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Marvel’s ‘M.O.D.O.K’ and the Self-Importance of Superhero Stories

The new stop-motion comedy from Hulu is kind of perfect for a time when hero fare has become a little too involved

Hulu/Ringer illustration

Earlier this month, Netflix released Jupiter’s Legacy, creator Mark Millar’s proclaimed Godfather II of superhero stories, and the streaming service’s own, grim take on the genre. It took me until last weekend to heave myself over the barrier to entry, which was a bit high: The show is an odyssey spanning generations, all the way back to the Great Depression, incorporating tawdry family drama, political intrigue, and a treasure hunt. A half-hour into the first episode, there’s a conversation between the Professor Xavier– and Magneto-like characters—the Utopian and Brainwave, two powerful superhero leaders on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum—about whether they, as super-powered beings, should have a greater role in global politics. The Utopian asks who would stop them from running everything, and Brainwave says, aloud, that “some would say that free will is bringing the world to its knees.” I was already exhausted.

“The world,” and who should rule it, is a mercifully far-off concern for another new superhero show—M.O.D.O.K., a new stop-motion comedy from Hulu about the Marvel villain, starring Patton Oswalt. In a different light, M.O.D.O.K. would be a divorce drama that casts world domination as a job that one eventually has to go home from: What would this person’s family be like? What parts of work would they take home with them?

As central characters in superpowered stories go, M.O.D.O.K. (“Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing”) is kind of perfect for a time when hero fare has become a little too involved. The attendant stakes are relatively low and there’s hardly any lore to concern yourself with—M.O.D.O.K. is more of a running gag among comic book writers and fans than anything else. Just look at him: He’s a giant head floating around in a jet-powered Campbell’s Chunky Soup can, dragging noodle arms and willowy legs behind him. He earns his cultural cachet by showing up in every few Iron Man issues to declare his best-laid evil plans before being swatted into the horizon. There’s never any reason to take him as seriously as he takes himself because (a) he’s a minor villain and (b) even among minor villains, he’s a loser.

It may seem like an oddball choice for any protagonist, let alone one set in a superhero universe, but the first season of the Hulu original has garnered warm reviews. Created by Jordan Blum (American Dad) and produced by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios (Robot Chicken), M.O.D.O.K. has a strict dedication to nonsense but makes breathing room for some character-based drama. The fourth episode opens with a pan across the stained breakfast nook in M.O.D.O.K.’s shitty transitional apartment. On it is a copy of Infinite Jest, a Blu-Ray box set of The Wire, and Acoustic Guitar for Beginners—he’s had a lot of time to kill since his wife left him. His kids can’t stand to be around him, and his role at work has been scaled way back.

There are a number of intersecting plot lines in the show that are all paid off to varying degrees of satisfaction. M.O.D.O.K.’s evil corporation is being subsumed by a tech giant, he’s become estranged from his top scientist, and he’s scarcely maintaining a fragile home life, all while fending off repeated attacks from his past self. A little way into the season, while trying to save his marriage by traveling to the past, when his wife, Jodie (Aimee Garcia), wasn’t mad at him, M.O.D.O.K. frees a college-aged version of himself into the time stream to wreak havoc on the future. Past M.O.D.O.K. is violently displeased with how the villain’s designs on world domination have panned out so far, and dedicates himself to violently correcting the course of their career. It’s a lot. The central question of the series, however, is simple and surprisingly compelling, even though it’s about someone who doesn’t really deserve anything: Is it possible to work hard or smart enough to have it all?

Whereas Jupiter’s Legacy has mostly entailed star Josh Duhamel alternately preaching and raving about how a man must have a code, M.O.D.O.K. has an almost religious objection to respecting its titular character. In the show’s first couple of minutes, the supervillain fumbles the element of surprise by posting a selfie to Twitter with the caption “current mood: about to attack Wall Street.” Iron Man (Jon Hamm) thwarts his attack while bingeing episodes of The Great British Bake Off in his helmet. When it’s all over, M.O.D.O.K. goes back to his lair and adds a trophy to his shelf: Iron Man’s boot, which had become lodged in the seat of his exosuit after he literally got his ass kicked. M.O.D.O.K. makes use of our familiarity with heroes and hero stories; another episode involves a portal to Asgard that M.O.D.O.K. keeps between the recycling and hazardous waste bins in his lab. This is a show that takes for granted that the viewer knows that Asgard is a place, and that a swirling dimensional portal in a trash can is a thing that can happen.

The show, however, is more than just a static blast of blue humor, comic book callbacks, and soul-crushing divorce jokes—M.O.D.O.K.’s choices have consequences that ripple throughout the series, and his trial separation from Jodie has a noticeable effect on both them and their kids. In one episode, M.O.D.O.K.’s eccentric, queer son Lou (Ben Schwartz) insists on incorporating stage magic into his bar mitzvah. As the villain tries to tamp down his son’s individuality, we learn that it’s a misguided attempt to shield Lou from the same loneliness that M.O.D.O.K. has experienced throughout his life. Without the self-serious tone that normally drives traumas in superhero shows, the psychological exploration doesn’t feel so much like a psychological exploration. There are too many jokes for that.

The two have a sweet reconciliation as Lou saws his father in half during a magic routine, but then M.O.D.O.K. ruins it by dying for too long, too loudly. The Asgardian rock trolls looking on have the right idea, I think. “He talks so muuuuch,” one of them says. “Saw his face!”