Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

M.O.D.O.K.’s Patton Oswalt took a lifetime of comic geekdom and made it into a TV show

For Patton Oswalt, Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. is the culmination of not only a lifetime of comic book geekdom but of years spent questioning the lives built outside the book’s pages. As he explained to us, “When Doc Ock isn’t out robbing a bank, does he have an apartment?… Does he like to sit and watch a TV show or read a book? Otherwise what’s he doing all this for?” If The Avengers aren’t able to rest and enjoy their lives, then what’s the point of fighting?

As a comedian noted for his keen observation of the mundanities of human life, Oswalt seems especially equipped to tackle those types of big questions. The result is M.O.D.O.K., a deeply funny and heartfelt show that also just happens to be about a supervillain who looks like a giant floating head. Sure, M.O.D.O.K. is trying to kill Iron Man for what seems to be no good reason, but he’s also trying to scrape his way out of a divorce, connect with his increasingly distant teenagers, and regain control of his struggling company. As Oswalt told The A.V. Club, “As big as the consequences for failing at world domination are, there are also consequences for being a shitty husband and an absentee dad.”

There’s more from Oswalt both in the video above, and in the transcript below, including his thoughts on The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, The Avengers’ shawarma moment, and why Marge should have left Homer decades ago. Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. hits Hulu Friday, May 21.

The A.V. Club: You’re both the producer and the star of M.O.D.O.K., but let’s talk about the former first. What made you want to take this ridiculous villain and give him his own series?

Patton Oswalt: Because I love how [M.O.D.O.K. creator] Jack Kirby deals with massive cosmic powers and consequences, but they are always at the whim and they’re always tied to massive human emotions like hurt and resentment, which is a very, very real thing. If you look at history, so much of our history has been people throwing tantrums about things and then a whole country gets wiped out. So the fact that he’s doing it with a villain and also the idea that [M.O.D.O.K.] is this eighth dimensional intellect, but he is a D-level bottom tier villain and is seeing other villains with more impact than him getting to play… it’s that frustration.

I just thought this would be so much fun to do. The more serious and overblown [M.O.D.O.K.] acts about everything, the funnier it is. It’s like everyone in Repo Man saying everything deadly serious, which makes it so hilarious because they’re talking about the dumbest shit. I just love that.

I knew that if we got this show going, just from the people that I’m friends with, we were going to have such a killer voice cast for every single character. We were able to land Wendy McLendon-Covey as Monica Rappaccini, who is just this constantly outraged person. She’s like a super Karen in a way, with that SuperKaren attitude. But again, with super science to back up her tantrums. That’s so much fun to do.

AVC: M.O.D.O.K. has been around for a long time. Did you have to bone up on your M.O.D.O.K.-lopedia, as it were?

PO: We went back and we read his origin, his first appearance versus Captain America. Then they went back and they always retcon, like, “Oh it’s George Tarleton, he gets put in this thing. He was this average schlub and he takes over.” So you know, there’s a Frankenstein monster aspect to him. But then there’s also this toddler with a gun aspect to him, like, why did the most average person on the planet with the biggest resentments get handed all this weaponry, all this power, all this intellect? But he powers nothing without control and he has no control over his power.

So it’s just that idea and also just the fact that he’s this gigantic face. There’s no subtlety to him, even though he thinks he’s being subtle. An eye roll from him is like a billboard going, “I think this sucks.” He can’t get away with any subtle emotions. It’s all gigantic.

There’s so many comedic areas to play in here. There’s also the fact that he wants to conquer the world as Emperor M.O.D.O.K., but he also wants to have a loving, secure family in the suburbs. “I will have both. I see no problem with having both.” There’s no such thing as choice or sacrifice with M.O.D.O.K.

AVC: He wants to conquer the world, but it’s not really clear why, or if he’s even thought about it. It’s just that he can. There’s no real end goal running anything.

PO: He has the drive but doesn’t have the why.

AVC: I love that we don’t really see his origin story in the show. We see him in college, and he’s just a big headed kid with a backwards visor living in a dorm. That’s all we get. So we don’t know what happened before that. Maybe he was born like that or who knows how we got to where he is.

PO: Or maybe he’s remembering it. That’s another fun thing about M.O.D.O.K. Because he’s so angry and resentful and everything, he’s always going to try to make himself look good. Can even he trust his memories? I don’t know, but again, a big billboard-sized face thinking it’s being subtle and taking everything seriously was just so much fun to write and really fun to play in the booth.

AVC: You have to imagine that if he’s had a big billboard face like this his whole life, maybe that gave him that chip on his shoulder.

PO: Well, and it’s because he was born with no chill. In a way, it’s almost like the version of those people that… we’ve both met people like this where they are told at one point in their lives that they’re being obnoxious or what they’re doing is kind of mean or something, and whereas 90 percent of people will go, “Okay, that was some insight. Maybe I should change and grow,” there’s always that 10 percent that’s like, “Well, I’m just going double down on that then.” They just amplify what they know everyone hates about them. Like, “You’ve got to deal with this. I don’t need to.” And we’ve all met people like that. So he’s like a version of that.

AVC: He’s a self-described “organism designed only for killing,” but his wife Jodie loves him. His kids love him. Does he have the capacity for love? It seems like he wants to be a good father, and he wants to be a good husband, but is that possible for him? Or is his quest for vengeance contradictory to that desire?

PO: I don’t want to spoil too much, but I think that his initial problem is he only has the ability to love whatever loves him back, which is not how love works. In his mind, it’s a computer program. You do this and then you get this reaction back. You get an equal reward back. Your input should be the same as your output and love is not that. When you say I love you, you shouldn’t say it like you’re holding a gun to someone’s head.

