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The Antidote to Superhero Fatigue May Be Animation

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded its reach to TV, animated superhero shows offer unique characters and viewing experiences that continue to set the medium apart

Amazon/HBO Max/Hulu/Ringer illustration

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has kept the hype machine going through a rollout of Disney+ shows this year, it hasn’t exactly entered an empty superhero landscape on the small screen. From the campier high jinks of the CW’s Arrowverse to Emmy-winning Damon Lindelof adaptations to Netflix’s own slate of Marvel shows (RIP), superheroes had been unavoidable on television even before the MCU got involved. Still, there’s no denying that the fanfare of a Marvel series is more comparable to something like The Mandalorian than the Arrowverse: Each episode is appointment viewing and prone to dominating Twitter trending topics. (Without traditional ratings to go off, that might be the best way to measure the MCU series’ success on streaming.)

It’s hard to draw too many conclusions as to how Marvel is faring on the small screen from just two shows, WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But, in the spirit of the rest of the MCU, it’s playing it pretty safe. The heroes reckon with grief and have occasionally self-destructive tendencies, sure, but at the end of the day, they’ll beat the bad guys in a generic CGI slugfest while teasing what’s down the road in Marvel’s never-ending assembly line. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)

That overarching sameness, crowd-pleasing as it may be, can create superhero fatigue, especially now that the MCU has crossed mediums. The easiest way out of that rut would probably be to stop watching superhero programming entirely. Alternatively, though, one could embrace the most surprising well of recent small-screen superhero adaptations: animated series.

On Friday, Hulu drops the first season of M.O.D.O.K., a series that focuses on the Marvel villain of the same name whose acronym stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. (If the name M.O.D.O.K. doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the dude who has a bigger cranium than even Jimmy Neutron.) Now, a show about a mid-tier supervillain isn’t much to go off of. But M.O.D.O.K.’s stop-motion animation style, which evokes Robot Chicken, is probably the biggest tell that the series doesn’t dare take itself too seriously.

Directed by Robot Chicken vets Eric Towner and Alex Kramer, M.O.D.O.K. splits time between being a wacky workplace sitcom—the titular character’s evil robotics company is acquired by a Silicon Valley tech bro with a penchant for fancy scarves—and a tragicomedy about M.O.D.O.K.’s crumbling domestic life. (Turns out, it’s hard to raise two kids and maintain a healthy marriage when you also aspire to world domination.) The series mines a lot of laughs out of M.O.D.O.K.’s obliviousness to his own awful behavior—like when he crashes a low-grade villain’s funeral and makes it all about himself—and how it leaves him without a company to control and with a rat-infested apartment to maintain.

It’s nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve spent any time perusing Adult Swim. But M.O.D.O.K.’s self-awareness as a Marvel offshoot flies in the face of the MCU’s self-seriousness. You generally know what you’ll get in the MCU; but I certainly didn’t expect stop-motion Jonathan Van Ness to show up to give M.O.D.O.K. a makeover to impress his soon-to-be ex-wife, who then starts dating a Nathan Fillion–voiced superhero with washboard abs.

That M.O.D.O.K., with its adult-oriented humor and gory sight gags, exists under the broader Marvel umbrella is impressive in and of itself. But, unfortunately, it could be short-lived. The series was developed back when Hulu was looking to build out its own world of animated shows, and some of those have since been scrapped after the streamer’s parent company was acquired by Disney. (It appears Disney wants to consolidate all things superheroes under Disney+, and for those shows to be much more family-oriented.) For at least a few fleeting moments, though, there’s a Marvel entity in which Patton Oswalt (a series cocreator who also voices M.O.D.O.K.) says things like, “It’s idiotic to put a mental condom on the horse penis that is my mind.”

Just as M.O.D.O.K. embraces a funhouse reflection of Marvel, the DC animated series Harley Quinn, which debuted in 2019, pokes fun at the comic book world touchstones that have been brought to life on screen. Originally developed for the now-defunct DC Universe streaming service, Harley Quinn begins with its titular character (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) breaking up with the Joker to form her own team of villains alongside her best friend, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell).

