Between alternate realities, variant identities, interdimensional criminal law, and a good deal of existentialism, Disney+’s Loki has packed a lot of heady science fiction concepts into its first batch of episodes. A series that focuses on the loss of identity amidst a chaotic universe could be a pretty bitter pill to swallow, but thankfully it’s a really fun time-hopping cosmic caper. When looking at sci-fi that uses sharp humor to explore elaborate concepts, Loki owes a lot to the brilliance of the Bill & Ted franchise.
At face value, the premises are almost exact opposites. Tom Hiddleston‘s smirking god of mischief claims that he’s “burdened with glorious purpose,” but a quick look at his own future through the technology of the TVA shows he’s only bound for a brutal death at the hands of Thanos. Aspiring rockers Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) are about as far removed from the charismatic superpowered trickster as you can get, and they share none of his expectations of changing the course of history. Yet, it’s these two goofy slackers that end up being the basis for an entire future society.
In the best time travel stories, it’s surprising to see how seemingly important events (or even people) end up having less impact than expected. The Bill & Ted films explored this in a satirical way, introducing cornerstone historical figures integral to any history textbook like Napoleon, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joan of Arc, and Genghis Khan, and revealing them all to be just as clueless as the two titular underachievers. Loki emulates this approach as it unravels the history of the Marvel universe. Remember the Infinity Stones that were the subject of a ten-year story arc? Now they’re just sitting in an office drawer.
Loki’s most overtly Bill & Ted-inspired moment came in its second episode “The Variant” when Loki and his TVA handler Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) travel to the site of the Pompeii disaster in 79 AD. The subsequent discovery that they can change things in the past and it won’t show up on the Sacred Timeline, thanks to the volcanic eruption, prompts Loki to run rampant through the infamous city, instigating the same type of chaos that Bill and Ted usually create inadvertently. Even if their motivations are completely different, both Loki and the Wyld Stallyns realize that the moments they believed to be historically critical aren’t quite as serious as they thought. The difference is Bill and Ted were never taking themselves that seriously to begin with.
Learning how the future plays out is a pretty good way to force a character to do some reflection, and so far Loki has become a radically different character after binge-watching his lifespan in the pilot episode. The cunning Loki who led the Chitauri to invade New York would’ve never opened up to someone as lowly and seemingly inconsequential as Mobius before — in fact he purposefully attempts to deceive Natasha Romanoff with his false empathy in The Avengers. Even by the time of Thor: Ragnarok, Loki’s only somewhat able to speak personally with his half-brother Thor. Seeing Loki reckon with the crumbling expectations of the “End of File” sequence is devastating, but the series has also kept things light and frequently plays his misjudged expectations for laughs.
The humor of Loki finally sharing his anxieties after keeping them bottled up is not dissimilar from watching Bill and Ted ask questions about their place in the universe for the first time. Although it’s a frequently referenced moment now seen as a throwaway stoner gag, Bill and Ted’s incredulous “WHOA” when first encountering Rufus (George Carlin) and the very concept of time travel is a pretty authentic response for two guys whose biggest worry before was the threat of military school. Over the course of the trilogy, the knowledge Bill and Ted gain actually inspires them to be truer to themselves than ever. Their carefree optimism may have made them the subject of ridicule, but what if it’s that very quality that makes them the best that humanity has to offer?
One of Loki’s most engaging elements thus far has been the identity of the various variants wreaking havoc through history, and although the evil clones from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey aren’t quite as clever, they do embody a lot of the same fears. Even taken in the goofiest possible direction, there’s something supremely upsetting about the ability of a malicious entity to literally take your place. The evil versions of Bill and Ted transformed the duo’s most endearing qualities and weaponized them, making their passive laziness toxic as they insult the 15th-century princesses Bill and Ted live alongside and wreck their apartment. Loki extends this concept even further, introducing the variant Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) as a more ruthless (and perhaps even more clever) thorn in the central character’s side.
Allowing multiple iterations of the same characters is a humorous device, and it also probes into more philosophical questions. Despite the idiosyncratic visuals and thrilling action sequences, the best parts of Loki so far have been the scenes where characters just sit down and talk. The third episode “Lamentis” featured one of the most sharply written exchanges thus far, with Loki and Sylvie lying low on a train for an intimate chat about love, superpowers, and their respective mothers. Perhaps the closest to a Before Sunrise moment that the MCU has ever gotten?
Bill and Ted fully maximized the concept of letting characters talk to themselves by the time of Bill and Ted Face The Music, in which the pair hop in their trusty phone booth time machine in search of a version of themselves that fulfilled the prophecy of writing the song that unites the world. Bill and Ted’s shock at seeing what lies ahead if they can’t don’t fulfill that destiny is played for laughs, but it hints at the characters’ real priorities when they’re shaken by the threat of losing their families. The encounter not only inspires them to be better musicians, but better husbands and fathers. Loki has similarly grown when he considers the choices that could have led him down an even darker path.
Thus far it’s been pretty easy to determine what has influenced the Marvel Disney+ shows; WandaVision is more or less Pleasantville, and the buddy cop elements of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier owe a lot to the work of Shane Black. Loki is less easy to pinpoint, as head writer Michael Waldron and director Kate Herron have cited everything from Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick to Mad Men and Toy Story as influences for the show. Even if no one has name-checked the Bill & Ted trilogy so far, Marvel fans may want to consider delving into the Wyld Stallyns discography as a companion to their Loki obsession.
All wings, report in.
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