If there’s one trope I’m tired of in media, it’s Redemption Equals Death, the idea that in order for a character who has done terrible things to be truly redeemed, they must give up their life in order to prove their full dedication to goodness. I was quite annoyed that this seemed to be a common thread in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, as some of the characters this happened to were framed in interviews like their deaths were supposed to be these big redeeming moments for them when those already happened years ago (mainly those of Natasha Romanoff and Tony Stark). However, these movies featured one use of this trope that I always felt compelled to defend.
The MCU version of God of Mischief Loki was one no one ever knew if they could trust, the audience included. He always seemed to switch motivations and allegiances so often that I always thought that we wouldn’t be able to truly know whose side he was ultimately on until he died (for real, that is) so when Thanos killed him at the beginning of Infinity War, I thought it was a fitting end for the character (despite the infamous butterknife method of defending himself at that moment).
So when it was announced that Marvel was developing a new solo project for Loki – and subsequently that it was going to follow an alternate version of his 2012 self (AKA Loki at his most evil) I was puzzled as to how they could make it work and worried I and other MCU fans wouldn’t be able to feel connected to this version of Loki. I was, nonetheless, quite intrigued by the show despite my confusion and wariness, the same way I felt with WandaVision dealing with a seemingly still alive Vision (and a title decision I initially didn’t understand) and to a lesser extent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier dealing with the fallout from the departure of Steve Rogers at the end of Avengers: Endgame (a story arc conclusion which I disliked at the time and possibly even more over two years later given what we learned in both Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, but I digress).
Marvel’s first three Disney+ series always sort of felt like a package deal; they were all separate projects, but we found out about them around the same time (I recall the news that Scarlet Witch – this was before Vision was confirmed to be involved – and Loki were getting their own series dropping in the same article, and one about Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes coming shortly thereafter) and they even shared an epic Super Bowl spot in 2020, meaning audiences got their first look at all three shows during a single 30-second time span.
Speaking of 2020, all three productions had to stop and resume during a global pandemic, and with the exception of Loki’s final episode, they all aired within the unprecedented two-year gap between new MCU movies. This meant that after several changes as to what the big Phase 4 kickoff would be (remember when Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 was supposed to hold that spot?) it ended up being these three shows, and not even in the originally planned order given that WandaVision was further along in production than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at the time of the shutdown and was the first to be completed.
All this to say, Loki’s sixth episode felt like more than just its season finale, and not only because it officially opened up the multiverse. It felt like the end of Season 1 of Marvel’s Disney+ content library. And looking at it that way seems very fitting because it – and the show as a whole – was the pinnacle of the franchise’s potential on the streaming platform thus far.
Some won’t like that I’m comparing these three wildly different shows, and I understand why some don’t like to do that. But for me, one of the best ways to describe Loki would be that it was a combination of all of the best parts of WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (okay most of the best parts; those fight scenes were certainly not up to par with Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s) and went a step beyond what both those shows were ultimately able to bring to the table.
WandaVision had the tough task of not only being the first new MCU content in a year and a half but also the first project within the franchise made for Disney+. This was probably part of the reason was so successful – it was released at a time when most theaters were closed and there was a bit of an entertainment lull, in general, going on – but also why the fan discussion surrounding the show was even more spirited than the debates over who would die in Infinity War or how the team would bring the dusted back in Endgame.
Fortunately, any outrage over the lack of cameo in the form of the much-hyped aerospace engineer or Evan Peters not actually being Quicksilver was overshadowed by the blending of classic sitcom antics with an intelligent discussion about grief that dived deeper into the subject than I think anyone expected it to. WandaVision turned out to be about something much darker than most other MCU projects. Wanda had to learn to stop avoiding reality and accept the life she desperately wanted wasn’t going to go the way she planned, and the brilliant thing was that this wasn’t despite the show’s sitcom silliness, but enhanced by it.
None of these Disney+ shows so far have seemed particularly geared toward MCU newbies, but in some ways, this one felt like the Marvel project for people who don’t like Marvel projects. It was quieter and had less action than the typical Marvel movie, and even though it reverted to a more bombastic approach for the final episode, it was the sitcom element, the way it handled grief, and the watercooler talk-fuelling mystery aspect of it all that people were buzzing about and that pulled quite a few people who wouldn’t normally engage with the franchise in.
Ultimately, WandaVision definitely felt like one of the more culturally impactful MCU projects (and yes, I still think it would have been even without the pandemic of it all) but since it’s hard to claim it was a hit “even by Marvel standards” in this situation since it was the first project on this platform, I’ll say that it set the standard for the studio’s future streaming series.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like the forgotten middle child of the group in some respects. I suspect if it had been first out of the gate like originally planned (especially if the movies were still delayed and it got to be the first Marvel Studios thing after the hiatus) this might not be as much of the case, but due to scheduling circumstances (namely, it coming hot on the heels of WandaVision leaving little time for it to get the promotional spotlight to itself before premiering), that’s what happened.
