Loki is back. But is he better than ever?

Marvel’s third live-action series for Disney+ stars its highest profile character yet: Tom Hiddleston’s Norse god Loki. The simply titled “Loki” (streaming Wednesdays, ★★★ out of four) jumps through a few narrative hoops to give the sometime villain, sometime antihero his own show after his demise in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”

It’s a lot of rigamarole, a lot of time travel jargon and an entirely new science fiction side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at the very least it succeeds as a showcase for Hiddleston’s mischievous smile. It also might give Disney+ its first genuinely good Marvel series. Maybe.  

Tom Hiddleston as Loki in "Loki." (Photo: Disney+)

In the two episodes made available for review, “Loki” is more self-assured, more gripping and more like television than either of Marvel’s first Disney+ series earlier this year –”WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

Fundamentally, those shows were structured as feature films (even “WandaVision,” a purported love letter to the sitcom format), and that structure hurt them. While “Loki” certainly has some of that “six-hour movie” ethos in its DNA, its installments don’t just pause at the end. They are completed stories and more traditional TV episodes. This is the first Marvel series on Disney+ to have a firm hold of its identity from the word go. 

“Loki” picks up where fans apprised of the MCU last saw him when, due to time-travel shenanigans in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” the 2012 version of Loki from the first “Avengers” film is able to escape from the Avengers’ clutches in New York with the powerful tesseract. Where he went was never revealed in the film, but his escape was brief and painful. In the first episode of “Loki,” he is apprehended by the Time Variance Authority, an all-powerful and extremely bureaucratic organization dedicated to keeping the universe’s timeline in order. 

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Owen Wilson as Mobius in "Loki." (Photo: Disney+)

This “variant” of Loki, as he’s called in the show’s jargon, is due to essentially be erased from time and space until one TVA employee, Mobius (Owen Wilson) sees an opportunity. He wants to use Loki to help track down a dangerous variant fugitive who’s wreaking havoc on the timeline and killing TVA agents. With the begrudging approval of his boss, Judge Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Mobius tries to make Loki care about something other than himself and help them. 

The TVA is a very different setting for an MCU series or film: a hazy, beige world straight out of “Office Space.” Although portraying all-powerful science fiction and fantasy entities as mundane bureaucracies isn’t new (see “The Good Place,” “Good Omens” and “The Magicians,” among many others), it is effective both as comedy and characterization. When Loki threatens to gut one of the office drones like a fish, the worker has no idea what a fish is. 

Hiddleston is as inextricably linked with Loki as Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth are with their Marvel alter egos. In his 10 years playing the character, he hasn’t lost either the panache or glint that made him such an irresistibly charming villain in the first place.

However, the setup of the series makes Hiddleston’s job more difficult, the motives and understanding of his character harder to pin down. This Loki is not the one who has been through the significant character development of the “Thor: The Dark World” and “Thor: Ragnarok” films. The last time we saw this guy, he tried to conquer Earth with an army of aliens until the Avengers showed up to stop him. The series’ writers try hard to create a situation in which this Loki – who recently committed mass murder – would be at least an antihero worth rooting for, but there isn’t much time to do so. It doesn’t help that a quarter of the first episode consists of recycled clips from Marvel films to fill in time and backstory. 

But the series may not have more time to focus on character because it jumps through plot at a thrilling pace. In Episode 2 there’s a twist that will have Marvel superfans buzzing with glee, and even delight newbies. The series’ energy, and its small but strong supporting cast, elevate it above “WandaVision” and “Falcon.” 

Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Wunmi Mosaku as Hunter B-15 in "Loki." (Photo: Disney+)

Wilson slides easily into this section of the MCU, perhaps a surprise to fans used to his comedies. The actor plays a Wilson type on low volume, an “aw-shucks” middle manager enlivened by the chaos Loki brings. But the real scene stealer is Wunmi Mosaku (“Lovecraft Country”) as a no-nonsense TVA enforcer who knocks Loki around precisely as much as he deserves. 

So far, “Loki” is fun and zippy, reminiscent of the more casual and comedic Marvel films such as “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Ant-Man.” It also clearly benefits from comparisons to its Disney+ predecessors, and grading on a curve it seems like the streamer’s first great Marvel show. But measured against the superb TV that has premiered already in 2021, its light dims. Still, there’s potential for greater depth in the episodes to come, if the writers focus on this story and aren’t bogged down tying into the greater Marvel machine. 

Let’s just hope that Loki doesn’t let us down. And it’s not like he’s done that to Thor and the Avengers a dozen times, right? 

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