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Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki
(2021)

(SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road)? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Mobius: You throw a rock out here, you hit a Loki.

The first episode (Glorious Purpose) presented reasonable cause, given its iconography, to suspect we would be following in the Disney+ series’ footsteps and conclude Loki would be hitting any number of woke pass points – Woki, anyone? – not least in the emphasis on white male characters (Loki, Owen Wilson’s Mobius M Mobius) being humiliated by, submitting to or offering due defrence to black female superiors (to wit: “I’m always looking up to you. I like it. it’s appropriate”). Of course, these superiors are later shown to be pawns too, dictated to by an AI (well, animatronic timekeepers) that is in turn to dictated to by a black man, Jonathan Majors’ He Who Remains (in context of the story being told, Kang is both God and demiurge, inflicting his sense of order on an unruly realm: “The universe waits to break free, so it manifests chaos”).

Which means anyone looking for consistency in Disney’s woke agenda will be on a losing streak (which was also why some were able to argue Captain America and the Winter Soldier was anti-woke. I mean, as if). Jason Johnson has it that Loki “is the Black Lives Matter story we didn’t know we needed” – is there any other kind? – as Sylvie (a Karen) attempts to “take down this entire Black-run business”, on account of “a Black man who’s been holding the entire universe together”; this leads to a Karen killing said black man (“It’s literally a ‘We Wuz KANGZ’ meme come to life”). Sure, it’s a reading, and one I wouldn’t put past Disney, but it’s a very messy one thematically, if intended. Not least because you might reasonably argue, by implication, that He Who Remains is the one good black man (assuming the Kangs aren’t all blue) in the multiverse (or as he puts it, the least evil). And whether or not the casting and characterisation is effective in pushing woke/progressive buttons, the show is still predominately rooted in the relationship between two white men (Loki and Mobius), at least until the Mobius has to make room for his female Loki variant.

For this is the show’s other bid for wokeness unbound, and there are some consistent signifiers here (provided you don’t conclude Sylvie’s simply a Karen). Sophie Di Martino is introduced as main antagonist/co-tagonist/romantic interest Sylvie, there to show that she’s quicker, smarter and more productive than silly old male Loki ever was. Showrunner Michael Waldron falls into the classic trap of making Sylvie all attitude and little wit – which means she pales on that score next to pretty much every variant Loki we see, including the crocodile - yet she’s entirely posited, and repeatedly so, on showing herself to be superior to her male equivalent. Even, when it comes down to it, in the villainous stakes (unleashing the multiverse/killing a black man at the end, something Loki, prior to developing a conscience, would surely have done).

This isn’t, of course, a new thing; the counter strategy of the “surprisingly” effective and gutsy, then-stereotype-busting female character has been percolating through modern Hollywood mainstream narratives at least since Leia didn’t just need rescuing, and growing exponentially since Buffy quipped her way through her every staking (now, there’s what happens when you have an emblematically woke showrunner). In the present socio-political environment, though, any such narrative choice will immediately look as if it is supporting the overall agenda, and nine times out of ten, it will be. Sylvie is effectively a Mary Sue for much of Loki’s running time, miraculously self-taught and super skilled; she’s only really besieged by angst during the final episode, where her personal growth is subordinate to the show’s actual star (there were doubtless some who thought Loki’s pruning in 1.4: The Nexus Event signalled his permanent exit, what with the procession of She Hulks and Iron Maidens hearts and Hawkchicks replacements in the pipe). Doubtless her action will be rehabilitated in due course. Perhaps she’ll even apologise to a Kang variant for all the crimes she has, by implication, committed on Kangs everywhere throughout history.

Di Martino gives an engaged performance as Sylvie, within the straightjacket of a bolshie (“strong female”) character in a knockoff Underworld/Resident Evil costume. Albeit, her choice to retain her Midlands accent may have been because it “wouldn’t suit the experience that Sylvie’s had” (whatever that means; I guess she’s been hanging around a whole lot of regional/working-class apocalypses, preventing her from mustering RP), but it smacks of the same slightly tired thinking – imitation in other words – that we’ve found in that other so-woke bastion of race and gender-swapping, nu-Who. Where we’ve most recently been treated to Jodie “ey-up” Whittaker (like cisgendered white maleness, RP is a signal of elitism and malign difference, which must be fought at every quarter; it’s a wonder even that Hiddleston, media-sanctioned “romance” with Taylor Swift or no, should even have been granted a series where he doesn’t outright hand over the baton).

Loki: A bit of both I suspect the same of you.

