The fun of the show's first season was having Tom Hiddleston's Loki, one of the MCU's best villains, return with a renewed sense of humility, a quality that had only ever been partly teased out of him across the nearly decade-long run of film appearances. Taking on a new good cop, bad cop routine with partner in time Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) — whose grounded, bureaucratic buddy energy paired delightfully with the typically Machiavellian deity — the two sparred with Loki's inter-dimensional variant/quasi-romance/current McDonald's employee of the month Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), all while uncovering a deep conspiracy within the all-too infallible Time Variance Authority.
Hiddleston had previously imbued the antagonist with a balance of malevolence and pathos, something so very few of his charmless MCU rogues gallery peers had managed to achieve. Once afforded his own show, the titular character faced his mortality and devious nature with refreshing earnestness and existential depth that made the outing a well-earned victory lap for Hiddleston's take on the character, even after his tenure had previously come to a conclusive end.
But curiously, a big problem for Loki's sophomore season lies with the man of the hour, Loki himself. What had seemed like a refreshingly introspective arc has grown to be stagnant and inflexible, to the point that he appears almost dispensable within the very show that bears his name.
Built on the premise of "Loki understanding himself," with barbs deconstructing his purely villainous heart traded across the season, it is with this heightened sense of drama that Hiddleston is now largely directed to play the straight man alongside fellow straight man Mobius (who is not without his own self-reflective journey). It's all to the effect of making his character somewhat uninteresting, his characteristically devious charms surprisingly inert as he chases the next plot point, as he works to ensure the entire (semi-literal) fabric of the multiverse isn't torn apart by the shadowy Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) and his time variants (also Majors).
As though the show is running in circles around well-trodden ground, there is a familiarly murky sort of morality play that, on first blush, is seemingly in service of the broader Marvel franchise more than it is to the free will thematics that the characters espouse here. Hiddleston, alongside Martino, do their best to sell the gravity of the big bad "He Who Remains" (still Majors), but frankly it never amounts to anything compelling. The execution could be just a touch bit more tantalizing within the four episodes made available critics (from a total of six), as the series' efforts to raise the stakes to multiversal proportions result in a lot of characters endeing up adrift in that narrative momentum.
Even the returning rogue AI and TVA mascot Miss Minutes (Tara Strong), the Fleischer-styled cartoon clock, gets a spotlight for some emotional depth; and well, it ain't Roger Rabbit — hell, it ain't even Cool World.
Not that it isn't a good time, though. While some of the character writing isn't quite up to snuff, all the performances here are strong, with Ke Huy Kwan's Ouroboros being an especially fun addition to the lineup. His trademark gosh-shucks-starry-eyed amazement, which is on full display during even the most dire situations, is truly infectious.
In fact, each of the first four episodes finds room to present new characters and tap into scenarios across time for the various players to bounce off of and engage with in entertaining fashion. The pacing moves along smoothly, even if it's sometimes hampered by extensive exposition to account for every kooky idea the writers bring to the table (an issue of which Episode 3 is especially guilty). It mostly flows together pretty well, as any good trippy sci-fi tale should.
On the technical front, Loki continues to bring welcome shifts in production quality from the studio's recent green-screen travesties: dynamic camera work, eye-catching set design and meticulous costuming, all of which make for some of the most visually eye-catching MCU material out there. And limitations of PG-13 violence be damned, Marvel Studios has always had a strangely effective affinity for body horror, and Season 2 is especially brutal within the confines of Disney's streaming landscape. Spaghettification and skin-tearing are delightful — more please!
Of course, I would be remiss to not discuss Majors, appearing as several versions of the latest arch villain, Kang. Without spoiling what manner of shapes this character takes within the series, the performances he provides are dedicated, although held back by the whole "being Jonathan Majors" thing.
In general, the whole production reeks of Marvel's "too big to fail" output streak — a strange imposition wherein, at the behest of no one in particular, they've shot off product after product with little regard for questionable development standards, let alone meaningful storytelling
Since Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has tussled with its relevance and overabundance. For many, it has become a checklist more than a franchise, one with staggering potential yet lacking in everything except aimless brand synergy. The franchise now exists as a selection of palette cleansers to monopolize niches of culture, each installment a flavourless spin on well-worn Hollywood conceptual ventures. Much in the same way Total Recall was once thought of as "Raiders of the Lost Ark goes to Mars," Marvel's recent fare feels so very transparently literal in this boardroom pitch manner of filmmaking: WandaVision is "The Avengers meets The Honeymooners," Spider-Man is "Iron Man, but it's The Breakfast Club," or Secret Invasion is "Captain America: The Winter Soldier plus Invasion of the Body Snatchers." You get the idea.
The trouble isn't that these aren't any fun, or that they aren't even an effective strategy to drum up interest. Sometimes the results land, with even the most cynically synergistic efforts proving to be entertaining and frustrating in equal measure. These streaming series often deliver on the initial premise, at first with verve and enthusiasm, only to fizzle out once they adjust their creative aspirations to fit that familiar formula. To this end, at least, Loki Season 2 strives to feel like essential viewing, ambitiously juggling a standalone character-driven story while acting as a foundational backbone for much of the studio's forthcoming slate of feature films. But, in cutting straight to the chase with little conceptual flirtation to speak of, the tedium merely arrives sooner.
What returning fans will get from these first four episodes is a promising trek full of meticulously designed time-travelling shenanigans, dazzlingly surreal imagery and even the occasional bout of bittersweet existential dread. But where Season 1 explored its titular anti-hero and his purpose with a humorous, albeit touching edge, Season 2 seems too satisfied asking the same old questions and coming up with less interesting answers. Insert "snake-eating-own-tail" metaphor here.