Despite Disney+’s attempt to turn all of Marvel — big screen and small — into a single franchise universe, the new Hulu series “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” is a reminder that there’s a lot of potential in leaning into Marvel Comics’ weirder side.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the dominant superhero franchise at the box office, but the aforementioned flattening of its universe and the tendency for the blockbusters to play it safe has created a perception among some fans that Marvel Comics has always been a world of samey-same type stories: superheroes, usually white and male, taking out their issues on bad guys instead of the therapist’s office.
In reality, though, Marvel Comics’ 80+ years of stories encompass a far wider-ranging oeuvre, with experimental and downright weird stories in myriad resetting universes that made comic offshoots (like Spider-Ham, aka Peter Porker, recently seen in “Into the Spider-Verse,” and Howard the Duck, which once got made into a movie) seem perfectly logical.
“M.O.D.O.K.,” as you might imagine, is not a series that takes itself at all seriously: There’s an entire episode that revolves around 1990s-era band Third Eye Blind.
The show “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” illustrates that those parts of the Marvel universe deserve their chance to shine too and that not every show in the Marvelverse has to speak in one voice.
The new stop-motion series, which stars Patton Oswalt as the voice of the titular character, is both as ridiculous as it is quirky and a smart alternative for Marvel fans who’d like a break from those big-screen stories.
Imagined as a parody of half-hour sitcoms, this joyful Claymation’s lead character is known as M.O.D.O.K., which stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. The character, which is 90% giant floating head in a canister with tiny limbs in a jar-shaped hoverchair, was originally part of a pantheon of 1960s-era Marvel oddities that came out of widespread fears of nuclear and medical experimentation.
That character had been a normal man named George, who submitted to experimentation in the hopes of increasing his intelligence but mutated into a giant head and became a supervillain — albeit one with Wile E. Coyote-style schemes that ultimately shocked him when they failed. The new series reimagines M.O.D.O.K. not as a result of experimentation but as someone born with his oversized head and tiny body who was thus inspired to invent his famous hoverchair; his endless plots to take over the world are posited as the logical end result of childhood bullying.
By turning it into a stop-motion series, the show can be far more violent than any other Marvel property — ridiculously so — and get away with it.
“M.O.D.O.K.,” as you might imagine, is not a series that takes itself at all seriously: There’s an entire episode that revolves around 1990s-era band Third Eye Blind, and the company M.O.D.O.K. loses to a rival tech startup, GRUMBL, is called A.I.M. (Though the name — Advanced Idea Mechanics — is taken from the comics, older viewers will most likely think of the acronym for AOL’s early instant messaging service, which was shuttered in 2017 by Oath.)
Unlike the live-action Marvel shows fans are becoming accustomed to on Disney+, neither the characters nor the fans have to work through the traumas of the Earth-shattering Blip or the deaths of Iron Man and Captain America. In fact, Iron Man, now voiced by Jon Hamm, turns up in the opening moments of “M.O.D.O.K.,” multitasking at saving the world while catching up on old BBC episodes of “The Great British Bake Off.” (Mary Berry forever!)
But the stop-motion animation visuals are the show’s main saving grace. First and foremost, it helps visually separate this Hulu series from the more MCU-focused shows on Disney+, allowing the audience to think of this as a completely different Marvelverse. (It is, in fact, within Marvel, considered a “different” Marvelverse: “M.O.D.O.K.” takes place in designation Earth-1226, as opposed to the MCU’s Earth-199999.)
The animation also allows the series to fill the background with the sort of nerdy comic book references to which fans flock. Plus, by turning it into a stop-motion series, the show can be far more violent than any other Marvel property — ridiculously so — and get away with it, by turning M.O.D.O.K.’s endless casual slaughter into Bugs Bunny-level humor.
“Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.” is one of the few surviving projects from Marvel TV, the now-defunct production studio behind such now-canceled series as “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Marvel’s Runaways” and the interconnected Netflix Marvelverse. These shows all had one thing in common: They existed in a separate sphere from the big-screen MCU. When Marvel TV folded into the MCU (and the MCU mostly folded into Disney), most of these series were ended — including multiple animated series that were then in development. The one other series so far that has made it to Hulu, “Helstrom” (which notably dropped the “Marvel” from its moniker) was canceled quickly after arrival.
“M.O.D.O.K.” was perhaps one of the few that survived the purge because there was no hope of properly integrating his character into the larger MCU, and it may also be the first Marvel TV series since the studio was folded into the MCU’s Marvel Studios to get a second season.
That’s mainly due to the series’ ability to completely separate itself from the main MCU juggernaut. By being so radically different in tone and style — and going so far as to recast characters fans know from the big screen — “M.O.D.O.K.” seems to have finally cracked the code of how Marvel properties can comfortably exist in two realities at once.