M.O.D.O.K. delivers its fair share of memorable gags, but blending heart and humor proves trickier.
M.O.D.O.K. isn’t set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it is firmly set in the newest trend in adult-sewing American animation. Popularized by Rick & Morty and BoJack Horseman, these cartoons put on an exterior dick jokes and fart gags but are actually about deeper explorations of weighty turmoil’s. Considering this phenomenon has produced shows like Horseman and Harley Quinn, it’s one of the better TV trends out there. The best parts of M.O.D.O.K. exemplify why. There’s something enduringly impressive about balancing out raunchiness with genuinely insightful drama.
Based on and starring the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Marvel Comics villain of the same name, M.O.D.O.K. finds its titular lead (who’s voiced by Patton Oswalt and whose name stands for Mechanical Organism Designed Only for Killing) in a state of disarray. His company, A.I.M., has been purchased by Austin Van Der Sleet (Beck Bennett) and his company GRUMBL. Worse yet, M.O.D.O.K. and his home life are in shambles. His wife, Jodie (Aimee Garcia), has filed for divorce and he’s estranged from his two kids, Lou (Ben Schwartz) and Melissa (Melissa Fumero). For this supervillain, his problems have become almost as big as his head!
Initially, M.O.D.O.K. is largely oblivious to the human repercussions of these events as he pursues his lifelong dreams of conquering the world. However, the series establishes early, through the ending of the second episode depicting M.O.D.O.K. grimly reciting the chorus of Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life to his bathroom reflection, that this supervillain may be more in touch with his emotions than he lets on.
That conclusion established right away that M.O.D.O.K. won’t shy away from digging into deeper material in between gags about lasagna that inspire violent bowel movements. If there’s a problem with M.O.D.O.K.’s writing, though, is that it hits the melancholy plot beats too early. Shows like BoJack Horseman took time to establish a world of seeming normalcy that moments of brutal humanity could then undercut. You can’t do have Herb Kazzaz call out BoJack for his repulsive behavior in just the second episode of a TV show, you have to build up to it.
Unfortunately, M.O.D.O.K. tries to get there much too quickly. In the process, the big moments it’s aiming for don’t have their intended impact and they leave the show with little place to grow. Once you hit the emotional mountaintop, where else is there to climb? The story problems here also include an issue plaguing later episodes of M.O.D.O.K.’s first season regarding super-rushed plotting. While the show as a whole tends to move like a blur to cram in as many jokes as possible, its concluding episodes tend to stumble when using this style of pacing for big plot reveals.
The penultimate episode of the season, for instance, barrels through a drastic shift in the titular protagonist’s personality, introducing complexity into Van Der Sleet, and even introducing the show’ss first gay couple (hey, a TV show from the Robot Chicken people got there before the Marvel Cinematic Universe!) That’s a lot to cram into 23 minutes of television and that limited runtime combined with the shows style of rapid-fire comedy means nothing has room to breathe.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best episode of the show by far is its most relaxed episode, If Saturday Night Be…For The Boys! In this installment, M.O.D.O.K. attempts to steal Captain America’s shield in an attempt to get into an ultra-ritzy nightclub for supervillains. To pull this off, he’s forced to team up with a gaggle of Z-list supervillains like Armadillo and Angar the Screamer. Most of the episode adds little to the show’s lore, but it is a story that adds a lot to M.O.D.O.K’s entertainment value.
It’s also a delight that, like the Belchers on Bob’s Burgers or the Roses on Schitt’s Creek, everyone in the main family in M.O.D.O.K. gets to be a weirdo.
Having an episode largely dedicated to small comedic interactions between M.O.D.O.K. and other bad guys turns out to be quite entertaining. A series of absurd gags, including a couple of young punks who inexplicably have a crossbow, are hilarious. Throw in some enjoyable guest voices, like Bill Hader playing two different notable Marvel baddies, and you’ve got the highlight of the whole show. The fact that the episode plays off one key moment of melancholy at the end quite nicely is just a cherry on top. Here, M.O.D.O.K. does nail a sweet spot between jokes and heftier storytelling.
When M.O.D.O.K. is content to just groove on either weird gags or its characters chilling out, the show finds an endearing vibe. It helps that the show is brought to life through a collection of strong voice talent led by Patton Oswalt. Throughout his stand-up comedy and his prior acting roles, Oswalt has tended to thrive on a mixture of comedic abrasiveness and open vulnerability. Those two qualities serve the character of M.O.D.O.K. well, with Oswalt’s natural voice providing an immediate human quality to such an enjoyably over-the-top looking creation.
It’s also a delight that, like the Belchers on Bob’s Burgers or the Roses on Schitt’s Creek, everyone in the main family in M.O.D.O.K. gets to be a weirdo. This means supporting players Aimee Garcia and Melissa Fumero actually get characters to inhabit and humorous punchlines to deliver. Schwartz doesn’t have much to do beyond just play the same type of cocky youthful characters he’s become a regular at voicing in recent years, but he gets his share of memorable lines.
Meanwhile, the animation on M.O.D.O.K is told through stop-motion. It all looks about on par with what you’d expect from fellow Stoopid Buddy production Robot Chicken. However, the familiar appearance is offset by the impressive level of detail put into the costumes and sets. Every wacky detail of some of Marvel’s strangest villains has been maintained here and the stop-motion animation lends an inherently tangible quality to those details. This extends to M.O.D.O.K.’s appearance, which they’ve maintained 100% from the comics, dangling legs and all. It’s so ridiculous-looking that it can inspire giggles just whenever he’s hovering around.
Less successful visually is M.O.D.O.K.’s camerawork, which is initially told in a faux-documentary style, complete with one gag in a pawn shop where things get so violently chaotic that the cameraman drops the camera. It’s largely an inconsistent element of the show even in the earliest episodes, but it’s entirely dropped in favor of more traditional camerawork once the bigger plot starts to come into play. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into the animation of M.O.D.O.K. Why, then, didn’t a similar level of consistency get applied to the techniques used to capture all of that animation?
There’s a lot of puzzling details in M.O.D.O.K. (including the baffling presence of fade-outs for ad breaks on a streaming show) that are emblematic of a program trying to do way too much. The ambition is admirable, but the results are less so. Still, the animation, voice talent, and the best of its jokes do make M.O.D.O.K. an agreeable diversion. Hopefully, future seasons just provide more consistency to the newest installment in TV animation’s current trend.
Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. premiers on Hulu on May 21st.