Perhaps more significant than the simple presence of Sylvie as Loki’s superior – the degenerate, cultured white male – is the show’s rather ironic biggest talking point. Because, for all that Waldron and director Kate Herron offer all the right press-fodder soundbites, the grand reveal of Loki’s bisexuality amounts to a throwaway exchange. Rather like the way the half-arsed way Black Widow gets her own movie after she’s dead, only cheaper, I’m unconvinced Feige is actually that good at steering the MCU in a direction he isn’t a hundred percent behind (you only have to go through his interviews over the past year or so to note someone spouting desperately unpersuasive guff when it comes to the woke train). What’s important, first and foremost, is to be able to tick that box, so as not to be attacked for ignoring said box.

And so, as if by magic, or god of mischief, we now have encapsulated Marvel’s great strides towards a fully-formed, genderfluid superhero (or villain, albeit all the same with Disney and their veneration of Cruella and Maleficent and the like). And yet, it’s singularly notable that the show’s one romantic engagement is a “heterosexual” one between this genderfluid individual (the wiki page refers to Loki as “the first major queer character in the MCU”; not if you ducked to the loo for those fifteen seconds, he/she isn’t). Of course, that’s neither here nor there in the broader scheme, if one perceives the transgender movement as but a stage in the inevitable journey to gender-free transhumanism. Loki does, after all, discover that true, if fleeting, happiness is an interpersonal relationship with him/herself, sealed with a kiss. So, in that sense, Loki arguably behaves quite dutifully.

Crucially to Loki, if you’re set on foisting an agenda wholesale, the multiverse is a much more seamless and elegant way of doing so than the “Ey ba gum, I’ve got no knackers now” of Chibbers Who. Indeed, the entire premise of Loki is a strong one, even if it doesn’t always pay off. The TVA (Time Variance Authority) making sure time proceeds as it should makes a virtue of something Doctor Who’s Time Lords always soft pedalled (and only two stories in its history fall into the “Variance” conceptual framework). Like Robert Holmes’ vision of Gallifrey, though, the TVA is inherently corrupt, however noble its stated intent. As Mobius observes, “Well, I guess, when you think the ends justify the means, there isn’t much you won’t do” (which might be the same argument given for inoculating ninety percent of the population, with the Georgia Guidestones as your guide, provided of course, one credits the plan’s exponents with even bothering to justify the ends).

The bureaucratic paraphernalia and utilitarian functionality of the TVA is straight out of Holmes too, along with lip service paid to religious iconography (“Guilty of a crime against the sacred timeline?”) The mockery/incredulity shown by Loki towards his imprisonment is actually the bigger clue to the larger story early on, rather than the set up itself being dubious (“The idea that your little club decides the fate of billions of people across all of existence at the behest of three space lizards, yes, it’s funny”).

Parcelled with this are some genuinely neat, if appropriated ideas. Even not knowing the plot details in advance, it was absolutely no surprise the kick-ass variant “antagonist” is a female Loki – for all the reasons outlined above – but her means of survival, of hiding in apocalypses, from Pompei AD79 (alternatively… 1631) to 2050 (some have given this as the bookend to our current era), is very A Sound of Thunder and its time-travelling dinosaur hunts, the idea being that the Butterfly Effect is avoided by taking a trip somewhere about to be destroyed.

The fake-out Timekeepers is a good twist too. It’s only what happens subsequently that rather diminishes the solid plotting. Everything taking place in the “void at the end of time” is on the highly entertaining side (especially REG) but there’s also something a little facile about it. Not just that pruning fails to prune really, but also the modern narrative mantra that no one stays dead; turns out “But we don’t die. We survive” doesn’t apply only to Lokis but to anyone who is pruned, at least until Alioth gets them (again, there’s something vaguely gnostic about this, a void of dead matter at the end of creation, comprising discarded, failed creation cycles). By this point too, I just wanted Mobius to stay dead. And I was already well aware that, if Loki has an idea, it will be rubbish, and Sylvie will have a much better one.

It’s interesting to note the push-pull of philosophies here, in terms of whether they’re being embraced, tested or messaged. “Existence is chaos. Nothing makes any sense. So we try to make some sense of it” says Mobius in 1.2: The Variant; Loki, as the antithetical force, is fundamentally opposed to the idea that he makes no sense, that there is “No such thing as freewill”. And if he carries that forward (particularly in a character arc that sees him push towards valuing order, or at least considering it), the show as a whole leads, with its unleashing of the multiverse, to the conclusion that all is chaos (while Loki mixes and matches, the multiverse is very much the new aliens for Hollywood). The debate over free will and causality is expectedly obtuse, meanwhile (“What they did was supposed to happen. You escaping was not” is the response to the Avengers messing with time).

