'Loki' Is A Low-Key Character Study : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tom Hiddleston's Loki has faced off against Thor and the other Avengers. And now in the new series Loki on Disney+, he gets roped into working with the MCU's time cops, the Time Variance Authority. Alongside TVA agent Mobius, played by Owen Wilson, Loki hunts down another Loki variant (played by Sophia di Martino) seeking to overthrow the TVA. Along the way, it's developing into something the superhero genre usually doesn't have time for — an honest-to-the-gods character study.

'Loki' Is A Low-Key Character Study

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In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tom Hiddleston's Loki has faced off against Thor and the other Avengers. And now in a new Disney+ series, he gets roped into working with the MCU's time cops, the Time Variance Authority, alongside TVA Agent Mobius, played by Owen Wilson - no, seriously, Owen Wilson. Loki hunts down another Loki variant seeking to overthrow the TVA so that they can - well, actually, that bit's still a little unclear, actually. But along the way, it's developing into something the superhero genre usually doesn't have time for, an honest-to-the-Gods character study. I'm Glen Weldon. Today on NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we are checking in with "Loki," so don't go away.


WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us is Christina Tucker of the "Unfriendly Black Hotties" podcast. Hello, Christina.


WELDON: And also with us, back, back, back again, is Margaret H. Willison, who is one-half of the Two Bossy Dames newsletter and one-third of the "Appointment Television" podcast. Hey, Margaret.


WELDON: All right. So the Loki in this series is not the mellower, reluctant hero Loki you'll remember from the last few "Thor" and "Avengers" films. No, this version is a variant. He's the still-villainous Loki plucked from the timeline at the end of 2012's "The Avengers" just after his attack on New York City has failed. The series has a lot of action. But it's also easily the talkiest (ph) MCU entry to date. Any given episode features a surprisingly high number of scenes that find Loki sitting across the table from one character or another, just chatting about things like time, trauma, free will, destiny, human nature and - not for nothing - love.

"Loki" is more dependent on the chemistry between its leaders than any other MCU property. Fortunately, Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson are charming, as are Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Wilson's boss, "Lovecraft Country's" Wunmi Mosaku as a no-nonsense time soldier and Sophia Di Martino as the Loki variant that's causing so much trouble. Loki is directed by Kate Herron. And it was created by Michael Waldron, who also wrote the upcoming MCU film "Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness." That's likely not a coincidence. And a heads up, we'll be talking about all three episodes that have aired as we taped this. So you might want to get caught up before listing. Whew. OK. Christina, what are you making of "Loki"?

TUCKER: "Loki's" fun. I don't know that it's going to, like, sit with me in any kind of really, like, long and, like, thoughtful way. And perhaps it will. We have only seen three episodes. But I'm having a great time watching it. I like watching Tom Hiddleston. I like seeing Owen Wilson again on my screen. I don't necessarily understand the time that we're in or why or the variants. That - I can kind of just let that go. I have watched...


TUCKER: ...Every Marvel movie multiple times. I don't understand the timeline. And that's kind of just something that I have accepted. But the show is fun. It's fun to watch. I don't know what it wants to be, really - I guess a character study. But I think it's - if I need something to take up some time, this is a great thing to do.

WELDON: Interesting. OK. I mean, yeah, I wasn't necessarily sold on the pilot, which it did everything it could to make this giant exposition dump necessary, engaging and funny.


WELDON: But it was so dependent on telling and not showing that - the part where it asks the character of Loki to undergo emotional growth by basically watching a clip show of things that didn't happen to him. But...

WILLISON: (Laughter).


WELDON: ...As this series goes on, I think it gets better. I think, one thing you might be hitting on there, Christina, is that it kind of teaches you how to watch. It kind of teaches you what it is as it goes along. What do you think, Margaret?

WILLISON: I'm enjoying it tentatively. So I, unlike Christina, have a lot of thoughts about time travel in general. And I feel like there's a right way to do it, and there's a wrong way to do it.


WILLISON: And the wrong way to do it is what most places pick. And it's like "Tenet." And it's just like, we're taking this incredibly seriously. But also, like, the rules get to be made up as we go along. And that's kind of part of the design. But at the same time, they're really binding. And you should, like, understand them. And I'm going to give you a lot of exposition dumps about it. I like a "Bill & Ted" time travel...


