Fairly early in “Loki,” the latest superhero side dish Marvel is serving up on Disney+, the deceitful Norse god of the title has a reckoning — a come-to-Stan Lee moment, if you will. He gets a peek into what could be his future (a future we’ve already seen in multiple Marvel films, which allows for the recycling of some pricey intellectual property) and it doesn’t please him. It doesn’t scare him straight, exactly, but it persuades him to cooperate with the good guys and become the wisecracking consultant to a team of heavily armed time cops.
It’s a premise reminiscent of a largely British genre of comic-fantasy sci-fi, the territory of “Doctor Who,” Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, and it carries a promise of straightforward mystery and adventure. (Two of six episodes were available for review.) It also distinguishes “Loki” from its Disney+ predecessors, the high-concept “WandaVision” and the Avengers-lite “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” each of which put a heavier spin on its comics-based material. (Family trauma in the first instance, race and class allegory in the second.)
A little lightness is welcome, and the 45-minute episodes of “Loki” fly by painlessly, though they may not deliver quite as much jokey satisfaction per minute as you’d like. If the writing has dull patches, there’s always the company of a stellar cast, headlined by Tom Hiddleston as Loki and filled out by Owen Wilson as Loki’s detective partner from the Time Variance Authority, Wunmi Mosaku as a SWAT cop of the pure time stream and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a judge in time court.
The focus on time is the vehicle by which Marvel once again brings back Loki, who was killed two “Avengers” films ago. In the most recent film, “Avengers: Endgame,” a time-travel plotline enabled him to make a cameo reappearance; that wrinkle in the continuum is now, in the series, the explanation for his apprehension by the T.V.A., which monitors past, present and future for divergences from the proper course of events. (That implies predestination, raising a lot of troubling questions for the larger Marvel universe, which are addressed briefly and unsatisfactorily.)
Hiddleston is, as always, significantly overqualified for the mix of jesting arrogance and slightly buffoonish insecurity that constitute the character. He carries off Loki’s astonishment at the authority’s existence (its agents are able to erase all traces of their intrusions into the time stream) and his indignation at being its captive — all with the same ease with which Loki, when not wearing his prison collar, snaps himself from one place to another. If anything, it’s a little too easy, and as the star rather than a supporting player, Hiddleston can sometimes appear to be coasting through the so-so material.
A hallmark of the Marvel-Disney+ productions so far has been their self-conscious desire to show that they have more on their minds than typical superhero series. “Loki” also goes for some extra texture in a comparatively easygoing and thereby successful manner. There’s an amusing element of oppressive office comedy among the harried clerks and claustrophobic warrens of the time authority. (A running joke is Loki’s refusal to believe that this petty bureaucracy is the most powerful outfit in the universe.) And there’s a not-too-heavy-handed metafictional thread about the ways in which managing the timeline is akin to building a fantasy story — or, by extension, to overseeing an immense comics-based entertainment empire.
Disney+’s propensity to dole out review episodes sparingly — its release of just three episodes of “WandaVision,” with its backloaded plot, made early reviews practically pointless — leaves you wondering, hopefully, whether “Loki” will up the pressure as it goes along, adding some more energy and wit to match the skills of its cast. (Not even seen yet is the always wonderfully droll Richard E. Grant.) The show’s head writer, Michael Waldron, is a rising Marvel star — he’s also the writer of the coming Doctor Strange feature — whose previous work was in the wacky-cerebral sphere of Dan Harmon, on “Community” and “Rick and Morty.” A little less Marvel and a little more “Rick and Morty” would be something to look forward to.