Recap: Loki, Episode One: “The Clip Show”

Art: @markinternet with apologies to Ian Dingman and Criterion

If the Infinity Saga was the MCU at its most classic comic book bullshittery (in largely a good way!), Loki is the MCU at its most modern limited run comic bullshittery (in not as good a way). It’s a sort of clever take that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is—and littered with some of the worst trappings of lazy comedy writing. (“If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, it’s a bad idea”; “That’s SO messed up!”) But, in fairness, this is only the premiere. Here’s how it plays.

Titled “Glorious Purpose,” the episode opens on what ends up being the first of numerous flashbacks. Jumping back to Avengers: Endgame, we see Loki disrupt the continuity of the first Avengers: The time-traveling titular superheroes allow him to nab the Tesseract, and he uses its power to teleport away and escape capture.

Now, for whatever reason, we see he gets teleported to Mongolia. It doesn’t really matter, because he’s not there long. Moments later, he’s apprehended by some sort of Time Cops who probably can’t even do a split from prone on the floor and onto a countertop.

These jerks transport Loki to The Time Variance Authority (TVA), custodians of the Marvel [Comics/Cinematic Universe] unified timeline, here represented as an infinitely vast, Brazil-ified authoritarian bureaucracy doing all the heavy lifting. It’s something we’ve seen before, but damn if it doesn’t look sharp. Not since High-Rise has a ripped Tom Hilddleston been placed in such a retro ‘70s office meets oppressively brutalist building. You love to see it.

But, again, very familiar: a multi-armed robot with a clunkily-expressive CRT-screen face feels very Fallout; the instructional cartoon that explains the convoluted premise is straight out of Jurassic Park down to its Southern lilt; and following up what’s visually the Rio de Janeiro of this Brazil by introducing a character with dwarfism would drive Terry Gilliam mad (were Michael Palin to strap him to a chair and torture him with watching a Marvel TV show).

Meanwhile, off in France (this show loves faking arbitrary, terrestrial locations, right?), Owen Wilson’s Mobius M. Mobius is investigating some other timecrime or whatever in a church. He talks to a young witness, asking who’s responsible, and the kid points to a stained glass image of Satan. This presumably has geeks screaming.

Since the satanic image in the glass has big curved horns—and that we later find out that some other timeline’s Loki has been out there committing timecrimes—the kid is likely pinning this on the God of Mischief. BUT. It’s also been consistently rumored that Mephisto, who’s basically the Devil of Marvel, will be the MCU’s next Big Baddie. So this could end up being a wink at the new, crimson Thanos to come. But it’s probably just Loki because of the horns. Either way, it’s honestly not worth over-analyzing. This isn’t Twin Peaks; it’s the third show about comic book characters Disney has put out this year.

Anyway, back at the TVA, Loki faces Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s judge, who loosely explains that he was not meant to escape and mess up the canonical MCU timeline. If you’re wondering, “Wait, didn’t the Avengers expressly fuck with the timeline as the lion’s share of an 181-minute movie?” so is Loki. Lampshading the issue, he asks why the Avengers aren’t culpable, and we get this blowoff response: “What they did was supposed to happen.” So that’s that!

This courtroom scene also has this whole bit where Loki keeps doing these exaggerated flexes to… ignite(?) his magic or something. Joke’s on him, because, in another casual explain-away, magic doesn’t work here! Joke’s not on us at all, because the gag misses the audience wholly. It’s such a bad, obvious physical bit that makes you feel bad Hiddleston had to try and sell it. You’d swear Joss Whedon was still pissing in Thor’s Age of Ultron pool to get this kind of hacky crap in there.

Anyway, Loki is about to be found guilty, but Mobius bails him out. It seems he has other plans for Loki. Also, plans to turn Loki into a clip show.

So Mobius starts taking Loki to this interrogation room, but on the way they get a big window view of the dense city center around them. Loki is inexplicably in absolute awe.

“I thought there was no magic here,” he stammers at what’s basically a three-second establishing shot from The Fifth Element. “That’s not real.”

