‘Loki’ Head Writer Michael Waldron on the Challenge of Time Travel in the MCU and What He Learned From ‘Rick and Morty’ [Interview]
Marvel’s new series Loki introduces fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to an entire new world when the God of Mischief is arrested by the Time Variance Authority for crimes against “The Sacred Timeline.” What the hell does that mean? Writer Michael Waldron does a fantastic job of explaining that through sharp, witty, and engaging dialogue between Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Owen Wilson as TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius. But introducing an entire agency dedicated to preserving the flow of time and stopping time traveling criminals wasn’t easy.
In our interview with Loki head writer Michael Waldron, we talk about the challenges of introducing the TVA, how his writing on Rick and Morty helped him craft the Marvel series, and learn absolutely nothing about the future of Loki, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, or the upcoming Star Wars movie from producer Kevin Feige.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
There’s clearly a dark comedy that comes from the mundane bureaucratic approach of the Time Variance Authority (TVA) in this series. And it feels like it easily could have been from an episode of Rick and Morty. What’s something you learned from working on that show that helped you with writing Loki?
So much about working on Rick and Morty helped me with this series. Working on Rick and Morty is like going to sci-fi college, just from all the different brilliant people you work with, who have such specific knowledges of different realms of sci-fi and everything. I worked there with Mike McMahan who created Star Trek: Lower Decks, and now Solar Opposites and everything, and Jeff Loveness who now is writing Ant-Man 3.
Rick and Morty was helpful in the sense that, in that show, we would introduce a big, pretty complicated concept sometimes. I hesitate to say that, because then it just becomes the meme of, “Well, you got to be really smart to understand Rick and Morty,” But we’d introduce some sci-fi concept, and we’d have to explain it very quickly in a way that the audience can understand and then not be hung up on, so they could just go on the emotional journey. That was exactly what we had to do with this show, with all the time travel and the TVA.
Was that the hardest thing to crack about the TVA? Was there something more specific that posed a challenge, introducing something so complicated into the Marvel cinematic universe?
Yeah. It’s time travel, man. Doing a time travel show – I was like, “This is insane. What was I thinking?” Because in a movie you can get away with murder, because if the rules don’t make sense, they already watched the movie. If everybody goes home, then they can pick it apart. That’s okay. With this thing, we’re going to have to withstand weekly scrutiny with the rules we’re introducing, the rules we’re breaking. So that was a big challenge. Thankfully, our writers were up to the task. For several weeks we were just defining that stuff for ourselves, so we could then go tell the story.
There are actually several writers who’ve worked with Dan Harmon over the years, whether it’s on Rick and Morty or Community, who have now come into Marvel Studios. What is so appealing about these people that Dan Harmon has found that makes them work so well with Marvel?
I think Dan is just an amazing science fiction writer himself, and so your brain gets trained in a way that’s very helpful for the MCU. Dan is somebody who is absolutely unafraid to totally change direction if something isn’t working. He’s not afraid to pull out what seems like the most rock solid foundation of a story if something’s not working. It’s like, “Well, what if we did that totally differently?” Oftentimes that’s scary, but that’s exactly what unlocks an episode or a movie for you. That is absolutely the way that Kevin Feige and the team at Marvel like to operate as well. So I think working with Dan is great training for going in and working in the MCU.
Was there ever a time on Loki where you had to practice that in action, where there was something that just wasn’t working and you had to go back and figure out how to fix it?
Yeah, man, you’re writing a show about time travel. Every day, you’ll work from morning to the afternoon. Then suddenly one of your writers points something out, and it’s just all the work you just did, the Jenga tower crumbles. Because guess what? That actually doesn’t track with the encyclopedia of rules that we define for ourselves. So back to the whiteboard, and you learn to embrace that as not a defeat, but part of the process.
I think people might be surprised by how many deep conversations there are between Mobius and Loki in this series, stuff that gets into, not just time, but philosophical approaches to life and how we’re moving through time. Can you talk about the challenge in bringing those conversations into something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where there’s this expectation of big blockbuster action and whatnot?
Totally. Those are my favorite scenes in the show. That that was what I wanted to do from the beginning, because I think that’s what’s so exciting about this. Taking a big blockbuster movie character, like Loki, and putting them now in the intimate setting of television, where you can spend time in a quieter scene of dialogue and stuff.
So as a writers room, we were watching The Master and Inglourious Basterds, movies that have just great scenes and one-on-one exchanges, just trying to build tension in another way. I would posit that perhaps Loki’s greatest superpower is his ability to talk. In the way that you want to see Superman fly, I think you want to see Loki in a battle of the wits, so to speak. Marvel, to their credit, was so supportive of those long dialogue scenes. I think that was some of their favorite stuff too, and they never balked at the idea of doing that stuff.
What’s something specific that Kate Herron did as a director that you love because of how it enhanced what you had already written on the page?
Kate is brilliant. We wrote all this stuff, and then I wrote Mad Men meets Blade Runner is the aesthetic. That’s easy to write in a line of dialogue. Kate, in working with all the different departments and everything, built a world literally, and made the TVA real. She defined such a stylish aesthetic for this place, and beyond that, shot it in a way that is so lived in. And it just feels, I hope real. It feels like it really exists. She did a great job of that. I think tonally her and I were on the same page of like, we all want to do something that’s wacky. We want to do something that’s funny, when the humor is natural, but let’s try and make this feel like adventure at times. I think she did a great job of leaning into that, the thrilling elements of it. She just was excellent.
Yeah, the Time Variance Authority feels like it has a rich history in the MCU, so I’m curious whether or not this is something that we’ll have a looming presence as time goes on. As the next phase of Marvel Studios projects continues, will the TVA be akin to something like SHIELD in the future?
Maybe. We’re gonna have to see where the TVA is at the end of all this. I was excited to build a new world within the MCU, and where they go moving forward, time will tell.
I think it’s no coincidence that there’s a lot of talk about multi versus and madness. So will we at least see the TVA having a role in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness?
[apprehensively sucks in air] That’s a question for somebody else.
All right, well you wrote the first season of Loki, so is a second season something that you’re potentially already thinking about, or is there maybe another Marvel project you have in the works?
Is there a second season? That’s news to me. I think our intention with this season was always to tell a great, complete story. And as for the future, we’ll see.
We know, or at least it’s been reported, that you are working on a Star Wars project with Kevin Feige. How will you bring what you personally love about Star Wars into a project like that?
I guess that’s a good question. I love Star Wars. There’s not much I can say about that project other than I love Star Wars, and I’ll try to bring everything I love about Star Wars into it. I love 3PO. So I’ll try and bring my love of 3PO into it.
Be sure to check out our interview with Tom Hiddleston for more on Loki.
Loki premieres on Disney+ on June 9, 2021.