WILLISON: ...Where it's like, we recognize we're going to make the rules up as we go. We're going to go back in time and leave the tool we need for ourselves with the, you know, phone booth we're time traveling in, stuck together with chewing gum. And, like, it's just kind of comic and lurky. So this one is kind of vacillating between the two. I like that very quickly, it latched onto an idea where you can have the characters be present and sort of cause a lot of ruckus without creating this multiverse problem, placing the characters inside of apocalypses. I think that's a very, like, nifty idea that I'm very in favor of. However, in those apocalypses, we're encountering a lot of sort of heavy stuff. And there are the conversations about, like - what is free will? - and so on and so forth. I'm, like, eh - like, if Tom Hiddleston is saying it, I'm interested. But typically speaking, it's just like - I don't know. My older brother is a philosopher. That just - it...

WELDON: (Laughter).

WILLISON: It's not this Willison's thing. However, I am here for the Owenaissance (ph)...

WELDON: Yeah, sure.

TUCKER: Oh, sure.

WILLISON: ...The Wilsonaissance (ph).

WELDON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Good.


WILLISON: That, I'm really into. Just, please, please, bring me more Owen Wilson. I'm here for this.

WELDON: I see. I see. This show, it is so talky. It is so playlike in moments that it sometimes feels like if Harold Pinter wrote "Doctor Who." And I am - by the way, I am here for that.



WELDON: I am super fine with that. The third episode especially has been dinged for not advancing the plot. It is a bottle episode, as in the terms of television, but the bottle happens to be a moon that's about to crash into a planet. But that characterization of Hiddleston and Di Martino, who's playing the kind of Loki variant Sylvie, really worked on me. I loved watching those two sit and talk.


TOM HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) A pity the old woman chose to die, don't you think?

SOPHIA DI MARTINO: (As Sylvie) She was in love.

HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) She hated him.

DI MARTINO: (As Sylvie) Maybe love is hate.

HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) Have to remember that. What was that? Love is - love is hate?

DI MARTINO: (As Sylvie) Oh, piss off.

WELDON: And when that episode was up, I was surprised. I hadn't checked my phone once. And when the credits came up, it was like, already?

WILLISON: (Laughter).

TUCKER: Yeah, I had similar feelings. The third episode really worked for me, and I think it was because it did kind of hit like a "Doctor Who" esque - here's a problem, we're on this moon, these things are happening, and we're - it's, like, these two characters who you are getting to know getting to know each other. And I think that kind of, for better or for worse - still a fan of "Doctor Who."


TUCKER: That did really work on me. I'm interested to see where they go with it. I don't know that I, like, trust it necessarily yet. I feel like Marvel sometimes promises me things and then cannot deliver on them. But I do think that they've had good success so far with their television shows and being allowed to do something a little more interesting than just, like, your rote superhero-does-X-Y-Z thing has been working on me, anyway.

WILLISON: I really don't care about the action scenes, so I loved the talking episode. The talking episode was great because I was like, oh, I enjoy this part. And I agree - very like "Doctor Who." I will also say that Marvel has a lot of money, and the show shows as much. And the score slaps (laughter).

WELDON: Sure, sure.

WILLISON: And I'm very into the production design. I don't know why they would have decided to take sort of, like, the clunky bureaucracy of, like, 1977 as their touchpoint. I guess that's what sort of, like, all, like, possibly fascist scientific organizations adopt, a la the Dharma Initiative.


WILLISON: But I like brutalist architecture, so I'm here for both.

WELDON: Yeah, yeah.

WILLISON: It's fun to look at. And plus, they've got Gugu Mbatha-Raw there, and I'm never going to be mad to look at her.

TUCKER: Also fun to look at (laughter).

WILLISON: Yeah, exactly. The world's most beautiful person (laughter).

WELDON: She's great. She's so good in this. She's not given much to do, but she's so good.


