All television shows are collaborative creations, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe shows add a few layers beyond what’s normal. For Loki head writer Michael Waldron, that meant not only coming into the job with the series already having a premise — a variant of Loki, who was plucked from the timestream after the events of The Avengers, runs afoul of the Time Variance Authority, an obscure group even by Marvel standards — but having to set up the idea of a multiverse of parallel realities, which will be at the center of the MCU’s upcoming Phase Four films.
It’s an unconventional arrangement, but one that worked for Loki, which turned out to be the wildest of Disney+’s three Marvel shows so far, and the one with the most satisfying finale. (And Marvel was pleased enough to hire the Rick and Morty alum to write a screenplay for the upcoming Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.) Waldron spoke with Rolling Stone about the show’s unusual genesis, how things changed once Jonathan Majors nailed the audition to play He Who Remains — who will turn out to be time-traveling villain Kang, a big part of Phase Four — about his upcoming Starz pro wrestling drama Heels (which debuts August 15th), and more.
You came into the show with the idea of Loki clashing with the TVA already in place. How exactly does this kind of arrangement work at Marvel?
Michael Waldron: There was a creative brief that was 20 pages or so that basically said: “We want to do something about Loki running up against the TVA. Here’s some different avenues that might be cool to explore.” It was really serving it up for writers as a jumping off point for us to put together our pitches. Then I went off and really worked on the idea of Loki being brought in to hunt another Loki, and that becoming the heart of the show, and the Loki/Sylvie relationship. The big thing that I did in my pitch — even as early as pitching it to Kevin [Feige] — I really walked through the six episodes, kind of similar to what they were. I knew I wanted Episode 3, for instance, to be a little bit of a Before Sunrise, with Loki and this character walking across this apocalyptic moon. But Marvel had the initial, probably the most important spark of genius, which was just Loki and the TVA.
Where did the idea of the variant being a female Loki come from?
That was one of my ideas, that we then confirmed in the writers room. Yeah, we knew from the get-go that it was going to be Loki falling for another version of himself.
Why was that appealing to you?
I love writing any romance; it’s fun. Especially, it hasn’t been done a ton in the MCU. There’s an obviously self-reflective quality to it. And a show that’s quite literally about self-love; it is Loki getting to see parts of himself. At the start of the show, he kind of hates himself. He assesses himself to Mobius as a villain. And then he meets Sylvie, and he sees her as someone on a heroic crusade. He sees the good in her, and is able to see the good in himself.
Mobius suggests that, of course, Loki fell in love with his own variant, because he’s a narcissist. Do you think he’d be capable of falling in love with someone who is not a version of himself?
[Laughs] I don’t know if he didn’t fall in love with himself first. Maybe after that, but the first time he falls, maybe this is what it had to be.
What’s the key to telling a time travel story that takes advantage of the concept without confusing the audience?
I think it’s doing a lot of work that the audience never sees. It’s really understanding the logic of this thing, building out the TVA as a real organization that actually exists in our minds. Our writers room, we had a TVA handbook, encyclopedia, what they do and why they do it, a glossary of terms. And then you want to only give the audience the absolute bare minimum to understand the story, and to just get swept up in the emotional stakes of everything. If the sci-fi of it all, if the time travel logic of this show did not hold up week to week, then that would have distracted from the emotional journeys of the characters. So I’m glad that even though everyone had to take their medicine a little bit, along with Loki, in episode one, I’m glad it didn’t distract from the story we were telling. And we had the benefit of Loki being the audience’s eyes in. The audience is learning as he is.
There’s a funny scene in Avengers: Endgame where the Avengers start arguing about exactly how time travel works in the MCU. How much did you have to study what other Marvel movies had done with the idea to make sure your rules were consistent?
Fortunately, Endgame was the main one, and that’s how they understand it. The TVA is an organization that understands time travel on a deeper level, probably more comprehensively than the Avengers do in Endgame. We wanted to make sure we were staying true to any rules that they laid out, but sort of establishing our own rules. It’s a time travel show. What was I thinking? A movie’s one thing, but a show is hard.
How many Loki variants did you have on the writers room whiteboard at various points?
Hundreds. So many different Lokis. There was one Loki, actually maybe it was a version of Mobius that took off his glasses, and he just had really tiny eagle eyes, like he could see everything. There was stuff like that all over the white board. Tom Kauffman, who wrote that fifth episode, he’s an amazing comedy writer, and was on the first three seasons of Rick and Morty. His first draft of that episode was just bananas.
