I’ve never picked up an Inhumans comic in my life—not out of any aversion to the material, but more so because of how I gravitate more towards film and television. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been my education for Marvel comics, much like it has been for many mainstream audiences. Adapting a previous work to a different medium is no easy feat, and the MCU for the most part has been a success in that realm. But while I believe Inhumans fans that the comics are excellent, boy oh boy, did I not like the start of the Inhumans show. Not one bit.
It was a late Thursday night, August 31st, where I drove to a local movie theater to catch the premiere. Unsurprisingly, none of my friends wanted to accompany me for this screening. So I ventured alone into a large IMAX theater, being the first (and hopefully not only) attendee. Eventually, I was joined by four random strangers, all of us spread out in the house, no one uttering a single word to each other. How they ended up here like me, I would love to speculate on one day. Trailers for Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther played, and oh how I wished that these films were gracing these screens instead.
The show began, and for around an hour and a half, I was laughing, face-palming and eye-rolling at what I felt was the lowest point of the MCU at this point. Far worse than the painful, average mediocrity of Thor: The Dark World, somehow more cringe-inducing than much of the Scott Buck-ed Iron Fist, and perhaps even sillier than that one part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where the inflatable raft covered up a hole in a damned airplane (you know that part).
For every piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to work, it has to register for both newbies and veterans of Marvel. Unless you’re talking about giant crossover event in the spirit of The Avengers or The Defenders, you shouldn’t have to do your homework before you enter the movie theater or turn on your television. After watching the Inhumans premiere, I felt like I failed an exam that I didn’t know I had to study for.
An empty shell of a plot with vague hints of a story
It’s easy to guess which themes were written on the writer’s room whiteboard when breaking the story. Family. Betrayal. Social unrest. Uh, love, maybe? Hair care? Anyway, throw some basic themes into a blender, and theoretically you should have a bonafide prestige television show, yes? Well, the writers tossed a bunch of food ingredients into a bowl thinking they memorized some sort of recipe, but what resulted was an unknown, flavorless blob.
Conflict and intrigue are the meat and potatoes of a show’s beginning, and Inhumans severely lacked both. I could tell you what happened in the two episodes, but I could not for the love of Feige tell you what Inhumans is about. Family conflict, right? Well, this conflict felt totally artificial to me. On one side, you have the apparent do-nothing king Black Bolt, and on the other hand the aspiring usurper and revolutionary Maximus. We know from some bewildered looks and awkward interactions that these two do not see eye-to-eye, but the resulting coup from Maximus ultimately made no sense to me.
Maximus does have some proper motivation, with his powerless status. And admittedly, Anson Mount has a decent presence and charisma as Black Bolt (though sometimes, he felt like a discount version of Andy Serkis’s Caesar from the Apes movies). But when it came down to the nitty gritty of the conflict, things did not add up. The situation in Attilan was not dire enough for Maximus to stage a total coup (and who were his followers?), and Maximus was not causing enough of a fuss for Black Bolt and company to completely distrust him in the “tense” dinner table scene. The tree shakes only because it is required to for the plot to move on, not because the characters go through any logical and emotional journeys.
And what results is pure melodrama. The characters act like what is happening is monumental, but it just doesn’t register. Actors spout out overdramatic lines and say “NEVER” a whole lot, which may look good in a 30-second TV spot, but doesn’t play well in an episode at large. I took notes during this screen, trying to track the arcs and relationships, but it ultimately turned out to be a fool’s errand. By the second half of this screening, our main characters (who we barely know as one unit) are now separated for no logical reason (why did Crystal have Lockjaw send them to those places? Why didn’t she come with theme and get captured so stupidly?), and characters like Karnak and Gorgon are given seeds of potential arcs, but without prior setup, it seems like the characters just needed to give them something to do.
I’ve written so much about this story already without even getting to most of it—there are too many layers to how undercooked all of this felt.
Unearned moments that lack any impact
The premiere of this show gives the audience a difficult task. Without letting them have a firm grasp on the characters and their histories, we are asked to be invested in the characters’ hardships, and feel the ramifications of their struggles. One episode into this series, Medusa’s signature hair is already shaved. We joke that this is to save on the budget for visual effects, but this was meant to be a landmark moment for the character.
You don’t begin Daredevil season 1 with “Born Again.” If you wanted to start this “epic but still human tale” off by starting the characters at a low point, the first Thor movie actually serves as a competent guiding light. We see clear flaws in Thor’s personality from the beginning, and by the end of his story he makes a dramatic and satisfying change. If you wanted to begin a television series that begins with trauma, after the characters’ heyday, look at Jessica Jones. With that show, the protagonist’s PTSD was the heart and center of the first season’s story. Inhumans tries to make this family coup its heart and soul, but the foundation in this case is quite weak. It was painful to not only see the Inhumans premiere fail with its own story, but to see other MCU properties do such much better with those same plot elements.
Imagine how much richer this show would have been if more time and attention were given to the character relationships. One of the episodes’ biggest failures was Maximus’s brief, bizarre and predictable unsuccessful seduction of Medusa. It’s not until during that scene that we understand that Maximus has harbored these feelings since childhood, and throwing that detail into the scene as a slapdash attempt at storytelling efficiency was clumsy as hell. A better show would have had hints of that earlier, perhaps in the beginning of the episode, or if this weren’t the first episode, an episode before it. Late and random exposition seemed to be a common problem in this premiere (i.e. by the way Black Bolt, you killed our parents when you were a kid).
So then why did the show have to begin here? This actually could have been a fine premise for an Inhumans season 2. Give an entire season to build the characters, relationships and the larger world. Give the Royal Family an enemy to unite against, and give a good glimpse of what their ordinary lives are. At that point, maybe you can start throwing these characters at each other. You don’t start Game of Thrones with the damn Red Wedding.