It’s like, the guy has been alive for who knows how long, is able to travel anywhere on a goddamn magic rainbow bridge, and this crowded, futuristic metropolis that isn’t even as wild as a lot of stuff in Guardians of the Galaxy is for some reason blowing his mind. This guy led a flying army of disgusting alien things to conquer New York City, but briefly show him an urban hell of a few flying cars and fifty Space Needles and he’s about to faint.

When the two arrive at an interrogation room, we finally get to the real meat of this thing. It’s a classic psychological cop vs. criminal duel, but Hiddleston and Wilson really pull it off—particularly Wilson. As typical when he’s in his villainous role, Hiddlestone goes charmingly big, but it’s Wilson’s subdued detective schtick that manages to steal (and sell) the show. As overstretched as Disney+’s Marvel lineup is, a Columbo-style thing with Mobius would be eminently watchable. And you gotta love that Wilson dropped the ongoing Golden Retriever hair for this mustachioed Roger Sterling look. He should 100% keep this in every role going forward—mustache included.

The mismatched duo talk, and the relationship builds to a sort of A Christmas Carol routine. Mobius questions whether Loki is truly malevolent, and starts showing him scenes from his past and approved-timeline future. The weirdest of these is the reveal that Loki was D.B. Cooper, which, based on Loki’s trailer, seemed to be a whole thing. Here it’s presented as a jokey footnote, as if the creators couldn’t help themselves from shooting the sequence before knowing where it fit in the narrative: In 1971, Thor simply dared Loki to hijack an Earth plane for a $200,000 ransom, and Loki did, and that’s all there is to say about that. How terribly Gump-ian.

Then the clip show starts in earnest. Loki watches his mom die in Thor: The Dark World; he sees his brother finally show love and respect for him as they fight side by side in Thor: Ragnarok; and he sees his death at the hand of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Weepy and faced with his own mortality, Loki is now caught up in his character development. He’s ready to be an antihero again!

Marvel seems to love when a dumb little doohickey can easily subdue an actual god (see: Thor: Ragnarok’s electro-whatever). Here, that doohickey is a neck collar that can transport a person back to a prior space in time. True to his self-proclaimed title as a “mischievous scamp” (Wilson’s later reading of that is so good), Loki manages to steal the controller for his collar, escape the interrogation room, and retrieve the Tesseract. Given that Loki soon after returns to the room of his own accord, it would be a pretty frivolous excursion were it not for at least one fun-enough detail: the TVA’s drawer of confiscated items is just littered with Infinity Stones. It makes sense those would be at the heart of a lot of time-fucking events. (Also, for anyone wondering whether at least their magic works here: no, it apparently doesn’t.)

So finally, back in that cool-looking ‘70s room, Loki has his Scrooge revelation and Mobius reveals the overarching plot of the series: He needs Loki to help him hunt another so-called timeline “variant”—because, you won’t believe this, but that variant is another Loki. One who didn’t get an accelerated catch-up on his character arc!

In a closing scene, we see this other Loki lure some TVA cops to Oklahoma (again, such an arbitrary, terrestrial location!), only to set them on fire in a puddle of oil. Like the locale, seems boringly pedestrian for the God of Mischief, but alright.

The Marvel movies have gotten a lot of flack for looking blandly samey. WandaVision shouldn’t get credit for changing that when its only deviations came as pastiche, but it’s seeming like Loki may. Sure, it likewise borders on pastiche with its obvious influences, but there’s hardly denying this episode looked better and sounded better (composer Natalie Holt should be upgraded to feature duties) than the vast majority of the Marvel oeuvre. We’ll have to see how the look holds up across the series—because, honestly, the exteriors were nothing to talk about.

But mainly, please let creator, episode one writer, and three-time Dan Harmon collaborator find better jokes than [man gets killed for not having ticket; Loki, cartoonishly frantic, produces ticket]. We’ve all seen The Last Crusade, dude.

Please help these sad nobodies and: