Earlier this week, I wrote a pretty positive review of The Marvels, the film that may go down in history as Marvel’s creative and financial nadir. I quibble with the first notion. The latter is undeniable. The film’s box-office black hole will be so severe it’s already wiped Marvel Studios’ 2024 slate clear of everything but the supposedly slam-dunk Deadpool 3, and it seems inevitable the studio will cancel many of the long-gestating minor stories they’d planned. (That new incarnation of Blade may have its 10th release date now, but I doubt we’ll see it.)

Thus 2023 looks to be Marvel’s annis horribilis. Seems the only bright spot was Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, which was a project completed by their now rival studio’s chief based on a script he’d written a half-decade ago, during the MCU’s golden age. Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania underperformed and underwhelmed while launching the saga’s new big villain to a resounding cultural “meh.” Secret Invasion was a production debacle and resulted in a show that wasted every piece it had to play, including Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic Nick Fury. The Marvels, well … I’m in the minority on it, but everyone else seems to hate its bizarre humor and stitched-together vibe. I’ve written extensively about each of these, but I haven’t written yet about the last live-action 2023 Marvel Studios production. I wanted to wait until it was complete to fully digest it. To give it six chances to land for me. It never did.

The second season of Loki exemplifies all of Marvel’s problems as of late in one overlong, over-written package. Like many of Phase 4’s productions, it was clearly greenlit due to the delicious mixture of the crave for Disney content and the genuine interest of everyone involved before figuring out why it needed to exist. It’s a show that fundamentally misunderstands the potential of serialized television to an almost shocking degree, which has been a huge issue for Marvel Studios for all of its Disney+ content that lasts longer than one installmentLoki is also the latest in a long and consistent line of Phase 4 and 5 projects to somehow figure out a way to tell stories that are both redundant and lesser versions of the same character arcs we saw when the series was at its height. When the credits rolled on the 12th overall episode of Loki, for the first time, I felt like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was truly stagnant.

This isn’t a situation where I’ll run through the season episode by episode. Frankly, I didn’t take enough notes to do that and I have zero interest in revisiting it. Instead, I’m just going to lay out what bothered me about this season of Loki as clearly as I can. And, yes, I know a lot of people have mostly liked this season. That’s not my problem.

The Time Variance Authority

The first season of Loki saw our anti-hero (Tom Hiddleston) pruned from his variant timeline and brought into the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an organization dedicated to protecting the “sacred timeline.” He meets Mr. Mobius (Owen Wilson), a hunter with a heart of gold who wants to use Loki to find someone sabotaging the organization across time. This turns out to be Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), a female variant of Loki whom the TVA has pursued since her childhood. The three of them ultimately team up against the TVA’s lead hunter, Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her cult-like leadership, the Time Keepers. At the end of the season, Loki and Sylvie learn the entire TVA is a front for He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), a variant of Kang the Conqueror, who is using them to make sure no other versions of himself pop up to start a multiversal war. He gives the two Lokis a choice: Kill him and allow chaos, or take his place at the head of the TVA to maintain the timeline. Sylvie kills him and shunts Loki into the past of the TVA, where nobody recognizes him.

Season 2 opens with Loki uncontrollably “time slipping” throughout the TVA, experiencing the past and future in a way he can’t control. In the premiere, he figures out how to stop it thanks to the help of Ouroboros (Ke Huy Quan) and Mobius, after which they realize they need to fix the Time Loom, a device at the heart of the TVA that helps them control the flow of time. If they don’t fix the loom, something bad will happen. Ominous.

Perhaps my greatest issue with this season of Loki is the way the TVA, its characters and the conflicts between them are never really defined well or given satisfying character arcs. For example: B15 (Wunmi Mosaku) is a former hunter who ultimately grew to help Loki and see the truth in the first season; she mostly stands around here, even when we meet her “sacred timeline” self, who is a doctor. Mobius is badgered into looking into his non-TVA life as a jet ski salesman with two kids. Ouroboros is generally a fun presence and not much more. We meet a guy named Brad (Rafael Casal) who disappears eventually. Ravonna gets a thankless mini-arc in the middle and disappears for the finale. We also meet some heretofore unseen TVA generals — one of whom, Dox (Kate Dickie), makes trouble for an episode and then dies.

Everything in the TVA moves at the pace of plot, not character; events happen because the show wants to get them out of the way as it fills the space required by a six-episode story rather than giving conflicts the weight or consideration they deserve.

The first two episodes are supposedly devoted to the question of what becomes of the TVA when the authoritarian leading them is deposed. In the first season, He Who Remains used the Time Keepers to speak for him and direct the TVA agents. With them gone, there are now factions. One, led by Dox, wants to prune the additional timelines that appear after the disappearance of He Who Remains. Meanwhile, B15 and Mobius argue that these timelines should be allowed to expand because, in their eyes, pruning is killing millions. This argument is resolved by the end of the second episode in a rushed action sequence that cuts short our ability to learn anything deeper about Sylvie’s new life or the timelines Dox is pruning, denying her crusade any immediate emotional consequence or narrative potential.

It was at the end of the first two episodes that I first found myself underwhelmed by Season 2: Here was a story that deserved some level of depth and contemplation, only for Loki and his friends to move on to a new arc that would let Marvel set up more Jonathan Majors stuff going into their misconceived plan to build to a Kang Dynasty denouement that summons the Avengers. Also: Brad is a character who comes out of nowhere but who all our heroes just seem to “know” He disappears just as quickly in the middle of the season. It feels like there’s a missing episode … but maybe this is simply a show that lacks the patience to properly introduce or explore its characters outside of Loki.

That problem continues throughout the series. Mobius stands around to quip; B15 stands around to look concerned; Loki argues in circles with Sylvie. Eventually, the aggressive AI Miss Minutes and Ravonna return to work at cross-purposes with Loki’s friends despite the two groups wanting the same thing — using Victor Timely (Majors) to fix the Time Loom and save the TVA. Granted, they want to fix the TVA for different reasons, but Ravonna’s reasons are never unpacked and the implications of fixing the loom are not actually explained until the final episode, so the entire conflict is weightless in the moment.

All of this speaks to the most frustrating flaw at the heart of this show. Out of all Marvel Studios streaming projects, only Loki ever introduced the key element of so many of our best serialized stories — a bureaucracy that creates consistent structure and conflict within which our lead characters can grow. There’s a reason why police and hospital stories are so effective; why sitcoms like The Office, Cheers, Taxi, Night Court and Parks and Recreation are eternally popular and live long in people’s memories. The TVA is present in the second season of Loki, but there’s never a sense of what they’re doing, how it works, why it’s significant or why Loki wants or needs to save it until the penultimate episode — where the answer doesn’t really make up for two-thirds of the season being so aimless.

That’s not to say the TVA can’t change over time, just that this show — and this show alone in the Marvel Studios lineup of streaming series — had the foundation to actually function as a series that lets its characters grow and change long-term. It wastes that potential completely in Season 2 by never giving any real definition to Loki’s new world. There’s a lot of hurry, hurry, hurry but a real lack of clarity to why every character is in such a rush. It’s six episodes of nothing for everyone around Loki.

And frankly, it’s six episodes of nothing new for Loki, too.

God of Time

The version of Loki we were introduced to in 2011’s Thor died a noble death in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, attempting to trick Thanos in an effort to protect his friends. That was obviously an impediment to making a Loki streaming series, so Marvel brought him back through the convolutions of multiversal travel. Loki’s Loki is a variant pruned from directly after the events of The Avengers and then shown the rest of the MCU to catch him up. It’s a silly idea that works because Hiddleston is so great and his chemistry with Wilson in that first season is stellar.

On recent press tours, the writers and directors of Season 2 have stated they always planned this as a two-season story and that a third season is unlikely. That’s pretty clearly bullshit. But aside from being marketing, it really speaks to a high level of self-satisfaction with the way the finale, Glorious Purpose, reaches back into the rest of the show to set up its conclusion.

That conclusion? This version of Loki allows the Time Loom to explode and uses inexplicable new powers to hold the multiverse together, birthing it in the metaphorical shape of Yggdrisil, the World Tree from Norse myth. The series ends with Loki sitting within the Yggdrisil, content to have saved his friends and all of reality in a non-authoritarian fashion, contrasting with the dire plots of He Who Remains.

Through the course of the finale, Loki returns to speak to his friends — well, the two who matter, anyway, which are Sylvie and Mobius — to figure out what he needs to do. Should he take up He Who Remains on his original offer and police the Sacred Timeline, preventing further variants of Kang from striking? Should he allow He Who Remains to die and thus cause the multiverse to uncontrollably explode? For some reason, Mobius’s answer is to talk about his regret at not killing an 8-year-old child on a past mission, but I’m not going to pick that apart any further.

Loki’s ultimate choice is to sacrifice himself for his friends and take himself off the board for the foreseeable future. Pretty much where we last saw our original version of Loki.

I’m having so much trouble wrapping my head around the fact that they created a two-season Loki show where we just end up with this new version of Loki making the same basic choice as his predecessor to help characters we don’t really know all that well. Pretty much all of Loki’s chemistry with Mobius and Sylvie is residual from the first season; nothing in Season 2 gives us clarity as to why he cares about B15, Casey (Eugene Cordero) or even Ouroboros (besides Quan’s inherent likability). I certainly don’t care any more about them than I did Thor, Hulk or Valkyrie after Loki’s adventures with them in Thor: Ragnarok

Just as problematic: Loki’s decision to become a creature at the heart of an abstract concept is simply less salient than his earlier sacrifice, and it continues Marvel’s inability to create a coherent concept of the multiverse on which the studio has seemingly decided to hinge its future.

Mundane Multiverse

Loki’s ending in the World Tree also speaks to the fundamental problem with Marvel’s approach to the multiverse stuff: It doesn’t make any emotional or narrative sense. None of the properties within this saga have done a remotely adequate job of explaining just what Marvel Studios sees as the rules of its time-travel and multiverse storytelling. The result is a big jumble of contradictory elements, fulfilling the needs of a given story without ever building outward. That’s a big fucking problem because it diminishes the stories told under the multiversal umbrella, especially stories featuring Kang, their supposed “big bad.” Comics have managed to survive with a jumble of opposing time-travel and multiverse ideas for decades, but what works in comics doesn’t always doesn’t work with movies or series at this scale, and I think they’ve run into a real wall here.

The first season of Loki introduced the idea of the Sacred Timeline. It seems you can travel up and down the timeline via time travel, but if you change anything important, it causes a branched timeline. The TVA initially prunes these branches; after the events of Season 1, they decide to stop doing that, thus creating the multiverse.

Subsequent stories played off this in weird ways. What If… takes place within the multiverse created in Loki, which was billed as the “creation” of the multiverse. Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness enter the multiverse through magical means and to different ends. In those first three stories, characters hop between realities without much issue. Strange, however, introduces the idea of incursions, apocalyptic events caused by the collision of two realities. Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania pays lip service to this when Kang the Conqueror (Majors) lays out all the new lore in one particularly terrible sequence at the end of the movie, citing incursions as the reason why war between his variants is ruinous.

I guess I could be forgiven for assuming a second season of Loki would in some way deal with developments to the multiversal concept introduced between the end of its first season and the premiere of the second, but nah. The second season of Loki — as revealed in the final episode — actually takes place before all of the subsequent films, and its major contribution to the entire saga is that it … ends in the exact same way as the first season. You thought that one launched the multiverse? Nope, this one did, actually! Except now Loki is sitting at the center of it, keeping it alive with his Time God powers, happy that his friend Mobius can miserably stand around watching a variant of himself from a pruned timeline play with his kids.

Oh, and Kang? He’s a minor concern within the new TVA, which continues to have an ill-defined purpose in the new multiverse. And with Loki protecting time and Mobius gone, none of the fun, familiar TVA characters we actually love work for the TVA. That means the first time they appear in a crossover property (like Deadpool 3, as is the rumor), they will do so with an unclear purpose.

It’s also unclear why we spent an entire season with Majors bumbling around if the end result was nobody being particularly worried about his major villain returning to menace everyone — although it was admittedly fun to watch him get burst apart multiple times in a row.

I’m not saying Marvel needs to heavily serialize the development of its multiverse stuff, but this is a franchise that created an 11-year run of pop culture supremacy by lightly connecting disparate elements from each of its stories to form one larger whole. To do so, it used characters audiences adored and their relationships as the structure that held things together. Before that, though, it had artifices like S.H.I.E.L.D. to connect characters together across their vast universe. Rules were defined and re-defined, but the retcons were done elegantly year to year and felt like a progression rather than tangents and asides.

Creating a coherent storytelling universe with an active multiverse is an extremely challenging task. You can only bring back fan-favorite characters from the past so many times before audiences catch on, and it remains to be seen if the same nostalgia exists for the X-Men films as did Spider-Man. I understand Marvel’s desire to play it fast and loose from project to project, but we’re three years into their multiversal material and none of it feels coherent or grounded. Maybe most problematically: The multiverse they’ve created doesn’t really feel like a place to be explored by our characters. For whatever flaws it had, there was a yearly sense of real revelation as the Marvel Cinematic Universe grew from a mansion in Malibu to the skyscrapers of Wakanda and the temple at Kamar-Taj. Where are we going with this? Without Loki and the TVA, who will guide us?

TL;DR

I went into the second season of Loki with optimism: I loved the first season and expected this to right the ship for me. I’ve been pretty mixed with Phases 4 and 5, at least on the movie side, but I liked directors Justin Benson and Aaaron Moorhead’s work on Moon Knight. Hiddleston is always great and, to throw the show a bone, he’s still great here, especially in the finale where he mostly nails moments that didn’t land for me narratively and even doing his best timey-wimey acting (proving once again this show should’ve just been a Marvel version of Doctor Who).

Maybe that’s why I’m so perplexed by the choices made in this season of Loki: it was just endless scenes of characters rushing to complete ill-defined science-fiction tasks while spouting jargon and facing poorly explained conflicts that never stem from character or their relationships. The world around them develops to suit the plot, not their characters’ choices, and ultimately the whole thing resolves in a big CGI-soup setpiece where Loki, the last active legacy character unblemished to the wider audience by Phase 4, takes himself off the board to re-enact a self-sacrifice we already saw our original version choose for characters about whom we actually cared. I don’t watch these shows to see Loki heroically sit at the center of the multiverse, a role that means absolutely nothing to me because even after six episodes, nothing this season told me about the multiverse makes any kind of tactile sense.

I watch shows featuring Loki to see Loki having fun adventures and interacting with other characters for whom I care. Wisdom tells me we’ll see this version of the character again when the new Avengers stories roll around, but it all feels so much lesser to me than if he’d just found a way to remain with his friends in their new TVA, righting the wrongs of a multiverse he helped save.

I have trouble wrapping my head around almost every creative decision made this season, and it’s probably a good thing Marvel Studios is halting all of its current productions to figure out what the fuck they’re doing with this franchise going forward because it doesn’t feel like they had asked themselves that question up to this point. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who even made it to the last episode this season and the number who liked it is even smaller. Both camps are just people like me who will still watch anything with the Marvel Studios logo on it out of loyalty and curiosity.

I’m hard-pressed to imagine what my mother, sister or any other countless casual fans I knew who made Marvel the juggernaut it became would think of a story where Loki chooses to sit at the center of the multiverse. But I kind of already know: Like me, they’d probably shrug and say, “What the fuck was that?”