M.O.D.O.K. and the Vice of Ambition: If the Mundane Be Thy Doom!

By David Armstrong

Caveat Lector: Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.is rated TV-MA, and more importantly, spoilers follow for it below.

Plenty of other people have written on what makes the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing—M.O.D.O.K., for short—among the most ridiculous products of Marvel’s long publishing history, and therefore what is just so comedically perfect about the first (but hopefully not only) season of Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. I won’t seek to reduplicate those efforts, but there’s an important lesson in M.O.D.O.K.’s antiheroism about Christian ascetical theology yet to be highlighted. I’m sure that Patton Oswalt, who masterfully provides M.O.D.O.K.’s voice and mannerisms in the show, would take umbrage at the notion that someone like me could watch a show like M.O.D.O.K. and derive a lesson about religion (famously, and often humorously, one of Oswalt’s least favorite things) from it, but there it is.

The show begins by introducing viewers, and reminding comic book fans, about M.O.D.O.K.’s basic situation and goals: he runs Advanced Idea Mechanics, or AIM, an organization devoted to the dispassionate practice of science and the passionate conquest of the world in order to establish a utopia in which to do so unencumbered by the moral policing of things like governments and superheroes. His archnemesis is Iron Man, who easily dispatches him in their first encounter (and most of the time in the comics). Oh, and he is, objectively, inarguably, silly. New for the show is the domestic subplot: M.O.D.O.K. has a family separate from AIM in the form of his housewife-turned-lifestyle author Jodie, his daughter Melissa (who, like himself, is a large head in a technologically advanced floating chair), and his son Lou (expertly voiced by Ben Schwartz of DuckTales fame). M.O.D.O.K.’s family life is, we find out in the first few episodes, on a downward trajectory from early happiness to gradual distance and one-sided resentment as a product of M.O.D.O.K.’s intrinsic selfishness and starry-eyed denialism about the actual state of his company’s progress towards his goals of world domination. Over the course of the season, M.O.D.O.K. and Jodie separate, M.O.D.O.K. loses AIM to GRUMBL (a nightmarish millennial Big Tech company secretly run by a demonic entity from outer space), and is confronted by his own mediocrity as a leader, a husband, and a father. M.O.D.O.K.’s rock bottom—burning himself by eating a “child’s size party lasagna” with his hands in a rat-infested apartment whose tenants are fond of soup—forces him to come to terms with his habitual Dunning-Kruger mentality in enough time to save his family from his past self and Lou’s Bar Mitzvah. 

Sort of, anyway.

At the very end of the season, we find out that M.O.D.O.K. concedes to his time traveling younger self’s argument that only the loss of Jodie and the kids will motivate M.O.D.O.K. to achieve his goals. Just as M.O.D.O.K. is starting to own up to his nonsense, and to the ways that his obsession with his dreams actively harms his family and himself, he regresses and opts for ultimate power in the form of utopian (or dystopian) control of the world. But when we rejoin him, he is filled with regret, torturing his time-traveling alter ego to try and travel back in time to save his family, so that he can have it all. Notice: while M.O.D.O.K. feels remorse and emptiness due to the loss of his wife and children, he does not seek to trade this future for his family, but to add his family to his list of acquisitions as his most desperately desired boon. Surely, in a second season, reckoning with the incompatibility of his ambitions and meaningful life as a husband and a father is going to be in M.O.D.O.K.’s future.

Again, part of the humor here is the periodic remembrance, interwoven with all of the deep cut Marvel miscellanea and surprisingly adept treatment of the trauma of family separation, that…wait… is this M.O.D.O.K. we’re talking about here?! Sorry. I digress….

The domestic element to the show is, surely, what was necessary to humanize so objectively ridiculous a character to an extent that we could grow to sympathize with him over the course of ten episodes; but as a conceit, it dovetails with the already engorged self-importance of Marvel’s biggest head in a truly relatable way. M.O.D.O.K. is the everyman whose intelligence and ambition actively undermine their possibility of success in real life, and whose personal sense of mystique is so alluring that they, like M.O.D.O.K, literally cannot process the word failure. Such people cannot see or process the amount of tolerance that stands behind the love they receive from others, and so cannot comprehend where that love has gone when that tolerance fails under the weight of their own ego. M.O.D.O.K.’s ambition blinds him to what is in front of him—not just the value of his family, but also his very real character flaws that alienate him from realistic chances of success.

