Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

As it hits the mid-point of its run, Marvel’s Inhumans is obviously not as bad as critics made it out to be. But it does have a conceptual problem going back to its comic book roots, and it remains to be seen whether that will be a bug or a feature.

First, let’s address the catastrophic critical reception of the first two episodes, which were shown on IMAX theaters Sept. 1, then repeated as a television premiere on ABC Sept. 29. As it turns out, the numbers for both the movie and TV premieres were respectable – not Marvel’s usual blow-out numbers, but good enough.

And as the series has progressed, it’s obviously better than the critical drubbing it received. The special effects are passable, except for maybe Medusa’s hair, which is obviously not an issue at present. The characters are fleshed out decently. The plot is moving along briskly.

The pall over the show seems to have derived mainly from the decision to screen a TV show on IMAX. A big canvas is necessary for a big-budget production like Avengers. But for a small show like Inhumans, the expanded image just magnifies its flaws.

ABC/Karen Neal

Black Bolt (Anson Mount) seems like a decent guy, but he’s only in charge because of his birth, not merit, and he does nothing for those at the bottom of his society’s rigid caste system.

Inhumans is not a series with a big budget, and IMAX is the worst possible way to showcase cheaper CGI,” summarized ScreenRant.com’s Rose Moore on Oct 7. “Effects that may have passed muster on the small screen looked breathtakingly awful in an IMAX format – which led to them being highlighted in bad reviews.”

Meanwhile, comics fans of the Inhumans should be pretty satisfied with the faithfulness of the show. Heck, even the episode titles are mostly lifted from old comic book stories.

But therein lies the rub: The comic book Inhumans have until recently always been supporting characters. And that’s because they aren’t intrinsically heroic – or even sympathetic.

When introduced in the mid-1960s, The Inhuman royal family was a group of mysterious (and hostile) superhumans that the Fantastic Four kept stumbling into. Eventually it was discovered that these folks came from a hidden city in the Himalayas, full of thousands of Inhumans. They were on the run because Black Bolt’s brother Maximus the Mad had usurped the throne. Naturally, the FF helped unseat Max and get the royal family home.

Which, for years, was just about the only plot involving the Inhumans. Every once in a while Maximus would take over, the royal family would go on the run, and the Fantastic Four (or the Avengers) would help restore the status quo.

Which, you’ll note, is a monarchy. Since when do Americans like monarchies? Since when do we care which guy in an authoritarian regime is the boss? Why should we pick sides in a battle between royal siblings about who gets to sit at the top of a rigid, inequitable caste system?

In the comics, Maximus’ ultimate aim is to kill all the humans, whereas Black Bolt wants peace. So, in that sense, sure – let’s support Black Bolt, peacemaker. But at the end of the day, he presides over a society that assigns inflexible roles by dint of birth or Terrigenesis, the process that gives Inhumans their powers at adolescence. As Americans – who declared “all men are created equal” when we asserted our independence from an unjust monarchy – that should be appalling.

Further, the characters themselves aren’t terribly likable. Do you think TV’s Medusa is too haughty and imperious? That’s right out of Fantastic Four. Do you find Crystal a bit bratty? Gorgon too eager for a fight? Karnak irritating? Black Bolt maddeningly stoic? Yep, that’s just how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created them.

 

ABC/Michael Muller

Medusa (Serinda Swan) doesn’t look like this any more, thanks to Maximus, so the poor CGI on her prehensile hair is no longer an issue.

Plus, they don’t think much of humans. Seriously, even the best of them consider us an inferior race, not much more than monkeys. And they are xenophobic to an ugly degree. What part of that are we supposed to applaud?

But it was fine in the comics for a long time. For one thing, Crystal and Johnny “Human Torch” Storm had a dramatic star-crossed teen romance going, which was cute. Crystal (and later Medusa) even joined the Fantastic Four, when Sue “Invisible Woman” Richards was sidelined by pregnancy. Plus we didn’t have to think about them much – they were remote supporting characters whose city eventually moved to the Moon. Out of sight, out of mind.

