The Venture Bros. began in 2004 as a Jonny Quest parody that lampooned science fiction pulp-action tropes while focusing on the bumbling adventures and dysfunctional family of a failed super-scientist, as well as his complex relationship with his costumed nemesis. As the series went on, it expanded its scope to mock Marvel Comics characters, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Kingpin, while delivering some remarkably sharp storytelling that blurred the lines between heroes and villains.
That’s pretty much where Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. starts. The stop-motion animated show, which releases its 10-episode first season on Hulu on May 21, isn’t as sharply written as The Venture Bros., but it aspires to that same zany mix of sitcom and satire, centered on a pathetic, unsympathetic protagonist.
Patton Oswalt, who co-created the series along with Jordan Blum, voices George Tarleton, a scientist who experimented on himself to gain superior intellect, which mutates him until he becomes a giant head with a vestigial body. Now calling himself M.O.D.O.K., which stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing, he leads the evil scientists of Advanced Idea Mechanics in their attempts to take over the world.
But like The Venture Bros.’ Dr. Thaddeus Venture, M.O.D.O.K. is a perpetual screw-up. His failed schemes have all but bankrupted A.I.M., leaving them ripe for a takeover by manipulative tech bro Austin Van Der Sleet (Beck Bennett of Saturday Night Live). Meanwhile, M.O.D.O.K.’s monomaniacal focus on supervillainy leads his wife Jodie Tarleton (Aimee Garcia) to ask for a separation.
By the end of episode 1, M.O.D.O.K. has pretty much hit rock bottom. It takes some time for him to shape up into something worthy of love — and the same goes for the show, which suffers from tonal whiplash. The early episodes are split between supervillain antics that would feel at home on The Venture Bros., super-science-driven office politics at A.I.M., which feel like a riff on Better Off Ted, and the family plot, where M.O.D.O.K. is at his most intolerable, as he demands sympathy without respecting anyone else. It’s easy to imagine a stronger version of the show that’s more focused on the spectacularly animated fights, which feature M.O.D.O.K. taking on S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers, and Jon Hamm’s perfectly smug version of Iron Man, who can fight a supervillain while watching The Great British Bake Off in his suit.
Yet the family plot is at the core of Blum and Oswalt’s vision for the show, which winds up being something of a feel-good story about how personal connections aren’t distractions from your professional goals, they’re important to becoming a better, stronger person. It takes a while to come to like M.O.D.O.K. or his family enough to care about their happiness, but the writers manage to deliver some pretty fulfilling character arcs within their tight 25-minute episodes.
M.O.D.O.K.’s sociopathic mean-girl daughter Melissa (Melissa Fumero of Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is immediately hilarious, but her goofy younger brother Lou (Ben Schwartz of Parks and Recreation) feels like a mediocre pastiche of Hank Venture and Bojack Horseman’s Todd Chavez. Jodie gets the best growth over the season, as her quest for fame as a self-help guru and mom blogger drives her to be just as manipulative and self-absorbed as her husband.
The A.I.M. plots are also a mixed bag. Everything involving M.O.D.O.K.’s henchmen feels like a pale imitation of similar dynamics involving The Monarch’s henchmen in The Venture Bros. But M.O.D.O.K.’s professional rival Monica Rappaccini (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a fellow super-scientist driven to evil by sexism, is fiercely entertaining, and she produces some of the most bizarre and grotesque demonstrations of the show’s visual prowess with her horrifying biological experiments. Both she and M.O.D.O.K. are villains, but they’re faced with a true evil in the form of Austin’s backer, which is effectively a Lovecraftian horror that embodies late-stage capitalism.
M.O.D.O.K. also benefits from being entirely free to ignore MCU canon while picking and choosing the weirdest characters from Marvel Comics’ portfolio. In an episode reminiscent of the animated series The Tick, M.O.D.O.K. is denied entrance to a hip club for supervillains by Hulk’s enemy the Leader (Bill Hader), and slinks away to a dive bar for D-listers like sonic-powered rock singer David Angar (also Hader). The episode embraces the goofiest aspects of the MCU when the villains unite for a job to steal Captain America’s shield from Avengers Tower, which just turns into a drunken journey where each character must deal with some unresolved pathos.
There are plenty more excellent cameos, most notably Nathan Fillion playing the Avenger Wonder Man as a himbo actor with Wakandan tattoos. In one of the first real hints at the reunification of Marvel properties after the Disney/Fox merger, the X-Men villain Mister Sinister (Kevin Michael Richardson) also makes an appearance. While you don’t really need to be deep into Marvel lore to appreciate the show, it’s absolutely littered with Easter eggs for those who are.
M.O.D.O.K. is animated by Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the production company behind Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, and the tone and visual style are pretty similar. M.O.D.O.K. characters have a distinctly action-figure style, and they’re covered with great details, like the sparkling rivets on Melissa’s hoverchair. The show has some spectacular visual setpieces, like A.I.M.’s clifftop headquarters modeled after Tony Stark’s home in Iron Man, and the ludicrous fight scenes have a fluid quality evocative of the The Lego Movie’s mix of computer animation and actual toys.
It takes a bit for M.O.D.O.K. to become truly entertaining, but season 1 comes to a satisfying conclusion that hints at more adventures to come. It’s unlikely that those will happen, given that M.O.D.O.K. was originally planned as part of an animated shared world on Hulu, and most of the other shows were scrapped as part of a consolidation under Disney Plus. But after being cancelled last year, The Venture Bros. is getting a movie, so hopefully M.O.D.O.K. will capture not only that show’s strangely tender humor, but its impressive tenacity.
All 10 episodes of Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. are available to stream on Hulu on May 21.