WELDON: Yet, yet. Let's talk about the TVA. It looks fantastic. They are having a lot of fun with the joke of its look. And you slip Owen Wilson into a suit - this is a different Owen Wilson than I've ever seen. He's large and in charge in a way that an Owen Wilson character is usually kind of at sea in one way or another.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

WELDON: What do you guys make of this version of Owen Wilson? We're going to get through this whole episode, by the way, without any of us doing an Owen Wilson impression. I make that rule. I make that vow to listeners.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

TUCKER: I like this Owen. I also am kind of just a sucker for bureaucracy jokes.


TUCKER: I worked in academia for a decade.



TUCKER: So I think that's probably why, like, it does just work on me. Yeah, I like this kind of less affable and bumbling Owen and kind of, like - there's a spine there. There's something happening. And he - his ability and chemistry with Tom Hiddleston, I think, has been just really fun to watch. And I'm just kind of like, yeah, if you two want to sit and have a lunch where Tom Hiddleston goes on, like, some long metaphorical conversation and destroys your salad, that's funny to me. I think that's humor. I don't know.

WILLISON: (Laughter) It really works.


HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) Let's just say...

OWEN WILSON: (As Mobius) What are you doing?

HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) ...Your salad is Asgard in this scenario.

WILSON: (As Mobius) No, it's not Asgard; that's my lunch.

HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) It's a metaphor. Just hang in there.

WILSON: (As Mobius) I want that salad.

HIDDLESTON: (As Loki) I could go down to Asgard before Ragnarok causes its complete destruction, and I could do anything I wanted. I could push the Hulk off the Rainbow Bridge. There he goes.

WILSON: (As Mobius) The salt's Hulk.

WILLISON: I think it's a great choice to cast Owen Wilson as a sort of, like, medium-straight man - right? - where he's not actually all the way straight, but what we're looking at is sort of, like, the character from "Catch Me If You Can" after he's worked at the FBI, catching other people like him for, like, 50 years. So he still has a little bit of that trickster energy. He still knows exactly where Loki is going to go with things. He can meet him in jokes. He can meet him with quips. But he's also got sort of a world weariness and a sense of sort of, like, mission purposeness (ph) that I find very interesting. It's a great tension. I feel like there's some potential for very interesting plot here that I actually care about, which is novel for me with Marvel products.

WELDON: Now, we should mention here a minor milestone has been made in the MCU, where Loki is now established as canonically queer. But what do you make of the romantic tension between these two variant versions of Loki?

TUCKER: I think it's interesting. I don't know that I'm fully on board with it yet. I think this third episode did lay a lot of the groundwork to get me there. But I do think I'm going to need a little bit more specifically from our new Loki variant. Like, I need a little bit more from her. But it's fun to watch the two of them play off each other, and they do have good chemistry.

WELDON: But does it read to you as sexual chemistry?

TUCKER: It doesn't.


TUCKER: But Loki doesn't often read to me as a sexual person, which is why I think the reveal...

WELDON: Oh, interesting.

TUCKER: Despite how attracted I am to Tom Hiddleston, specifically as Loki because he does look like a woman I would find in a lesbian bar, and I love that about him.


TUCKER: He doesn't necessarily give me a sexual energy. But look; if the show wants to go there, I want to see it for science.

WELDON: You're going to hear from some Hiddle-stans (ph), I think.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

TUCKER: Oh, I'm sure I will.

WELDON: Margaret, what do you make of this tension?

WILLISON: I'm enjoying it. And I also just think it makes sense because so much of Loki's relationship with the world has always been sort of flirtatious and seductive. And it's got that classic sort of con-man patter, which is you get so invested in what's happening that you stop paying attention to what they're stealing from you. And it's interesting to sort of see him using that against a character who's similar but also different. And it's interesting to see the absence of finesse in Sylvie-Loki's approach. And, like, Loki is canonically, especially at this point in time, an enormous megalomaniac, right? Like, of course, he's going to fall in love with a variant of himself.


WELDON: Sure, sure.

WILLISON: Like, it's just - it's inevitable.

WELDON: Right. And I don't know. I can't put my finger on it, (laughter) as it were, but this isn't incest, right?

WILLISON: No (laughter).

WELDON: It shouldn't squick (ph) you out. This is...

TUCKER: Yeah, no.

WELDON: If anything, it's self-pleasure.


WILLISON: (Laughter).

