I liked WandaVision aside from a few quibbles with the final episode and I thought The Falcon & the Winter Soldier was mostly terrible. Loki, at least to start, is superior to both of them and features the most exciting addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Black Panther. Thankfully all the cool lore is kept spry and entertaining by Tom Hiddleston, the man who made The Avengers work and made The Dark World at least vaguely watchable.

There’s not much to say plot-wise about the first episode — or, by god, the second episode — without delving into spoiler territory, which is best avoided. To the best of my ability: The key challenge for Loki is overcoming the fact that it’s a show about a character who had a solid four-movie story arc that led to a well-earned redemption and death being brought back to life through slightly nonsensical time-travel shenanigans that also erase most of that character development. Loki, Vision and Gamora are the three big “permanent” deaths in Infinity War, and Loki is now the second of those to be resurrected with the third likely in 2023’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3. Vision returned in WandaVision, but that was an easy fix: He’s a robot who never got his due. Loki is a little more difficult, but director Kate Herron and writer Michael Waldron make the right choice: They spend an episode answering the question head-on, and by the end of the first episode it feels less like a contrivance to keep a popular character and more like a surprisingly thematically juicy sci-fi concept grafted into the MCU.

I tend to be more forgiving than most when it comes to Marvel because their nuts-and-bolts storytelling gets the job done and their products have always been good to great. (There are plenty of exceptions to that rule, a few of which were released post-Endgame). They don’t break the mold often, which is fine. When they do, though … this show absolutely sings.

There are, of course, the hallmarks of Marvel’s budget-conscious productions, which have been more evident in the Disney+ shows thus far. WandaVision got past it by making the cheap, single-set focused episodes part of the story. The Falcon & the Winter Soldier never figured out how to make a few warehouses and a court building in Prague look like a dozen different locations, which was a shame. Loki benefits, thus far, from two cheats: Most of the action takes place in the bizarro Time Variance Authority offices, a yellow-sepia mid-century modern take on a generic government office, and most of the time travel is cheekily designed to fit into a low-budget mold.

Additionally, Loki adds Owen Wilson as Mr. Morbius, a TVA detective who brings this new version of Loki into the fold. Wilson’s performance is a perfect complement to Hiddleston’s Loki. The best scenes in the show are the two of them sitting in various locations playing verbal chess. This isn’t a show that requires a big budget and huge action sequences to get its point across. Like WandaVision, the pleasure here is in the performances and the chemistry, which saves it from feeling like a cheapo production by the richest studio in the world.

Again: Not much else to be said about the actual story here because the pleasure of the first episode is the disorientation. The second episode has its own exciting developments. Thankfully Loki is paced like a series should be: Each episode is a distinct story that builds to a whole. A bonu is that the overall story also moves quickly through these first two episodes, after which some mysteries are solved and new situations have presented themselves. None of that Netflix wheel-spinning crap. This is a show with real vision and an exciting debut for Marvel that kicks off what will hopefully be a really great back-half of 2021 for the world’s most consistent franchise.