On some level the hilarious and melancholy dissonance of Marvel’s most ludicrous and yet most recurring villain experiencing something as banal as a divorce and estrangement from his children should also shine a light on our own ambitions, or at least where our attention is focused in Marvel. The idea is funny because we are so easily distracted by the fantasy of Marvel that we often do not stop to consider the demands of fictional realism. As a Marvel fan, for instance, I am usually too obsessed with the cosmic and the mystical to care very much about terrestrial stories: when I am invested in terrestrial stories, it is usually for the cool, philanthropic futurism that is woven into so much of the background of Marvel’s day-to-day world. Gods, monsters, demons, and space cowboys grab me more quickly than the urban, suburban, and rural settings of most of Marvel’s terrestrial output, in large part because I grew up in America’s (sub)urban wasteland and I’ve had my fill of it; but why should I therefore be so reductive in my interests? Oswalt and Jordan Blum were right to ask, “What if M.O.D.O.K. had a family?”—and more broadly, what do all these people do when they are not fighting superheroes? Is it the case that drives them really need to be tragic or epic, when what drives the vast majority of us is rather ordinary? Why are we so ambitious for these characters to be larger than life?

From the long standpoint of Christian moral theology, the more basic problem is not so much the content of M.O.D.O.K.’s ambition, but the vice of ambition itself. Ambition and personal pride are, arguably, the cornerstone sins in the thought of Eastern Christian ascetical thought. St. Anthony the Great, famously, taught that the acquisition of humility—literally, the cultivation of a profound personal awareness of the human being as derived from humus, soil or dirt—would cover all other sins, both in that it would provide atonement for them and in that it would prevent their repetition, since all sin arises, in the thought of the Desert Fathers, from some root of pride. St. John Cassian, whose Institutes was excerpted in the Philokalia of Sts. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth, argues that it is not only the case that all sin proceeds from pride, but in fact that the most dangerous kind of pride is pride in one’s spiritual beauty: it is this that the Devil displayed when “he did not want to ascribe this [beauty of his angelic nature] to the grace of the Lord”; likewise, because “[e]ven if someone is sedulous, serious and resolute, he cannot, so long as he is bound to flesh and blood, approach perfection except through the mercy and grace of Christ,” humility is of utmost importance.[1] And yet even this virtue comes by grace: 

“Humility, in its turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentleness and the shedding of all possessions. It is by means of these that we attain perfect love, through the grace and compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory through all the ages. Amen.”[2]

There is nothing particularly novel or timely about pointing out that pride is bad from a Christian point of view, except, maybe, that American Christians in particular live in a cultural moment where pride is the main force retaining and reinforcing their cultural hegemony on the sociopolitical landscape. The main differentiation between M.O.D.O.K.’s utopia of pure, unregulated science and the rallying cries of conservative Christians in the US for the resurrection of an imagined past of moral Christian nationalism is one of content rather than of motive: the same basic vice of ambition motivates them both. But so too does ambition animate much of our fictional escapism: we long for and love that which seems better to us than where we are, than how things are, and we devote ourselves to it with reckless abandon. Do not mistake my argument: I am not saying that fantasy or science fiction are useless or harmful genres for giving us the opportunity to dream about better and more beautiful realities, some within and some beyond reach, anymore than I would say that apocalypses are guilty of providing such a service. I am saying rather that when our enjoyment of fantasy is motivated by ambition rather than by intellectual appreciation of the truth, goodness, or beauty of the content of fantasy, we will find it all too easy, either to let what is in front of us fall into disrepair through our inattention or to actively destroy it to achieve our goals. M.O.D.O.K.’s problem is not that he has a dream: it is that the dream he cherishes can only come at the cost of the weighty goods he already has.

For better or for worse, the mundane world, with all its suffocation, is our lot. If we are antiquarians, then, for better or for worse, we live long after the things that best stir our love; and if we are futurists, then, for better or for worse, we see far off what we shall not live to partake in. If we are faithful to the spirit of either impulse, and therefore partake of both, then we will find ourselves uncomfortably squeezed by the memory of the past and the longing for the future. Our memories may well be poor, and our conceptions of the future may well be nightmarish, and so both must be purified; but even once the content of our backward and forward vision is cleansed, it is the ambition, the drive to succeed in making the return to the past or bringing about the longed-for future, that we must overcome. This is the real spiritual trap we find ourselves in: on the one hand, if we have come to know God in Christ, then we are always looking back to the apocalyptic value of history, and we are always looking forward to history’s consummation in the Kingdom of God; it is living right here and now that’s so damned unattractive. In a world full of superheroes, magic, and unimaginably advanced technology, a world full of God and therefore of possible gods, the daily task of committing to the flourishing of our little worlds can seem draining and difficult; and confrontation with our limits in this life can be heartbreaking. But as both M.O.D.O.K. and the spiritual masters tell us, it is only there that we will find our salvation: our ambitions will send us to hell.

David Armstrong is an Eastern Christian writing from the greater St. Louis region.

[1] Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, ed. and trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (New York: Faber and Faber, 1979), 92-93. 

[2] Nikodimos and Makarios, The Philokalia, Vol. 1, 93.


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