A brutalist aesthetic. Allusions to autocracy. The first few episodes of Marvel’s new series may seem airy, but its dystopian design foreshadows more sinister twists to come.
In the first episode of Loki, the trickster god of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, last seen escaping on a time travel journey during Avengers: Endgame– is captured and taken to a mysterious hinterland that exists outside of time and space and bears no resemblance to a mushroom-colored airport from the 1970s. The walls are paneled with wood. The ceiling, covered with hundreds of circular lights, stretches enormously into the distance, its composition being pure Kubrick. Against this background, a brooding agent tells Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) to take a ticket and join the queue. “There are only two of us here,” he replies, irritated by the order. “Take. A. Ticket,” spits the guard.
That bureaucratically claustrophobic place is the Time Variance Authority, a non-temporal zone set up to stamp out all the time travel shenanigans that threaten the integrity of the “sacred timeline.” The MCU sent its heroes and anti-heroes to rush into space; he set them up as gladiators on garbage planets; it allowed them to absorb the heat of the stars and channel the power of the entire universe. But that never has them, even in all of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s most twisted visions sent to the DMV. So far. The setup is darkly funny: The MCU’s most chaotic and arrogant character, the most resistant to any kind of authority, found himself doomed to a purgatory of sign sheets, plexiglass tyrants, and Muzak. For Loki, it’s pure hell.
Loki is the third Marvel TV show to debut on Disney + this year, following the emotional and experimental WandaVision and seriousness but without interest The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Early reviews praised the original chemistry between Loki and his TVA manager, Mobius (Owen Wilson), as well as the show’s breeze and sense of humor. But the show’s unmistakably dystopian sci-fi aesthetic, in which cityscapes melt into nothingness in endless shades of brown, suggests that TVA may be more malicious than it looks. There are other allusions to autocracy, too: in the scene where Loki resentfully accepts his ticket, framed posters on the walls bear graphic eyes that represent an all-seeing police state, and cheerfully threatening slogans: BRING OR HAVE YOUR CLOCK CLEANED. During Loki’s first interaction with a TVA officer, she hits him in the face with a baton, then slows down time to one-sixteenth of her normal rate to prolong his pain.
The spectacle’s optical grandeur and sinister bureaucratic elements are the product of Kate Herron’s vision. The 32-year-old from south-east London was working as a temp for a fire extinguisher company when she was hired as the director of the Netflix series Sex education; Loki is his first major solo project. When in talks for the job, she presented Marvel bosses with what amounted to a lengthy PowerPoint presentation on what she thought the show should be: the architecture of the TVA, the music of the show, even the dynamics of Loki’s character arc over the past 10 years. “I knew I was offering them something that was stylistically a little different from what they had done before,” she told me on Zoom. The aesthetic she had in mind was in part inspired by the Brutalist architecture of the region where she grew up, which served as the backdrop for dystopian classics including A clockwork orange and Children of men.
The biggest challenge, she said, was the question of “how to capture this infinite space that is outside of time”, the alternate realm where VAT exists. “It’s not a planet. There’s no sun. It’s almost an office city like Vegas in a way. She drew ideas from Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s absurd science fiction from 1985 about a man trapped in a bureaucratic dystopia; from the German expressionist drama of 1927 Metropolis, located in a futuristic megalopolis; and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi neo-noir from 1982, Blade runner. LokiS faded monochrome palette instantly sets it apart from other Marvel projects. Instead of the technicolor pop of an Avengers movie or the crisp blues and whites of space, the series envelops viewers in jarring earthy hues, from brown on beige to umber. A rare hint of color appears when Loki spots handles of Infinity stones in a desk drawer, a visual clue that the way the power supply works in the TVA is completely foreign to the way it has always worked in the MCU.
The tone is casual in the first two episodes, largely because the character as written by showrunner, Michael Waldron, is so brash and unfazed by any obstacle. But the quietly sinister design of the TVA hints at darker twists to come. Nexus events need to be pruned, reads another poster within the agency, referring to time travel incidents that could cause time fractures by triggering alternate branches of reality; viewers can only speculate on what this “pruning” entails. When Loki tells Agent Mobius that “this place is a nightmare,” Mobius replies, “It’s another department. The legal system in which Loki is tried is superficial and unchanging; he risks either being doomed to remain forever in this perpetual office landscape of retro technology and futuristic torture, or be liquidated for his crimes.
LokiThe distorted understanding of time strangely captures the mood of the past year, and its uncanny ability to make months feel like eons and weeks into years. Herron left England when she was hired on Loki in 2019 and flew to Los Angeles, then Atlanta, where, to her surprise, she ended up staying for two years, after filming of the pandemic stopped. The unexpected extra time gave him more opportunities to delve into scenes already shot and reexamine the characters and tone. Loki seems likely to put up with his new setting, given the nature of franchises and the fact that the series bears his name. But, Herron said, the world around him is newly unpredictable. “VAT is a carpet,” she said. “Everything that people thought they had power or had power in the MCU is actually very different now. It’s a new playground.