Hit-Monkey

5 out of 5

Created by: Will Speck and Josh Gordon

covers season 1

While the quality of the non-Disney+ modern-era Marvel TV shows have varied, even when focusing on just the Hulu series, Hit Monkey is exactly why I’m going to miss the possibilities these other platforms offered for these shows. Not just because of the TV-MA swearing and blood that you’ll likely never find in an officially sanctioned MCU joint, but also because of a tonal maturity – that’s right, a show about an assassin monkey is mature – that doesn’t handhold and carefully package all of its concepts.

Everything about this show preps you for some kind of attempt at mimicking HBO Max’s DC Comics shows, like Harley Quinn – we’re introduced to crass and snarky killer Bryce (Jason Sudeikis), after a cold open that features a cool-ass monkey in a suit chopping up someone in bloody fashion with a samurai sword. It’s called Hit-Monkey. Surely this is just going to be some variety of Kick-Ass that revels in the image of its quirky central character and plays up the f-bombs and the bodycount.

…But there’s something else there. Sudeikis adds bits to his performance that are suggestive of the killer being somewhat worn down by his profession, even if he’s quick to retreat into dumb jokes and rambling as a way to distract himself from that. Series director Neil Holman and our various writers (including creators Will Speck and Josh Gordon) don’t overplay this in the way scenes are shot and scored or in the script; it’s just enough to humanize Bryce, and to make him – and us – instantly regret the murder he commits in the first episode, of politician-on-the-rise in Japan, Ken Takahara. The wallowing he may or may not want to do after this is forestalled by those he hired turning on him, and some plot beats later, he’s stranded in the mountains. …And rescued by a clan of caring macaques.

Here, again, is where the story proves itself, because sure – we get some kind of redemption arc for Bryce, and maybe he trains a monkey, for whatever reason, to be a killer and help him out, right?

Instead, the episode takes its time to actually somewhat explore the dynamic amongst the group of macaques, introducing us to one in particular who’s something of a rabble-rouser to the status quo, and tries to encourage his clan to oust Bryce. Importantly, the show never cheats this – we get select subtitles to translate what the monkeys are saying, but it’s more reliant on body language and tone of voice, something that’s well maintained from here on out.

Eventually, Bryce is once again tracked down by people trying to kill him, and let’s suppose you’re like me and you avoided watching trailers and haven’t read the comic – you might be surprised that the Sudeikis-voiced character doesn’t survive this. Furthermore, the killers laugh it up as they decide to slaughter the macaques as well. This is not a show that glorifies its bloodshed – this is a heavy scene.

But one monkey survived: our rabble-rouser, whose grunts and hoots are voiced by Fred Tatasciore, and if you’ve ever questioned the need of casting legit voice actors for non-speaking characters, the fact that all of “Hit Monkey’s” enunciations are jam-packed with emotion should lay that question to rest. Something else also survived – Bryce’s ghost, which is linked to the monkey, not able to be too far away from it before being dragged along. And a bonus: the two can understand each other. This is perhaps one of the best odd couple relationships of all time, as the show, again, doesn’t “cheat” and have the monkey instantly granted with human awareness – he still speaks in grunts, for which we’re given context by Sudeikis’ replis – nor are the two instantly (or ever) exactly friends. However, they are now bonded on a need for revenge. So Hit Monkey picks up some of Bryce’s gear, and the two head into town.

Several lines of the plot are pacedly unspooled thereafter, and all of them are equally interesting. There’s the main detective story of HM and Bryce killing their way up the foodchain to find the person ultimately responsible for the mountain slaughter, and this runs parallel to Hit Monkey struggling with his impulsive fury and the equally strong desire to not kill unjustly. The monkey feels guilt after his actions, with Bryce trying to encourage him otherwise, and this is exactly where the storytelling subtlety rewards us: the subject matter is handled with the kind of patience and restraint that you know just wouldn’t fly in a made-for-all-audiences MCU joint. And I’ll repeat again: the show doesn’t cheat. We don’t get to “hear” HM’s thoughts or anything; it’s all done through snippets of conversation, and reactions – which I’ll also remind are not vocal, but just Tatasciore’s whimpers and whatnot. Bryce’s side to this is coming to terms with the emotions he chased off at show’s start: he is constant bravado, and he keeps that up around HM, but the mask slips on several occasions.

At the same time, the assistant to the murdered politician, Shinji (voiced by George Takei) has taken up the political torch, assisted by his niece, Akiko (Olivia Munn). Akiko eventually becomes tied to Hit Monkey for various reasons, and the duo’s pursuit against corruption is very much linked to the assassination that kicked things off. Which also lines up with the police investigation into the bodies in HM’s wake, led by disgraced cop Ito (Nobi Nakanishi) and his partner, Haruka (Ally Maki). All of these characters and storylines are interesting on their own, and well acted and written, but the way they’re organically linked into the overall tale makes the entire show mesh together exceedingly well, and makes it justified to spend time with them. So when they’re put in danger, we actually care; the show has stakes.

If I’m pitching this as sounding rather serious, rest assured, there’s plenty of action and blood and comedy. Sudeikis is a running stream of commentary, with his hits & misses at jokes all part of his character’s shtick, and with the most laugh-out-loud bits probably being from the prickly partnership his forms with Hit Monkey. When the fight scenes explode, they always feel fresh – fun villains; great set pieces – and are delivered with really well visualized choreography.

The animation style, which seems to drop framerate to give the whole thing a sort of juddery vibe, is a little odd – in the sense that I’m not positive why they chose this – but it’s consistent, and the animators make sure to prioritize motion where it counts. That is, the flow isn’t at all stiff; samurai swordplay and high kicks are all fluid and impactful. And if the shaving of frames allowed for the uptick in immersion and quality of the show overall, then, by all means, go for it.

Lastly, I want to call out how well Hit Monkey applied its setting. I recently watched Black Widow, and was incredibly pissed at how sloppily it applied its Russian setting, afraid to commit to subtitles but also afraid to commit to anything, making for a lot of American actors doing questionable accents. Hit Monkey doesn’t go the subtitled route, but it does cast actors of mostly Asian descent where appropriate, not asking them (to my ears) to play up accents, and whether or not the locations were researched, the Japanese setting felt real. It didn’t feel stereotypically “foreign;” it felt like a living, breathing city. All of the signage and whatnot was in Japanese; the only “exception” was to have everyone speak English – but that’s a consistent choice, and they then cast appropriately to prevent the show’s voice from feeling appropriated. I’m positive my white guy opinion is still missing a lot of context, but this was leagues ahead of Black Widow, and also of a lot of American shows that go for foreign settings.

I could ask for more Hit Monkey, but I doubt we’re going to get it. I could ask for Marvel to open the doors once more to non-Disney platforms for shows, but I doubt that’s going to happen either. But what I can do is watch Hit Monkey again, which I’m very, very likely to do. It’s a show I didn’t want to end, and that impressed me from start to finish, and from every perspective.

Note: as mentioned in the review, I have not (yet) read the comics, so I can’t say how accurately the show represented them. But whether or not it was a direct copy, whatever it chose to maintain or change was brought to the screen in the most ideal fashion.