‘M.O.D.O.K.’ Is How Marvel Can Master the Multiverse

A cult favorite Marvel villain has finally gotten his own television show, one that deftly balances humor and raw emotion. Time travel stirs the plot, while undercard characters from long-forgotten back issues play pivotal roles. It’s one of the most original comic book adaptations ever to hit the screen, and it offers a tantalizing glimpse at the full potential of Marvel’s impending multiverse. I am talking, of course, about M.O.D.O.K.

OK, yes, Loki also fits that bill. But chances are you’re already watching that, or at least aware of it. Which is great! The more Tom Hiddleston the better. Hulu’s M.O.D.O.K., a madcap stop-motion spectacle created by Patton Oswalt and Jordan Blum, is a deeper cut. It’s also an exercise in burning down the timelines Loki‘s TVA is trying desperately to fix—one that could spark a new creative resurgence. 

What is M.O.D.O.K.? Well, so, bear with me. The name stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing; he’s basically a giant cranium with a teensy torso and extremities who gets around in a flying chair. He first showed up in comics in the late 1960s, became a regular foil for Captain America, and is commonly associated with Advanced Idea Mechanics, a criminal organization that wants to overtake the world with fancy gadgets. M.O.D.O.K. can blast energy beams from his forehead, accesses an assortment of weapons from his chair, and is one of Marvel’s most absurd creations. Which is saying something.

To that end, M.O.D.O.K. is also not someone likely to show up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper. He’s too outrageous, even next to a trash-talking raccoon and monosyllabic tree-creature. But M.O.D.O.K. the show leans all the way into that ridiculousness. It fills out his world, imagining him as not only a failed nemesis but a flailing husband and father. It’s as unapologetically violent and profane as it is sentimental, as likely to give an entire episode to an ill-fated heist as it is to familial reconciliation. It’s almost certainly the only televised Marvel property that will ever feature Tenpin, a bad guy from the comics who … throws bowling pins. (In the world of M.O.D.O.K., Tenpin doesn’t even have those; he pawned them and lives out of his car, which doesn’t run.)

If it’s not already abundantly clear, this is not a show for everyone. It’s Infinity War by way of Adult Swim, and it rewards a healthy appreciation for comics esoterica. In addition to Tenpin you get hefty doses of C-list supervillains like Armadillo, Arcade, and Angar the Screamer. And that’s before you even get to the Easter eggs, which would take repeat viewings and an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel lore to fully clock.

Not being for everyone, though, is the entire point. Unlike Loki and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and all the big tentpole movie releases of the past 13 years, M.O.D.O.K. exists outside the MCU. It has no interest in or obligation to the continuity that binds together the dozens of hours of canonical Marvel films and TV shows that preceded it. It has not been shaped by studio notes or had its rough edges sanded down in pursuit of mass appeal. The only Avenger to so much as make a credited appearance in M.O.D.O.K. is Iron Man. M.O.D.O.K. calls him a “wet bitch.”

The events of M.O.D.O.K. unspool instead in the Marvel multiverse. Specifically, on Earth-1226; the movies and Disney+ series primarily take place on Earth-199999, and the comics are set in yet another reality. That multiverse—where multiple realities occur simultaneously and sometimes intersect—has long been a staple of Marvel comics and is foundational to its cinematic future. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse explored it in 2018. WandaVision brought it into the main timeline earlier this year, and Loki is laying the groundwork for a broader splintering that will play out in theaters over the next several years. (This is neither spoiler nor speculation; the upcoming slate literally includes Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.)

Which all sounds exciting, but also a little daunting. The multiverse unleashes significant entropy on a process that has been tightly controlled for more than a decade. If comics past is prologue, that will at worst mean muddled plots, unsatisfying resolutions, lost narrative threads, and eventually having to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch. “Heed my warning,” my colleague Adam Rogers wrote earlier this year. “This will end in tears.”

But at its best, the multiverse enables exploration and experimentation, especially once you break loose from the gravitational pull of the canon. That’s M.O.D.O.K., a gloriously self-contained experience. It owes nothing to Phase Four of Marvel’s ever-expanding universe. It doesn’t have to build infrastructure for future installments or ask that you remember the fine print of the Sokovia Accords. Its only crossover is a wink; it enlists Nathan Fillion to voice Wonder Man, years after the actor’s brief appearance as the same superhero was cut from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

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