Loki finale spoilers follow.
Marvel used to have a major villain problem. Throughout Phases One and Two, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes fought cookie-cutter bad guys who just wanted to get rich or take over the world. Loki and Bucky were the only exceptions to this because of their personal connections to Thor and Cap.
Phase Three began to build on this idea with fan favourites like Ragnarok’s Hela and Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger. Both of them committed terrible acts, sure, but their plights were also understandable to some degree, and even relatable.
With the advent of Marvel TV on Disney+, Phase Four has developed this approach even further by putting anti-heroes front and centre in each of their own shows. Even Wanda, a full-fledged Avenger, is forced to reckon with her own morality in light of what she did to Westview. And that’s been integral to the success of these shows, which each unpack what it means to be a hero in ways that no other Marvel project has ever attempted on screen.
But by centering the so-called “antagonists” like this, a different kind of villain problem has risen, like a seemingly dead baddie who thrusts one hand up from the grave just as the credits start to roll.
Since Loki’s very first episode, there’s been endless speculation on who the Big Bad might be. The mysterious Loki variant who showed up to kill TVA soldiers was perhaps the most likely candidate at first, but things took a surprising twist with that Lady Loki reveal (although given that betrayal at the end, Sylvie certainly did make a good case for her being the show’s true Big Bad).
And then of course, other villainous candidates soon raised their heads. Everyone from Ravonna and the Time Keeepers to Alioth and President Loki all played a “bad” role to some degree. Loki’s willingness to tackle the greyer areas of morality has been a strength of this show. But throughout the first five episodes, there was always this idea that someone else, someone “bigger” was waiting in the wings, controlling the TVA from a distance.
The penultimate episode leaned heavily into this idea with a final shot that practically begged fans to speculate about who could be hiding away in that castle beyond time. And then the finale arrived with the big reveal of He Who Remains, “a ruler” and “a conqueror” who also refers to himself as a “jerk” of sorts.
If you’re not a fan of weighty exposition, you might consider him to be a jerk as well. Jonathan Majors does everything he can to sell these scenes, but when you break it all down, the vast majority of this final episode was dedicated to explaining an entirely new character whose arrival made little or no sense to casual fans watching back home.
On the flip side of that, He Who Remains was always the number one suspect for comic book readers who know their history. Kang, as this character is called in the source material, has been hinted at throughout the series, and Marvel even announced Jonathan’s casting in the role months before Loki even started.
For some, Kang was the obvious choice for this reveal, which makes it a bit less exciting because it’s so predictable. And then for others, it was the complete opposite problem. If you don’t read the source material, then Kang’s arrival came completely out of nowhere because his character wasn’t even mentioned prior to the finale. Without comic book knowledge of Kang’s identity, this just doesn’t work as a satisfying end.
And even if you do know exactly who Majors is playing, what is there to actually gain from a random character showing up like this last minute? Loki has no emotional attachment to Kang beyond his manipulation of the TVA, and as a result of this, there’s no closure. Thematically, another Loki variant would have made for a far more satisfying villain, one who forces “our” Loki to confront himself and his notions of what it means to be good.
Logistically, Kang’s debut here isn’t ideal either given that it required hefty amounts of exposition which slowed the finale to a crawl. While it was refreshing to see Loki avoid the usual CGI spectacle that often plagues the end of these stories, Marvel’s incessant need to focus on set-up dragged things down in a different way here, forcing Kang in at the expense of the story that’s currently being told.
It’s thrilling to think about how this new multiverse will impact the MCU moving forward. The possibilities are literally endless. But what about the here and now? What about Loki’s arc in this season and what about the viewers who couldn’t care less about the wider MCU?
The ways in which this franchise connects everything together (much like the comics it’s based on) is easily one of Marvel’s biggest strengths, to the point where rival studios have desperately tried to replicate this format. But when vital plot points are introduced purely as a nod and a wink to fans who constantly look forward to what lies ahead, then this connectivity also becomes one of the studio’s biggest weaknesses.
For decades, comic book giants like Marvel and DC have rebooted themselves and wiped the slate clean over and over again because they eventually become too inaccessible, weighed down by the sheer volume of backstory that newbies are forced to wade through. Marvel Studios has managed to circumvent this problem for the most part due to its widespread popularity, but sooner or later, people who don’t have time to watch every single movie and show will start to resent stories like this that don’t end to at least some degree.
Clearly, what was once a villain problem has become symptomatic of a much larger issue. But the essence is still the same. Characterization is still being overlooked just to move the story along in whatever way Marvel sees fit.
And if this fixation on setting up the next project continues to take precedence over character and story, then shows like Loki run the risk of existing solely to continue one ongoing saga, like a snake eating itself in an endless loop.
Of course, fan expectation does play a role in this too, but when Kang said “We’re all villains here,” it’s hard not to think that he might be referring to something far bigger and even more powerful than himself.
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