After years of development, Marvel’s Inhumans is finally here and the results are decidedly muddled; at least in its special IMAX presentation form. When the series debuts on ABC in a few weeks, the first two episodes will be reformatted with additional scenes. Hopefully they’ll also take the time to overhaul major sections and rethink the musical landscape.
From its out-of-step credit sequence — complete with music that will remind you of the unreleased Roger Corman Fantastic Four film — Inhumans wavers between unintentional goofiness, the uncertainty of early Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D episodes, and outright terrible. There are a few glimmers of quality and a few fun performances in what is, to be sure, the weakest first episode of a Marvel TV show to date.
But when you think of it as an IMAX feature with a premium ticket price, it’s an abject failure.
Initially set in the lunar city of Attilan, Inhumans attempts to acquaint us with the city’s royal family. There is Black Bolt (Anson Mount), the king who can never speak as his voice brings death and destruction. There is Medusa (Serinda Swan), a woman with super-strong, controllable hair elevated to queen because she was not afraid of Black Bolt. Her sister Crystal (Isabelle Cornish), a young women with ill-defined powers and a teleporting bulldog. Black Bolt’s cousins Gorgon and Karnak also serve in his court. Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) is cloven-hooved and captain of the Royal Guard. Karnak (Ken Leung) has some sort of next-level tactician power. Or it’s a low-level form of precognition. Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic fans might call it “Battle Meditation.”
All received their powers via the use of the Terrigen crystals first seen on S.H.I.E.L.D. But as their society revolves around the appearance of abilities derived from the crystal’s vapors, those who do not develop powers become part of permanent underclass. All except for Black Bolt’s brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon). He demonstrated no Inhuman ability when exposed to the Terrigen mist, but remains part of his brother’s royal court.
When he stages a bloodless coup — incongruously soundtracked to terrible covers of The Doors’ “Break On Through” and The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” — most of the royal family flees to Earth. Separated at various spots around the Hawaiian islands, they attempt to reach each other and learn about their new environment. Back in Attilan, Maxmius works to consolidate his power; largely by speaking to small handfuls of people.
And that might be the biggest problem with Inhumans as a series and certainly as an IMAX feature: the sense of scale is missing. Attilan’s corridors appear sparsely populated. The Royal Guard number six or seven people holding pulse rifles from Aliens. Even the “crowded” lower-caste part of the city fails to convey the intended scope. These issues might be less noticeable on a television set — indeed, S.H.I.E.L.D. gets away with limited extras all the time — but the emptiness is glaring on a giant screen. And as his concern over the population is one of Maximus’s stated reasons for seizing power, the luxurious open spaces of Attilan stand in opposition to his worries.
Which leads to a conceptual problem: All of Maximus’s stated concerns are valid and the royal family looks woefully out of touch for ignoring him. Yes, he is a would-be tyrant speaking platitudes; he is played by Iwan Rheon, after all. But he’s not wrong in pointing out the treatment of the underclass and that the city will, eventually, burst from overcrowding. So the show must go out of his way to present him as cartoonishly evil. He creeps on Queen Medusa in an early scene and eventually assaults her by shaving her Inhuman hair. But in the rush to get the coup underway and move the royal family to Earth, much of the impact of that moment is lost. It ends up leaving the validity of Maximus’s argument mostly intact.
Once on Earth, we’re meant to empathize with the royal family, but it is difficult to do so. Swan almost pulls off the emotions of the violated Medusa — in fact, her performance improves once she loses the terrible red wig — but then is asked to deliver some truly cringe-worthy dialogue. Anson Mount’s Black Bolt is pretty much a non-starter. Crystal is such a non-character in these episodes that it’s hard to gauge Cornish’s performance.
The most interesting members of the family are Gorgon and Karnak. Before the coup, Gorgon is shown enjoying life and exhibits some wit. Karnak also has a witty edge, though his precog ability leaves him dissatisfied with existence. Out of all of the cast, both Ikwuakor and Leung appear to be the most comfortable in their roles. Sadly, their ease with the characters cannot save them from the next conceptual issue Inhumans presents: the characters are quickly neutered.
Medusa loses her magic hair. Black Bolt cannot really use his powers anyway. Karnak takes a nasty fall, hobbling his powers. Gorgon ends up on a beach, where his thunderhooves are of limited use. Lockjaw, the teleporting bulldog, spends most of the runtime asleep. And whatever Crystal’s powers are meant to be, they’re ineffectual when we see them. Unlike their debut in the pages of The Fantastic Four, the Inhumans royal family never gets the chance to look amazing before their reign is deposed. And because we never really see them at the height of their powers, their fall lacks serious weight. Coupled with the IMAX version’s inability to make us care about them, either as family or as protagonists, they end up looking as clueless and impotent as Maximus claims they are.
Beyond the story issues, there are a number of strange choices in the directing. Scenes abruptly end to cut to another scene, which then abruptly cuts back to the action in the previous scene. CGI establishing shots of Attilan awkwardly cut into shots of interior sets. Slow-motion action moments highlight the clarity of the IMAX format, but look dated and silly in context. The format also makes the Hawaii locations look amazing and inviting. Unfortunately, most of these locations will be familiar to fans of Lost or the Jurassic Park movies.
As a television show, Inhumans can still right itself as S.H.I.E.L.D. did. It can also re-edit these debut episodes. But as an IMAX feature, it highlights the limited budget and cost-cutting measures necessary to bring the royal family’s story to broadcast. Despite some moments of great photography and glimpses of interesting characters, it’s better to wait until you can see Inhumans in the format it was really intended for: your home entertainment system.