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'Loki' boss on how Rick and Morty's 'big sci-fi concepts' helped shape MCU show's time-travel hijinks
With its exploration of such mundane concepts as fate, time, and free will — you know, just the boring stuff about the universe and why we're here — Loki might just be Marvel Studios' most existentialist project to date. Put another way, the series was the perfect conduit for the stylings of head writer, Michael Waldron, who was already familiar with lofty sci-fi ideas after serving as a writer and producer on Adult Swim's Rick and Morty.
"They’re both big sci-fi shows," Waldron, who also executive-produces Loki, tells SYFY WIRE. "Rick and Morty was all about, ‘Alright, introduce a sci-fi concept, make sure the audience can get it, but then shift it to the background, so we can really focus on the emotional story.’ And so, that was very helpful in doing a show about time travel that was gonna have a lot of big sci-fi concepts in it."
As the third Marvel series to hit Disney+ in the last five months, Loki has the added benefit of reaping the bountiful goodwill sowed by WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Viewers now know that the MCU isn't afraid to get strange, experimental, and avant-garde (take your pick of word choice) with its small screen efforts that still match the high-end production values of the studio's box office juggernauts.
"They’re all different," Waldron says when we ask where Loki fits into the context of the shows released so far. "They’re all great and really cool. I think that WandaVision is just so experimental and is so original. I’m astounded by that concept, the execution of it, and the commitment to it. That’s a show about grief in a lot of ways. Falcon and the Winter Soldier is just a blast of an adventure show that also is about legacy. And our show… maybe we exist somewhere a little more in between the two. I’d say [with] this show, we probably reckon with identity. [That's] probably our biggest concern."
Waldron, who is fast becoming a hot commodity at Disney (he wrote next year's Doctor Strange sequel and is developing a mystery Star Wars film alongside Kevin Feige), says he was approached for Loki near the end of 2018. That was several months before Avengers: Endgame, which sets up Loki by having the character (Tom Hiddleston) escape with the Space Stone. That was the easy part.
"The most important thing about this show is to do something new," Waldron explains. "There’s been the movies that exist and we know those. Those movies are great. Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War, but we’ve gotta do something new and I think because this is TV, there’s the opportunity to just go deeper on the character in the way that only television can. It can be a more in-depth character piece and that’s what our conversations were about and Marvel was as excited about that prospect as I was."
From there, the head writer devoured the comics, scouring the Marvel source material for as many references to the Time Variance Authority that he could find. "I went deep into all of the TVA stuff. Everywhere the TVA shows up," he continues. "They show up in some cool Fantastic Four runs and everything. That was probably the most informative. Just like, ‘Alright, how does this organization operate in the comics?’ And trying to draw inspiration from there."
When it came time to bring the temporal organization to the screen, Waldron wanted to go for "a Mad Men meets Blade Runner aesthetic." As reviewers and fans have pointed out since last week's premiere, the TVA's base of operations has early Space Age/dystopian vibe that recalls the work of filmmakers like Terry Gilliam (mainly the director's Orwellian parable, Brazil).
"And that’s all I had to do," Waldron adds. "Then it was Kate [Herron], our director, Kasra [Farahani], our production designer, and Christine [Wada], our costume designer, bringing it to life. Just making amazing choices to render that look. And so, it looks even better than I could have dreamt, but it certainly captures what our writers’ room was hoping for aesthetically."
Another crucial component to making the TVA work was the character of Agent Mobius (played by Owen Wilson). "With Mobius, there’s not much to him in the comics. He’s just kind of a bureaucrat at the TVA," Waldron adds. To give Mobius a little more depth, the writer looked to Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent determined to capture notorious con man Frank Abagnale in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. It's the perfect comparison to make when you're dealing with a seasoned liar and master of disguise like Loki.
"I wanted to write somebody who would be a great foil for Loki," Waldron adds. "I thought about that and ultimately, he’s somebody who is similar to Loki in some ways and very different in others. I liked that Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can energy. He’s a real patient guy, a very cool customer, which is an interesting kind of person to deal with somebody who thrives by getting under your skin the way that Loki does."
Due to his green-horned status within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Wilson — who needed to give off the aura of someone who knows Loki like the back of his hand — relied on Hiddleston for all things relating to the Asgardian god of mischief. Like we reported in late May, the show's leading man provided a Loki-based crash course before production even began.
"Not everybody necessarily is as dialed into the MCU as those of us who are huge fans," Waldron says. "And so, Tom, by virtue of being a part of it...it’s like who better to fill Owen Wilson in on, ‘Alright, here’s what's happened in this world and everything.’ Tom’s enthusiasm is infectious. That’s why he was such a great captain for us. He’s absolutely the guy you want to be number on the call sheet because he just works so hard and cares so much."
"We worked really hard as a writing staff to make each episode feel different from the last," Waldron concludes. "To build on the previous episode, but to really…’Ok, now let’s do something that in its own way feels singular.’ And so, yeah — hopefully, it feels like a different, but equally enjoyable experience to watching the first one...if you liked watching the first one."