A monkey becomes an assassin in the latest animated series from Marvel Studios, with all ten episodes available to stream on Disney+ from January 26. Combining a decent plot, appealing animation and a strong comic performance from Jason Sudeikis, it’s an entertaining series that greatly improves upon its source material. Matthew Turner enjoys some monkey magic.
Based on the Marvel comics by Daniel Way and artist Dalibor Talajić, Hit-Monkey is the latest animated series from Marvel Studios. Like the recent M.O.D.O.K. animated series, it was created for the streaming service Hulu (it aired on Hulu in the US) and was originally intended to be part of a line-up of other minor Marvel characters, who were all supposed to end up in a crossover show called The Offenders. However, when Marvel Television got folded into Marvel Studios, the other series (including Howard the Duck and Tigra and Dazzler) got axed, leaving just M.O.D.O.K. and Hit-Monkey.
That slightly mangled history actually ends up strengthening Hit-Monkey’s identity as a stand-alone show – you don’t need to have seen any episodes of M.O.D.O.K. to enjoy it, for example, although there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it name-drop of M.O.D.O.K. at one point. The result is an enjoyably off-beat series that will almost certainly lead to a new series of Hit-Monkey comics.
The show begins with motor-mouthed American hit-man Bryce Fowler (Jason Sudeikis) arriving in Tokyo and assassinating a progressive candidate in an upcoming election. However, he’s double-crossed and gets severely wounded, collapsing in the snowy wilderness. There, he’s found by a tribe of snow macaque monkeys, who nurse him back to health with the use of healing herbs and a restorative hot spring.
However, Bryce’s adversaries discover that he’s still alive and fatally wound him while he’s recuperating, killing all the monkeys for good measure. All except one, that is. A lone monkey (voiced by animation voice veteran Fred Tatasciore) witnesses the massacre and avenges his tribe by picking up a gun and slaughtering the killers. As Bryce dies, he comes back as a green ghost, mystically tied to Hit-Monkey, and the pair head into Tokyo to seek bloody vengeance on whoever ordered the hit.
Subsequent episodes establish a cast of supporting characters that includes: kind-hearted political candidate Shinji Yokohama (George Takei); his sharp-witted niece and campaign assistant Akiko (Olivia Munn); gruff veteran cop Ito (Nobi Nakanishi), whose partner was killed by Bryce; and his new partner, rookie cop Haruka (Ally Maki).
The animation is consistently appealing throughout. It sticks closely to the character design in the comics for Hit-Monkey himself and adds a welcome note of additional colour by making Bryce green (he’s just vaguely opaque in the source material). Similarly, the fight scenes are nicely handled, with the animation occasionally borrowing from manga or samurai movies (where appropriate) to add a dash of extra style.
The show’s most inspired touch is to completely reinvent the relationship between Hit-Monkey and Bryce. In the comics, Bryce is unnamed and although the ghost set-up is the same, the assassin only offers gruff advice and nothing else. Here, whether by accident or design, Bryce’s personality has been specifically tailored to suit Jason Sudeikis’ established comic persona, so he delivers a steady stream of motor-mouthed wisecracks and comments, most of which are very amusing, although the fact that he’s also incredibly annoying is very much part of the joke.
Hit-Monkey, by contrast, has no spoken dialogue, something the show gets around with subtitles when he’s talking to other monkeys and later a tiny bit of a cheat, whereby Bryce just suddenly understands monkey language and replies in English. In fairness, Tatasciore does a terrific job with all the monkey sounds, to the point where it actually feels weirdly realistic – you’ll believe a monkey is talking to a ghost, etc.
Throughout the ten episodes, the show achieves a successful mix of comedy (mostly in the dialogue), a decent mystery thriller plot (centered on the identity of the person who actually ordered the hit) and violent action, quite often with strong gore elements of involved, e.g. a character getting sliced in half. Most intriguingly, the show isn’t afraid to go to some dark places – characters get killed and there’s an ongoing concern with the moral and spiritual impact that each killing has on an assassin, whether monkey or man.
There are actually only four official Hit-Monkey comics (an origin story One-Shot and a three-issue limited series), so there isn’t a great deal to draw on when it comes to comics history – all the supporting characters are invented for the show, for example, though the details of the origin story are identical to the source material.
That said, there are a number of nice nods to the comics (including the way in which Hit-Monkey gets his suit), including an inspired replacement for a key character in the original mini-series. For comics fans, there are also a number of fun shout-outs to recognizable characters, all of which it would be unfair to spoil here.
In short, Hit-Monkey is further proof that Marvel should indulge in off-beat projects more often, as it’s a confident, entertaining show that delivers action and humour, while consistently adding inspired touches that improve upon the source material, e.g. somebody on the production decided that a monkey with a samurai sword was even better than a monkey with a gun, and they were right. Here’s hoping the show gets the second season it deserves.