Since WandaVision’s format was so unique and only really suited to that one show, Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt like a taste of what a more “typical” MCU Disney+ series would look like with a format of six episodes, each being roughly the same length. It had a lot of the elements of what fans had come to expect from the film side of the franchise – a fairly straightforward plot, well-crafted action scenes, etc. – and often played much more like a six-hour film than a six-episode television series.
Of course, some elements of the show could only have been done on television, and that actually may have been its biggest downfall (if one could even say a streaming series as successful as this one had a downfall). There were tons of characters and storylines that the show brought into the mix; far more than a standalone film could have handled, and probably even a bit more than this show should have taken on with the limited time that it had to tell this story, especially one that had two main characters on paths that diverged a decent amount (as opposed to WandaVision which also focused on two characters, but both of them remained in the town of Westview for the most part).
There were John Walker and Lemar Hoskins, the Flag-Smashers, Zemo, Sharon Carter, Isaiah Bradley, Sarah Wilson, Yori Nakajima, and more. That’s a lot for just six episodes, and unfortunately, on top of this the pacing wasn’t suited to this amount of story; it started very slow and then was too fast to meaningfully conclude a lot of its plotlines at the end.
However, like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s greatest strength was the character development of its two leads. The show had to significantly develop both Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes (while WandaVision’s emotional arc was mostly Wanda’s) and it not only managed to do so but achieved a lot of it through their scenes together as any good show should. Sam was dealing with the meaning of a phenomenon Bucky had seen the birth and evolution of over many years, and Bucky was dealing with trauma similar to that Sam had experienced and was still healing from (because PTSD isn’t something anyone just “gets over”) but had enough experience with it to have developed the tools to point his friend in the right direction.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may have had higher peak viewership than WandaVision, but that likely had a lot to do with an increased number of Marvel fans being subscribed to Disney+ by the time it came out. The cultural impact of the show – while pretty big in the grand scheme of the entertainment world – certainly wasn’t as strong as WandaVision’s. There wasn’t a bonkers hook to pull “outsiders” in or a mystery for the audience to theorize about. The most discussed moments (besides Dancing Zemo, of course) were probably those related to the show’s themes of race, politics, and mental health, which the show skillfully weaved into the story but didn’t have a particularly unique take on any of them.
Unsurprisingly, Loki’s premiere viewership topped that of WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; there were even more Marvel fans subscribed to Disney+ by June and there was a lot more “breathing room” between the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the beginning of Loki, with the closest thing to a “headliner” series Disney+ had between the two was either Star Wars: The Bad Batch or Season 2 of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, and still no Marvel releases on the big screen. But that certainly didn’t answer the question of how the show would be received in comparison to the other two, and Loki had arguably bigger hills to climb than either of them.
The biggest, of course, was getting audiences invested in an earlier version of a character they’d been following for years without telling them to forget about all they’d seen from him. In other words, Loki’s film appearances beyond The Avengers still had to somehow matter. The other main one was creating a method of time travel that worked with the events of Avengers: Endgame. It’s not clear whether or not this was a coincidence, but the solution the Loki team came up with was the same one the previous two MCU shows did for exposition: therapy.
Yet another common thread between all three of these projects is that they all focused on characters Marvel fans had already known for a while but hadn’t gotten much of their own time in the spotlight, and at least one of the leads in each of them had gone through some very intense trauma in their previous appearances. The MCU is no stranger to tackling mental health – see Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Endgame for the most notable examples – but the exploration of a character’s psyche is more suited to a longer format of a TV series, at least when it comes to an action and fantasy-driven franchise like the MCU.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier handled this element in the most “traditional” manner, with Bucky attending sessions with a literal therapist. There has been some debate as to whether said therapist was actually a good one, but the show continued the storyline even after her scenes were over and it was ultimately Sam – a PTSD group leader, as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – who pointed Bucky in the healthiest path to recovery.
WandaVision didn’t have any direct “therapy”, but the show was even more focused on mental health struggles. Wanda learned to face her grief through Monica, who was dealing with a similar matter but handling it in a much more open and healthy manner – and Agatha, who while a “villain” did manage to give her the sort of tough love she needed by getting her to recount her trauma and accept it.
Loki took the WandaVision route of going with something other than normal therapy to fuel Loki’s introspection and growth and tying the fantastical plot in with it as well. Loki has to have interrogating sessions with Mobius and reveal his personal struggles in order for the TVA to catch and deal with another version of him, and the whole idea of other versions of him and the fight for free will in general ties in with the theme of Loki moving beyond his perceived status as a “villain” and having the power to shape his own destiny.
I think the manner in which Loki managed to surpass, in a sense, what WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did, is finding a way to directly cater to more of the audience. WandaVision swung for the fences and brought something fresh to the franchise, as well as appealed to those who love some good character development. Its mysterious nature kept people intrigued but ultimately led to disappointment for those hoping for big reveals and shake-ups that had a more widespread effect on the MCU as a whole. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was designed to appeal to those eager for a story that felt “big” and would further the MCU. It answered a lot of questions about the post-snap world and how Sam would fare as the next Captain America, but most of the questions it raised – while very important ones with real-world correlations – weren’t exactly ones that caused wild theorizing as to what the events of the show were leading to.
