These days, few entertainment entities better fit the definition of "so consistently successful it's starting to get old" than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started out getting rave reviews, positive fandom love and big mainstream box office and then... kept doing that for a nearly-uninterrupted decade. Sure, there have been missteps (the second Iron Man and Thor movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron under-performing the original in earnings and reviews) but nothing that's so far qualified as a five-alarm disaster - even the widely-panned Netflix series Iron Fist did solid viewer numbers and didn't seem to keep anyone from watching The Defenders. More than just good business, this kind of consistency serves to bolster Marvel/Disney's corporate mythology as the King of Continuity: "Of course, connecting all our movies and series together is a good idea - look how they all hold each other up!"
But now there's Inhumans: A franchise already laboring under the stigma of having been "downgraded" from film to television series and a widely-held suspicion that no one in Marvel leadership actually wanted to make it save for mercurial top-shareholder Isaac Perlmutter's personal insistence. Fans have been sour on the project since the underwhelming first images were released, non-fans don't seem to know what to make of it, and the bold move of putting its two-part debut episode into IMAX theaters a month ahead of its official debut was met with negative reviews and audience indifference. The facade may have finally cracked - Inhumans could be the first out-and-out failure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Or maybe not. The Incredible Hulk was only a so-so moneymaker compared to Iron Man, but that didn't seem to matter when it was followed by the mega-success of Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got a glum reception for much of its first season, but was energized by a long-lead twist (spinning off from the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in its final third and is today heading into a fifth season. It's entirely possible that Inhumans has merely failed to put its best foot forward, and that the rest of the series will play out as a build to something much more satisfying - after all, betting against Marvel hasn't really paid off for anyone yet. If so, these are some of the things that will probably need to happen to pull it off:
TELL US WHAT'S GOING ON
The "IMAX Premiere" episodes of Inhumans do a mostly-solid job of setting up the basic idea: A civilization of genetically-different humanoids - originally of Earth but currently living in a hidden city on the moon - who manifest various superpowers and/or physical transformations (or don't, see below) when exposed to a special element during a coming-of-age ceremony. This civilization is embroiled in a political argument over whether to rescue newly-discovered members of their species on Earth or to invade the planet and take over, which ends with the Inhuman Royal Family zapped to Hawaii and running for their lives. It all makes enough sense for a 2017 genre series, especially if you're already acclimated to superheroes and their adjacent subgenres by this point.
What's missing, though, is connective tissue. Not necessarily to the other Marvel projects (see below) but the how's and why's behind the what's: Even if you choose to ignore the parts that were already introduced into the MCU mythos on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the Inhumans are descendants of early humans who were experimented on by Kree aliens during prehistory), there's quite a bit about the details of this scenario that could stand fleshing out for drama's sake. How long have they been on the moon? Why are the various Royals in the roles they are? Is there more to their relationships than the handful of traits they've been assigned thus far? Inhumans seems to be planning on revealing these details as the series goes on - but given the reception so far, the answers will have to be good ones.
TELL US WHY WE SHOULD CARE
Thus far, Inhumans apppears to be betting big on Marvel's most consistent secret weapon: Good casting. The main protagonists of the series are all fairly compelling, and we don't want bad things to happen to them because they feel like decent people. But that can only suffice for so long, and eventually the audience is going to need something slightly more substantive than "I'd rather Maximus not kill these six specific people and their giant dog" to hang their interest on.
Obviously the series is already building to this. Maximus seems to have a grand villainous scheme in mind, and the plot detail of his urgent need to keep the future-predicting teenage Inhuman onhand feels like a timed-distraction for a big twist i.e. the moves he's making based on vague flash-forwards turning out to have been misinterpreted. But whatever is actually going on, it's going to have to be meaningful to justify the risk in leaving the audience adrift by not revealing it upfront: Why is it so important (from Black Bolt's perspective) for The Inhumans to not return to Earth? Why does Maximus really want to leave Attilan so badly? What's his game in covertly commanding anti-Inhuman death squads on Earth?
MAKE MAXIMUS MORE OF A CHARACTER
Thus far, we know Maximus is angry because he's one of the unlucky Inhumans who got no powers from his Terrigenesis, blames his brother Black Bolt for the accidental death of their parents, and is especially upset that his childhood crush Medusa married his brother instead. We know he's the bad guy because his method of dealing with this is to stage a coup and try to murder the Royal Family. What we don't know is if there's anything else actually happening there under that particular cause/effect pathology.
Does Maximus actually care, as he says he does, about the plight of the unempowered Inhuman underclass? Is he just feigning at "working class" sympathies in order to curry political favor? (that, at least, would be politically topical in a way Marvel largely avoids outside of Netflix and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). He's enraged at the genetic-elitism of the powered Inhumans, but how does he feel about "normal" humans (which he effectively is) on Earth? There's room for complexity there, and Inhumans is going to have to take advantage of it if it's going to have a functional antagonist.
MAKE CRYSTAL MORE OF A CHARACTER
Princess Crystal (Medusa's younger sister and apparent main buddy of Lockjaw) gets the short shrift in the first two episodes of Inhumans - ironic, given that she was Marvel Comics fans' first introduction to the Inhumans when the characters first appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four. To a degree, that's understandable: This is a prime time series, clearly aiming more at grownup fans more likely to identify with middle aged couple Black Bolt and Medusa than with a teenager. But despite the lack of characterization, Crystal gets a lot of screen time and a (seemingly) key subplot of her own as the only Royal (apart from Lockjaw) whom Maximus manages to imprison before the others escape to Earth. If that's going to be a big part of the show, she'll need to become more of a character.
So far, we only have hints of where that's going via Maximus chiding her about her parents' hating the Royal Family and the fact that Medusa married into it. It seems pretty clear that the idea of the class divide between powered and non-powered Inhumans boiling over is going to figure prominent in the series, so it's likely that Crystal will be confronting - either literally or figuratively - the split within her own family as part of her storyline... but for now it remains only a hypothetical possibility for her character.
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