The Woman Who Shaped Marvel’s Thrilling, Bisexual ‘Loki’
Director Kate Herron opens up to Melissa Leon about the first season of the thrilling Disney+ series “Loki,” from the Kang reveal to the Timekeepers and Loki’s sexuality.
Director Kate Herron’s time guiding the God of Mischief through the multiverse has come to an end.
The 33-year-old Loki “superfan” directed all six episodes of the Marvel series, which ended its first season Wednesday with the universe- (and heart-)shattering finale, “For All Time. Always.” A mid-credits sequence revealed the Asgardian antihero would return for a second season. But Herron—who helped define the “Mad Men meets Blade Runner” retro-futuristic look and heightened emotion of the series alongside writer Michael Waldron, cinematographer Autumn Durald, and composer Natalie Holt—explains she “only ever planned” to stick around for one season. And she gave it “everything in my soul.”
The director engineered massive impacts not just on Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, whose bisexuality was acknowledged onscreen and who fell in love for the first time under her stewardship, but also on the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her tenure saw the introduction of Kang the Conqueror, a villain with a towering history in the comics (played onscreen by Last Black Man in San Francisco’s Jonathan Majors), and the birth of the multiverse, opening unlimited creative possibilities (and unleashing new threats) for these characters and their variants in the future.
Herron spoke Friday to The Daily Beast about the work: the questions she leaves behind, the moments she’s proudest of, the hints, payoffs, and cinematic homages she embedded throughout, and her hopes for Loki in this next phase.
In the finale, the Lokis come face to face with an ancient being who’s like an omniscient god and a devil bearing temptation wrapped into one. Was it significant that he appeared bearing an apple?
That was actually Jonathan’s idea. He was like, “I think it’d be cool if I was, like, eating an apple.” And we were like, “Yeah, that’s great,” so no, I can’t take any credit for that. That is all Jonathan Majors, that idea.
And we know that He Who Remains is a variant of Kang the Conqueror, whose presence has seismic implications for the MCU. What went into deciding how to frame this introduction to the character and how to weave his presence throughout the story?
With framing it, aesthetically, there were little things [throughout]. Like for example, Natalie [Holt, Loki composer] had a genius idea. She knew we wanted a TVA theme and she was like, well let’s make that his theme because he has had a hand in all the story we’ve seen. You know, he says, "I paved the road. You just walked down it." And that, I thought, was such a brilliant idea because then when you hear the music associated with him, you realize it’s his music and it’s almost like he’s been there the whole time. There were little hints. There was a mosaic in the courtroom that had a little hint of him. But also the Timekeepers, for example. When we cast Jonathan, I didn’t have anyone for the Timekeepers yet, because so much of that was being built in post and I was working out who we should cast and I was really excited by the idea of Jonathan doing the voices because The Wizard of Oz is obviously a clear reference for us. I was like, well, it should be the wizard. He should be doing the voice of these Timekeepers. Jonathan is obviously an amazing character actor, everyone would have seen that from his past work.
I remember we sent him the art of the Timekeepers and he was just sending us these amazing voice notes where he was like, “What about this voice? What about this voice?” That was so much fun, digging into that and getting his take on that as well because, in a weird sense then, it’s almost like He Who Remains is back at the Citadel communicating with them. And just little details like, for example, when Sylvie picks up the head of that Timekeeper. The last thing that Timekeeper had said is, “See you soon,” which is the very last line that He Who Remains whispers to Sylvie. Little details like that were really fun to kind of sprinkle in.
That first shot of Majors in Kang’s signature green and purple is a shock, in part because it’s such a casual way of introducing this huge, universe-breaking character. He’s just lounging in the elevator munching an apple. What went into shaping this variant’s personality?