But then they became stars. Well, Marvel Comics is trying to make them stars.

Marvel has an outsider group with super-powers that come at adolescence, but can’t use them in the movies. That’s the X-Men, who are much more likable than the Inhumans, because they don’t think they’re superior, aren’t xenophobic, want to fit in and are abused because they are different. They are a metaphor for every minority in the history of man, from homosexuals to African-Americans to angst-ridden teenagers.

But thanks to some bad business decisions in the ‘90s, Twentieth Century Fox owns the movie and TV rights to the X-Men and all related mutant concepts. And, while Marvel won’t acknowledge it publicly, it appears that a decision was made to play down Marvel characters and concepts to which it doesn’t have the film rights.

“In 2014, Marvel Chairman Ike Perlmutter ramped up his war with [Fox] with a series of moves apparently designed to diminish the stature of the Fantastic Four and X-Men in all areas under which Marvel controlled the rights,” wrote bleedingcool.com correspondent Jude Terror in March. “This has included canceling Fantastic Four comics, reducing the prominence of the characters in Marvel’s comics, and disallowing any merchandise or licensed products featuring either group. As a replacement for the X-Men, Marvel has been trying really hard to make vaguely similar property The Inhumans happen, to varying degrees of success.”

As noted, Marvel Comics does not acknowledge this to be true. But most fans treat it pretty much as a given.

So, as the X-replacements, the Inhumans have had to step up. They have had to become more sympathetic, and more engaged with humanity. This was achieved in the 2013 crossover event “Infinity,” when Black Bolt blew up a “Terrigen Bomb” that activated dormant Inhuman genes in humans across the globe. In an instant, the Inhumans had to go from a hidden race to one that had to make friends with humanity so they could gather and protect all the new Inhumans popping up.

Incidentally, the Terrigen clouds created by the bomb are fatal to mutants. Talk about metaphors.

Anyway, it appears that both the X-Men and Fantastic Four may return to prominence, thanks to a couple of current epics titled “Legacy” and “ResurreXion.” Which is another story.

In the meantime, we now have the Inhumans as marquee players. How is ABC going to make us like them?

I don’t know that they will. But, interestingly, the one place the TV show is varying significantly from the comics is when it comes to Maximus the Mad.

In the comics, Max is an unstable genius, whose Inhuman powers eventually manifest as mind control. On TV, though, Maximus is ordinary – in fact, he is genetically human. He has been belittled by the rest of the royal family, allowed to remain (and not work in “the mines,” where low-class Inhumans go) by virtue of being Black Bolt’s brother. He is openly sympathetic to those on the lowest rung pf the ladder, because he’s been there. And now that he’s taken over, he says he wants to dismantle the class system.

If Max wasn’t so transparently power-hungry, bloodthirsty and vicious, he might almost be sympathetic.

 

ABC/Karen Neal

Soft-spoken Maximus (Iwan Rheon) claims to want dismantle the Inhumans’ rigid caste system, which would make him admirable, if he wasn’t so cruel and bloodthirsty.

Could the TV Inhumans actually go where the comic book Inhumans have only recently gone, with the royal family stepping down and allowing free elections in Attilan? Or will it hew to decades of repetitive comic book stories that make the Inhumans inherently unappealing?

