It is very sad to see a monkey die. That fact is not in question. If there’s any reason to care about “Marvel’s Hit Monkey,” the latest Hulu attempt to slap some title branding on a comic book adaptation in the hopes of luring in some eyeballs, it’s that someone should definitely answer for the monkeys dying.
As the name of the show might indicate, the one to mete out that vengeance is Hit-Monkey, a Japanese macaque whose quest to track down those responsible for the murder of his tribe leads the 10-episode season along a river of blood and a dense network of criminals and assassins. Monkey’s compatriot along the way is human hitman Bryce (Jason Sudeikis), dispensing his workmanlike knowledge of the Tokyo underworld to help guide Monkey through the big city.
If this were actually Monkey’s show, “Hit-Monkey” would be better for it. Fred Tatasciore manages to convey a surprising amount of emotion in Monkey’s grunts and screeches and puzzled reactions. As Monkey slowly tries to develop a personal code that limits collateral damage and eventually gives him more than retribution to care about, you can start to see the germ of an idea start to form. “How does someone cope when they draw their life’s meaning from killing people?” is well-trod territory, but there’s at least hope at the outset that “Hit Monkey” might be able to see that question through different eyes.
But then, humans get involved. Through a majority of the show, Bryce is a massive self-imposed burden that “Hit-Monkey” can never really shake. It’s enough of a miscue to cast and write him as a dulled Sterling Archer stand-in, firing off pop culture references with the same rhythm and patterns as his turtlenecked spiritual counterpart. The above-it-all dismissiveness, heck, even the way the show gives him the last word as it fades out to an ad break: It all points to a character that’s a copy of a copy, dulled by its own lack of imagination. (It’s worth noting that animation studio Floyd County is behind both series and that director Neal Holman is a longtime “Archer” vet, too.) To his credit, Sudeikis’ performance would work in a vacuum. He’s de-Lasso’d himself enough and has enough of a smug wiseguy streak that with more focused writing and more selective appearances he could have made Bryce tolerable. As it stands, though, he just gets more grating and distracting the longer the show drags on.
He’s a perfect example of how “Hit Monkey” fails at translating most ideas that might have worked on the pages of a comic. Bryce effectively translating for Monkey is a useful narrative device, but in practice, he just ends up making plain every single potential bit of nuance that “Hit Monkey” keeps running through with a steel blade. No underworld kingpin goes unexplained, every emotional moment underlined with Bryce’s “just making some observations here, pal” smarm.
Maybe building all (or at least a lot more) of “Hit Monkey” around a silent Monkey wouldn’t have worked. Still, there are enough tiny glimpses of Monkey valued as more than a single-minded murdering machine to make you wish that “Hit-Monkey” spent less time worrying about all the people in his way. Toward the beginning of a late episode, Monkey has a brief subtitled back-and-forth with a snow owl. That 30-second interaction has more pathos and a stronger comedic style than anything else the show manages to put forth in the 7 chapters prior. Monkey gets used as a destructive tool so much that it’s all too refreshing when he finally gets a moment of relative peace.
It’s a little unfair to compare the two shows, but it’s hard not to watch a story of a human-animal partnership, marked by endless brutality and shared trauma, and not think a little of “Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal.” The two deploy their premises in completely opposite ways, not the least of which is the dialogue-free approach of “Primal” that puts the endless flow of shrieking nonsense in “Hit-Monkey” to shame. It’s also instructive in how there’s an absence of tension in any of these Monkey standoffs. He’s always under threat, but rather than build any dread about him actually surviving, it’s just a parade of bloody showdowns that gives the show a chance to get violent. Someone does something to make Monkey snap and, before you know it, he’s transformed the place into a room filled with carcasses.
Holman and the animation team behind the show do their best to differentiate these fights beyond whether Monkey is using a sword or a handgun. There are nods to the source material with a few frozen frames and side-by-side action moments. Tokyo itself is imposing at times, as the audience sees the city from skyscraper heights all the way to the occasional street-level grime. HIt-Monkey is also designed in a way that adds another layer of expressiveness to Tatasciore’s vocals. Amidst it all, though, there’s an emphasis on viscera and splatter that leaves Monkey’s skillset weirdly vague. He beats them because he has to. Or because he’s angrier. Or because they underestimate him. It’s usually one of those, and the audience is often left to pick.
The backdrop for all of this mayhem is similarly flimsy. With enough effort poured into having Monkey face the Yakuza Boss of the Week, the show’s two other main strands are grounds for more rehashing. A detective with a checkered past (Nobi Nakanishi) starts to investigate Monkey’s body count, alongside a new idealistic partner (Ally Maki) determined to find the truth. Meanwhile, a heated campaign for Prime Minister finds an uncle-niece team (George Takei and Olivia Munn) working for a reform-minded progressive slate, even as the threats on their lives grow with each successive rally. This voice cast does their best to bring an extra dynamic to a dull, straightforward hybrid mix of political drama and cop procedural, but the only thing that really separates any of this from any dozens of other stories is that they sometimes cross paths with a monkey wearing sunglasses.
For anyone worried that the “Marvel” in “Marvel’s Hit Monkey” goes unexplored, there are a handful of winks and nods to other corners of the expanding TV universe. Even those don’t do much to make this more than a pure extension of an ongoing multimedia enterprise. So all of this adds up to a show that barely makes a case for its own existence. There are precious few points over its 10-episode season that don’t feel cobbled together from other sources, wholly indebted to its influences, or making feeble attempts at catering its story to an angsty audience. Given what it takes to render a world like this, and the glimmer of potential it does show, something like “Hit-Monkey” should never feel this hollow.
“Marvel’s Hit-Monkey” is now available to stream on Hulu.