The series is the most sustained exploration of Quinn outside of Margot Robbie’s live-action portrayal—which, through no fault of the actress, didn’t go great on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. And while there are legitimately heartfelt moments in the show, its biggest selling point is, quite simply, how hilarious it is. The series’ version of Bane is just one extended punch line aimed at Tom Hardy’s “Sean Connery crossed with a sleep apnea machine” voice and overall approach to the character in The Dark Knight Rises—a recurring bit that only gets funnier the longer it’s drawn out. Meanwhile, the lowly villain Clayface, who can shapeshift into anything, is a wannabe Method actor with a penchant for melodramatic monologues. (This Clayface better be DCEU canon.) All told, Harley Quinn has an impressive collection of comedic actors—including Tony Hale, J.B. Smoove, Ron Funches, Jason Alexander, Andy Daly, and Wanda Sykes—who lend their voices to sharp one-liners and unapologetically goofy villains.

Harley Quinn marches to the beat of its own drum, but in doing so, it pushes boundaries that are rarely crossed in live-action DC adaptations—not just through excess gore and profanity, but by exploring the romantic subtext between Quinn and Ivy in a more explicit (and genuinely moving) fashion. That the two villains realize they might be in love with each other during an episode when Quinn hosts a bachelorette party on the Amazonian island of Themyscira, which has been converted into a luxurious all-women’s resort, underlines the series’ commitment to telling stories in as silly and sincere a way as possible. The DC Universe streaming service might be gone, but thankfully, Harley Quinn lives on via HBO Max; Season 3 can’t come soon enough.

But while Harley Quinn and M.O.D.O.K. are fine examples of the half-hour comedy, the Amazon series Invincible is a unique beast: an hour-long animated series that skews toward drama. Based on the comic book series of the same name from Robert Kirkman, Invincible follows teenager Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun), who’s the son of super-powered alien Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). (Mark’s mother, Debbie, voiced by Sandra Oh, is a regular human.) When Mark finally gains his powers, he learns about the responsibilities that come with them—you know, the usual superhero stuff.

For much of the premiere, Invincible feels like an earnest, somewhat bloated version of a Saturday morning cartoon—until it shows its hand in the final moments of the episode. (Major spoilers ahead.) After Mark gains his powers, Omni-Man brutally murders the series’ equivalent of the Justice League, and the rest of the season builds to the dramatic yet inescapable conclusion that Mark’s father isn’t Earth’s savior, but rather part of a militaristic alien race that’s hell-bent on intergalactic domination. Omni-Man treats human beings with the casual indifference of a toddler stepping on ants, going so far as to refer to Debbie as someone he loves “like a pet.” Having a son on Earth is a means to an end, and if it doesn’t pan out, Omni-Man can just start over—raising a teenager is a small blip for an alien who’s capable of living for centuries.

In April’s finale, Mark finds the conviction to stand up to his father after he lays out his real mission on Earth—but the clash isn’t even a contest. Mark is beaten to within an inch of his life, and Omni-Man leaves the planet, no doubt to bring back more of his kind to finish the job. All of which to say: Invincible isn’t afraid to get really dark. But the ultraviolence isn’t there to be provocative, as it is with Amazon’s other adult-oriented superhero series, The Boys. There’s a real emotional charge to Mark’s ordeal, and each brutal act Omni-Man commits in an attempt to show his son that human lives are meaningless chips away at Mark’s once-glistening image of his father. (It’s a good thing Mark will live for a millennium; he might need all that time for therapy.)

The show has one of the best finales of the year, and, along with HBO’s Watchmen, is one of the finest in the ever-growing output of superhero stories on the small screen. That Invincible achieves this as an hour-long animated series certainly makes it stand out in a crowded TV landscape. And alongside Harley Quinn and M.O.D.O.K., it’s further evidence that animation is perhaps the one area where on-screen superheroes haven’t overstayed their welcome. Superhero fatigue may still be as inevitable as Thanos, but in the meantime, animated adaptations are proving to be as sustainable as jokes about Tom Hardy’s Bane voice.