Baffling production and creative decisions
Listen, random and unexpected covers of “Paint It Black” can be cool—Westworld proves this. It did not do so in Inhumans. Really, were you able to take this sequence seriously? Going back to earning moments, Westworld at that point had quickly and effectively established its own identity. The Western world in a futuristic sci-fi setting made the cover of the anachronistic song make complete sense. Inhumans doesn’t have anywhere near of an established personality—in a show about a society isolated from the human world, why would a popular song make sense for that moment, other than it sounds cool?
I rant too much about “Paint It Black,” but that moment was very representative of many of the stylistic choices of the show; it threw many things to the wall and just wanted to see if they would stick or not. There is no visual flair to the show, nothing that distinguishes it from a forgettable Syfy Channel show. Set pieces like a pool with surveillance screens over it makes me think that some production designer saw Minority Report the night before. The Royal Family looks like cosplayers, as pointed out already, and the regular citizens of Attilan look like they walked out of a clearance section of a department store. Slow motion is obnoxious, and accompanied with exaggerated BOOMS, techniques discovered in the 1990s or before, to remind the audience that this is IMAX.
By the time we get to the second episode of the two-part premiere, I have absolutely no idea what kind of show this is trying to be. The hi-jinx of Black Bolt felt like total whiplash to me—we go from an urgent, life-threatening situation to some sort of dress-up montage and kerfuffle about shoplifting that seems like it came from a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy. At this point, I’ve given up on tracking the characters. I have no idea what anyone’s objective is, other than “Ramsey Bolton is bad and we… have to do something.” There is movement, but we have no idea what it’s moving towards, and can barely speculate on what the possible paths for these characters to take are. Why is Black Bolt in jail now? Why did I spend that much time seeing Karnak walk in a circle? Who are these wise Hawaiians that Gorgon found?
The first chapter of Inhumans is stuck in limbo between the mediums of television and film. It tries to escape from television by providing a “cinematic” experience, yet the biggest thing that the show escapes from is the valuable asset of time. In attempting to emulate the efficient and effective storytelling of most films, Inhumans instead cut corners and produced a painfully rushed storyline. But by its nature of being a long-form, lower budget television show, the IMAX engagement ended up to be a totally unsatisfying event, one that left little curiosity for what comes next.
Other random notes I took, in no particular order
- The Royal Family seemed pretty against being on Earth amongst the humans, like it would cause some sort of large-scale conflict; the show weirdly (and perhaps inadvertently) contradicted that with those local Hawaiians being totally non-plussed about Gorgon and knowing exactly what Inhumans are.
- Did the police forget that Black Bolt freaking destroyed a police car with his voice? Are they still processing him solely for the shoplifting??
- If there was an in-universe explanation for why Medusa couldn’t fight back as her hair was being cut, I did not catch it.
- Okay, I’m assuming that the wall with the dude’s face is something from the comics. In a universe that sold me on a talking raccoon and walking tree from their first scene, I would hope that this show could convince me of this just as fast (it did not). Seriously, what the hell is that?
- Those communicators look like Fitbits. Come on, production designers.
- I did like the moment of Black Bolt putting the communicator to his heart; I just wish that I cared more about their relationship, as it should be one of the strongest elements of this show.
- I see the lower class people of Attilan in poor conditions, but could we actually see some unrest and anger from them? I don’t believe for a second that they actually believe in Maximus as a ruler, and this really contributed to the show’s hopelessly poor world-building.
- Okay, Gorgon and Karnak are fine I guess, but their dialogue and exposition were still clunky as hell.
- I felt that there was no explanation to why Triton was important to everyone, and I was confused on what the plan from the Royal Family was.
- Maximus: “Triton’s dead.” Gorgon: “What are you saying?” Uh, that Triton’s dead?
- Hey, if Projector Eyes can show Triton’s death, couldn’t he had shown Black Bolt that his brother was secretly a backstabbing asshole?
- Depicting Karnak’s power in that way was a good concept, but in the end it just looks like a poor BBC Sherlock rip-off.
- This 4D mental chess from Maximus and his lackey is confusing. The revelation that these hunters are associated with Maximus came out of nowhere and makes no sense yet, and what’s-her-face tricking Crystal was just plain lazy writing.
- Lockjaw being sidelined was quite lame, and I assume that’s another budget cut.
I will reluctantly keep watching
The moment the credits began to roll, I jumped out of my seat and scurried out of the premises. I was very, very done with this. Apparently, I had missed a post-credits scene that revealed that what’s-her-face had survived Medusa’s stabbing, but I consider my time to be too precious to waste another couple minutes waiting for that exciting stinger.
What I watched did not make me crave for more Inhumans. In fact, it made me desire something else. It made me wish to see how this story and world would have been fulfilled as a Phase Three film. It made me mourn the loss of Agent Carter even further. It made me yearn for my favorite Marvel show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., pushed back several months for this schlock. It made me want to re-watch The Defenders, a show I have mixed feelings for, as a palette cleanser. But most of all, I just wanted screenwriting that made some damn sense.
The beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D. was quite subpar, and I found that watching the first several episodes weekly was a chore, an obligation due to my MCU fandom. But it found its footing, and soon became one of my favorite MCU properties. That could very well happen to Inhumans, but it’s more of a crapshoot. S.H.I.E.L.D. had 22 episodes to a season, more time to develop and fix its mistakes, a luxury that Inhumans does not have. Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are names that I trust, artists who grew and developed; on the other hand, Scott Buck has a dire track record and his name is already poison to television fans.
This chore, this obligation will continue with Inhumans. Perhaps it will eventually evolve into something worthy of its allegedly excellent source material, but for now, cynical old me expects ABC to smother this show and let it fade away as a has-been and also-ran for the MCU.