ABC’s new television show Marvel’s Inhumans, brings a number of Marvel comics characters to the small screen (or the really big screen, if you saw it in IMAX), including the warrior monk, Karnak, but despite his on-screen introduction, it’s not made abundantly clear just what he can do or what his powers are. But that’s totally understandable. Karnak’s abilities are a little different than some superpowered heroes we’re familiar with seeing as his abilities enable him to visualize various outcomes, and determine which action he can take to generate his most desired result, which basically sounds like he’s just trained really hard like Batman, right? Now quite.
For more specific answers, it’s best to go to the original source material: Marvel Comics. Created in 1965 by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee introduced “Karnak Mander-Azur” alongside the rest of the Inhuman royal family as a deeply spiritual teacher and a fierce soldier with one very unique, very potent, superhuman ability. In his own words, he can see the flaws in all things — “systems, philosophies, structures, people, everything.”
He has the same enhanced reflexes, speed, and strength that all Inhumans possess, and he’s also a highly skilled martial artist. But what sets him apart is his knack for finding those flaws, or “stress points” that he can use to exploit — or destroy – in everything.
Unlike his fellow Inhumans, Karnak’s special ability is not the result of exposure to the Terrigen Mists — at least not in the comics. In fact, unlike his brother Triton, Karnak has never been exposed to Terrigen Mists at all. (His parents refused to allow it after it turned Triton into a fish guy.) Instead, Karnak developed the supernatural skill to see critical flaws from a mental discipline so intense, it very nearly mimicked the transformative effects of Terrigen.
So what does Karnak experience when he sees these “critical flaws”?
That’s open to interpretation. Over the years, comic book writers have allowed this to take many shapes, from flaws in man-made structures to physical flaws that Karnak can exploit to bring an individual to their knees. In an act of revenge on Iron Man during Civil War II, Karnak leveled Stark Tower by hitting it at the perfect weak point around its base. The most common use of his powers is enabling him to think through the potential future moves of his enemies, and discover ways to defeat them — as can (sort of) be seen on the television show.
This skill makes him a formidable hand-to-hand combatant, since he’s able to predict a branching tree of moves and counter-moves he and his opponents could make, devise a strategy to force an enemy into using the movements that he wants, and therefore know exactly how to break their advance and defeat them. Essentially, he can see the perfect way to end any threat.
It’s worth mentioning that in recent interpretations, Karnak has been depicted in the comics as a major jerk. This personality actually makes a lot of sense; seeing flaws in everything and everyone you encounter would logically give you something of a superiority complex. Karnak is the kind of guy who lives by his own code, does whatever the heck he wants, and doesn’t care what anybody thinks.
In his recent solo comic series, Karnak was hired by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a consultant (also setting up a possible future TV crossover) on cases where new Inhumans were emerging in society as a threat. But he cared nothing about the approval of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents he worked with, had no interest in getting to know them, and disregarded their protocols to act with impunity.
His original appearance was a goofy jumpsuit with an absurdist giant, oval head. The implication of a bigger head, of course, was that his brain was bigger than a normal human (or Inhuman). But a few years back when Marvel decided to bring the Inhumans to the forefront of their line-wide stories, Karnak got a makeover (goodbye tights, hello hoodie and cargos). The new ensemble — which also shrunk his head down to more realistic proportions — not only improved his overall look, but its minimalist, unconcerned style served his personality better. His distinct facial tattoos, arguably the most important signifier of his identity, remained intact.
On Marvel’s Inhumans, the television version of the character played by actor Ken Leung gets an action sequence in the pilot episode that’s meant to show off what Karnak can do. But the scene is presented in a rather clumsy and confusing way. The fight freezes to show Karnak’s point of view, as he calculates the potential outcomes of fighting against a group of armed guards so he can choose the best course of action, but the presentation is unfortunately perplexing, so audiences may be left with some crazy questions about this Karnak guy. Can he make copies of himself? Can he die and come back to life? Can he control time?
No, no, and no.
It remains to be seen how fully – or effectively – the show will depict the different aspects of Karnak’s powers. Will he be able to destroy anything at will? Level buildings with a kick or break unbreakable steel with a touch? Or, will he merely foresee all outcomes in fight scenes and plan accordingly?
There are clearly a number of options, but without Karnak’s ability to predict which route they’ll choose, we’ll have to tune in to find out.
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