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.
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.
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.
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.
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I'm struck by the idea that possibly the most interesting Inhumans tale is one that I don't think has been told: namely, what if Maximus is the one who's really the good guy and the Royal Family are the baddies--sort of like Thunderbolts?
It's an interesting concept. I don't know if it's interesting enough to get me interested in the Inhumans, however.
I've enjoyed it so far, but this truly is a show that makes it hard to root for anybody. I can just about buy into Maximus as a bad guy who drank his own Kool-Aid and has convinced himself that he's grabbing power for the right reasons. (Or not. Maybe he's just a devious jerk. Hard to tell.)
I'm impressed by Anson Mount. Making a mute character with a big ol' stone face interesting isn't easy.
When I read them as supporting characters in the FF books, they were all basically jerks except for Crystal. It would be interesting if they realize the error of their ways.
I guess you didn't want to go off on a tangent about the Inhumans portrayed in the Agents of SHIELD show? Not being entitled royalty they are a lot more relate-able.
Triton seemed okay but then he rarely got parts unless he was working with Namor.
They are presuming Triton dead. Maybe he'll show up at the end of the season to save the day?
I disagree with the assessment "inherently unappealing."
They may not have always been shown in their best light, but which characters have?
I could pick out a dozen stories I would describe as indispensable.
"inherently unappealing" is too strong a term--personally, I liked the Inhumans for what they were (as opposed to the misbegotten "Legion of Substitute Mutants" Marvel's been trying to make them), but what they were was pretty much somewhere between supporting cast & interesting obstacles for characters who actually were heroic. If they aren't insular & elitist, they aren't really the Inhumans anymore. I'd love to know what Jack Kirby originally intended them to be (my guess is some sort of strange cross between his later Eternals & Deviants), but what actually made it to the page was the most soap operatic of all Marvel's characters, without the distractions of fighting actual villains or maintaining dual identities--they're basically Dynasty if the Caringtons could use super-powers in their family feuds
“I liked the Inhumans for what they were (as opposed to the misbegotten "Legion of Substitute Mutants" Marvel's been trying to make them)…”
That’s “inherently unappealing.”
“I'd love to know what Jack Kirby originally intended them to be (my guess is some sort of strange cross between his later Eternals & Deviants)”
Seems like both these guys and the Kree should have wound up with the FF. Maybe Marvel could have kept the Skrulls if they'd pushed the Torch's wife more in the comics.
I would agree with the assessment of them being inherently unappealing, by the fact that they haven't appealed to the masses in any kind of sustainable fashion.
The closest comparison I can think of is Reggie from the Archie series (the only one of the central characters to never sustain a solo title for long)--he, like the Inhumans, is perfectly fine as a foil for other characters, but is just too self-absorbed and obnoxious to hold a starring role without being changed into an entirely different character who may as well be a whole new creation. The Inhumans have a certain (limited) inherent appeal, but only if they stay within the rather narrow niche they developed in--trying to make them stars just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are. That said, I'm really surprised that no one had made much, if any, effort to use the basic Inhuman setup as an origin/backstory for heroes or villains who aren't part of the whole Royal Family Drama--it's seems like a great source for "instant origins" for characters, but no one ever really went there (there was that one guy in Fantastic Force, but I'm not sure he counts...).
The current Ms.Marvel is technically an Inhuman, but it's not really an essential part of the character. Personally, I have no doubt that if this business about the rights to the X-Men had never happened, she would almost certainly be a mutant, and without much - if any- harm to the character.