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'Marvel's M.O.D.O.K.': A Goofy Supervillain Basks In A Comic Spotlight

Two evil geniuses: A tech mogul Austin Van Der Sleet (voiced by Beck Bennett) and Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing (voiced by Patton Oswalt).
Two evil geniuses: A tech mogul Austin Van Der Sleet (voiced by Beck Bennett) and Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing (voiced by Patton Oswalt).

M.O.D.O.K. is a Marvel Comics villain. He is goofy. Defiantly so.

Comics are a visual medium, and M.O.D.O.K. has always been all about his visuals: He's a guy with a great big giant head who toodles around in a flying metal chair, zapping folk with mental blasts and whatnot (M.O.D.O.K. stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing, of course).

Personality wise, he's not much, historically. Shouts a lot. Vows vengeance a lot. Plots world domination a lot. Goes to the "puny-minded fools!" well ... just really a whole lot.

The new Hulu series Marvel's M.O.D.O.K. is also goofy. It, too, boasts great visuals — bright, colorful stop-motion animation augmented by computer, in the Robot Chicken mode. In fact, everything about Marvel's M.O.D.O.K. reminds you of Robot Chicken — the truly impressive joke density, the deep passion for lore and characters so obscure they'd stump even the managers of a Marvel wiki, and a spectacular voice cast.

Which makes sense. Marvel's M.O.D.O.K is made by the producers of Robot Chicken — Stoopid Buddy Stoodios — and it's created by Jordan Blum (who wrote several episodes of American Dad!) and Patton Oswalt, who also voices M.O.D.O.K.

Unlike Robot Chicken, Marvel's M.O.D.O.K isn't a sketch show, even though it attempts to stretch out that same high-pitched, setup-punchline-blackout energy to fit a serialized comedy format. The result is choppy but mostly works; the series' go-for-the-jugular, gag-based approach repeatedly undercuts the emotional beats its story keeps attempting to hit, which itself becomes part of the joke, in a strange way.

The setup: M.O.D.O.K.'s life is falling apart. His evil organization gets bought out by a big-tech firm led by the unctuous Austin Van Der Sleet (voiced by Beck Bennett). He's derided by his smarter co-worker Monica (voiced by Wendi McLendon-Covey). His marriage to his wife Melissa (voiced by Melissa Fumero) is crumbling; his kids Jodie (voiced by Aimee Garcia) and Lou (voiced with hilariously manic energy by Ben Schwartz) are sullen and cheery, respectively.

Oswalt, for his part, manages to invest M.O.D.O.K. with more personality than the comics ever bothered to. His M.O.D.O.K. is a vain, petulant jerk lacking any sense of self-awareness, but he's also an inveterate loser forever grasping for validation as he flails about, trying to repair his relationship, murder his boss and take over the world. As you do.

The jokes themselves are often glib, and sometimes downright cruel, but they're always satisfyingly specific ("You challenge my masculinity? I'll have you know my last donnybrook was a bona fide fracas!"), which at least makes them feel like they come from a clear and well-defined comedic sensibility.

And that's of course the real challenge, whenever a vast mega-globo-corporate behemoth like Marvel hands you one of its characters to play with. The IP itself — to say nothing of the teams of studio brand-management executives giving notes — can flatten even the strongest take on a character into flavorless palp. But Marvel's M.O.D.O.K. was expressly created to cordon off one tiny, weird, backwater corner of the Marvel Universe, and go nuts. Which is exactly what it accomplishes, in a fun, if Robot Chicken-flavored, way.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.