Reviewing a property like Inhumans, releasing today to IMAX, is rather difficult. Already a lot has been said and written about the show and most of it has been incredibly negative. With so many criticisms bouncing around in one’s head, it would be really easy to continue down that road. Despite the negativity, I was there on opening night, in an almost completely empty theater, ready for the show which for many will define what is my favorite comic property. When it was done I was pretty sure of one thing: the critics unnecessarily piled on. Inhumans is a tale of two halves. The first half is a family drama that captures family dynamics in a pitch-perfect way, while the second half is a bit dopey in its stale TV contrivances. (Note, this review has full spoilers for Inhumans.)
What really worked on the show is the way that the writers faithfully recreated and adapted the characters we know and love from the comics. Black Bolt is stern and haunted. It is hard for Anson Mount to offer much with a character who does not speak, but he puts in a good performance. His character obviously struggles at some moments, to express his love to Medusa or to effectively put his brother in place, but those attributes fit right into the character Marvel has built for 50 years. Medusa is reworked a bit but in all the best ways. She is still strong and intelligent. Understandably she is no longer a royal family member (cousin marriage would be a bit much for network TV or modern sensibilities) and instead has a mischevious and mysterious past. Add in her fall from grace during Maximus coup, and you get a woman who shows strength both in her regal role and in a gritty, street wise way. Her story becomes rags to riches to rags. While James Cameron and Patty Jenkins are debating whether female heroes can be beautiful and hard edged, Serinda Swan shows they can be both. Gorgon is shifted just a little. His often one note comic persona, all brash and braggadocious, becomes a little list Asgardian posturing and a little more professional athlete swagger. Gorgon in the comics can feel like a trope from a King Arthur novel, but here is a more modern version of over-confident. Karnak is the funniest character. His powers set his personality and the result is a great combination of sarcastic, condescending, and even nihilistic. Crystal is a sort of lost twenty-something princess and Triton isn’t around long enough to know. Maximus is everything he should be. Somewhat child like yet dangerous. Manipulative and scheming. His scenes with Medusa also have the requisite sexual predator vibe that makes the audience’s skin crawl.
Most of the performances are very good, with a few exceptions. Mike Moh‘s dialogue is as bad as his makeup. It’s terribly unfortunate that the first two minutes of the show are its worst two minutes. Had he said, “We’re on a TV show in IMAX” the exposition would have been just as obvious and clunky and jarring. Isabelle Cornish doesn’t really show much spark. Her dialogue when Lockjaw is tranquilized was up there with Darth Vader’s infamous “Nooooooooo!” as an all time over-acted, laughter-inducing scene. But while many critics have made these criticisms, they almost all overlook the other great work. There are some moments of terrible acting, but they are only moments. Gorgon and Karnak have a great rapport and their differing world views play off each other nicely. The older sister minding her younger sister dynamic of Medusa and Crystal works. When the whole family is together they operate perfectly. Medusa and Maximus have a good tension with one another. For comic fans, the dialogue fits the dynamics the characters should have. In particular, they’ve done a really nuanced job with Black Bolt and Medusa’s relationship. This should not be a couple that is hot and heavy. They shouldn’t be looking at each other with doe-eyes. Instead, it is a realistic marriage of a decade or more. This is a couple who cares for each other but feel burdened by the weight of their responsibilities. Their love for one another is interrupted by their duties, and the rift they have is palpable. Medusa wants more time with Bolt, but he needs more time to think and process. When Maximus comes to her offering a more understanding ear he is kind of telling the truth. That loyal yet strained relationship is important and it is portrayed with clarity. Older relationships look different than younger relationships. Rarely does Hollywood show that different dynamic well.
