Late in the upcoming book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, authors Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards write about the explosion of Marvel movies and shows over the past few years — and, with it, the explosion in responsibility for MCU mastermind Kevin Feige. “Marvel Studios hadn’t been built to scale up the way Disney was demanding,” they suggest. “Its greatest strength quickly became its weakness. When asked a few years earlier why no other studio had been able to match Marvel’s track record, Joe Russo said, ‘Simple. They don’t have a Kevin.’ In the Disney+ era, Marvel didn’t have enough Kevin to go around.”

Feige’s overextension has been palpable for much of the post-Endgame stretch of the MCU, this year especially. Where all previous Marvel Studios productions had at least some ardent and vocal fans, 2023 brought two universally disliked projects in the cosmic mess Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and the nap-inducing miniseries Secret Invasion.

The funny thing is, Marvel still seemed to be on a hot streak in the immediate aftermath of Endgame. People enjoyed Spider-Man: Far From Home, albeit perhaps not as much as they had Tom Holland’s first outing as Peter Parker. And the new era of Marvel on television arrived with a bang, thanks to the acclaimed, inventive WandaVision. (After all, what is Disney+ if not Kevin Feige persevering?) The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was much bumpier, but that was followed by arguably the best of any of these series: Loki, a spinoff of Tom Hiddleston‘s character from the Thor and Avengers movies, now mixed up in shenanigans involving time travel, variant personae, and the multiverse. Even a finale that mostly featured a character we’d never seen before — Jonathan Majors as the all-knowing puppet master He Who Remains — sitting at a desk and explaining the plot somehow worked. It was so fun and so clever — and, thanks to the plan to make both the multiverse and Kang, a He Who Remains variant also played by Majors, crucial to where the larger MCU was headed — that it became the first, and so far only, Disney+ Marvel series to get a second season.

What followed, though, was more of a mixed bag. Hawkeye, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law all had aspects that worked very well, like She-Hulk‘s meta commentary on toxic fanboys, or the way Ms. Marvel combined coming-of-age drama and Pakistani history with the superheroics. But they also had obvious weaknesses, like Hawkeye losing the thread near the end, or almost everything about Moon Knightbesides Oscar Isaac’s acting. The consistent level of quality control just wasn’t there in a way it had been for the MCU through most of the 2010s.

Now Loki is back, more than two years since we last saw Loki, his female variant Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), easygoing time cop Mobius (Owen Wilson), and the rest of the gang from the Time Variance Authority. And what was once the best representation of what Marvel could do on television has become just as uneven as everything else.

Season Two picks up right where we left off. Sylvie has murdered He Who Remains, creating the multiverse that became a central plot point in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Loki, meanwhile, has found himself in a version of the TVA offices decorated with Kang statues, where Mobius and Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) don’t recognize our title character. Mobius’ duplicitous boss Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is missing, along with the chipper animated AI character Miss Minutes (Tara Strong), and everyone left at the TVA is flummoxed by both the multiverse and by B-15’s discovery that all of them are variants who were kidnapped from their respective timelines and had their memories wiped.

This is a lot to deal with, even before the TVA’s chief engineer Ourboros (played by new castmember Ke Huy Quan), OB for short, warns that the TVA, and/or the entire multiverse, may be in danger of exploding because their equipment wasn’t designed to handle so many new branches of the Sacred Timeline.

Quan, who won an Oscar this year for his great work in Everything Everywhere All at Once, is rewarded with the most technobabble-laden dialogue TV has seen since LeVar Burton on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He handles the material with such enthusiasm and comic timing that you may not mind how many times he has to say the phrases “Temporal Loom” and “Throughput Multiplier.” But the greater emphasis on the mechanics of the multiverse keeps getting in the way of the parts of the show that were most effective and appealing in Season One.

