(The following contains spoilers for the premiere episode of Disney+’s Loki. Go watch that before you read this.)
Early in the first episode of Disney+’s Loki, the eponymous God Of Mischief is apprehended by the Time Variance Authority, a comically bureaucratic organization that has been tasked with maintaining “the Sacred Timeline” by a triumvirate of space gods called the Time Keepers (not to be confused with the DC Comics organization of the same name, which does the same thing, as seen in season one of Legends Of Tomorrow on The CW). The TVA is after Loki because, as seen in Avengers: Endgame, he stole the Tesseract and escaped from custody when the Avengers went back in time to collect the Infinity Stones, changing history and thereby disrupting the all-important Sacred Timeline. Naturally, Loki aggressively objects to being told there’s a seemingly omniscient organization that not only knows everything that happens everywhere, but also uses its power to maintain one supposedly correct timeline where he happens to lose all the time. He spends the majority of the episode either arguing with or trying to escape from the various TVA employees he meets, including Owen Wilson’s delightful Agent Mobius.
Loki realizes during his TVA sentencing that his magic doesn’t work in the organization’s unnervingly outdated office complex, so his escape plan hinges on recovering the Tesseract and utilizing the limitless power of an Infinity Stone to get away. He pulls off the first part of that plan easily, threatening a TVA office worker (Eugene Cordero) until he reveals where the Tesseract is being stored, but that’s when everything changes for Loki—and for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It turns out the Tesseract wasn’t being stored in some high-tech briefcase or underground lab, like in every other MCU story, but in a junk drawer full of other random garbage that the TVA has no use for, including a whole pile of Infinity Stones, a Honus Wagner baseball card, and some other suddenly-not-so-valuable items.
This is when Loki realizes what he’s dealing with at the TVA, and it’s a moment that should land with a similar impact for anyone who saw the Avengers movies and knows just how much trouble those stones can be. The Loki from the regular timeline was killed just so Thanos could get one of them, and here’s a drawer full of multiple sets. The TVA drone Loki harasses even points out that some of his colleagues use them as paper weights, just to drive home how completely out of his depth Loki is here. The movies spent a decade insisting that the Infinity Stones were the most important things in the universe, and here we find out that they don’t matter at all.
The show doesn’t hang on the reveal the way WandaVision did when it insisted that the name “Scarlet Witch” was a huge twist (it wasn’t), and it doesn’t make the viewer wait an extra week for the payoff like The Falcon And The Winter Soldier did when Sam Wilson finally got his Captain America suit. But the drawer full of Infinity Stones is as big—if not bigger—for the future of the MCU. It reveals for the first time that there is a power beyond the Infinity Gauntlet and Thanos, which is presumably going to be an important thing in future Marvel movies like The Eternals (which even had a joke about The Avengers in its first trailer).
Also, while the plots have nothing in common, “a drawer full of Infinity Stones” is similar to how Marvel raised the stakes after the original Infinity Gauntlet storyline in the comics. In Jim Starlin and Ron Lim’s The Infinity War, the sequel to that book, a villain (as much as we’d love to, we can’t get into Adam Warlock and the Magus here) assembles a bunch of Cosmic Cubes from alternate realities. The Cosmic Cube is basically the comic book version of the Tesseract, though it’s a separate thing beyond the power of the Infinity Stones (and also they’re called Infinity Gems in the comics, but that doesn’t really matter).
Like the Loki series, The Infinity War established that there was a more powerful thing than the most powerful thing; you just had to step out of the universe to find it. The TVA doesn’t seem interested in ruling all of reality like the Magus did (again, we can’t get into it but we really want to), if only because it already does, and that’s why Loki is so clearly shaken by the revelation of what’s in the drawer and why he’s finally willing to break down and talk to Mobius about why he is the way he is—and witnessing his own death and how much pain it caused Thor with the TVA’s holographic Disney+ subscription certainly helped. He thought he knew what power was, and he spent his life lying and cheating and stealing in pursuit of it. But the TVA humbled Loki by proving that real power is beyond anything he can comprehend… because what he can comprehend has been tossed into a junk drawer.