On Loki and Surprising a Writer

I want to talk about Loki. But before I do, I’m going to talk about what it’s like for me experiencing stories as a writer. Then I’m going to talk about the MCU in general. Finally, with enough warning about spoilers, I’ll talk about Loki on Disney+ and what I think about it.

Stories through a Writer’s Eyes

I’ve written about this before, but the more I write, the harder it is for me to enjoy stories. A story is essentially a magic trick where the writer misdirects and distracts their audience while setting up twists and turns designed to create an emotional reaction. When you know how the trick is performed, the impact is lessened.

You don’t always have to be surprised in order to enjoy a story. Sometimes the adventure is enough. Some stories are full of beauty, or the characters are endearing enough that we want to spend more time with them. These are the stories I revisit over and over.

The Formula of the MCU

We open with our protagonist, a flawed human being that’s attractive, quippy, talented, and not necessarily a nice person. Our protagonist’s main character flaw gets them into trouble and they’re forced to see who they are and how they’re affecting the people around them. They reach their lowest point, then after working to overcome their greatest weakness, come face-to-face with a villain that is in some way a twisted reflection of who they are. After a climactic conflict, our protagonist comes out on top, still flawed, but also changed for the better. They see themselves in a new light and in the end, they are determined to do better.

Which movie am I describing? When it comes to the MCU, I’m basically describing all of them. There are exceptions, and I’m leaving out a lot of nuance, but the MCU movies are borne from the same DNA.

I’m rarely surprised by an MCU movie, and yet I love them. These movies are full of characters I want to hang out with while they go on their colorful adventures.

I want to be surprised by these movies, but it’s okay when I’m not. Avengers: Endgame delivered quite a few surprises. Black Widow didn’t surprise me, but I still left the theater satisfied. In my opinion, it’s a solid movie. It follows the MCU formula, but that doesn’t matter because I enjoyed all of the characters on display.

Loki and Disney+ Shows in General

I mentioned Black Widow and gave my general opinion, but I didn’t go into any spoilers. I’m about to go into spoilers for the Disney+ shows. If you have not watched them, go watch them and come back. I’ll wait.

*** Spoilers for Disney+ Marvel Shows Below ***

I’m going to start with Falcon and the Winter Solder. As much as I love Sam Wilson and this series in general, I think this series is the weakest of the three. It’s still very good! I really love it! But I think it could have been better, and it was the least surprising of the Disney+ shows.

While it is interesting and a little surprising to make Sharon Carter the Power Broker, it doesn’t make a ton of sense if you scrutinize the details too closely. If one were feeling particularly uncharitable, one might describe it as a character assassination. I think it’s fine, but I think it could have been handled more gracefully. For example, if she’s The Power Broker, it makes no sense for her to put an armed Zemo in the same room as the person developing her super soldier formula.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier went places I did not expect a show to go on Disney plus dot com. They explored what it means to be a black superhero. They touched on the injustice black Americans experience regularly. They showed a faux Captain America kill a man with his shield. The creators of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were bold in the story they delivered, regardless of whatever criticisms I might have about this being a somewhat predictable Marvel offering.

Now let’s go back to WandaVision. That show surprised me continuously. It kept me entertained every week while opening up more and more questions.

I loved WandaVision. This show looked different from any other Marvel product. It dived deep into grief without flinching. As weird and fantastic as the show could be, WandaVision delivered a very human story.

It gave us what may be the most profoundly beautiful sentence the MCU has ever stated: “What is grief, if not love persevering?” The Internet may have turned that phrase into a meme, but I’m still moved by it.

Speaking of The Internet, they did to WandaVision what they often like to do, which is come up with theories, then become insolent when those theories don’t pan out. Evan Peters playing Quicksilver in WandaVision did not mean we were starting the multiverse and bringing in the Fox X-Men characters. And, even though the comic books have a strong association between Agatha Harkness and Mephisto, we were not shown Mephisto as The Big Bad after 9 episodes of no direct mention of him.

So now let’s talk about Loki.

Loki captivated me. Loki actually, legitimately, surprised me. And I loved it.

This show took a pre-redemption Loki, a villain that just tried to take over the world, and truly rehabilitated him, even beyond what we saw in Thor: Ragnarok.

I loved the relationship between Loki and Mobius. I loved the relationship between Loki and Sylvie. I loved getting to explore all of the Loki variants in Episode 5, especially when Classic Loki proved to both the audience and protagonist Loki that they were more powerful than they believe. Powerful enough to change from their selfish, broken ways and sacrifice themselves while Ride of the Valkyries played over an illusory Asgard.

And then we got the final episode of season 1, and I was shocked.

They never actually gave his name beyond He Who Remains, but that was Kang the Conqueror. There were lots of subtle hints pointing at Kang leading up to the last episode, but it seemed like another Mephisto situation. They weren’t really going to reveal that the man behind the curtain is a character we haven’t seen at any point throughout the rest of the series, right?

That’s exactly what they did. Since we witnessed so many Loki variations, my theory was that we were going to see another Loki variant pulling the strings. The Loki that Wins. It would explain why Loki timelines in particular seemed targeted for pruning. My theory fit with everything else watched up to that point. I saw the Kang hints, but didn’t think the showrunners would actually go there.

Putting Kang aside, the episode delivers in other ways. Throughout the series, we saw Loki developing relationships with Mobius and Sylvie. We saw him confront his own absurdity and the lies of his “glorious purpose.” Loki grew throughout the series, but it ends with the ultimate test of his rehabilitation. He’s separated from Sylvie, the person he just told, “I just want you to be okay.” If that’s not the purest expression of love, I don’t know what is.

Further, he’s back at the TVA, where no one seems to know who he is. He built a friendship with Mobius and now that appears to be gone. As Lady Sif predicted in a previous episode, Loki is alone, whether he deserves to be or not.

Final Thoughts

Marvel excels at getting the characters right and making their audience care about them. Most of the time, that’s enough for me. Loki, and to a lesser extent WandaVision, showed me that Marvel is capable of going a step further. It’s good storytelling, and it’s fresh and exciting.

Writers can learn a thing or two from watching these shows.