As noted too, the rehabilitation of the “villain” is intrinsic to current Disney lore: “No one bad is ever truly bad, and no one good is ever really good”. This is the Mouse House’s new mantra, when before it was entirely the opposite (which isn’t to say all those stories about Walt aren’t true, but he at least put on a good show). Included in this, implicitly, are those who would prune us (“They’re all Variants like us. They don’t know”). “We’re all villains here”: yes, if you think that way, all manner of wanton destruction is permissible.

That extends to He Who Remains, part of the show – and being at the end, 1.6: For All Time. Always, some might say the most important part – that didn’t really work for me. Be it the Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka, the architect (or The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect) of the scheme proving someone entirely unremarkable isn’t new. Iron Man Three played this card to smart – and divisive – effect. But it’s also such a familiar device that, when it comes encumbered with layers of exposition as here, it is fraught with the potential to underwhelm.

Certainly, Jonathan Majors’ performance struck a bum note. It’s too easy a choice to play the part as a clown; doubtless the idea will be for Majors to summon acres of gravitas when he’s incarnating subsequent nasty versions of Kang, but that shouldn’t mean sacrificing the effectiveness of the here-and-now climax: “If you think I’m evil, just wait until you meet my variants”. It’s the John Sim Saturday night, colloquially caffeinated Master approach, where he’s never once a formidable foe. Or as bad, Buffy Season Six’s evil nerds. There are even some obscure (apparently) references in the mix, such as knowing the entire conversation, which evokes the self-penned script of The Mind Robber (“You can’t kill me because I already know what’s going to happen”). And doubtless it will be celebrated because it’s Loki, but the series basically ends on the Tm Burton Planet of the Apes cliffhanger (which I don’t mind, because I’m in the minority who found the movie, Wahlberg aside, quite watchable).

Loki: Have any of you ever met a woman Variant of us?
Classic Loki: Sounds terrifying.

I have to say, I found the casting of Loki mostly off. REG gets an unreserved two thumbs up as Classic Loki. His rather apologetic costume and Withnail-eseque cadence (“You bastard! You led the wolves to our door”) suggest it was written with him in mind, and it’s nice too that they give him a Ride of the Valkyrie glory moment (I wouldn’t be surprised, being such a crowd pleaser, if we see him again). Sasha Lane was also strong in the small part of Hunter C-20, enchanted then pruned. The rest, though.

I’m tired of Owen Wilson’s schtick. He may have been off the screen for a few years, but I didn’t miss him, and I found the characterisation of Mobius both repetitive and irksome, all things Wilson underlines (I used to really like the guy, but twenty years can dampen one’s enthusiasm rather). Gugu Mbatha-Raw is also a big miss; she’s always been emphatically on the lightweight side, and that doesn’t change any here. As for Wunmi Mosaku, she strikes a mighty blow against sizeism everywhere with her armoured battle bosom entering a room several minutes before the rest of her.

Loki: What can I say? I'm a mischievous scamp.

Hiddleston, however, proves wholly why he was such a hit in the MCU hitherto – far more so than Chris Hemsworth initially – relishing a great character, with great lines (mostly) and great delivery (sometimes with a trace of Rik Mayall about him). Production values are as one would expect, albeit the apocalyptic quarry of 1.3: Lamentis is “endearingly” old school. A word for Natalie Holt’s score too, and the simple but effective opening titles. As for director Herron, one might wonder what it was in her resume that saw her singled out for such a prestige project. The truth, like any “good” MCU director, is that she’s infinitely malleable, some might even say fluid, as their latest tick-box figurehead (Kate’s bisexual, so she’s perfect to make a show with a fleeting reference to the lead character’s bisexuality. You go, Marvel!)

Loki is agenda-laden then, as one would expect, and as such, I’m almost reluctant to admit I enjoyed it, for the implications that brings of endorsing its messaging (you know, the way liking Dirty Harry makes you a fascist); it represents a definite uptick on its two predecessors by managing to tell a largely propulsive story, one ignited by an energetic and enthused lead. Of course, the plot developments here open up a Pandora’s box for the MCU of being able to reset everything – so mirroring the real world – which is just the way it suits Feige’s bosses. When Loki observes during the final episode “So it’s all a manipulation”, he got that bit right.




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