MODOK is a D-list supervillain, but Jordan Blum and Patton Oswalt, co-creators of the upcoming Hulu adult animated comedy bearing the Marvel character’s namesake, are hoping you’ll root for their grotesque underdog because, somewhere along the line, you’ve also had your plans to take over the world thwarted.
Blum, who is known for his work on “American Dad,” and Oswalt, the stand-up comedian, writer, producer, actor and voice star of “Ratatouille,” “Happy!” and “The Goldbergs,” are making their grand entrances into the Marvelverse as executive producers and writers with “Marvel’s “MODOK” (Oswalt, who also voices the titular character, was previously a recurring character in “Agents of SHIELD”). In doing so, they’re banking on their pioneering choice of stop motion style and centering a superhero show entirely on an evil, middle-aged genius to break free from the standard comic-book adaptation blueprint.
Ahead of the series premiere of “Marvel’s MODOK,” Blum and Oswalt talk with Variety about humanizing the bigheaded monster, and giving him an altered backstory with familial and collegial relationships that generate a surprising amount of depth as well as hilarity.
MODOK. is not one of the more well-known characters— at least he doesn’t have a presence in the MCU —so how did the idea of bringing him to the screen come about? Had you read the comics?
Jordan Blum: I have loved the character since I first saw him. It’s that Jack Kirby design, where he’s this big, floating head monster, and yet he’s also incredibly human in the way that Stan Lee wrote him. He is this guy who sees himself as this Dr. Doom elitist villain, but deep down, he knows he’s not, and it drives him crazy. His ego always gets in the way of his plans to conquer the world, and I think that’s very relatable. But, besides the visuals, we haven’t seen a world of villains explored and that led us to ask questions like, “Where does this guy go after he finishes fighting Captain America?” I’ve always been fascinated by the oddballs of the Marvel universe who don’t quite fit in, and I think MODOK is the ultimate supervillain underdog.
Patton Oswalt: We love the backbenchers. The idea of a C, D-list supervillain who is just as upset at the other supervillains as he is [at] the heroes because he thinks he should be at the top rank of villains. He’s someone who is genuinely hyper-intellectual but has no emotional intelligence. Having him on the screen trying to conquer the world felt very timely and like a fun sandbox to play in.
So, as you both said, MODOK is uniquely contradictory because he’s ruthless and cluelessly ignorant and arrogant, but also sensitive and worried about what people say about him even though he’s not afraid to kill people. How did you ensure that his character struck that balance throughout the series?
Blum: I think this is a story about a super talented guy who is so focused and has such a sense of what he’s meant to do in life that he gets lost along the way. When all of that is challenged, he has to step back and reevaluate who he is and what he wants from life, and if that’s the same thing that has been driving him for years. That’s a crisis that a lot of people go through. So, you apply that to a character consumed by violence that floats around in a hover chair, and you’re still exploring a human story through a fun Marvel backdrop.
Oswalt: When I was voicing him, I tried to connect to my lizard superego brain, at least emotionally and in the voice acting. There was no voice modulation, so everything flowed easily from there once I tapped into that part of myself.
Why did you want to go with this more polished route for “MODOK’s” aesthetic?
Blum: We wanted to honor that Jack Kirby design and Patton’s only request was that it popped in three dimensions. After seeing “Into the Spiderverse,” seeing them [take] chances to do something different with the animation was inspiring. And it’s a very crowded market right now for adult animation, so when we were presented with stop motion, it was just so unique and popped out so much for us. They had developed this shooting style where they get actual handheld photography with stop motion. The handheld element adds the fun behind-the-scenes into the life of a supervillain and enhances the comedy. When you’re watching it, you almost forget that you’re watching puppets — I mean, hopefully — and you see the characters as they are.
Oswalt: They showed us some test footage in 2D and 3D, and the stop motion stuff was just so captivating and weird. We realized we could cram in much more detail in 3D. It’s difficult to explain the entire process because it is so complicated, but it involves a lot of manufacturing eyeballs to get the right expressions, building mini sets and detailing them with interior offices and labs and the exterior of A.I.M., et cetera.
How involved were you both with the casting, and did you have certain ideal voices in your heads as you were reading the comics and penning the scripts?
Blum: We were both incredibly involved, and Patton and I had a lot of talks about who these characters were. Some choices were almost baked in, like choosing Ben Schwartz for Lou, MODOK’s son. When we were pitching the show, it was a no-brainer from the beginning since we’d worked together previously. Honestly, no one that we wanted as our first choice said no, which is very rare. Patton has some great relationships with comedians, so we could get some great guest stars — people that I fanboyed about every time they stepped into the booth to record.
Oswalt: As we were writing the scripts, we had specific voices. I’m lucky in that I’m in the comedy world, so I could draw specific people in like Eddie Pepitone and Jon Hamm, which helped us get the people we wanted. Knowing the kind of voices we would be working with changed the writing process by making it more streamlined because I knew exactly how this person was supposed to sound for their role.
Let’s chat about MODOK’s family, which was created for the show. What was it like to write characters that aren’t just funny but also layered individuals like MODOK himself, with Mexican and Jewish roots?
Blum: Having worked in animation for a while, I’ve seen enough white families portrayed, and we wanted to make a family that, outside of having giant heads, looks like a modern family. I am part of an interfaith relationship, and we are always trying to figure out how to raise our kids and what factors will come into play, so we wanted to create a family with real-world concerns. Every episode, we wanted to filter their heritage and ethnicity through the storylines, like Lou having his bar mitzvah. It was cool to have my story portrayed on television in a way that I had never seen before. Representation makes for more exciting stories, and I think it’s our job as creators and as showrunners to put more of that out there so people can see themselves on TV, and I didn’t want to add to a very long list of all-white families.
Oswalt: We had a lot of fun, especially with this trope of sitcom wives and especially the animation wives who are married to such loud buffoons, but at the end of every episode is a state of grace: they’re still married, and nothing is going to change. Right from the get-go, we wanted Jodie, MODOK’s wife, to say, “Hey, this isn’t working, we need to separate.” That becomes the catalyst for the season, and then you see how the kids react differently to divorce — especially Melissa, MODOK’s daughter, who is a chip off the old MODOK if you will. You’re watching different characters deal with disruption in nuanced ways.
How do you hope to attract folks who may not be diehard MCU fans and therefore unfamiliar with these characters?
Blum: We were able to carve out our section of the Marvel universe with A.I.M. and MODOK, and we help you enter this world that we’ve built around MODOK since he’s always at the center of the show. It helped us create a funny and relatable show that pushes the sci-fi genre, like how “Rick and Morty” does, so we were open to very creative and insane stories with a lot of heart grounded in them. Hopefully, that’s all you need, even if you don’t catch on to every Easter Egg or reference we put in there.
Oswalt: Diehard Marvel fans know all of these deep cuts and they love it when stuff like this shows up. I remember the reaction at the theater at the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy” — the end credits when Howard the Duck showed up — and there was this excitement over diving deep into the roster. But, even if you’re not a Marvel fan, this is still a hilarious show about a crumbling marriage and someone trying to step up to fatherhood and being a husband despite all of the superhero stuff. I think it works brilliantly on that level.
“Marvel’s MODOK” premieres May 21 on Hulu.