The Inverse Review

Hulu’s M.O.D.O.K. gives Marvel Studios its greatest villain to date

In its own tragicomic corner, outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, M.O.D.O.K. shines as a nuanced portrait of a supervillain trying to have it all.

In Tales of Suspense #94, first published in 1967, M.O.D.O.K. debuted during a battle against Captain America. Befitting the Marvel magazine’s title, the visual reveal of this supervillain (whose acronym stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing) occurred once readers flipped the page and found a striking image staring back at them: an oversized face on a robotic body hovering two feet above the ground.

“Once I was a mere human guinea pig for the scientists of A.I.M.!” declared M.O.D.O.K. in that panel, all melodramatic syntax. “But they did their job too well. And now, I am their master!” A perfect comic book creation, the supervillain and self-appointed A.I.M. CEO embodied both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s distinctly dynamic brands of weird brilliance.

Such exaggerated chest-beating remains central to the character’s heart, soul, and speaking style in the animated series M.O.D.O.K. (streaming on Hulu May 21), which offers comedian Patton Oswalt a chance to disappear into the kind of megalomaniacal role he was born to play.

But as the series explores, declarations of mental supremacy ring hollow when measured against M.O.D.O.K.’s failings as a father, husband, and employer. Once the lights go out during a briefing because he failed to pay the bills, M.O.D.O.K. devises a scheme to take down the power company responsible — but dried-up Sharpies somehow foil this plot.

That particular gag, an early standout, sets the tone of M.O.D.O.K. as a series. No matter how grand and absurd this supervillain’s day-to-day misadventures may be (or how ridiculous he looks in the midst of them), there’s something deeply human about this comedic reimagining of the character. And that universality allows M.O.D.O.K. to drift away from the increasingly crowded realm of “subversive” superhero animation aimed at adults. While hits like Amazon’s Invincible and DC’s Harley Quinn place a premium in comic book dramatics and crass humor, nailing their targets with pinpoint accuracy, the nuanced tone and sincere heart of M.O.D.O.K. reverberate through the cynical, artificial exterior. It can’t help but display as yet another Marvel show — albeit one that exists outside the parameters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But as produced by Jordan Blum (Community, American Dad!) and Oswalt (who also writes for the series), M.O.D.O.K. emerges as a funny and surprisingly touching story about a villain on the verge of collapse. Following continuous losses at the hands of the Avengers, M.O.D.O.K.’s evil organization, A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics), is operating in the red. His home life is even more dire. Wife Jodie (Aimee Garcia) has filed for divorce, leaving their two teenaged kids (Ben Schwartz and Melissa Fumero) torn between both parents. After his company is acquired by a tech billionaire, M.O.D.O.K. finds himself clinging to a bottom rung on life’s ladder; but it’s from this lowest point that he seeks to rise again, resuming his pursuit of world domination.

M.O.D.O.K., starring Patton Oswalt and Aimee Garcia, begins streaming on Hulu on May 21.Hulu

From an animation standpoint, the series’ juxtaposition of colorful clay and gleeful bloodletting makes Robot Chicken comparisons inevitable. But M.O.D.O.K.’s early episodes feel more honestly aligned with recent Apple TV+ comedies Mythic Quest and Ted Lasso, which mine big laughs from tender, heartfelt tones.

That’s not to say M.O.D.O.K. is necessarily about good people, or even bad ones slowly moving toward greater accountability. M.O.D.O.K. is quite literally an evil mastermind (and a terrible father), and he seems to have made peace with this. But the series knows which narrative baskets to place its emotional eggs in. Between wall-to-wall gags and clever wordplay that rewards a rewatch, the show’s most memorable moments are its unexpectedly poignant ones. You wouldn’t think you want to see a montage set to an acoustic Third Eye Blind cover, but once you do, you’ll be glad you did.

M.O.D.O.K. is carried by its voice cast, Oswalt most of all. The comedian’s naturally wide vocal range lends a colorful texture to M.O.D.O.K. that is classically villainous but also sad and pitiful. You get the sense M.O.D.O.K. isn’t a failure because he’s bad at being bad. He’s a failure because the world won’t let him be good. (He is a genuinely bad dad, though.) The endless stream of frustrations that pushes M.O.D.O.K. to more desperate measures also informs Oswalt’s array of unmistakable aggrieved intonations; it’s an inspired casting choice that nails the show’s hybrid premise of superhero-sized conflicts and unapologetically adult humor. At the center of M.O.D.O.K. is a tonal combination Jack Kirby could get behind, which is about the best way of honoring him even in a show replete with niche jokes about bar mitzvahs and racism in book publishing.

In addition to failing as a father and husband, M.O.D.O.K. also struggles to keep his organization A.I.M. in order.Hulu

Funny and warm, not despite but because of its central antihero, M.O.D.O.K. is in its early episodes a welcome addition to modern superhero media. It isn’t as funny, vulgar, or insightful as Harley Quinn, a tonally similar series that balances its punchy humor against the innate darkness of abusive relationships. Nor is it as boundary-expanding as WandaVision at least promised to be earlier in its run. But M.O.D.O.K. has strengths all its own, primarily as a too-real tragicomedy about a life gone awry and a marriage crumbling into dust. M.O.D.O.K. doesn’t champion how love might be saved with selfless sacrifices. Instead, it expresses how, no matter the scale of sacrifices you’ve made already, sometimes that only means there’s little left to be saved.

Ultimately, what works best about M.O.D.O.K. is the way it resists redeeming its titular character, a consummate villain who’ll always be at odds with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. His governing selfishness at work and home allows M.O.D.O.K. to occasionally live up to his own inflated self-image, but at a great personal cost. Impossibly, in the midst of the show’s first season, you even find yourself rooting for him, wondering if there’s some way a maniac like M.O.D.O.K. can truly have it all.

M.O.D.O.K. starts streaming on Hulu May 21.