WELDON: So it should be absolutely fine, right? You know what I mean?


TUCKER: Yeah, absolutely. It's, like, an evolved form of, like, pandemic time that we've all spent alone.


TUCKER: It's really beautiful stuff actually.

WILLISON: I say, like, go for it, guys.

WELDON: Absolutely.

WILLISON: Like, knock yourselves out. Variant to variant, have fun.

WELDON: Variant to variant.

TUCKER: Yeah, happy Pride, you know?


WELDON: Last thing - right? - the stakes of this thing are, if they don't do everything right, it will break into a multiverse. Got to prevent the multiverse, right? The next film from Michael Waldron, who created this series, is called "Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness," which comes out next year.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

WELDON: So where do you see this going?

TUCKER: Yeah, this is the thing. Watching a Marvel property, at some point you do end up playing, like, connect the dots...


TUCKER: ...With the other Marvel properties that are coming or that you know are coming. You know, my housemate and I were watching it, and we were like, oh, I wonder if they're going to involve, you know, Wanda in any way. Like, is there - going to have, like, a "WandaVision" moment? Are we going to get to see Kathryn - like, all of these kind of connections that you just end up making because you know how Marvel movies are made because it's 2021, and that's what casual viewers know now. You know, if that's where we're going, OK. Like, at this point, I have seen so many of the Marvels. I have watched all of the properties. I am - reluctantly maybe bought into this thing, and I'm just going to ride this train until it falls off into the dust on a moon that's crashing into another planet, I guess.


WELDON: There we go. Margaret, what do you think?

WILLISON: I think it can go in some really interesting directions. In the moon planet, sort of as a backdrop to the Lokis (ph) Loki-ing (ph) it up with each other...

TUCKER: (Laughter).

WILLISON: ...We're really getting a very stark sense of sort of the economic divide and how it impacts these apocalypse moments. And I feel like if we're going to be bouncing from apocalypse to apocalypse, and we've presupposed that sort of anything can be taken from those spaces without causing multiverse explosion - like, I don't think we're being shown the suffering of the people being left behind from the luxury train for no reason.

WELDON: Right.

WILLISON: I don't think it's just a backdrop. And I'm very interested to see where they take that and what kind of time travel logic they use. Like I say, shockingly interested in the plot, which is not like me for a Marvel property (laughter).

WELDON: No, absolutely, absolutely. So it does certainly seem that the TVA is a sinister bureaucracy, not a static one. We do get scenes of people as they're lining up for the train, saying they're only taking the rich people. I agree with you, Margaret; that's there for a reason, or it better damn well be there for a reason. Otherwise...


WELDON: ...It's just window dressing.


WELDON: And you can't do that. They can't make that window dressing.

WILLISON: And I like the way that this sort of implies that everything that's happened in every Marvel movie previously is kind of dumb and pointless...


WILLISON: ...By having that drawer full of Infinity Stones.


WILLISON: Because, like, everything that's happened is kind of dumb and pointless, and I'm interested to see what a full reset looks like.

WELDON: Yeah, it's interesting, right? It's like the other Marvel movies have been, like, an improv performance.


WELDON: And then this movie comes in and doesn't yes-and anything; it just says no, but none of what you did matters 'cause I'm here now.


WELDON: All right, we want to know what you think about "Loki." Find us on facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. Thanks to both of you for being here.

WILLISON: My pleasure, Glen.

TUCKER: Thank you so much.

WELDON: So as you're listening to this, tonight there's going to be a virtual launch party for a book, one I wrote. It's called "NPR's Podcast Start Up Guide." I'm going to be joined by our pals Gene Demby, co-host of Code Switch, of course, and PCH (ph) producer Jessica, - is it Reedy? Ree-day (ph)? Is that how you pronounce it?


WELDON: Reedy. Reedy. Huh, weird. Jessica Reedy. This event is tonight, Tuesday, June 29, at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific. You can RSVP now at podstartup.nprpresents.org. Again, that's tonight, Tuesday, June 29, at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific, and RSVP at podstartup.nprpresents.org. We have a lot of stuff planned. It's going to be fun. There'll be a Q&A at the end, so please stop by. And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about the new film "Zola."


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