Journey Into Mystery was the title of the first Marvel comic to feature either Thor or Loki. It began as an anthology series featuring monsters and aliens, but Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Larry Lieber were so smitten with their adaptation of the characters of Norse myth that the Asgardians gradually took over the whole book, which was renamed after its hammer-wielding hero(*).
(*) The early Journey Into Mystery stories treated Thor’s alter ego, disabled Dr. Donald Blake, as the “real” character, while Thor was just someone Blake could magically transform into, while retaining his memories and personality. It wasn’t even clear whether Asgard itself was meant to exist at first, until Loki turned up on Earth in an early issue, caused trouble, and Blake/Thor somehow knew exactly how to get to Asgard to drop him off. Soon, the lines between Thor and Blake began to blur, and eventually Thor became the real guy, and Blake a fiction invented by Odin to humble his arrogant son. It’s a mark of just how instantly charismatic Loki was that the entire title quickly steered towards him and the other gods.
But once upon a time, anything was possible in Journey Into Mystery, which makes it an apt moniker for an absolutely wonderful episode of Loki where the same holds true. Our title characters are trapped in the Void, a place at the end of time where the TVA’s victims are banished to be devoured by a cloud monster named Alioth. And mostly they are surrounded by the wreckage of many dead timelines. Classic Loki insists that his group’s only goal is survival, and any kind of planning and scheming is doomed to kill the Loki who tries. But this ruined, hopeless world instead feels bursting with imagination and possibility.
There are the many Loki variants we see, with President Loki, among others, joining Classic, Kid, Boastful, and Alligator Loki. There are the metric ton of Easter Eggs just waiting to be screencapped by Marvel obsessives (I discuss a few of them down below), but which still suggest a much larger and weirder MCU even if you don’t immediately scream out “Is that… THROG?!?!?” at the appropriate moment. And all of that stuff is tons of fun, to be sure. But what makes this episode — and, increasingly, this series — feel so special is the way that it explores the untapped potential of Loki himself, in his many, many variations.
This is an episode that owes more than a small stylistic and thematic debt to Lost. It’s not just that Alioth looks and sounds so much like the Smoke Monster(*), that it makes a shared Wizard of Oz reference to “the man behind the curtain” (also the title of one of the very best Lost episodes), or even that the core group of Lokis are hiding in a bunker accessible via a hatch and a ladder that’s filled with recreational equipment (in this case, bowling alley lanes). It’s also that Loki, Sylvie, their counterparts, and Mobius have all been transported to a strange place that has disturbing echoes from their own lives, that operates according to strange new rules they have to learn while fleeing danger, and their presence there allows them to reflect on the many mistakes of their past and consider whether they want to, or can, transcend them.
(*) Yes, Alioth technically predates Smokey by a decade (see the notes below for more), but his look has been tweaked a bit here to seem more like smoke than a cloud, and the sounds he makes when he roars sound a lot like Smokey’s telltale taxi cab meter clicks. Given the other Lost hat tips in the episode, I have to believe Alioth was chosen specifically to evoke Smokey.
Classic Loki is aptly named. He wears the Sixties Jack Kirby costume, and he is a far more powerful magician than either Sylvie or our Loki have allowed themselves to be. He calls our Loki’s knives worthless compared to his sorcery, which feels like the show acknowledging that the movies depowered Loki a fair amount to make him seem cooler. But if Classic Loki can conjure up illusions bigger and more potent than his younger peers, he is a fundamentally weak and defeated man, convinced, like the others, that the only way to win the game into which he was born is not to play. “We cannot change,” he insists. “We’re broken. Every version of ourselves. Forever.” It is not only his sentiment — Kid Loki adds that any Loki who tries to improve inevitably winds up in the Void for their troubles — but it seems to have weighed on him longer and harder than most.
But Classic Loki takes inspiration from Loki and Sylvie to stand and fight rather than turn and run, magicking up a vision of their homeland to distract Alioth at a crucial moment in Sylvie’s plan, and getting eaten for his trouble. He was wrong: Lokis can change. (Though Kid Loki might once again argue that Classic Loki’s death is more evidence that the universe has no interest in any of them doing so.) And both Loki and Sylvie have been changing throughout their time together. Like most Lokis, they seem cursed to a life of loneliness. Sylvie learned as a child that a higher power believed she should not exist, and has spent a lifetime hiding out in places where any friends she might make will soon die in an apocalypse. Our Loki’s past isn’t quite so stark, but the knowledge that his birth father abandoned him, while his adoptive father never much liked him, have left permanent scars that govern a lot of his behavior. The defining element of Classic Loki’s backstory is that he spent a long time alone on a planet, and only got busted by the TVA when he attempted to reconnect with his brother and anyone else he once knew. This is a hard existence, for all of them. And while it does not forgive them their many sins(*), it helps contextualize them, and give them the knowledge to try to be better versions of themselves.
(*) Loki at one point even acknowledges that, for him, it’s probably only been a few days since he led an alien invasion of New York that left many dead, though due to TVA shenanigans, far more time may have passed.
For that matter, Mobius is not the stainless hero he once thought of himself as. While he and Sylvie are tooling around the Void in a pizza delivery car (because of course they are), he admits that he committed a lot of sins by believing that the ends justified the means, and was wrong. He doesn’t know who he is before the TVA stole and factory rebooted him, but he knows that he wants something better for himself and the universe, and takes the stolen TemPad to open up a portal to his own workplace in hopes of tearing down the TVA once and for all. Before he goes, though, he and Loki share a hug that feels a lot more poignant than it should, given that these characters have only spent parts of four episodes of TV together. It’s a testament to Hiddleston, Wilson, Waldron, and company (Tom Kauffman wrote this week’s script) that their friendship felt so alive and important in such a short amount of time.
