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Marvel’s Hit-Monkey: Season 1 Review

Marvel’s Hit-Monkey premieres on Hulu on Nov. 17. Below is a spoiler-free review.

What was once meant to be Hulu’s interconnected Marvel animated universe has since splintered into isolated off-shoots, most likely for the better. Rather than building to C-list crossover The Offenders, shows like the fantastic stop-motion series M.O.D.O.K. and now the anime-inspired Hit-Monkey — slightly less fantastic, though just as visually unique — are no longer beholden to a single style or continuity. The blood-soaked 10-part comedy, which hits Hulu on Nov. 17, draws from some truly obscure corners of Marvel comics and builds an entire series around a minor Deadpool supporting character: a suit-wearing, gun-toting Japanese Macaque who assassinates other assassins. The result, while often uneven, is ultimately fun, and its surprising emotional highs eventually outweigh its major weaknesses.

Executive producers Will Speck and Josh Gordon (Blades of Glory) draw their story from Hit-Monkey’s one-shot origin comic by Daniel Way and Dalibor Talajić, released in 2010 to provide context for his three-issue Deadpool appearance, and from the character’s three-issue limited run released later that same year. There isn’t much Hit-Monkey material on which to draw — the aforementioned seven issues have since been combined into the character’s only graphic novel, Bullets & Bananas — so beyond the broadest of strokes, the show is left with significant wiggle room to build its own story. The basics are still in place: a mysterious human assassin is adopted by a tribe of Japanese snow monkeys, all but one of whom are slaughtered by the assassin’s enemies. This surviving Macaque, having trained with the assassin in the art of stealthy murder, embarks on a revenge mission, where he’s joined by the assassin’s ghost.

It’s both deceptively simple and rather silly, though the show’s first major change is to give the assassin a name (Bryce), a definitive background (American), and a personality (Jason Sudeikis channeling Archer). From there on out, Bryce and Hit-Monkey — referred to only as “Monkey” for some reason — kill their way up the totem pole of a Tokyo political conspiracy, one colorful villain at a time, in the hopes of tracking down those responsible for murdering Bryce and Hit-Monkey’s family. Bryce’s translucent green specter is tethered to Hit-Monkey like a Bluetooth device with limited range, so the two have no choice but to work together. Bryce translates Hit-Monkey’s animal dialogue for us through his detailed responses, á la Han Solo and Chewbacca, leaving Hit-Monkey’s core concept in place — a monkey in a suit; no superpowers, no other frills — instead of anthropomorphizing him (he’s voiced by Fred Tatasciore, who imbues him with life and personality through squawks and grunts).

Like Hit-Monkey’s comic origin, the first 20-minute episode (or “chapter”) finds the inherent humor in playing the premise straight, a ridiculous sincerity to which the show eventually returns in later entries. However, in the meantime, it has more than a little trouble finding its footing. The character’s deadpan origin and his Deadpool cameo were two different stories with wildly different tones, but the show often tries to smush these two approaches together. Bryce, like his comic counterpart, functions occasionally as Hit-Monkey’s conscience, as the primate assassin wrestles with consequences of violence, but at the same time, Bryce is also conscripted as the show’s Deadpool stand-in, making pop culture reference after pop culture reference to no one in particular. His ceaseless, sarcastic commentary ends up annoyingly one-note, until the show finally digs into his backstory, and affords him more meaningful and character-centric quips in the process.

Until the show smartly splits up its two approaches, it spins its wheels by presenting repetitive emotional beats, and the same joke over and over again (Bryce making movie references that Hit-Monkey doesn’t understand). However, once the farcical elements are compartmentalized, the show is able to let loose its wackier side. Chapter 5, for instance (titled “Run Monkey Run”) is a John Wick-inspired romp where numerous assassins are sent Hit-Monkey’s way. One of them is a ghost; another is a taxidermist; the third is an influencer who livestreams his kills.

On the other side of the equation, the series is then able to slow down in later episodes and give its more emotional side the care that it deserves, between some moving Bryce flashbacks, and a dialogue-free Hit-Monkey story where the boundary between sincere and silly is so razor-thin that it may as well be non-existent (the show is at its funniest when the jokes and serious moments feel like one and the same). Some of its more potent dramatic beats are brought to life through stark black-and-white vignettes, where the clash between dark shadows and bright-red blood makes for an enticing contrast.

The show’s animation is quite remarkable.


Even when it isn’t slipping into this manga-inspired visual mode, the show’s animation is quite remarkable. Its detailed hand-drawn character designs are bolstered by a 3D-rendered world; the environment often tells its own story, between lighting and textures that fill the action with a palpable sense of mood, gore that feels both sickening and engrossing, and vivid background elements that trace the evolution of Hit-Monkey from urban legend to celebrity in the minds of Tokyo’s citizens.

However, the Tokyo of it all exists in a strange, in-between place thanks to its malformed supporting roster. The voice cast, made up largely of Asian American actors, are all serviceable, but their respective characters (George Takei as a kindly politician, Olivia Munn as his American-raised niece, and Ally Maki and Nobi Nakanishi as a rookie-veteran police duo) rarely feel as if they’re more than one of the show’s many background designs, given how much they exist to provide reactions and broader context, how little they influence Hit-Monkey’s emotional arc, and how much they feel like broad and predictable “types” cut out from an American crime film.

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In a related problem, none of the show’s Japanese characters feel as if they actually live in Japan. Their dialogue is filled with distinctly American idioms and colloquialisms, and while this can be easily hand-waved as a matter of keeping the show’s Western audience in mind, the more pressing dramatic issue is that their exchanges and body language, even across overt boundaries of professional hierarchy, feel so much more casually American than rigidly Japanese that the show may as well be set in the United States (perhaps San Fransokyo, Marvel’s Japan-U.S. hybrid city from Big Hero 6, would have been a more appropriate setting). This not only leaves their interactions feeling inauthentic, but it also allows fewer opportunities for them to differentiate themselves from Bryce’s comedic stylings.

However, the one supporting player who feels fully fleshed out is, ironically, a Japanese American character who makes her way across the Pacific to track down Hit-Monkey: Maki Matsumoto, a.k.a. expert markswoman Lady Bullseye, whose formidable introduction set to Japanese pop (at least the show’s soundtrack is authentic) injects some much-needed dramatic tension. The plodding political plot rarely amounts to much, but the zippy action used to pad it over is often a visual treat, with sweeping movements and anime-like motion blur each time Lady Bullseye picks up a pointy household item, or Hit-Monkey bounces off the walls while dual-wielding handguns or swinging a katana.

As far as tongue-in-cheek premises are concerned, Marvel’s Hit-Monkey does an adequate job of stretching out its central joke over a four-hour season, even if its laugh-out-loud moments are limited to once or twice per episode. However, its biggest surprise is that behind Hit-Monkey’s enormous shades and Bryce’s non-stop pop culture quips lie real characters, and a moving story about cycles of violence that feels right at home amidst comedically stylized bloodshed — even if it takes frustratingly long for this story to emerge.

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