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Heady Days

How Patton Oswalt and Jordan Blum brought one of the strangest supervillains in the history of Marvel comics to life for the Hulu animated series ‘M.O.D.O.K.’

Harrison Freeman

Life is hard for the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. That becomes clear early on in Marvel’s new stop-motion animated series M.O.D.O.K. The megalomaniacal title character, a barrel-sized mutated head with tiny limbs who floats around in a hover chair, spends the first episode melting down after a tech company takes control of his bankrupt criminal organization.

When a human resources manager employs a neural inhibitor to disable the psychic laser that the evil genius had just used to vaporize a peon, he balls his little fists and shouts, “It’s idiotic to put a mental condom on the horse penis that is my mind!”

The perfectly crass distillation of the obscure bad guy’s ideology sprung from the slightly smaller cerebral cortex of Patton Oswalt, the show’s star and cocreator. The comedian knows that when you’re all brains, you can be awfully mindless.

“He’s so out of touch with basic human interaction and human mores and politeness that in a way that [line] almost doesn’t read as dirty,” Oswalt says. “It’s like that’s the best metaphor he can come up with. He wasn’t trying to be fallacious. It was just like, ‘What would be the best way to describe the might of my intellect?’ He’s not even trying to be sexual there. That’s how out of touch he is.”

Thanos is more powerful. Loki is more clever. And Red Skull is more diabolical. But in the history of comic book adaptations, there’s never been a supervillain as hilariously pathetic as Oswalt’s beer-can-shaped alter ego. M.O.D.O.K.’s glaring lack of self-awareness exposes his vulnerability, which makes him a lousy world conqueror and an interestingly offbeat protagonist.

Jordan Blum, the Hulu comedy’s cocreator and executive producer, fell in love with the idea of building a narrative around someone whose success is inversely proportional to his prodigious self-aggrandizement. “We really wanted to tell an oddly emotional story,” he says, “about a flying head that can vaporize you with his mind.”

That meant dropping said head into a hybrid family/workplace sitcom. Every day, he’s forced to confront his shortcomings as a boss, his strained relationship with his two teenage kids, and his failing marriage. “All these other supervillains have to sacrifice having a family and having a normal life to conquer the world,” Oswalt says. “But M.O.D.O.K. does not make choices. He shall have both.”

This delusion naturally leads to belly laughs—the show is packed with Itchy & Scratchy–like violent sight gags, pop culture riffs, and more sex jokes (and sex) than in all the MCU movies combined—but M.O.D.O.K. isn’t just a vehicle for absurdist humor. It’s a surprisingly poignant character study of a disembodied dome on a journey to self-improvement.

And if anyone is uniquely equipped to play such a role, it’s Oswalt, a lifelong comic book reader and seasoned voice actor who relished the challenge of finding humanity in one of the Marvel canon’s oddest oddballs.

“I don’t think he’s just a great voice actor. I think he’s a wonderful actor,” says his friend Jon Hamm, who in M.O.D.O.K. voices none other than Iron Man. “It’s why his comedy is very good. He has a deep connection with the human condition, obviously.”

The M.O.D.O.K. origin story actually began in the 1990s. In those days, Jordan Blum was a superhero-obsessed tween in Westchester County, New York. He loved Richard Donner’s Superman, devoured all things X-Men, and slow-danced to Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose”—off the Batman Forever soundtrack—at his bar mitzvah. “That was my song,” Blum says, “My jam.”

One day, while watching the Iron Man animated series, Blum remembers being confused by what he saw on the screen: a big-headed character attempting to go undetected by posing as a baby in a stroller. “What the fuck is this thing?” Blum recalls saying to himself. It was M.O.D.O.K.

The brainchild (sorry) of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, M.O.D.O.K. debuted in 1967 in the pages of Marvel’s Tales of Suspense. The cranially enhanced supervillain, a test subject of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) named George Tarleton who ends up mutating and snuffing out his captors, was initially introduced as a foe of Captain America. But while he’s been a consistent presence in comics and cartoons since then, the floating noggin would never be mistaken for a marquee baddie.

“Very few people know M.O.D.O.K.,” says Hamm, who cites Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s Wolverine and Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin as two of his favorite comic series. “He’s such a ridiculously obscure character with a ridiculously convoluted backstory. It came out of the time in the history of the comics where they were really grasping at ideas and anything would really go.”