It is time to deal with a very valid criticism which will affect comic fans and non-comic fans differently. At times, the pace of the show feels rushed. Events happen very quickly and Maximus makes his move without a lot of build up. (As a side note, given how much angst there is about Netflix shows and their “slow burn,” some may enjoy a show that just moves.) As a result, there are moments which should have a real emotional punch that will likely land differently based on the knowledge one has of the source material. For example, Maximus shaves Medusa’s head. This is a scene where Medusa is violated in a really personal way. Those who know her character or who have read the seminal Marvel Knights run will feel this scene strongly. Some of the dialogue is pulled directly from that comic. For new fans, however, it probably won’t resonate. The Maximus/Medusa dynamic hasn’t simmered long enough to feel just how dehumanizing the moment is. Karnak’s humor may feel a bit abrupt for those who don’t know the character well. Maximus desire to be king is likely underdone if his character is only 30 minutes old. As someone who has sat through endless origin movies for comic characters I love, my thought is this: who cares? Currently, after two decades of comic films, we still are in a world where the needs of non-comic readers are catered to incessantly, creating films and TV shows that take hours upon hours to get to the character comic readers know and love. For once it is nice to get to the plot without sitting in a holding patter to catch up the novice. Maximus is a duplicitous back stabber. Check. No need to process that for eight hours.
The overall plot is simple enough, but the second half starts to wobble. Given how good the interactions between the characters are, it is befuddling that the second half puts them on separate parts of the island. Splitting the family up is the best way to kill the best part of the first half. None of these characters are as good as stand alone characters, particularly Gorgon and his surfer bros. Too many of those plots are mundane. While the concept of these entitled people having to be normal people might sound like a funny fish-out-of-water story, it really just feels like mediocre TV writing. Karnak with a concussion? Great another amnesia storyline, effectively. Black Bolt shop lifts a suit? One problem at this point is that the writers fail to understand that the Inhumans should be inhuman. Trying to make the more relatable isn’t a good thing. They should be distant and different.
One concern that I have which may not bother others is the significant de-powering of Black Bolt. In the comics, Bolt has a power set with four elements. He has the destructive voice, the ability to manipulate electrons, the ability to fly, and super strength. In the show, he has one and a half of those. It seems obvious that we will never see this Black Bolt take off into the air or enter a room with electricity crackling around his head. This is unfortunate because the visuals could be so cool if done right.
The special effects, costuming, and sets are a mixed bag. Some effects are laughably bad, such as Triton falling down the waterfall. Hawaii has gorgeous waterfalls, why did one have to be CGI’d in? Others aren’t bad. Both Lockjaw’s teleportation and Medusa’s hair look like the trailers. Some people don’t like them, I think they are fine. They are stylized in a fun way. I’m not sure what more they can do. Hair that can move, punch, and strangle people is going to look a bit goofy because hair doesn’t do that. There isn’t a way to make that look “realistic.” The sets are a departure from the comics, but in a way that makes sense in universe. This palace looks like what the ancestors who designed the obelisk and underground temple in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 would have made. The markings on the wall call back to Coulson’s etchings. The very design of the city emphasizes the caste structure that is in place. When the camera moves from the royal dwellings up high and pans down to the poor in the substructure it communicates plot and theme. Costuming isn’t a problem for me, though many critics lament it. Gorgon looks just like Gorgon. Black Bolt’s costume looks far better on the big screen than in early shots, with the silver stitching popping well. The way that the costuming staff took comic images and made them into modern fabrics feels a lot like Hawkeye’s transformation on the film side.
Given the price tag of an IMAX ticket, another question to consider is “Should someone pay to see this in IMAX?” If you are a fan of the MCU yes, but I can’t imagine it for someone walking in off the street. Some of the shots of the moon/Attilan and of Hawaii are well done on the IMAX screen. Also, who doesn’t want to see Lockjaw the size of a house? It seems odd that more advantage wasn’t taken of the IMAX format with one or two bigger set piece action shots. Ultimately this is a TV show, not a film. So for those who love the MCU and particularly the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. corner of it, it is worth it to be part of the experiment and to not have to wait another month for release. Casual fans likely will feel they paid too much for 75 minutes of a TV show.
When the show sticks to the basics of the characters (family dynamics, power struggles, terrigenesis, social stratification, Attilan) the result is a faithful adaptation of the comics in which the characters pop. The dynamics are just right. As soon as that crew is moved to earth, however, it got uneven quick. Stripping these characters of their powers and home doesn’t humanize them, it just makes them goofy and boring. How the series goes forward will be interesting. Hopefully, the return to the moon happens sooner rather than later. It would be a shame if the first promising episode is less precedent for what follows than the second trite one.