I think honestly it was like a mixture of things. In the writing, we always had that he arrives by elevator. There is a casualness to him and I think that’s what’s fun, right? That it immediately tells you he’s not Thanos. He’s going to be a very different villain and he’s a very different character. And then it’s in Jonathan’s performance. That was the really fun thing with Jonathan. He Who Remains is a character that’s been isolated for a long time, like so many of us were in the last year. (Laughs) I remember me and Jonathan would talk about it because we were both living on our own and we were like, what would this guy be like? Because he’s at the end of time. It’s the only place that’s safe for him. But he can’t really communicate with anyone except for Miss Minutes, really, so he’s on his own. That was just really fun to dig into, like, how extroverted or introverted is he? And what would his behavior be like around Loki and Sylvie? So it definitely came a lot from Jonathan’s performance as well. But that for me was just the fun of the story: This is a completely different villain than we’ve met before which to me, as a fan, is very exciting.
You also get to shoot the birth of the multiverse in this episode. Was it determined from the beginning that the story would end this way? What did you want to highlight in that sequence, emotionally, visually or otherwise?
From the start we knew that it was going to end with the multiverse being born. We knew they were going to meet He Who Remains and that something would go wrong, but we didn’t know exactly how we were going to get there. As we developed the story and the characters we were like, oh, no, it should be through Loki and Sylvie and their relationship unraveling that leads to that. But I think in terms of the visuals, one thing I would say is that opening sequence [of the episode], we wanted it to be like this homage to Contact. There was a massive collaborative effort from my editor, Emma McCleave, and her assistant, Sara Bennett, and Skywalker Sound and obviously Marvel. We wanted to kind of say goodbye to the previous phase but also play into the whole idea of the show, the idea of time. That was something that my storyboard artist pitched, which I thought was so incredibly smart. When we pull back out of the timeline, he was like, what if it’s circular? That really opened up my brain about it because I thought about how we used to think that Earth was flat and actually it’s not. I thought, well, that’s interesting that the TVA think of time [differently]. Miss Minutes even says, “Think of time as one straight line.” And maybe it isn’t. So that was already a very cool image to me and then showing how it severs at the end, all these branches are coming off it.
But I think in terms of the emotion, really, the music is meant to reflect how Sylvie feels. It falls back into our question of, you know, good versus evil and like, maybe He Who Remains did many evil things but for the greater good. You see on her face that she has all this pain and all this anger. But she had to complete her mission, even though Loki is pleading with her, “Please don’t do this.” She has to do it. But she doesn’t look satisfied at the end by what she’s done. She seems more horrified. I think that was the really important thing. As we see this multiverse being born, it leaves the question and hopefully the discussion for the audience, not an exact answer. Was it a good idea that she did what she did? I don’t know. Maybe not, because when He Who Remains talks about his other variants, he looks very scared. And if he’s the best version of himself, what are these other variants gonna be like? That was the really key thing to dangle there, was that this wasn’t the best decision.
Then there’s the fight scene between Loki and Sylvie that precedes He Who Remains’ death. There’s so much symmetry throughout that sequence: Two mirror images of the same person clashing, one dressed in light colors, the other in dark, one with a gold blade, the other with silver. It felt like an external visualization of how these two characters are often in conflict with each other and with themselves. In what ways, to you, did that sequence reflect a thematic cap for the season?
On the one hand, you see how far our Loki has come. In episode 1, he talks about wanting the throne and you see how important it is to him. And then you see him here now with Sylvie on this complete journey of change and growth. And he’s like, “I don’t want the throne.” We worked on this speech a lot and Tom was so integral in that. The thing we all discussed was we don’t want the line to be, “I just want you.” The extra “[I just want you to be] OK” is so key and so important because it’s about her and her pain and her feeling. The thing I loved about it in terms of Loki’s arc was I feel like Sylvie is where he was with Thor. She has all this anger and this pain, it almost made me think of when Thor and Loki fight. He’s trying to reason with her but she’s just not in the same place as him and obviously their relationship is very different. I think that was the key thing. When you really care about someone, and you really want them to be OK, like, that’s the awful thing. She’s just not on the same path as he is on. She’s not there yet. I think that’s what’s so bittersweet about it.
I think she definitely cares about him but I always interpret the kiss as a goodbye. I don’t think it’s necessarily a complete trick and I don’t think her feelings were a trick. I think they were genuine. It’s just that she hasn’t had her Mobius therapy sessions. (Laughs) So I think that was really key for us, was giving integrity to their feelings for each other. But Sylvie’s like, I’m gonna go in and kill He Who Remains and she never diverted from that mission. Whether that was a good thing, we will see.
