Marvel's Inhumans begins with a listless, uninspired premiere that struggles to find a compelling take on the company's C-level heroes.
The premiere of Marvel's Inhumans TV series is beset with problems that range from its uninspired production values and overwhelmingly bland color palette to its unimaginative plot of misunderstood people with extraordinary powers being pursued by adversaries both human and, well, inhuman. But the biggest problem facing Marvel's Inhumans is that it's about Marvel's Inhumans. There no doubt exists those who are passionate about the property because A) it's Marvel, or B) it's weird and kind of kitschy. In other words, the Inhumans is a peculiar product within a massive brand that's become even more massively popular since the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But a peculiar product deserves a compelling selling point beyond its own surface-level eccentricity; one that doesn't try to fit a square peg into the same round hole every other mass marketed superhero fits into.
Eccentricity is the selling point of these characters and the series simply misses the mark in that regard. The Inhumans are not very good superheroes. They're all pretty lame. That's also a big part of their appeal. From Black Bolt to Medusa, Karnak to Gorgon, all of them are saddled with powers that are either bland as flour paste or they're notable because no one in their right mind would ever want them, let alone put on a costume and show them off in public. Insipid abilities like prehensile hair or a horrifically destructive voice read like they were pulled from the discard pile during a moment of weakness just prior to a deadline at Marvel Comics. But again, it's the intrinsic weirdness of these characters that makes them potentially interesting. It's just unfortunate the show doesn't want to sell them that way.
The Inhuman royal family and all the powered people of Attilan are the rejects, the true underdogs of the Marvel Universe. Compare them to the endlessly persecuted X-Men and Marvel's merry mutants come out on top each and every time. Sure, there're a few lame ducks in there, but with Wolverine, Magneto, Jean Grey, Professor X and more in their lineup, being an X-Man (X-Person?), more often than not, comes with a decent upside. That upside isn't nearly as common in the world of the Inhumans. Superhero stories are essentially wish fulfillment. With the Inhumans it's more, "Be careful what you wish for." That's an interesting angle from which to tell a superhero story, but as overseen by Marvel TV, as well as Iron Fist season 1 showrunner Scott Buck, Marvel's Inhumans takes the road most traveled, and struggles to turn its characters into anything other than a pallid reproduction of a much more successful IP.
In an effort to stimulate interest and suggest the eight-episode event series is indeed an EVENT, the premiere opens first in IMAX before the series premiere on ABC later this month. The question is: Will a really big screen be enough to lure fans to theaters when the show will be on TV just a few weeks later? It may be on IMAX, but it's still operating on a television budget. While we've seen shows like Game of Thrones compete with blockbusters in terms of pure spectacle, Inhumans is no Game of Thrones – no matter what sound bites or inevitable internet thinkpieces want to tell you. Furthermore, the television premiere is several minutes longer than the IMAX version, which is absolutely confounding. It seems like an incentive for viewers to just wait and watch from the comfort of their own homes, as you will likely be hard-pressed to find anyone eagerly awaiting the chance to watch the first two-ish hours again for a glimpse at 12 extra minutes of footage.
So, like its characters, Marvel's Inhumans is something of an oddity. Despite a brief appearance in theaters, it's definitely not a movie, but it doesn't really want to be just a TV show either. Unfortunately, the identity crisis of Inhumans as a live-action product is more compelling than anything offered in the premiere.
The premiere spends most of its time in Atillan, the Inhuman city on the moon that's gone undiscovered since who knows when, setting up a conflict between the king of the Inhumans, Black Bolt (Anson Mount), and his human brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon). Because Black Bolt can't speak, lest he turn whomever he's speaking to into wallpaper, like he did his parents after undergoing the Terrigenesis ritual that gives every Inhuman their powers, the conflict is a bit of a one-sided affair. Here to help is Queen Medusa (Serinda Swan) the proud owner of the aforementioned prehensile red hair, who does most of the talking for Black Bolt, but is also an object of jealous affection for the scheming Maximus.
Aside from a giant, teleporting, CGI bulldog named Lockjaw, the most interesting thing presented in the Inhumans premiere are Maximus' motivations. While seeming at first to be born of a simple lust for power they actually contain hints of revolution for the good of the people. The Inhumans live in a caste system in which social hierarchy is determined by one's powers. Those with the worst powers get sent to toil away in the mines, while the others live a more privileged existence. Seeing as how their entire society is based on a loosely defined value of one's otherworldly abilities, it becomes immediately clear why the Inhumans want to remain hidden from the rest of the Marvel universe.
As Maximus carries out his coup with surprising swiftness and efficiency, a deeper exploration of his motivations may yet prove to be the series' saving grace. His "power to the people" ideology may yet prove little more than lip service of another petty villain who views himself as the hero of his own story. Rheon was often magnetic as the sadistic Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones, and he has brought a similar rancorous appeal to other roles as well. Here, though, the actor appears uninterested, as do most of the other performers, who seem as unsure who their characters are as the series does. It isn't the fault of the actors; the material just isn't strong enough to generate much in the way of captivating performances.
Case in point, before Black Bolt is scurried away to Earth, Ken Leung punches his way through a muddled display of Karnak's powers sure to leave many viewers scratching their heads as to what just happened and what, exactly, the character's abilities make him capable of. There's a similar inscrutability to the other Inhumans as well. Crystal (Isabelle Cornish) is mostly restricted to telling Lockjaw what a very good boy he is, and Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) stomps his way to a mini earthquake, flooring some bad guys in the process. Yet even that display of super powers stops short in terms of creating much interest in any of these characters.
Watching the premiere, there is a sense that the series was made with the assumption that because this falls under the umbrella of the ever-expanding Marvel brand and is indirectly linked to the world's biggest film franchise that would provide incentive enough for people to watch. This series is in need of an incentive greater than brand loyalty to keep them watching, though. Every brand has its limits and this uninspired take on the Inhumans might be Marvel's.
Marvel's Inhumans is currently playing in IMAX. It premieres on ABC Friday, September 29 @9pm.