Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Image: Hulu

After years of forgettable Marvel supervillains, M.O.D.O.K. has found a way to be the only hot one

Image: Hulu
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

The Marvel movies have a somewhat infamous problem with villains: They tend to be dark inversions of the main hero (Iron Monger, the Red Skull, Yellowjacket, the Abomination), but even if they do have a little more meat on their bones, they’re usually dispatched after one movie (Killmonger, Mysterio) or quickly become an antihero (Loki, Nebula). And it’s not just a Marvel problem, with Warner Bros. and DC being so confident that Justice League would be the biggest movie in the world that they saved the actual villain for a never-to-be-made sequel, sticking fans with a pointy monster who shared a name with the guys who sang “Born To Be Wild.”

Surprisingly, though, Marvel seems to have finally found the one villain who can carry multiple stories in multiple different genres and mediums that people actually want to see, and it’s not even somebody cool like a maniacal Jeff Bridges in a giant metal suit. It’s M.O.D.O.K., a guy who’s just a big head with little arms and legs in a flying chair, and his name is an acronym for “Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing”—which might be the dumbest name anyone has ever had. M.O.D.O.K. is peak comic book silliness, the kind of Jack Kirby/Stan Lee nonsense from the 1960s that nobody was ever supposed to take seriously, and yet he has endured—not despite his silliness, but because of it.

M.O.D.O.K. is the comic book version of an inside joke, or a “you had to be there” reference. He’s barely anyone’s favorite character (M.O.D.O.K. came in at the very bottom of IGN’s 2019 list of the best Marvel villains), but he pops up with some frequency in the comics because he’s a fun pull for writers and artists when they need a named bad guy but don’t want to get a real heavy hitter like Doctor Doom or a bullshit nobody like The Hood. M.O.D.O.K.’s never off doing something more important in another book, like Doctor Doom might be, and he’s a name and a real big face that will sell comics, unlike The Hood (who sucks).

This, and the rise of comic book fans having more of a say in what big companies do with their money, has resulted in a perfect storm of M.O.D.O.K. relevance. While the MCU is still finding its footing after Avengers: Endgame and the Disney+ shows are half-heartedly highlighting good guys who never face repercussions when they do bad things (specifically the Scarlet Witch brainwashing a town on WandaVision and John Walker murdering a guy on The Falcon And The Winter Soldier), non-MCU Marvel media is wholly embracing the dark side with our big-headed king. Hulu’s M.O.D.O.K., starring Patton Oswalt, is an excellent satirical sitcom that has loads of fun with the weirder side of superhero mythology, and Square Enix’s Marvel’s Avengers video game featured dual origin stories for both M.O.D.O.K. and fan-favorite hero Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel.

The divisive Avengers game definitely could’ve used more and better villains, with its mostly serious, MCU-lite tone offering a good example of why M.O.D.O.K. would never work in the movies, but the fact that he was there at all shows why M.O.D.O.K. has a place in this weird new era of comic book stuff. He’s got cred, because he’s a Lee/Kirby creation from the comics; nobody really cares about him so the developers could do their own origin; and he’s very well-suited to video games because of his obvious “aim here” weak spot (it’s his big face). It’s fun to beat him up, and there’s really no better way to compliment a supervillain.

As for the Hulu show, no other bad guy in the Marvel vault would work for its brand of weird, character-based humor. The personas of characters like Kingpin or Doctor Doom or Magneto are so wrapped up in their evilness that seeing them be wacky wouldn’t play as well, or at least it would feel more like the scattershot humor of Robot Chicken (which was created by M.O.D.O.K. studio Stoopid Buddy). M.O.D.O.K., on the other hand, is already a funny character because everything about him is so silly, from his name and appearance to his outrageously overblown ambition and all-consuming pettiness, so creating a satirical sitcom version of him is basically just one notch away from playing him straight. Plus, the fact that he’s a low-status character in any version of the Marvel universe means the show gets to punch up at the bigger and more popular heroes and villains, which is better for comedy. He’s an underdog, but also he’s an underdog who doesn’t really deserve anything better.

M.O.D.O.K. is, essentially, the ideal villain for a world where everyone has a passing familiarity with superheroes: He’s an inside joke that everybody gets because of how disposable bad guys have become in these superpowered stories. We’ve spent over a decade now getting invested in stories about relatable heroes standing up to larger-than-life threats, but those threats have just turned into obstacles between us and the chance to spend more time hanging out with our friends Thor, Iron Man, and Rocket Raccoon. Loki is getting his own show because he turned out to be a relatively nice guy, but nobody wants to see more from Iron Monger or Yellowjacket. They were boring and mean. What people want, apparently, is a big head in a chair who reminds them that superhero stories are silly and that being a good villain doesn’t necessarily mean being good at being a villain.