale or in the broader M.C.U.

Is “Loki” truly a variant within the M.C.U.? Will it introduce reverberations throughout the films and TV shows going forward, or will it be essentially isolated in its own playful thought bubble? If the former, I suspect the Marvel won’t be able to sustain the full heft of the master narrative, with all of those branches, forever — that is, unless Marvel fully embraces chaos and lets the M.C.U. fracture into separate multiverses without such a restrictive overarching timeline. After all, if the god of mischief has taught us anything, it’s that a little bit of chaos can go a long way.



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