More content sludge from a vast conglomerate? Right down my gawping tube, please

Patrick Freyne: Loki entertains, but soon all art will be sucked into the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Marvel mischief: Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Marvel mischief: Tom Hiddleston as Loki

 

In the first episode of Loki (Wednesday, Disney+) we take up where the eponymous anti-hero’s story left off in Zack Snyder’s blockbuster film Justice League. Loki is, like his brother Thor, one of the Ewoks. He speaks Klingon in the Millennium Falcon while battling his arch enemy, Skeletor.

Yeah, you heard me. I don’t care any more. I’m disrespecting the franchise. I’m disrespecting all of the franchises. I’m so very tired and simultaneously so very entertained. Marvel makes me feel both of these things at the same time, and probably will do so forever.

Because it’s clear now that all artistic “content” is ultimately destined for one of the shared fictional universes – Marvel, DC and Star Wars, aka Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia – overseen by the vast conglomerates that currently dispense content sludge down our gawping tubes.

A young woman has long, philosophical conversations with a man who is terrible at sex? Fine. But what if that woman were R2D2?

Nowadays any interesting writers and directors must all turn their eyes towards these monoliths. Because any story you want to tell can be told in this glorious new entertainment age – as long as it’s told through the medium of superheroes or space Buddhists.

So you want to write a turgid tale about a college professor who has a midlife crisis when his sub-Joycean novel is rejected? No problem, but let’s make that college professor Captain America. A bunch of class-conscious suburbanites grapple with economic insecurity and digital paranoia? That’s cool, but let’s call it The Care Bears. A young woman has long, philosophical conversations with a man who is terrible at sex? Fine. But what if that woman were R2D2?

If you want to make money from film or telly nowadays, all things must be inserted into an existing fictional universe built atop some children’s characters invented soon after the war. The referential style was more or less invented by Marvel Comics back in the 1960s. Stan Lee looked up one day and said, “What if to read this simple story about the Hulk you have to read every other comic ever created lest you missed a detail? What if to understand one of my children’s comics you have to do homework?”

And so he began intricately linking all of his characters and storylines in a never-ending cosmic soap opera that ensured several generations of comic-book writers went to bed with migraines and several generations of youngsters delayed developing social skills, preferring instead to ask detailed questions about superhero continuity at comic-book conventions. (I was one of those youths.)

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Marvel Studios is the most insidious of the dread trinity of shared-universe content creators because it consistently makes above-average stuff. Its output is clever. It’s inventive. It’s witty. It’s also always slightly disappointing. This is because there’s an inherent structural problem built into the soap-operatic comic-book project. It never ends – it just segues from one property to the next via cod-dramatic finales.

So while the recent WandaVision (Disney+), for example, starts out as an inventive, genre-blending programme that asked difficult questions about free choice, identity and grief, in its final episodes it devolves, like all of these stories devolve, into a tedious, CGI-heavy battle featuring empowered floaty people in capes. Because while the people at Marvel like telling interesting stories, they’re also concerned with selling toys and setting up endless future projects.

They do reasonably good stuff, then get stuck on the endings. I’ve come to the conclusion that Normal People would have been more or less the same TV show we all watched last year if Marvel had created it, except that in the last episode Connell and Marianne would have met Antman, then crashed a huge CGI spaceship into Trinity College. (On reflection, that’s a good ending.)

Loki broke the rules of time/space, and now he must pay the ultimate price: starring in a Marvel mini-series for at least six episodes

So while I quite enjoyed the first episode of Loki, I’m bracing myself for third-act disappointment. Let me take you through it anyway. The producers begin the action where things left off in Police Academy: Mission to Moscow or Mrs Doubtfire or whatever Marvel property last featured Loki, and we see the Asgardian trickster use a glowing cube, the Tesseract, to escape. He materialises in a desert where he is quickly challenged by police in riot gear, possibly on their way to South William Street. These are actually special time cops, possibly the same as those in the movie Time Cop, who subdue him and take him to a Kafkaesque transdimensional bureaucracy called the Time Variance Authority. You see, Loki broke the rules of time/space back in Alvin and the Chipmunks or Lassie or whatever that last film was called, and now he must pay the ultimate price: starring in a Marvel mini-series for at least six episodes.

Marvel are good at casting. They’re good at lots of things, the gowls. Tom Hiddleston, aka Hiddles, aka Loki, is charming and smarmy (smarming?), both lank of hair and slinky of frame as he contends with forces more powerful than he. He quickly finds himself grappling with a maddeningly brown 1980s-style set bought from Wes Anderson on the cheap. (The celestial beings who created the TVA are big on retro chic, apparently.) 

The set comes with a sardonic Wilson brother (Owen), aka Mobius M Mobius, who interrogates Hiddles and shows him clips from films in which Hiddles has recently starred. He is doing this in order to get under Loki’s mischievous Asgardian skin and to convince him to work for the TVA. There are other versions of Loki murderously knocking around time-space, you see, and they want this Loki to help track them down.

It’s a set-up with a lot of potential. And it’s pretty stylish, even if a retro temporal authority was already used very snazzily in the non-Marvel-aligned Umbrella Academy. I will, as usual, watch it all. I’ll probably even enjoy it before I’m disappointed. What choice do I have? I mean, I even watched all of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and that was just a glorified video game with muscles and grunting.

Ticked off: Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time
Ticked off: Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time

For a dash of temporally-themed drama unconnected with the Marvel universe, I watched the first episode of Jimmy McGovern’s Time (Sunday, BBC One). It features Sean Bean as an alcoholic teacher imprisoned for accidentally killing someone and Stephen Graham as a well-meaning but compromised prison guard. It’s so beautifully acted and well observed in its gloomy, oppressive terror that watching it put me on edge for hours afterwards. Of course, I was also worried that Loki might jump through a portal in the third act, colonising Jimmy McGovern for Marvel Studios. All culture will eventually be linked back to that first Iron Man film, mark my words.

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