The villain was so grotesquely yet beautifully strange that a young Blum couldn’t look away. When Toy Biz released a M.O.D.O.K. action figure, he bought one. “I was like, ‘I have to own this,’” Blum says. “I still have it.”

It took years, but Blum eventually found someone who appreciated M.O.D.O.K. as much as he did. When he was an assistant on American Dad, the up-and-coming television writer met Oswalt, who’s made several guest appearances on the animated series. “I’ve been a Patton fan forever,” Blum says. “When I drove from New York to L.A. we just listened to his comedy albums. They helped us get through. Even when I met him, I stupidly was like, ‘Oh, I’m such a huge fan. You got me through Oklahoma.’ He was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

It didn’t take long for them to bond over shared passions. “The friendship blossomed, and we would run into each other at comic stores in L.A.,” Blum says. “We just kept up over the years.”

In 2012, Blum and Oswalt collaborated on a pilot for an animated comedy about a schlubby dad with super powers called Working Class Hero. The show never made it to the air, yet all was not lost. When Grant Gish, the Fox executive whom they’d worked with on the fizzled series, moved on to Marvel, Blum contacted him about possibly joining forces again. The interest was mutual.

“It was like, ‘Hey, do you guys have another idea for a show?’” recalls Oswalt, who in the 2010s guest-starred in the Marvel TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “And then we both hit on ‘Well, M.O.D.O.K.’ M.O.D.O.K. is this resentful supervillain who is just as resentful of the other villains as he is the heroes. He thinks he should be higher up in the rankings. So I just loved that idea of a supervillain that is more resentful of his status than he is of whether or not he’s taking over the world. There was something so great about that.”

Two years ago, Marvel announced that the series was in development. With two people possessing encyclopedic knowledge of comics in charge, the show was destined to be stuffed with Easter eggs. None is more personal than the one that pops up early on in the office of the title character’s new tech-bro boss: an exact replica of Blum’s M.O.D.O.K. action figure.

When it came time to choose an animation style for their series, Blum and Oswalt figured that the traditional 2D likely wouldn’t cut it. They wanted something that would truly capture the essence of a character whom Jack Kirby envisioned as a larger-than-life oddity. “He has a very specific style that’s very big and powerful and bold,” Oswalt says of the legendary artist. In M.O.D.O.K.’s first appearance in the comics, his head alone takes up nearly half a panel.

To match that aesthetic, the show’s cocreators enlisted Stoopid Buddy, the stop-motion outfit behind Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken. “The idea that there’s depth and actual 3D weight to this feels like something that Jack Kirby would do,” Oswalt says. “It served his style better.” The actor even got filmed in a M.O.D.O.K. motion-capture suit so that the character’s movements and mannerisms matched his own.

Blum was blown away by the company’s ability to bring the feel of handheld camera work to the series. “We started doing this behind-the-scenes peek at this villain,” he says. “Where does he go at night? What does it take to run this evil organization? It gave you that kind of feeling like you were there with him at home and it made it really personal.”

To help flesh out the character, Oswalt read Head Trips, a collection of M.O.D.O.K. tales. “It was not so much looking at the plot or the mechanics of the stories but figuring out his personality,” Oswalt says. “He’s actually kind of one-dimensional, which actually I like about him. He’s so single-minded, and so resentful, and in so much pain. We’re like, ‘How do we make this more human and comedic?’”

The answer was simple: Give him a family. Lucifer’s Aimee Garcia plays M.O.D.O.K.’s put-upon wife, Jodie, who comes to the realization that she has greater ambitions than dealing with her self-centered husband. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Melissa Fumero is their teenage daughter, Melissa, who like her dad is both of superior intellect and is all cranium—yet despite her best efforts she can’t keep his attention. And comedic actor/voice of Sonic the Hedgehog Ben Schwartz is their son, Lou, a kind and eccentric aspiring magician who’s studying for his bar mitzvah. According to Blum, the cast had free rein to improvise. “We were like, ‘Let them go, they’ll make us look good,’” he says.

Rounding out the Tarleton household is Super-Adaptoid, M.O.D.O.K.’s reluctant but high-energy robot servant who’s voiced by Jon Daly, a writer-performer on comedies like Big Mouth, The Eric Andre Show, and Bob’s Burgers. “Directing him,” Blum says, “is like steering a rocket.”