The easy banter between Hiddleston and Wilson is still there, just not as often. Sophie, once a firebrand who was every bit as witty as her male counterpart, is now dour and emotionally shut down. And Loki himself only sometimes feels like the Loki who was charming enough to merit his own show in the first place. He gets to use a bit more of his magic this season, but his character arc has largely been sacrificed in favor of him worrying about what’s going to happen to the TVA. The plot is maneuvering him, rather than the other way around, and it’s not a great use of either the character or the actor playing him. At one point, Hunter X-5 (Rafael Casal from Blindspotting, another cast addition) tells him to stop trying to be a hero and embrace villainy again: “You’re good at it. Do that.” But the exchange seems wholly disconnected from what Loki is up to throughout the season’s first four episodes.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Ke Huy Quan as O.B., and Owen Wilson as Mobius in ‘Loki’ Season Two.
Gareth Gatrell/(C)2023 Marvel

Instead, the biggest — and most muddled — character arc involves the TVA itself. The organization was once dedicated to pruning multiversal branches in order to protect the main timeline. Now, practically overnight, B-15 is able to convince her colleagues that their mission should instead be to protect all those branches, and the billions of variants who live on each of them. Even if you allow for the idea that the organization is in a shambles from the discovery that their leaders — the seemingly godlike Timekeepers — were in fact robots created by He Who Remains, it still feels abrupt that almost everyone does such a quick philosophical 180. B-15’s new boss implores her to “Make it make sense,” and the new episodes only sometimes do that.

The good news is that the series continues to be by far the most visually distinct MCU project, TV or film, of recent vintage. The retro-future design of the TVA only gets more variations as OB takes us through the equipment that keeps the place running. Quan and Casal add back some of the lightness that’s been lost from Loki and Sylvie, and Tara Strong has a lot of fun with an expanded role for Miss Minutes.

But as flat as the rest of the season can frequently be, the big problem is Jonathan Majors, who returns as yet another Kang variant. It’s not his performance, which remains a weirdly compelling live-wire act, full of odd, halting line deliveries and twitchy physicality. Instead, it’s the ugly real-world circumstances surrounding him. After the season was filmed, Majors was arrested and charged with domestic violence against his romantic partner, which led to Rolling Stone uncovering a pattern of alleged abusive behavior going back a decade. Majors was set to play the big bad for the next few phases of the MCU. Instead, it’s impossible to imagine him ever appearing in a Marvel project after this one. The very nature of Kang, and the way that we’ve seen many Loki variants played by actors other than Hiddleston, should make it easy to recast the role. But in the meantime, Majors is here. And while his scenes are often the liveliest part of Loki Season Two, every scene he’s in has the shadow of his alleged actions hanging over them.

Even before Feige had to oversee more projects than he could handle, he was pushing for the MCU to be more and more interconnected, and now the franchise cart is often pulling the individual project horse. Loki seemingly wound up at the TVA not because it’s the natural next step for that character, but because Phases 4 and 5 were going to be all about the multiverse. Paul Rudd and company spent an entire movie in the Quantum Realm — and away from the street-level heroics and Michael Pena monologues that distinguished the first two films — to introduce audiences to a more traditional version of Kang. Not every project is designed to service the MCU as a whole — Moon Knight was entirely self-contained, and Ms. Marvel largely was until the end — but the majority are. And perhaps because there are more projects than any one executive can fully oversee, what was once a feature of Marvel’s output now feels like a bug. (Though the same can be said of the Disney+ Star Wars shows.)

If left entirely to their own devices, would Michael Waldron (who developed Loki) or Eric Martin (who wrote for the show in Season One and became its head writer in Season Two) have set it at the TVA and spent so much time on timeline branches, Kang variants, and the like? We’ll never know. There’s a running gag in these new episodes where different characters have to don an overinflated spacesuit in order to step outside headquarters and repair the Temporal Loom; despite the cumbersome nature of the gear, OB keeps telling people they have to move very quickly in order to literally save their own skins. Loki Season One was able to move nimbly despite being tethered to so much of the larger MCU. Season Two, though, frequently feels so sluggish that it may as well be locked into one of those puffy suits.

Feige unfortunately doesn’t have access to variants of himself. Without more than one of him, the MCU’s own machinery doesn’t seem built to handle all the content passing through it.

Season Two of Loki begins streaming October 5 on Disney+, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first four.

 Jonathan Majors’ MCU supervillain is back in Season Two of the Disney+ series, but the off-screen allegations against him make it a tough watch.  Read More