A Brutalist aesthetic. Allusions to autocracy. The early episodes of Marvel’s new series may seem breezy, but its dystopian design hints at more sinister twists ahead.
In the first episode of Loki, the trickster god of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—last seen escaping in a time-travel snafu during Avengers: Endgame—is captured and taken to a mysterious hinterland that exists outside of time and space and resembles nothing so much as a mushroom-colored 1970s airport. The walls are paneled in wood. The ceiling, covered in hundreds of circular light fixtures, stretches vastly into the distance, its composition pure Kubrick. Against this backdrop, a surly agent tells Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) to take a ticket and join the line. “There’s only two of us in here,” he replies, chafing at the order. “Take. A. Ticket,” the guard spits.
The show’s optical grandeur and sinister bureaucratic elements are products ofKate Herron’s vision. The 32-year-old from southeast London was working as a temp for a fire-extinguisher company when she was hired as a director on the Netflix series Sex Education; Loki is her first major solo project. When she was in talks for the job, she presented bosses at Marvel with what amounted to a lengthy PowerPoint presentation on what she thought the show should be: the architecture of the TVA, the show’s music, even the dynamics of Loki’s character arc over the past 10 years. “I knew I was pitching them something that was stylistically a little bit different to what they’d done before,” she told me over Zoom. The aesthetic she had in mind was partly inspired by the Brutalist architecture in the area where she grew up, which has played a backdrop to dystopian classics including A Clockwork Orange and Children of Men.
The tone is jaunty across the first two episodes, in large part because the character as written by the showrunner, Michael Waldron, is so reliably brash and unfazed by any obstacle. But the TVA’s quietly sinister design hints at darker twists ahead. nexus events must be pruned, another poster within the agency reads, referring to time-travel incidents that might cause fractures in time by setting off alternate branches of reality; viewers can only speculate what that “pruning” entails. When Loki tells Agent Mobius that “this place is a nightmare,” Mobius replies, “That’s another department.” The justice system within which Loki is tried is perfunctory and immutable; he stands to either be sentenced to stay forever in this perpetual officescape of retro technology and futuristic torture, or be liquidated for his crimes.
Loki’s distorted understanding of time uncannily captures the mood of the past year or so, and its odd ability to make months feel like eons and weeks like years. Herron left England when she was hired on Loki in 2019 and flew to Los Angeles, then Atlanta, where, to her surprise, she ended up staying for two years, after the pandemic shut filming down. The unexpected extra time left her with more opportunities to dive into scenes that had already been filmed, and to reexamine characters and tone. Loki seems likely to endure his new setting, given the nature of franchises and the fact that the show is named after him. But, Herron said, the world around him is newly unpredictable. “The TVA is a rug pull,” she said. “Everything people thought had power or held power in the MCU is actually very different now. It’s a new playing field.”