Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Image: Marvel, Photo: Marvel Studios

Disney Plus’ Loki owes its humor and glorious purpose to a prolific Marvel Comics writer

Even Joss Whedon's Avengers films take inspiration from Peter David's Incredible Hulk storylines

Image: Marvel, Photo: Marvel Studios
Graphic: Libby McGuire

The Suicide Squad’s latest trailer opens with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) discussing the supervillain Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who’s in prison for “putting Superman in the ICU with a kryptonite bullet.” The trailer for Titans season three previews the “death” of the second Robin, Jason Todd, at the hands of the Joker. These are developments grounded in their source material: The Bloodsport of the comics did indeed pump The Man Of Steel full of glowing green lead, and Jason’s demise-by-reader-poll was part of Batman’s A Death In The Family arc. But what they are not is fun.

The unrelenting grimness of DC’s contemporary onscreen universes has always provided a stark contrast to Marvel’s more critically and commercially successful productions, most notably Disney+’s Loki. The clever series follows a time-displaced alternate version or “variant” of the God Of Mischief (Tom Hiddleston), a title the series really leans into. He’s more like Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation than a one-dimensional villain, and established as a refreshingly human protagonist in the series’ early goings. The seemingly all-powerful Time Variance Authority informs the variant Loki that he’s not “real” and is thus disposable. When he sneaks a peek at his predestined future in the proper timeline, he learns that he’s doomed to repeatedly fail at what he considers his own glorious purpose.

However, the narrative doesn’t wallow in Sartre. By the second episode, Loki is taunting a Southern-fried artificial intelligence and re-enacting the apocalypse with a colleague’s salad as a visual aid. Loki finds the humor in his situation and so do we. The series has never run from source material in the comics that’s gloriously wacky: Presidential candidate Loki from the 2016 Vote Loki comic turns up in the penultimate episode, “Journey Into Mystery,” as well as Frog Thor from Walt Simonson’s 1980s Thor run. We’re even treated to Richard E. Grant as an older version of Loki in his classic costume.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially Loki, draws clear inspiration from comics that are actually fun, like DC’s Justice League series of the 1980s. Written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis with expressive art from Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon, this Justice League was an unapologetic comedy, in which the grim, humorless Batman of the period served as the perfect foil. Guardians Of The Galaxy and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 are its cinematic heirs; Giffen even co-created the Guardians’ wiseass mercenary/pilot Rocket Raccoon. Those movies are a rollicking good time, and their humor grounds the space opera narrative.

I’d say another overlooked influence on Loki and the larger MCU comes from the pages of Marvel. While less overtly comedic than those Justice League comics, Peter David’s 12-year-run on The Incredible Hulk struck a fine balance between its comedic and dramatic elements. The Hulk is an inherently tragic character, and David understood that, like Shakespeare, you have to cut the bleakness with a refreshing dash of comedy. The comics writer and Star Trek novelist didn’t reinvent the wheel; he just steered the title in a more interesting direction. David’s approach was to acknowledge the absurdity. Bruce Banner’s wife, Betty, and his alter-ego, the Hulk, both burst out laughing at one point in David’s run because they realize their lives are completely ridiculous. David treated his characters—yes, even the guy who “turns into an enormous green rage monster”—like normal people who are thrust into fantastic situations, rather than fantastic characters plodding through a mundane, poorly lit reality.

David’s work on The Hulk can also be seen as a stylistic precursor to Joss Whedon’s whole oeuvre, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to his two MCU movies. The Avengers and Avengers: Age Of Ultron both bear Whedon’s hallmarks: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sheepishly stating that Loki was “adopted;” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) busting a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent for playing Galaga. Decades before, David wove humanizing comedic bits into Incredible Hulk #376, which plays out like a bedroom farce: Bruce and Betty Banner meet their friend Rick Jones’ new girlfriend, Marlo Chandler, who once dated the Hulk. This isn’t just a wacky fill-in issue but the penultimate chapter in the story arc where Banner’s competing personalities finally merge. Whedon would often use a light, comic episode as the prelude to a gut-punch dramatic entry in his TV series, but he struggled to seamlessly fit his style into the MCU; his Avengers films feel like otherwise traditional superhero movies but with quips at inopportune moments.

Loki fully lives in a David-like world that’s as emotionally complex and absurdly tragic as our own. When Loki teams up with a supposedly even more ruthless variant of himself, Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), their banter is flirtatious and fun, a delightful mixture of self-love and self-loathing. After they con their way onto a luxury train that is set to escape a doomed world, they trade intimate details of their own lives, which are similar yet vastly different. This isn’t an exposition dump before the next fight scene. It’s an affecting character moment that works because it’s grounded in playful humor. Their relationship builds like a screwball comedy: In “Journey Into Mystery,” the unlikely couple face the unknown while cuddling under a blanket Loki has conjured up. You can’t help but swoon.

David was the first to seriously approach the Hulk as not a problem for Banner to “cure” but a dark side of himself to understand, perhaps even embrace. Loki is such a delightful surprise because it offers a story richer and more satisfying than whether Loki can defeat his “(more) evil twin.” As we head into the finale on July 14, the big question is whether Loki can change sufficiently to love what is essentially a version of himself, and can Sylvie, who knows Loki better than anyone, trust that he won’t betray her like he has everyone else?

Superhero stories are at their best a form of magical realism, and Loki beautifully balances the mundane and the fantastic. The result is enchanting. “Journey Into Mystery” opens with Loki meeting more variants of himself, including an alligator wearing his trademark horns. The penultimate episode ends with a reunited Sylvie and Loki, holding hands and resolved to confront the Time-Keepers together. The charming quirkiness and compelling drama feels like a Peter David moment from the comics given glorious purpose on the screen.