What were some of the challenges of shooting a romance between two versions of the same person, a relationship Mobius calls “demented,” without making it feel too weird? I personally was really rooting for them.
I think honestly it’s about just giving it integrity, grounding it, you know? That’s why I love [writer Bisha K. Ali]’s episode, [“Lamentis,”] because it does so much groundwork for their characters. They’re completely opposites and not aligned at all in that episode and then they work as a team. That’s the thing I love about episode 5 as well. In working as a team together from what we see beginning in episode 3, it makes them stronger. I love that line, “We are stronger than we realized.” For me, that always feeds back into the message of the show being about self-love and growing past your demons and finding the good within yourself. It’s just unfortunately, Sylvie has a lot of pain in her life and she’s not quite where Loki is at the end. But I hope that doesn’t diminish their love. It doesn’t make it any less genuine. That was really important to me as well, when Loki is in the Time Theater at the end. I really wanted to do that shot where we push in on him and you feel the heartbreak and the betrayal and the “What the hell just happened?” But I wanted to show you that Lokis survive, they’re strong, and he will be OK. Tom has that beautiful, beautiful moment in his performance: you see him take that breath and he’s like, “OK. I’m gonna keep fighting, I’ve still got fight in me.” That was really important to establish before he realizes that he’s in a completely different reality and it’s going to be quite a journey home. (Laughs) All is not lost.
That shot of Loki reminded me of another quiet take in the series that told a moving, character-driven story without any words: B-15’s “tears in the rain” sequence.
Yeah! It was funny with B-15 because there was always the discussion of like, “Oh, should we see her memories?” But it was so important to me that we didn’t because one, I feel like they’re private, they’re hers. And I think that gives her character so much more power. And as an audience, I think it’s quite exciting, right? Because then people can be like, “Who was she? Where does she come from? Why did she say she was happy? Why is she not happy now? We need to know where she’s from.” But in terms of just the emotion in the scene, Wunmi [Mosaku] is an amazing actor. I think you feel so much more just from seeing her performance. For a character that realizes they don’t actually have a lot of power in the show, I wanted to kind of give her power in that moment.
And then there is Ravonna Renslayer. She’s clearly having a crisis of faith by the end, after realizing the Timekeepers are a lie, she doesn’t know who she’s been working for, and everything she’s invested her time and purpose into, including a friendship with Mobius, has betrayed her. When she stomps through that Timedoor, she tells him she’s off to find “free will.” What should we take away from that?
I love that speech from our writers, I just think it’s brilliant. And it’s true, he betrayed her. They were friends and she did stick her neck out for him because he messed up. Loki got loose and runs away at the end of episode 2! I really feel for her. And you see it right when she deletes him. It’s not villainous in the sense that she’s like, “Great, now he’s gone.” She has that moment where she takes that breath and you see the pain that she had to just do something awful. But at that point, obviously, she thought the Timekeepers were real and that it was for the greater good. And that goes across our whole show. You see that with He Who Remains. With Ravonna, when she says “the one in charge,” I’m like OK, so she is gonna go find the one in charge. That’s really exciting to me. It’s like, where is she going? You know, we had this backstory with her that she was a hunter and got promoted, which we don’t really see with other characters in the TVA. We get the impression that Mobius has been an analyst forever. I think that already shows this is a really interesting character and I feel like, obviously, from the comics, there’s a lot of road to travel on. So I’m really excited to see where she goes.
And now that we know these characters will be back in season two, will you be returning to direct as well?
So basically, I’m only on season one. I’m so proud of what we did but honestly it’s just I only ever planned to do the first season. And I gave it, like, everything in my soul. (Laughs) But I’m really excited to see where they take season two as a fan and I had so much fun setting up the TVA. I think people know I’m like a Loki superfan so getting to set up Loki’s character, the fact that now it’s canon that he’s bi—I feel like we’ve laid the groundwork so much for where they could take him further. But this is sort of where my part of Loki’s story would end. But I’m really excited to see where they take him in the future.