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Hulu’s ‘M.O.D.O.K.’ lets Marvel get weird

May 18, 2021
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Living as we do in a world where superhero movies have become the primary currency of the cinematic landscape, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the comic book world reflects the relatively clear nature of the MCU.

But Marvel Comics has a LONG history, and not all of it is nearly as straightforward as the movies make it seem. There’s a lot of obscure weirdness hiding in the various nooks and crannies that come from 60 years of building and expansion.

One of the odder characters in Marveldom is M.O.D.O.K. (an acronym for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing), created when a man named George Tarleton (born in Bangor, Maine – shout out!) undergoes experiments that turn him into a giant-headed computer-brained supervillain. M.O.D.O.K. would go on to do battle with all the names you know – Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk – as he led his superscience organization Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) toward his overarching goal of world domination.

And now he’s got his own animated TV show coming to Hulu.

“M.O.D.O.K.” – also known as “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” – hits the streaming service on May 21 with a 10-episode season. And it is an altogether different experience than any other Marvel property out there. Created by Patton Oswalt (who also voices the titular villain) and Jordan Blum, the show features a dynamite collection of comedic talent in the voice cast and perhaps the most advanced stop-motion animation we’ve seen yet from Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, best known for Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken.”

This is a show that embraces the comic book grotesquerie largely ignored by the MCU machine. It is a gross-out comedy that also takes great pleasure in fan service, tossing out deep cut after deep cut from Marvel’s back catalog. All that, plus a family element that allows for skewering of sitcom tropes as well. It is weird and ridiculous and an absolute delight, the sort of show that might not be for you, but if you dig it, well … you will DIG IT.

M.O.D.O.K. has been leading A.I.M.’s hordes of evil scientists into battle against various superheroes for decades with little in the way of success. So abject are his failures that he has managed to utterly deplete the organization’s finances; A.I.M. is so broke that he must consider a corporate buyout from vaguely-defined conglomerate GRUMBL, led by tech bro Austin Van Der Sleet (Beck Bennett, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”). He’s also left to deal with the scheming of his scientific rival Monica (Wendy McLendon-Covey, TV’s “The Goldbergs”) and the relentless positivity of ever-present henchman Gary (Sam Richardson, “Superintelligence”).

But away from A.I.M., M.O.D.O.K. has other concerns. Family concerns.

His wife Jodie (Aimee Garcia, TV’s “Lucifer”) is an aspiring influencer whose patience with her husband’s constantly failing plans for world domination has essentially run out. His daughter Melissa (Melissa Fumero, TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) has inherited his big head, his mental powers … and his sociopathy, though in her case, it translates to mean girl perfection. And his hyperactive son Lou (Ben Schwartz, “Flora & Ulysses”) is a weirdo in his own right, albeit one completely unfazed by the strangeness of his family situation. Oh, and there’s the Super-Adaptoid (Jon Daly, “Happily”), an advanced android that can change into anything and just wants to be part of the family.

Over the course of the 10-episode season, we watch as M.O.D.O.K. struggles to demonstrate even a modicum of competence or empathy as he (sort of) tries to keep his life together. While there’s some overlap, the plots tend to fall into one of three distinct categories.

There’s the supervillainy stuff, where we see M.O.D.O.K. battling with heroes and/or interacting (or attempting to interact) with his evil peers. His engagements with superheroes are particularly delightful – Jon Hamm turns up to voice Iron Man as precisely the sort of smug bastard that he’d be without an endless well of RDJ charm from which to draw. And the season’s fourth episode – probably my favorite of the season – sees M.O.D.O.K. banned from the cool club and forced to hang with a bunch of C-list backbenchers like Armadillo and the Melter.

There’s the interoffice politics angle, where we watch as M.O.D.O.K. is constantly stymied and/or infuriated by Austin’s machinations (initiated at the behest of a secretive and terrifying Board of Directors) and his own loss of control of A.I.M. He’s also got to deal with Monica, who has her own agenda even as she demonstrates some horrifyingly effective biological experiments. And of course, Gary, who still believes in M.O.D.O.K. even after the big guy blasted off Gary’s arm with his mind beam.

And lastly, we have the family story. It’s no surprise that someone as simultaneously selfish and clueless as M.O.D.O.K. is unable to maintain a happy, healthy home life; his separation from Jodie and the way it impacts the dynamic between the two of them – as well as between him and the kids – leads him down some dark paths. Not so dark that he even considers trying to effect and meaningful change, mind you. Why would he do that? He’s M.O.D.O.K.! The fact of which he is constantly reminding us.

These lines aren’t completely separate, of course; M.O.D.O.K.’s personal and professional lives overlap pretty regularly. And those moments of overlap are where the show blooms brightest, when it is able to cross-pollinate its genre-skewering ways.

“M.O.D.O.K.” is ridiculous and hilarious, full of jokes and gags, gross-outs and potty humor and general lowbrow idiocy. It is also an absolute love letter to Marvel Comics, with seemingly every frame packed with Easter eggs; images and dialogue that will delight longtime fans. Plus some incisive satire aimed at both corporate culture and the sitcom ideal. All of it brought to life and greatly enhanced through the uniquely tactile stop-motion work of Stoopid Buddy, lending the proceedings a distinct and specific vibe that works wonderfully with the show’s sensibility.

Now, this show isn’t really like anything else you’ve seen. The closest thing is probably “The Venture Brothers,” but that show had a much tighter launching point before spreading into the delightful sprawling universe it would eventually inhabit. The tone – equal parts reverence and irreverence – is similar, though; both shows clearly adore the source material they’re subverting even as they’re subverting it.

The voice cast crushes across the board. Oswalt is perfect as the whining, whinging M.O.D.O.K., unable to comprehend a world in which he’s not always right despite his nigh-constant wrongness. I can’t articulate precisely what it is, but while Oswalt’s M.O.D.O.K. basically sounds like Oswalt always sounds, there’s something different – a wheedling desperation that represents the character’s brand of delusional incompetence. Garcia finds small ways to show us Jodie’s evolution over the course of the series, finding ways to reflect her husband’s failings. Fumero’s Melissa is note-perfect, basically giving us mean-girl-as-supervillain and it is solid gold. Schwartz suits Lou’s mile-a-minute non sequitur dialogue; it plays to his comedic strengths.

The supporting cast might even be better. McClendon-Covey essentially hits a home run with every scene she’s in. Bennett gives great tech bro. Richardson is utterly delightful as loyal henchman Gary (though I’ll confess to possible bias, as I love both henchmen and Richardson). Daly’s take on the Super-Adaptoid seems counterintuitive, but winds up being ideal.

And then there are the brief featured/cameo appearances! Hamm’s Iron Man is awesome. Nathan Fillion gives us Wonder Man as charming, self-absorbed meathead. Bill Hader does double duty in one episode, voicing a pair of villains (The Leader and Angar the Screamer). Hell, Whoopi Goldberg does a turn as Poundcakes, one of the super-strong quartet of evil women’s wrestlers known as the Grapplers.

Like I said – deep cuts.

“M.O.D.O.K.” is an outlier among the many Marvel TV and movie properties – and that’s a good thing. While I love the MCU as much as anyone, there’s potential to go in so many new directions. By taking a different approach, this show offers viewers a glimpse of that potential. Now, there’s no denying the mix of juvenile weirdness and comic book fringiness isn’t going to work for everyone.

It won’t conquer everyone’s world, but it sure did mine.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 May 2021 12:29

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