So that’s one of the many journeys he has to go on. He has a capacity to love. At the current time, though, his vision of what love is is wrong or at least very damaged.

AVC: There’s also how a marriage or a relationship changes over time. The relationship you have when you’re dating someone is very different than when you’re married, let alone when you’re on year 20 and have two teenage kids. A lot of things have changed. So, he might not be able to understand the idea that what might have been working just won’t anymore. “She loved me. What’s changed?”

PO: That’s another thing that’s always bothered me, and we went out of our way not to do it on this show, but the state of grace of a lot of sitcoms is where the husband is a slob and an idiot and the wife is like, “Oh, honey…” But then next episode, they’re back together and they’re married and everything’s like they’ve reset so they can have another set of wacky adventures.

Look, I love The Simpsons, but at this point, Marge would have divorced Homer. So we went out of our way not to have a state of grace on this show. We want things to change and people to say, “No, I’m not putting up with this. It’s not acceptable.” Then you’ve got to deal with those things. As big as the consequences for failing at world domination are, there are also consequences for being a shitty husband and an absentee dad. Those consequences can hit just as hard. So we wanted to do that.

I don’t want it to sound like a Bergman film. It’s done very comedically. But all that’s in there.

AVC: When M.O.D.O.K.’s life starts to hit the skids, there are some pretty funny details to his bachelorhood. What are some of your favorite snippets from the show or jokes that you really loved?

AVC: There is a really good episode—I mean, I don’t want to talk because that’s one that I wrote. Well, I don’t want to say I wrote it, because the room really amped it up and got it where it was, but it’s the idea that M.O.D.O.K. is now separated and going, “Well, then I’ve got to build my own life. I’ve got to hang out, and I’ve got to make new friends.” And his absolute inability to do that because it’s so alien to him. [The writers’ room] had a lot of fun doing that.

There’s also an episode that I really love where he bonds with his daughter Melissa at a retreat that is so well written. It’s all supervillain stuff, but done in such a touching way because Melissa is just a budding supervillain, so they bond. Some moments were like, “That’s kind of a beautiful daddy-daughter moment that landed with me.”

The writing staff was so amazing at always looking at the human [side] first and then we can have fun with Easter eggs or Marvel references and the crazy. I mean, there’s a scene that you guys put on your website. It’s a mad scientist fight that one of our writers [former Onion, Inc. employee] Cullen Crawford wrote… Oh my god, he went to town writing that and then the Stoopid Buddy [animation] people like just [rubs hands together gleefully] “whoo hoo hoo hoo hoo.” It’s such an incredible sequence.

AVC: You can really feel the rhythm of that scene. It’s like a song.

PO: I always say animators have to be as good at acting as actors are. You can see the moments of decision-making going on. Monica is saying, “Okay, I’ll get you with this one. Ah, this didn’t work…” That’s all in the body language and in the faces. That has to be just as much a part of the action as the crazy gadgets and special effects, to see these people try to make decisions.

AVC: M.O.D.O.K. has been drawn by a number of different artists. How did you guys land on what you wanted him to look like for the show?

PO: I really, really just stayed with Kirby. Big, thick lines, big expressions. That’s also what made us decide to do 3D. We went to different animation houses. We were looking at some 2D options, but Stoopid Buddy sent us this test and just the depth and detail and the bigness of it, we were like, “Not only does this look good, but this is the kind of decision Kirby would make.” Kirby would go, “It’s got to be 3D. My stuff can’t just be 2D. It’s too big.”

AVC: It has to be gratifying in some sense to have a literal lifetime of comic geekdom come to fruition with this show. Your huge base of comics knowledge is really paying off for you now.

PO: Not only my years of reading all those comics, but what was just as valuable were the times in between when you would read a comic and then go, “When Doc Ock isn’t out robbing a bank, does he have an apartment? He’s got to go to the bathroom. He’s got to take those arms off or wash himself or get food. Does he like to sit and watch a TV show or read a book? Otherwise what’s he doing all this for?” What’s the in-between of these characters’ lives like, the villains and the heroes? There must be a time where they’re just like, “I just want to sit down.”

The moment that’s weirdly powerful for me is at the end of The Avengers when they’re all just sitting having shawarma. It’s like that is why we defended the world, so that people can just sit and have food and talk and have a day. That’s just as valuable.

AVC: That’s one of the more interesting parts of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier: the idea that if you’ve been a killing machine for 80 years, that you’re going to be incredibly fucked up. Or if half the world’s population just disappears, what are the minute details of that? Who took care of their pets? I do think you’ve managed to thread that needle with M.O.D.O.K.

PO: The Falcon And The Winter Soldier was incredible because they were kind of questioning everything that had gone before in their own movies. Was that right to do that? And to give the Baron those lines about “Do you believe in super soldiers? Then you’re also a supremacist. You’re no different than me.” It’s like, “The Nazi wants to stop the super soldier? Wait a minute.” Anything to keep you off your balance, to me made it so much more fun.

This is going to sound so weird, but that final scene when Bucky is back with Sam at the boat and they’re having the party and he was playing with the kids, it’s like that’s what he’s wanted to have all this time. He just wanted to have a life and just hang out with people and have some pecan pie and maybe eat a little too much. That’s what you’re supposed to do with your life if you live your life and you’re not fighting all the time. And you see what the effects are of that with the new Captain America character [U.S. Agent], because his whole life has been “do this,” and he finally just snaps because he’s never had any downtime to hang with people.

AVC: And that’s what’s happening to M.O.D.O.K. in some sense. If your whole life is devoted to vengeance, you can’t exist in the world.

PO: You can’t do that. You can’t. It just kills you.

Graphic: Natalie Peeples; Patton Oswalt Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.