The same can be said for Loki and Sylvie’s relationship, however we’re choosing to define it. Though they briefly cuddle together under a blanket that Loki conjures, they move no closer to romance than they were already. If anything, Mobius’ accusations of narcissism in last week’s episode seem to have made both of them pull back a bit from where they seemed to be heading back on Lamentis. But the connection between them is real, whatever exactly it is. And their ability to take down Alioth — to tap into the magic that Classic Loki always had, and to fulfill Loki’s belief that “I think we’re stronger than we realize” — by working together is inspiring and joyful. Without all this nuanced and engaging character work, Loki would still be an entertaining ride, but it’s the marriage of wild ideas with the human element that’s made it so great.
Of course, now comes the hard part. Endings have rarely been an MCU strength, give or take something like the climax of Endgame, and the finales of the two previous Disney+ shows were easily their weakest episodes. The strange, glorious, beautiful machine that Waldron and Herron have built doesn’t seem like it’s heading for another generic hero/villain slugfest, but then, neither did WandaVision before we got exactly that. This one feels different so far, though. The command of the story, the characters, and the tone are incredibly strong right now. There is a mystery to be solved about who is in the big castle beyond the Void (another Loki makes the most narrative and thematic sense to me, but we’ll see), and a lot to be resolved about what happens to the TVA and our heroes. And maybe there’s some heavy lifting that has to be done in service to the upcoming Dr. Strange or Ant-Man films.
It’s complicated, but on a show that has handled complexity well. Though even if the finale winds up keeping things simpler, that might work. As Loki notes while discussing his initial plan to take down Alioth, “Just because it’s not complicated doesn’t mean it’s bad.” Though as Kid Loki retorts, “It also doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Please be good, Loki finale. Everything up to this point deserves that.
Some other thoughts:
* Most of this week’s most interesting material happens in the Void. But the scenes back at the TVA clarify a few things. First, Ravonna is not the mastermind of all this, and she was very much suckered in by the Time-Keeper robots. But unlike Mobius or Hunter B-15, she’s so conditioned to the mission that even knowing it’s a lie hasn’t really swayed her from her mission. She has Miss Minutes (who herself is much craftier this week) looking into files about the creation of the TVA, but for the most part comes across as someone very happy with a status quo where she gets to be special and pass judgment on the rest of the multiverse.
* Alioth first appeared in 1993’s Avengers: The Terminatrix Objective, a miniseries (written by Mobius inspiration Mark Gruenwald, and with some extremely kewl Nineties art full of shoulder pads, studded collars, and the like) involving Ravonna, Kang, and the off-brand versions of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor (aka U.S. Agent, War Machine, and Thunderstrike, the latter of whom has yet to appear in the MCU). It’s a sequel to a Nineties crossover event called Citizen Kang. And no, I still don’t buy that Kang will be the one pulling the strings here, if only because it’s really bad storytelling for the big bad of the season to have never appeared or even been mentioned prior to the finale.
* Rather than try to identify every Easter egg visible in the Void’s terrain, I’ll instead highlight three of the most interesting. Right before the Lokis arrive at the hatch, we see a helicopter with Thanos’ name on it. This is a hat tip to an infamous — and often memed — out-of-continuity story where Thanos flies this chopper while trying to steal the Cosmic Cube (aka the Tesseract) from Hellcat. (A little kid gets his hands on it instead and, of course, uses the Cube to conjure up free ice cream.) James Gunn has been agitating for years for the Thanos Copter to be in the MCU. He finally got his wish.
* The other funny one: When the camera pans down the tunnel into Kid Loki’s headquarters, we see Mjolnir buried in the ground, and right below it is a jar containing a very annoyed frog in a Thor costume. This is either Thor himself — whom Loki cursed into amphibianhood in a memorable Walt Simonson storyline — or another character named Simon Walterston (note the backwards tribute to Walt) who later assumed the tiny mantle.
* Also, in one scene you can spot Yellowjacket’s helmet littering the landscape. This might support the theory that the TVA, the Void, etc., all exist in the Quantum Realm, since that’s where the MCU version of Yellowjacket probably went when his suit shorted out and he was crushed to subatomic size. Or it might be more trolling of the fanbase from the company that had WandaVision fans convinced that Mephisto, the X-Men, and/or Reed Richards would be appearing by the season finale.
* Honestly, I would have watched an entire episode that was just Loki, Mobius, and the others arguing about whether Alligator Loki was actually a Loki, or just a gator who ended up with the crown, presumably after eating a real Loki. The suggestion that the gator might be lying — and that this actually supports, rather than undermines, the case for him being a Loki — was just delightful. And hey, if Throg exists in the MCU now, why not Alligator Loki?
* Finally, the MCU films in general are not exactly known for their visual flair, though a few directors like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler have been able to craft distinctive images within the franchise’s usual template. Loki, though, is so often wonderful to look at, and particularly when our heroes are stuck in strange environments like Lamentis or the Void. Director Kate Herron and the VFX team work very well together to create dynamic and weird imagery like Sylvie running from Alioth, or the chaotic Loki battle in the bowling alley. Between this show and WandaVision, it appears the Disney+ corner of the MCU has a bit more room to expand its palette. (Falcon and the Winter Soldier, much less so.)