To Daly, M.O.D.O.K. works because underneath its absurd premise is a pretty traditional family comedy. “The sitcom element of it, for me, kind of gives you such a great familiar hook into it,” Daly says. “That then allows the show to go as insane as it goes.”

Like most good sitcoms, the series’ world has a diverse population. In addition to choosing to feature well-known characters, Oswalt enjoyed dusting off a handful who are far more obscure than M.O.D.O.K. “I love that Marvel is just as consistent with the C- and D-level world of villains and heroes,” he says. “It makes the comic so much more human. Playing in that world and then having it butt up against the A-level was just fantastic for me. I loved it so much.”

Chances are you’ve never heard of Wonder Man (Nathan Fillion) and Angar the Screamer (Bill Hader). Then there’s strongwoman Poundcakes, for whom Blum wanted Whoopi Goldberg. He was shocked when she said yes: “She’s like, ‘This is so fun, no one ever asks me to do things like that.’”

For Iron Man, Oswalt had someone specific in mind. And it wasn’t Robert Downey Jr. “I’m not gonna be taking the helmet from RDJ anytime soon,” Hamm assures me. “This is probably the only way they’ll let me contribute, anyway.”

Hamm and Oswalt go way back. The former has been familiar with the latter since the mid-’90s, when the future Mad Men star was new to L.A. “He was always going to the Largo back in the day when he was a struggling actor,” the comic says of the nightclub, at which Oswalt was a staple. “He told me later he would go every Monday and watch the shows.”

In those days, Hamm saw a lot of live stand-up. “It was Patton, and Zach Galifianakis, and Doug Benson, and Scott Aukerman, and B.J. Porter, and Bob Odenkirk, and Tenacious D,” he recalls. “And it was just moments in time where all of these acts were really starting to pop.” Despite his love of comedy, he never got the urge to pursue it himself. “I knew stand-up was never for me,” Hamm says. “I didn’t want to be a stand-up. I wasn’t trying to angle for an opportunity, really. I knew what I wanted to do and I knew what I could do. I just kept hanging around until finally people were like, ‘Oh, you’re an actor.’”

What directors eventually discovered is that while Hamm wasn’t a comedian, he did have good comic timing. “He just gets comedy,” Oswalt says. “The fact that he got that whole funny, arrogant Tony Stark thing is perfect.”

When Hamm finished recording his part, Oswalt called to tell him that he did a good job. “That stuff is wildly helpful to your psyche when you’re driving home on the 101,” says Hamm, who also has a role in the Amazon animated series Invincible. “And you’re just thinking, ‘Oh God, I hope I didn’t ruin the whole project.’”

M.O.D.O.K., which began as a production of the now-defunct Marvel Television before getting folded into Marvel Studios, wasn’t built to fit into the MCU. That freed up the show’s creators to, well, go wild.

“I think M.O.D.O.K. is an interesting twist in the machine that is superhero movies,” Daly says. “They’re able to take more risks within the format. It has integrity as a Marvel story, but it’s also very silly.”

The series is loaded with this-ain’t-the-MCU moments. Whether it’s with M.O.D.O.K. talking about farting during his wife’s eulogy for her father, referring to Iron Man as “a wet bitch,” or expressing his adoration for American Pie and American Beauty star Mena Suvari, the show often reminds the audience that it exists in a world apart from Marvel’s blockbuster factory.

As bizarre as it sounds, M.O.D.O.K. may be the most grown-up thing Marvel Studios has ever made. And not just because its humor is R-rated. It’s a deep look into the life and family of a flawed antihero. And while comic-book-based animated series aimed at adults are far from a new thing—they’re in fact currently experiencing a renaissance—the show is a reminder that in the often-homogenized superhero genre, there’s room to get a little weird.

Blum and Oswalt, who cowrote a M.O.D.O.K. comic last year, hope that their odd tale gets a second season. “We have a lot of plans and places we want to go with the [show’s] characters, as well as characters in the Marvel universe we want to play with,” Blum says. “We are very optimistic. I know Hulu is very happy with the show, so we’ll wait and see how it goes.”

And one day, Oswalt would like to play the big-headed supervillain in a live-action movie. “Oh, hell yeah,” he says. It’s unclear how exactly Marvel would bring the character to the big screen, but if they do, Oswalt will be ready. “Patton has a recognizably charismatic, charactery, rich voice,” Hamm says. “It’s a real instrument and he knows how to use it.”

If Patton Oswalt can make a rat endearing, he can do the same for M.O.D.O.K.

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