M.O.D.O.K. hasn’t endured as a Marvel villain for more than 55 years because he’s cool like Doctor Doom or imposing like Thanos. He’s not powerful like Galactus or alluring like Magneto, either. The super genius baddie is a big floating head with tiny appendages. Even his name—an incomplete acronym for Mental Organism Designed Only For Killing—is a convoluted embarrassment. No, the character has endured specifically because he’s really dumb. He’s a memorable and entertaining invention of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who embodies the best of comic book silliness. But everything that made M.O.D.O.K. a perfect choice for his own animated comedy series is why he always seemed wrong for the MCU. How do you make a live-action version of M.O.D.O.K. that isn’t too absurd for a global audience and is still accessible to the many non-comic readers who enjoy the MCU?
You do it the way Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania did, by embracing M.O.D.O.K.’s inherent stupidity while still making him a meaningful part of the story.
No one is ever truly dead in a comic book universe. Not when writers can simply retcon or cleverly resurrect characters they like. And especially not in one that features time travel and infinite parallel worlds full of Variants. That’s why it’s not shocking Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross, the original Ant-Man movie villain, returned in Quantumania. Scott Lang caused Yellowjacket to shrink away into nothingness, sure. But that didn’t mean the former CEO of Pym Technologies actually died. Even if he had, who cares! It makes total sense he “actually” disappeared into the Quantum Realm. What no one could have predicted, though, is that Darren Cross would return as M.O.D.O.K.
For one thing, the characters have nothing to do with each other in Marvel Comics. The original M.O.D.O.K. is a scientist named George Tarleton with a dramatically different backstory. But more importantly, it seemed unlikely any version of M.O.D.O.K. would ever come to the MCU. Just because a character works in the pages of a comic book—a medium with its own set of rules, expectations, and accepted absurdities— doesn’t mean it can translate to live-action. Just imagine this exact scene performed by real humans.
M.O.D.O.K. seemed destined to remain in that group of comics-only characters. And he very well might have deserved to remain there had he made his live-action debut in a different movie. The Ant-Man films have always had a much lighter, funnier, even downright silly tone than most other MCU entries. In a series where the main character constantly mourns the heroic deaths of ants, a big dumb floating head doesn’t seem out of place. And M.O.D.O.K. certainly didn’t feel out of place in Quantumania‘s Quantum Realm. It’s a dimension full of broccoli people and pink goo oozers without holes. That was the best (maybe only) environment for M.O.D.O.K. to join the MCU.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania didn’t try to make M.O.D.O.K. something he’s not, either. It didn’t try to present an absurd Marvel Comics’ villains as imposing. No matter how much Darren Cross wanted others to fear him, they couldn’t. It’s tough to scare anyone when you have little arms and legs dangling out of your enormous face. And if the other characters’ incredulity and mocking responses weren’t enough, director Peyton Reed made sure none of us took the MCU’s M.O.D.O.K. seriously either. There’s a very hard limit to how much you can frighten audiences when we’ve seen your tiny ass sticking out the back of your head.
Quantumania‘s approach to M.O.D.O.K. resulted in some of the film’s funniest moments. He was a constant source of humor from his first scene to his last. Whether getting angry over the size of his arms and legs, refusing to answer to the name Darren, or tenderly touching Scott Lang’s face during an all-time hysterical dying speech, the MCU’s M.O.D.O.K. delivered laughs. That alone was enough to justify his inclusion in the film. But what really put the character over the top was that he was more than just a punchline.
Darren Cross had a real, meaningful history with the other characters. His interactions with Scott, Cassie, Hank, and Hope carried more emotional weight than a more traditional M.O.D.O.K ever could have. He wasn’t just a soldier of Kang trying to defeat an enemy. Nor was he just another villain for an Avenger to vanquish. He was seeking personal revenge against the people who ruined his life’s work and banished him to another dimension.
And because we knew he was never entirely stable to begin with, and that his work trying to recreate Pym Particles made his problems even worse, there was an inherent sadness to Darren Cross becoming M.O.D.O.K. in the Ant-Man movie. He was a sick man sentenced to a stupid existence that only made him sicker. As a result, we could feel pity for him even while laughing at him.
That’s also why his heroic ending worked. Darren Cross was a dick before he became M.O.D.O.K. But he didn’t have to be defined by his past actions or his large stupid head. He had a chance to finally do the right thing and be a better person and make amends. That’s what his former mentor Hank always wanted for him. As did Darren’s former friend Hope, who long ago pleaded with him to get help. Somehow Quantumania made us cheer and be happy for both Darren Cross and M.O.D.O.K. before his emotional, heroic (and yes, hysterical) MCU sendoff.
No one was ever going to walk away from a theater thinking M.O.D.O.K. is on the same level as Thanos, Kang, Ultron, Loki, Killmonger, or Hela. M.O.D.O.K. could never be a great MCU villain anymore for the same reasons he’s not one in Marvel Comics. But Quantumania knew that was never going to happen because it couldn’t. But what the Ant-Man movie could do was deliver a M.O.D.O.K. that captured why the silly character has endured in the first place, all while giving us a version that actually meant something to both its characters and its audience. The fact they pulled that off is no joke, even if M.O.D.O.K. always has been.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.