If Marvel Television’s near-decade-long run was a concert, MODOK would be the song before the encore. The boisterous cult hit that every true fan knows by heart and normies won’t. Normally, it’s the song the artist pretends to end the night with, knowing that they’ll come out with their biggest hit for the real curtain call as the crowd chants, “More! More!” The band ends the night with a banger the arena can sing to and everybody goes home happy. In this Marvel TV concert, that’s not what happens. Instead of the big accessible hit for the encore, the band pulls out Hit-Monkey, a B-side that was deemed too heavy for Top 40 radio.
Hit-Monkey is a bewildering curtain call for Marvel TV, a show so ultra-violent that it would be rated NC-17 and likely banned in certain countries if done in live-action. Its animated medium practically serves as an airbag from the never-ending collision of steel and human entrails. A grandma gets sawed in half lengthwise! If that weren’t enough, trigger warnings feel appropriate for the show as it depicts extreme violence against animals. Disturbed fans numbed by the mass appeal of Marvel’s family-friendly brand may find this prospect enticing.
Like its titular sharp-dressed protagonist, the 10-episode season is stitched with a lot of style that draws upon the likes of Kill Bill and its cinematic progenitors. The show flexes a sophisticated sense of composition when it comes to its big set pieces, creating a contrast when put next to its comically gratuitous approach to gore. Showrunners Will Speck and Josh Gordon’s previous work like Blades of Glory and Office Christmas Party may say otherwise about their grasp on serious action but Hit-Monkey displays the directing duo’s deft understanding of the source material and action genre.
In spite of its edgy violence and flair, Hit-Monkey will not be for everyone, even for some Marvel enthusiasts, as its world feels like an obscurity. Based on a Marvel digital comic from 2010 by Daniel Way and Dalibor Talajic, Hit-Monkey is very much a deep cut in every sense of the Marvel universe, let alone in wider media. The character has appeared in only a handful of comics, most notably in Deadpool, and has appeared sparsely across the Marvel universe since his inception.
The show stays mostly faithful to the origins, essentially recreating the pages in animated form yet the rest of its world deviates from the familiarity of the Marvel universe in odd ways. The Immortal Weapon, Fat Cobra, makes a fun appearance as an ex-convict with seemingly no connection to the world of Iron Fist. Famed X-Men villain the Silver Samurai appears for an episode and is described as a mutant yet is also posited as the national hero of Japan, akin to Captain America, which he isn’t in the comics. His signature mutant abilities have also been eye-raisingly omitted for posterity.
Hit-Monkey’s hook is that of a humble buddy-cop thriller: a series of vigilante killings sends the Tokyo underworld into disorder following a political assassination gone wrong and all roads point to a Japanese Macaque wearing a suit and carrying a katana. Accompanying the monkey is the ghost of an assassin wronged by the underworld voiced by a blabbering Jason Sudeikis, who serves as the entry point of the story. Together, they embark on a quest for vengeance while uncovering political conspiracies and crossing paths with the deadliest of assassins, some of whom feel borderline problematic with their exaggerated portrayals.
An all-too-familiar premise doesn’t quite make Hit-Monkey the outlier B-sides usually are. The show marches to the beat of more famous revenge tales, saying nothing new about the genre’s tropes and clichés. Even a talented group of Asian-American voice talent can’t do much to salvage characters that are cut-outs. You have the grizzled disillusioned cop voiced by Nobi Nakanishi whose timbre brings a convincing weariness to the role. Cloak and Dagger‘s Ally Maki voices Nakanishi’s younger partner, a steadfast unwavering cop who does everything by the book. The legendary George Takei nets the show an automatic win simply by being in it but the writing for his character, politician Shinji Yokohama fails to make an impression. On the other hand, Olivia Munn gets to do a little bit more than Takei as Yokohama’s ambitious niece, Akiko.
All this is to point out how Hit-Monkey comfortably and confidently sits on its own branch, unbothered by what it isn’t. By design, the show seems intent on not engaging with any new ideas, opting to play it straight. But only because the goal isn’t to reinvent the wheel; it’s to see what a monkey does with it.
The show lives and dies by the charm of its simian protagonist and the surprising emotion he brings. Crippling Bojackian existentialism makes up much of the season’s pathos and when you have a monkey on the forefront dealing with it, you get the same dramatic depth found in equally compelling animal movies like the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. Identity, family, and tribalism are all ideas Hit-Monkey‘s demons are wrestling with and it’s explored exceptionally. The howls, grunts, and hoots of Fred Tatasciore rival the same complexity Andy Serkis’ acclaimed performance gave Caesar but in a 2D plane.
Bolstering the show’s pathos is Hit-Monkey‘s friendship with a hitman named Bryce (or his specter). True to the DNA of any buddy-cop tale, it’s all about the growing pains for this unlikely duo. That the specter of Bryce serves as Hit-Monkey’s literal conscience and narrative mouthpiece makes their drama more engaging. Sudeikis feels insufferable in the role at first, whose grating quips of assholery in the midst of his pop-culture renaissance as Ted Lasso feel very trite and unwelcome. But as the show peels Bryce’s layers, you begin to feel tethered to his uneasy soul and start realizing the sadness Sudeikis brings to the character is magnetic.
Hit-Monkey isn’t quite the swansong Marvel Television needs nor is it the one it deserves. It’s the kind of encore that might garner a smattering of applause as audiences are left feeling unsure of how they cap off the night. But that it stands upright, chin-up, with a katana in its hand at the end of all things, in the face of everything the division went through, feels admirable.