By David Betancourt
During Marvel Studios's first decade at the movies, Loki, the God of Mischief and the Marvel Cinematic Universe's original big bad guy, was defined by his relationships and rivalries.
He was the never-to-be-trusted adopted brother of the Mighty Thor, always double-crossing the God of Thunder but never losing his love.
Loki's attempt at world domination was what originally united the Avengers in their first of many movie team-ups back in 2012.
His subsequent MCU appearances have been of the anti-hero variety, always simultaneously charming and cunning, while he remains a useful thorn in the sides of Thor and the Avengers.
But what happens when you take all of that away? No sibling rivalry with Thor. No Avengers. No homeland of Asgard, which was destroyed in “Thor: Ragnarok.” What is Loki left with?
Well, apparently a Loki stripped of almost everything that makes him who he is makes for a very good Disney+ series.
“Loki,” the third Marvel Studios offering to debut on the service in 2021, begins streaming Wednesday, and wastes no time nipping at the heels of “WandaVision” as a contender for the best yet.
Despite suffering one of the most dramatic deaths in the MCU in 2018's “Avengers: Infinity War” – at the hands of the next big bad guy, Thanos – Loki is very much still alive.
A time-travelling blunder in 2019's “Avengers: Endgame” allowed the Loki that was captured at the end of 2012's original “Avengers” movie to escape when he got his hands on an Infinity Stone.
“Loki,” picks things up at that exact moment, which the most-of-the-time villain thinks is an opportunity for his great getaway, but is instead his introduction to the TVA (Time Variant Authority), the MCU's time cops who monitor all of existence.
The TVA knows Loki is not where – and not when – he is supposed to be, but decides his brain full of tricks could be useful against other variants threatening the sanctity of an original timeline who are a bigger threat to the natural flow of time than he is.
Now all of a sudden Loki is the one joining a superteam to fight a bigger bad guy.
The TVA's arrival, and their central role in the plot, is where “Loki” begins to work its magic in Episode 1, with a top notch cast featuring MCU newcomers Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wunmi Mosaku under the direction of Kate Herron (“Sex Education”) and a script dripping with sarcastic laughs by head writer Michael Waldron (“Rick and Morty”).
Tom Hiddleston as Loki is in midseason form from the beginning of that episode (the first of six in total, released weekly).
The character is unimpressed with his new world that he sees as beneath his godlike status, but brings flashes of emotion and humanity that show him as more layered than he'd like to admit.
As TVA agent Mobius, Wilson gives off a sort of Iron Man's dad energy (the John Slattery version) with his white hair, mustache and know-it-all attitude.
Despite being an MCU rookie on screen, he holds his own against Hiddleston as they go back and forth seeing who can get the last funny, condescending word in without cracking a smile (a superpower of sorts for Wilson for most of his career).
Mobius knows every move Loki has ever made and will make, while Loki tries to surprise him anyway.
Showing equal disdain for a Marvel legend are the agents played by Mbatha-Raw and Mosaku, who trust Loki as far as they can throw him (and sometimes they do throw him).
Coincidentally, Hiddleston, Mbatha-Raw and Mosaku all attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London together.
Basically everyone else you see in front of the cameras also assumes Loki is not to be trusted and is plotting a worst-case scenario where he and only he comes out on top.
“Loki” is beautifully scored by British composer Natalie Holt, who delivers a mostly suspenseful and mysterious vibe while providing Marvel's horned menace with a theme song that might just be the MCU's best.
Yes, those beats you hear at the end of each episode slap just as hard as the original MCU musical standard, Henry Jackman's “Taking a Stand,” which played at the end of 2014's “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
The devil is in the details of “Loki,” but we promise you that devil is not Mephisto.
Let's not go down that rabbit hole again with those internet rumours that he was going to be the next great Marvel evil pulling strings out of sight and out of mind.
This is a comedy and a crime show merged together, taking place in the most successful superhero universe around.
This series has that “WandaVision” waft of rarefied MCU air.
Loki still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve and the Marvel Studios magic has still yet to run out.