That, in the end, will determine if Inhumans is a success or not. Ratings aside, if TV can transform the Inhumans into characters who grow into something heroic, into people we can openly root for, then it will achieve something the comics never have.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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Silver Age Marvel Comics featured several monarchies -- foremost was Asgard, with the sometimes tyrannical and easily manipulated Odin; Namor, ruler of Atlantis; Dr. Doom, despot of Latveria; Black Bolt, ruler of the Inhumans; and the Black Panther, king of the Wakandas, just to list the most prominent.  And in nearly kingdom that was part of an ongoing series, there were story lines about attempts to replace the current monarch with an usurper, whether Loki, Krang, Maximus, Eric Kilmonger, or whoever.  Even tho' Thor himself wasn't a king, but as the elder Prince of the Realm, every few years thare'd be yet another story in which Loki or someone else was trying to force Odin out and Thor had to protect his father and the kingdom.  Fortunately, Thor could go on plenty of adventures on Midgard or anywhere else in the universe in stories that had nothing to do with protecting his daddy's throne, but ongoing comics featuring actual kings, whether heroes, villains or a bit of both, seemed more problematic and while Subby's series, including his stint in Tales to Astonish, lasted nearly a decade, and the Black Panther lasted around four years, from his stint in Jungle Action while the Inhumans featured in two series in the very early and mid-70s that each barely lasted a year while Dr. Doom likewise had a brief solo series in the early '70s and then co-starred with Namor in the mid-70s series Super-Villain Team-Up that lasted about two years.  I mostly enjoyed SVTU but it hardly seemed the sort of series with a story-generating engine that could last several years, never mind decades.  Same with the Inhumans.  Whether the stories involved the Attilan royal family interacting with other Inhumans or with the outside world, it seemed difficult for writers to come up with stories that would attract and ,maintain a large readership, no matter who the artists were.  Then again, the X-Men and Daredevil seemed to be ideas that couldn't reach a massive audience until particular writers took a different approach to the ideas that turned out to have broad appeal.  Whether anyone can do that with the Inhumans, on tv or in comics, remains to be seen.

I hadn't considered how many monarchies there were in Silver Age Marvel, Fred -- both their number, and how they mostly failed to generate much reader interest. There's a dissertation in there somewhere.

DC had its monarchies, too, including Aquaman's Atlantis and Wonder Woman's Paradise Island. While HIppolyta's reign seemed fairly stable, Arthur had to fend off Orm now and again. Comics really loved to pit brother against brother in those days, didn't they? Or is that just an obvious conflict in a royal family?



Captain Comics said:

 Or is that just an obvious conflict in a royal family?

Sure it is, think of Hamlet.

I think the main problem was in trying to figure a way to tell exciting stories involving a king as a main protagonist, rather than a guest star or the main opponent in another comic, and avoiding telling variations of the same story -- fighting off would be usurpers -- over and over again.  Panther's Rage was great, if one doesn't mind McGregor's verbosity, but that was hardly the first or last Marvel series featuring a king struggling against attempts to overthrow him.  And it does seem a bit odd in retrospect that Lee & Kirby, et al, created so many kingdoms or dictatorships of various sorts -- even the Skrulls had an emperor! -- but I don't recall any imaginary constitutional democratic republic.  Wakanda could have been created as such a place, rather than as yet another kingdom, with T'Challa as the benign flip-side to Dr.Doom, both technological geniuses who happened to also be monarchs of their homelands, T'Challa by heredity, Von Doom by the forcible overthrow of his predecessor.

Captain Comics said:

I hadn't considered how many monarchies there were in Silver Age Marvel, Fred -- both their number, and how they mostly failed to generate much reader interest. There's a dissertation in there somewhere.

DC had its monarchies, too, including Aquaman's Atlantis and Wonder Woman's Paradise Island. While HIppolyta's reign seemed fairly stable, Arthur had to fend off Orm now and again. Comics really loved to pit brother against brother in those days, didn't they? Or is that just an obvious conflict in a royal family?

Superhero stories have a wish-fulfillment aspect and a real world aspect. Possibly we prefer escapist stories to have an element of realism because it makes them seem more real. In Amazing Spider-Man the fantasy aspect of the stories is counterpointed by Peter Parker's difficulties. I suppose when the heroes are kings the natural counterpoint to the wish fulfillment aspect is things going wrong with the kingdom.

Perhaps the characters need to enjoy being royalty as well to keep the element of wish-fulfillment from being lost. In the Michelinie/Layton Iron Man stories Tony had chief executive/rich guy problems, but he also enjoyed being rich.

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