As Avengers: Endgame proved, time travel is hard to pull off. Luckily, Loki’s here to explain how it all works.
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Loki Episode 1, “Glorious Purpose,” streaming now on Disney+.
Loki sees the return of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s infamous trickster god, but things have changed since his days as a conquering tyrant. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is now a prisoner of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), having been captured following his escape from the Avengers in 2012, as seen in Avengers: Endgame. As he learns over the course of the first episode, it’s the role of the TVA to preserve the correct flow of time — the “Sacred Timeline,” as they call it — by containing and correcting so-called variants. This mission puts Loki squarely in the TVA’s crosshairs, as his escape with the Tesseract has changed the course of history.
The Avengers’ adventure through time in Endgame resulted in this past Loki’s escape from imprisonment immediately after the events of the first Avengers movie. This means the Loki captured by the TVA has not lived through the events of Thor: The Dark World or any of the subsequent MCU films in which he appeared and is now living in a deviation from the original timeline. If that all sounds a bit complicated, Loki‘s first episode makes sure to explain the intricacies of time travel in the MCU — something Endgame struggled to achieve.
Avengers: Endgame saw the team travel into the past to retrieve the Infinity Stones before they were destroyed by Thanos. The film openly rejected the rules of time travel posited by earlier movies, such as Back to the Future, in which changes to the past would alter the future. However, beyond the immutability of the present, little seemed clear or consistent about Endgame‘s explanations of time travel. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) explains that by removing the Infinity Stones, the Avengers are disrupting the flow of time, creating divergent timelines. However, there is some disagreement — not just amongst fans, but between Endgame‘s writers and directors — over whether any alteration to the past would result in the creation of an alternate timeline or whether this only occurs when Infinity Stones are removed from time. This has also led to disagreements on whether the older Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) traveled between the MCU’s prime timeline and an alternate universe as a result of his time spent in the past.
Different explanations for Endgame‘s time travel have been given by the film’s creators and within the film itself, causing more confusion than clarity. With time travel and alternate timelines set to play a central role in Loki, the series was quick to clear things up. Upon his arrival to the TVA, Loki finds himself watching an animated orientation film, dripping with corny ’50s stylings. The video’s chipper narrator, Miss Minutes, introduces the Time-Keepers, explaining that these cosmic beings forged the Sacred Timeline from the chaos of a multiverse-spanning war between multiple realities. The video goes on to introduce variants: individuals who in some way stray from the Sacred Timeline’s course of events. It’s stated that any alteration to the course of time produces an alternate timeline, branching off from the original, which seemingly confirms that time travel within the MCU always creates new branch realities.
Of course, the revelation that the Avengers’ time traveling was always supposed to occur may cause some uncertainty. It certainly seems like confirmation that Steve Rogers’ life in the past occurred within the main MCU timeline, a theory Endgame‘s directors previously shot down, or else Steve would have surely ended up in the TVA’s custody himself. Regardless, the rules seemed to be cleared up as far as Loki is concerned, setting out the workings of time and alternate realities to be explored in the series. And with upcoming films like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness set to push through the boundaries of reality, Loki may have just laid the foundations for many MCU stories to come.
Loki stars Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Owen Wilson as Mobius M. Mobius, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ravonna Lexus Renslayer, Wunmi Mosaku as Hunter B-15 and Sophia Di Martino, Richard E. Grant, Sasha Lane and Eugene Cordero. The series premieres June 9 on Disney+.
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