I didn’t pay much attention to Hit-Monkey when it premiered. Honestly, I haven’t been paying much attention to any Marvel franchise works. Superhero fatigue is heavy in my soul and given that it came and I heard few, if any, people talking about it, I kind of let it slip away from my peripheral.
About two months later, I saw it advertised in an old online post, and I thought, why not? Push comes to shove, I only waste a half hour of my time. So I cued it up and started watching.
The show’s premise is deceptively simple: callous hitman Bryce Fowler gets double-crossed, wounded, and eventually he and all but one of the Japanese snow monkeys that take him in are hunted down and brutally murdered. The only survivor, our soon to be titular Hit-Monkey, enacts swift bloody vengeance and, guided by the spirit of the late hitman, proceeds to Tokyo to kill the people who ruined both of their lives.
The show is very John Wick-esque in nature, which may explain why I enjoyed it so much. Furthermore its humor draws heavily off the brutality of its smooth action sequences that somehow comes across as hilariously nonchalant and brow-raisingly off-the-wall. All in all a fun ride and at this point, given that all ten episodes of the series were out and available, I tore through them eagerly and was left sated.
Which, in hindsight, was a bit of a problem.
Beware that the following content contains heavy spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Hit-Monkey, check it out on Hulu.
Hit-Monkey really has four technical main characters but three actual protagonists: Monkey, campaign director Akiko, and rookie cop Haruka. It’s narrative smoothness becomes impressive as each character’s arc correlates and parallels each other. In a story about the nature of violence and innocence, each one has their ups and down, and each character ends up in a relatively believable position that their series progression hinted towards.
Monkey solidifies his creed on constrained destruction, recognizing that though he slaughters his way through the underworld, he need not lose himself in the process. Haruka perceives society’s shades of gray, disrupting her rock steady assurance of the meaning of justice. And Akiko completes her slow slide of morality, turning from a person helping campaign for a seemingly brighter future under her (unknowingly corrupt) uncle’s leadership to a swearing bloody revenge on Monkey himself with the man’s death at his…well, paws.
And the end of the day, if this were a novel, I could see this ending as…well the end. I can imagine the paths these characters can take without having to see them on screen. These ten episodes really were designed much like the first season of Legend of Korra was: self-contained, albeit with room to grow, but not necessary to see. Sure, there are hints and loose threads but they are less to do with the aforementioned characters themselves and more to do with Bryce’s past.
In fact, let’s talk about Bryce for a moment.
If Hit-Monkey has one weakness, it’s Jason Sudeikis’ character. Bryce is extremely vocal, which, in some respects, makes sense: he’s the audience’s exposition source. However, Bryce’s attitude and voice swiftly turns from relatively humourous to ear-splittingly grating.
That’s not to say he has no good lines—some of his quips are great, and despite the impressive visual range of Monkey’s facial expressions, it is good to have a character that provides some nuance. But in a universe in which characters like Deadpool exist and a reality in which viewers have seen Ryan Reynolds’ character shine on the big screen, Bryce often comes across as a Deadpool-wannabe with far less of the charm.
Part of the appeal of the Merc with a Mouth is that when he does speak, it’s either to the audience or to himself, and when doing the latter he often has voices that accompany and banter with him: the superego and the id—a logical straight man and the childish instinct.
Instead, Bryce’s only audience is Monkey, and the simian is often far too literal, serious, or depressed to really reciprocate, especially in the early episodes. Bryce’s unceasing selfishness — though in itself a character trait clearly set-up for him to overcome — also becomes far too annoying to really ignore, especially when Monkey is clearly grieving the slaughter of his people, often even hallucinating his troupe leader’s scorn of the path he’s taking.
To make matters worse, when we inevitably get the “character is running from the past/secretly has a soft spot for his family he’s trying to protect” trope it feels forced. The forced reluctance to communicate is laid on so thickly that even these moments of emotional honesty fall flat, especially when two-thirds of the series has, up until this point, been Bryce either manipulating Monkey, ignoring his partner’s emotional plight, or continually proclaiming that his main concern is less the fact that his own thoughtless actions led to several deaths, including his own, and more than he intends vengeance on those who betrayed him.
And, moving on from Bryce, some of Hit-Monkey‘s lesser weaknesses are that they do fall into those well-worn tropes. Haruka’s mentor Ito, the older grizzled detective with a chip on shoulder and the scorn of the department, inevitably dies. Akiko, rather than accepting that her mentor had betrayed her, swears vengeance on Monkey instead. Both of these are somewhat disappointing; the dead mentor trope is beyond expected at this point and while I enjoyed Akiko as a character (despite her brief, somewhat Princess Elise-esque relationship with Monkey), it’s hard to imagine her topping the chilling introduction and performance of Maki Matsumoto (aka Lady Bullseye).
With that being said, though Hit-Monkey may not need a second season, it certainly deserves it and here’s why.
Remember that superhero fatigue I mentioned earlier? For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel that here. M.O.D.O.K made me tired three episodes in but Hit-Monkey? Here was a contained narrative that, while acknowledging it took place within the Marvel universe, also restrained itself to the story it was telling.
Monkey didn’t have links to a great destiny proclaiming he’d fight the Celestials, Winter Soldier didn’t dramatically stand in traffic to try to kill him, Rescue didn’t swoop down to scoop him up, he wasn’t beamed up by Star Lord while 80s music blasted in the background. It was a story in the Marvel Universe that didn’t feel the need to set up Easter eggs and plot strings to connect to three other future television shows.
And while there are cameos by other Marvel characters, like Yuki and Silver Samurai, they still work. The setting makes sense, their motivations for appearing make sense and they don’t detract too much from the main characters.
Furthermore, for all that I complained about clichés, Hit-Monkey isn’t bogged down by them due to its often simplistic yet hard-hitting storytelling. In one of my favorite episodes, Monkey returns to the mountains, weary and disgusted by what he’s become in the human world, only to stumble across a brand new troupe that’s moved into his old home. The interactions between beasts is told with hoots, grunts, and subtitles but nevertheless manages to showcase compelling themes of human violence, violence in nature, the nature of violence, guilt, grief, and the thin line between revenge and justice in twenty-odd minutes.
Maybe I’m an old cynic, but I can’t see this rollercoaster of emotion and introspection being able to be conveyed in today’s MCU. That’s not to say that the movies are bad, or that the acting is subpar but rather, as I mentioned earlier, MCU films are designed to always let the audience know that something in the future is coming, that plot points are being set up for a movie about another character coming out two years down the line, etc. The last set of movies that I think really made me look at a character and sympathize/empathize with them was the Iron Man trilogy, and that’s because, unlike Captain America or Thor, those movies were about and stayed about Tony Stark: his ups and downs and triumphs and demons. In many ways, Hit-Monkey‘s separation from the main lines is one it’s graces.
Even though the series ends with Monkey leaving Japan for the States, I’d still love to continue watching if the show manages to capture the same performances, personalities, and settings in hero-dense America as it did in Tokyo. To me, the best way they can do that is not falling into the same trap of putting flashy, one-shot characters or trying to build into some grand universe. We as an audience are well-versed with the world it’s in at this point; what we want is the story, not an expansion.
In the end, even if it isn’t given a second season, the first season of Hit-Monkey isn’t groundbreaking, but it is a bunch of uncomplicated fun. The story is far from normal, but given the universe it’s in, an assassin monkey haunted by a dead hitman is positively, refreshingly mundane.
Images courtesy of Floyd County Productions and Marvel Television
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