Was there a variant, or a crazy idea in general, that you really loved but couldn’t ultimately do?
There was so much different stuff that we wanted to do in the Void. But the truth is, I don’t want to say any of it, because you never know. The ideas that I want to do the most may pop up elsewhere.
Okay, so let’s stick with a variant we did see. Was Alligator Loki actually a Loki, or just an alligator that happened to be wearing a Loki’s crown?
A magician can’t reveal his tricks, man. That’s the great debate. Let it rage.
What was Alligator Loki‘s origin story on your side of things? Who pitched him and how was that initially received?
That was maybe my very first meeting with the producers at Marvel, Kevin Wright and Stephen Broussard, talking about the show, and me saying, “When we’re doing this, you can encounter lots of different Lokis. You could have an alligator Loki. Why? Cause he’s green.” And us all laughing about how stupid that was. I think I made the point that it’s that energy of what we can do with the show. We can have something like that, but let’s play it straight. Alligator Loki, you get a laugh out of it, but by and large you try and play it straight. That was the fun tonal balance that we tried to strike in the show.
There’s been some conflicting information out there about whether the big bad was originally just going to be He Who Remains, who’s a different comics character altogether from Kang, and whether the casting of Jonathan Majors changed the plan. From your point of view, what happened?
The character was always written as a version of Kang, as early as the first draft of the script, we knew in the writers room, relatively early on. He Who Remains, that’s the guy behind the curtain with the TVA, and we saw an opportunity to fuse that mythology with the Immortus mythology. And that was just really compelling. It was a way to elevate, it just felt right for Loki, because Loki was there in the first Avengers, he’s the one who brought the Avengers together, and here is directly related to the exploding of the multiverse, this event that will drive the events of Phase Four. Certainly, when Jonathan came in, it allowed us to step on the gas of just how eccentric and charismatic this character could be. I was inspired in the writing of He Who Remains by Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, trying to give it that Frank TJ Mackey energy a little bit. He captures that and then elevates it to something else that’s different and weird.
You just said how important the multiverse is going to be to Phase Four of the MCU. How challenging is it to have to set up this big thing for the larger Marvel endeavor while also serving the needs of the particular story you’re telling on this show?
It’s a challenge in the sense that it’s all a relay race, and you’ve got the baton on this thing, and you want to do a great job. The name of the game over at Marvel is with each movie or TV show, make it the best it can possibly be. And they’re really supportive of that, and trust that it will organically fit into the larger blueprint of everything. We were excited about introducing a version of Kang, because yeah, to introduce this new big bad was cool for our show. I was aware, and cautious, of the thing I read in your review, that it might not be the most sound storytelling to introduce a new character at the very end that we’ve never seen before as the big bad of this thing. Obviously, we had the benefit that people know who Kang is, and there’s a meta thing where a portion of the audience knows Jonathan Majors is going to be playing Kang in Phase Four. But the finale was only ever going to work if He Who Remains, in a compelling way, serviced the Loki and Sylvie emotional story. That was the most important job that that character did in the finale: he laid out a very compelling conflict that ultimately drove the two of them apart.
There has also been some confusion as to exactly when you knew that there would be a second season, as opposed to you just making a limited series.
Initially, in the writers room, we were not operating as though there would be a second season. And the whole way through was, this should be a story that should stand on its own. I referenced The Leftovers and Mad Men all the time. I think about those seasons, they pushed the overall stories forward, but you can pull any one of those seasons and look at it on its own as an individual story. I wanted that to be the case here, whether we did a second season or not. I think we always felt that we would want to propel Loki forward into the MCU after the conclusion of our season. The only question was, would that be in an appearance in a movie, or would that be in a second season. And it was only over the course of development that the stars aligned to make a second season.
But that end scene, where Mobius no longer recognizes Loki and the TVA is filled with Kang statues, wouldn’t have been a satisfying conclusion to a limited series.
That is an ending that only works if there’s going to be a second season. So there is another conclusion to the story that I wrote that exists out there, that I guess is just for me. My own little play, that I perform with my action figures.
What was Sylvie’s original plan, before Loki hijacked her to that dying moon?