It’s important to remember that not every MCU project is going to be all things to all people; even though some of them, like the Avengers movies, do have that pressure to try to be that, not all of them will, nor should they. This is a franchise with so many projects coming out that no matter what you look for in a Marvel film or series, there’s bound to be at least one in the pipeline that will satisfy you. Even Loki, a series that managed to scratch so many itches all kinds of fans had, couldn’t quite fire on all cylinders (yes, I’m talking about the action scenes). So this isn’t necessarily me berating WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for not delivering top-tier material on every front.
THAT SAID….wow, was it amazing that Loki was able to accomplish as much as it did and satisfy so many people. It really did feel like a happy medium for fans who loved the quirkiness and character work in WandaVision and the world-building and meaty plot of Falcon. Except it wasn’t a medium, because it cranked all those elements into high gear, big time. Loki was forced to relive his life, view unlived moments from it, have his reality totally broken, and admit his true motivations….and that was just the first episode.
We got to see Loki at his highest highs and lowest lows in the MCU thus far. Cast and crew have stated on multiple occasions that they’re aware of the various reasons fans have an affinity for the character, and they managed to showcase every one of them at some point in these six episodes. Of course, plenty of new ground is covered too, and in doing so they managed to disprove my theory from three years ago that Loki had to die in order to prove his true intentions.
Other than a brief cameo or two, Loki was really the only familiar MCU character in the series, meaning the show had to get fans attached to a bunch of newbies very quickly. They took some risks that were, for the most part, well-calculated, doing what the MCU does best by mixing in fairly prominent Marvel Comics characters (like He Who Remains and Renslayer) with minor ones (like Mobius) composite ones (like Sylvie, a combination of Lady Loki and two iterations of the Enchantress) and brand new ones (like Miss Minutes and Hunter B-15, whose name I still wish we’d found out).
On the plot side, Loki ended up being the project that kicked off the Multiverse era of Marvel. It started off by introducing a world in which the Infinity Stones that were once central to the franchise’s overall plot had no power and ended with the introduction of our new “big bad” and the unleashing of the multiverse. We even got to see some new locations in between, like The Void and Lamentis-1 (though I do wish the show had gotten to expand the universe even further by visiting even more cool places).
Loki had the same format of six-hour-ish-long episodes as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier but used that time much more efficiently. Part of this undoubtedly came from the main focus being on a single character rather than two, but the choices made beyond that solidified the efficiency. Fewer character introductions made each of the ones we did get all the more impactful and allowed Loki to get plenty of screentime with secondary leads Mobius and Sylvie (with the first, second, and fourth episodes mostly focusing on his relationship with the former and the third, fifth, and sixth with the latter). The one with Mobius was clearly the healthier of the two (though not without some power imbalances at times) but the Sylvie one was fiery and also quite fascinating in that she was very similar to the Loki of the first Thor movie, which helped to showcase how much growth this 2012 Loki Variant experienced in the series.
Keeping the emphasis on the TVA and mysteries behind it also made this show feel much more focused than Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which constantly jumped back and forth between storylines and didn’t always tie them together particularly well. Ironically, the project that gave itself more ground to cover was the one structured like a six-hour-long movie while Loki felt more like a TV show, as each episode felt distinct as its own piece of the story while still being strongly connected to the others. This is probably a case of Falcon and the Winter Soldier needing more episodes to properly tell the story it wanted to, which again seems ironic as Loki is the one getting another season (though not really, as Loki’s story clearly wasn’t fully told in its first six episodes either).
If I sound like I’m being too nice to Loki, I should let you know that I tend to be quite forgiving to stories as long as they aren’t yet over, and Loki definitely isn’t since there’s a Season 2 on the way. That said, the main problems I had with the show were the weirdness of the romance between Loki and Sylvie (was it supposed to be a metaphor for narcissism or learning to love oneself? And are we supposed to look at these two as the same person or not?) the “no free will in the MCU up to this point” thing, and the finale leaning a bit more into MCU setup than focusing on Loki’s character growth throughout the season. But there’s still time for the show to explain Loki/Sylvie in a meaningful way, the free will discussion is bound to come up again in this project or another, and Loki is clearly going to grow even more in Season 2, so I can’t conclusively complain just yet. (Darn you, Marvel Studios, for successfully creating a barrier from which to deflect criticism!) Though I am still very curious as to whether the “sex: fluid” thing on the form in promotional materials was supposed to be genuine genderfluid representation, because, um…..there’s something off there.
The idea of everyone being compelled to rank the MCU and everything in it can be exhausting to me at times, but I can confidently say that I think Loki is up there among the best the franchise has to offer. It wasn’t perfect and there are some things I am desperately hoping are addressed in Season 2, but this was the first time I felt such intense and emotional positive feelings while experiencing a Marvel project in several years, and I’m already dreading the fact that the wait for Season 2 is going to be even longer than the one between Infinity War and Endgame.