It was to empty out the TVA. The entire bombing of the Sacred Timeline was to create a diversion. She’s not going to be able to create a multiverse from doing that. Ultimately, the TVA has the manpower to get out and take care of these events, but they’re going to have to scramble a lot of their minutemen teams, and it leaves the Time-Keepers significantly less guarded than they would have been otherwise. That was her plan.
You didn’t come into this as a big comic book nerd. So was there someone on staff who could tell you, “Well, there’s this giant cloud called Alioth that eats time,” or, “Well, one time Thanos had a helicopter,” or maybe someone assigned to you by Marvel?
I’m constantly reading the comics but trying to not be so beholden to the and do our own thing. I charged our writers assistant, Ryan Kohler, with, “You’ve got to become the authority on all things TVA, all things Kang, and all that.” So he and my assistant, Sophie Miller, became a support staff who read a ton of these comics and became a wealth of knowledge for the writers to turn to. And then the Marvel producers, obviously are very well versed in the comics. It was Kevin Wright who came in one day and was like somebody throwing down a blueprint in an asteroid movie, going, “Alioth! Look at this!” And we were like, “Ohmigod, this is perfect!” The best thing about working on these comic book shows is that if it’s from the comics, it doesn’t matter how much of a deus ex machina it is, it’s just cool, like, “I can’t believe you pulled that from the comics.” Alioth, that was a big breakthrough that unlocked the last two episodes for us.
That is not a famous comic book that introduces Alioth. It’s an obscure Nineties miniseries, with really ugly art.
But you look at it and see what it could be. You say, “If we do this, and it feels like Twister, it’s going to be really cool.”
Was Mobius’ love of jet skis there simply to illustrate his character, or did you have a grander idea in mind?
I will come clean: I’m a jet ski guy. I’ve spent a good amount of time on jet skis in my day. I used to tow a jet ski to a lake and ride it in college. So it probably was me. Loki, I was just becoming a steward of that character. Mobius was a character I really felt I got to create from nothing. There’s not really anything to that character in the comics. So bits and pieces of me found their way in. I just think there’s something so poignant — here Mobius is, a guy who is literally fighting to preserve all of time in the multiverse, and yet his interests are maybe the most humble, human, terrestrial, unremarkable thing you can think of. Just a jet ski. And when you’ve got Owen Wilson playing him and it’s just that much better.
Will you be back in some capacity for Season Two?
[long pause] Time will tell.
Your big fandom growing up was pro wrestling. What do you think comics and wrestling have in common, both as stories and as fandoms?
The reason I was drawn to wrestling so much as a kid, growing up in the Nineties, at the time, that was the only real serialized storytelling on TV that I could find as a kid. I would watch Power Rangers, and what happened one week would not carry over into the next. Something about procedurals drove me crazy, because it felt like there was no stakes, even though I was only six. So I took to wrestling, because what happened one week, it really drove what was happening in the story the next week. I found that compelling. And that’s what’s great about comic books too, the very serialized nature of it. The characters and their journeys build over time, and therefore your investment builds. And yeah, it’s big, mythic representations of good versus evil. Ultimately. So I do think there’s a lot of crossover between comics and wrestling.
Finally, a show as weird and continuity-heavy as Loki is only possible because the audience has been mainlining the MCU for more than a dozen years, and they don’t need everything explained to them. With Heels, did you feel like you needed to hold the viewer’s hand, or is wrestling popular enough now that it’s unnecessary?
The good news, is that even if you’re not a wrestling fan, the biggest movie star in the world, arguably, is a former professional wrestler. It has permeated culture for decades now. So everybody, at least here in the States, has at least some passing, tertiary knowledge of it. You want the show to be authentic, because you want the fans who are real wrestling fans to feel good watching it. But also, we love watching characters be experts. you want to watch heroes be the best at the very specific thing they’re doing. I love watching Don Draper be the best at advertising, I love watching Tony Soprano be a mob boss, because I wouldn’t know how to do that shit. At the same time, you want to invite in audiences who maybe wouldn’t know about wrestling, and are maybe even put off by it. “I don’t like the WWE, and I wouldn’t watch that show.” There are lessons we tried to learn from Friday Night Lights, where so many people love it even though they hate football, and they watched it years later on Netflix. We tried to just invite as many people in as we could.
‘Heels’ debuts on Starz on August 15th. Find out how to stream more Starz series here.