In an interview with Michael Robinson, Director of Consumer Products for Amazon Education, regarding the new Amazon Rapids ecosystem for young readers, he emphasized that all their stories drop readers into the middle of the action. This forces readers to figure out where they are, which they’ve found quickly engages children in the narrative journey.
Marvel’s newest series, Inhumans, also uses this as a model in its debut episode: a girl runs through a jungle, chased by men with guns. A hoodie-wearing green man triangulates on her, provides some quick exposition that she’s an Inhuman like him, and informs her he’s here to rescue her. He fails, and both are presumed dead.
Unfortunately, off this exciting, slightly dark beginning, the series immediately loses steam by introducing the Inhuman Royal Family, who live inside the moon in a city called Attilan: Queen Medusa (Serinda Swan), King Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor), Triton (Mike Moh), Karnak (Ken Leung), Princess Crystal (Isabelle Cornish), Black Bolt’s brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon) — known in the comic books as Maximus the Mad — and their oversized, teleporting dog, Lockjaw. They’re introduced with little backstory, aside from flashbacks that provide fill in details about the main characters’ younger selves, such as Black Bolt’s parents’ deaths during Terrigenesis (the method by which humans become Inhumans). This scene seemingly explains Black Bolt’s compassion for the emergent Inhumans on earth and is the basis for the failed mission in the series’ opening scene.
The core of the Inhumans story is similar to many Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. story arcs: embracing one’s differences and fighting prejudice. Unfortunately, Inhumans’s progressive message about outsiders recognizing each other and uniting for the greater good gets lost amid the soap opera-esque palace intrigue. In these first 90 minutes, it’s revealed that not only has Black Bolt secretly reached out to Earth-bound Inhumans, but that his brother Maximus has planned and implemented a palace coup by appealing to the underclass of Attilan’s rigid caste system, forcing the royal family to flee to Hawaii.
Revealing so much plot so quickly doesn’t allow the story to breath. Further, Inhumans are little known outside of comic book devotees and viewers of Marvel’s animated series, with their introduction and origins spread over several books. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does focus on Inhumans — including the ancient Kree experimentation that created them — it hasn’t focused on the royal family and their interaction with other Marvel characters. For those unfamiliar with this type of storytelling, dropping viewers into a story with little grounding will more likely disenfranchise than intrigue.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the IMAX screenings of Inhumans was the IMAX production itself. The sets didn’t feel lived in, the statues in the rather sparse royal hall looked like 3D printed models, and the costumes didn’t convey their worldliness when mixed in with human garb; they looked like decent, if overblown, cosplay: on the big screen, Queen Medusa’s silver gown reads cartoonish rather than regal.
Indeed, Inhumans clearly suffers from underproduction; nothing looked authentic except the miners’ encampments, but that was more about picturesque dirt on its residents’ faces than the feel of a mining colony. Even the cracks in a wall looked painted over. Contrast that with, as per example, the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, in which the attention to detail on the aged ship created a bridge that looked realistically lived in.
The only area in which the series production values shone was in the visual effects, particularly the winged girl and Medusa’s hair, which looked more realistic when it was doing unbelievable things than when it was lying listless against her body. Lockjaw’s teleporting was also a spectacular effect for a show running VFX on a budget.
In essence, Inhumans is underwhelming, rather than epic. Visually, viewing the series in IMAX blew up its design flaws to epic proportions. The acting, which might be tolerated broken up between even more poorly acted commercials, was painful on the big screen, another unfortunate element piling onto the already disappointing sets and script. While Mount’s inability to speak as Black Bolt led to some funny facial expression, humor was clearly not their intention.
It’s unclear what Marvel and ABC/Disney are trying to do with Inhumans. With their convoluted story, an Inhumans feature film might have been too difficult to compress into anything fathomable; a weekly series more easily allows exploration of their story. Like any debut, however, an expensive series such as Inhumans has only a small window to tell its story and attract an audience. Using IMAX to promote the series didn’t increase this window; all it did was magnify the series’ weaknesses.
Further, ABC is having enough difficulty attracting viewers to its established series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes, which is at least centered around the known quantity of Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) from the Avengers movies. Neither the actors nor the characters in Inhumans are well-known. The comic books may have a readership, but not the broad recognition and appeal of Spiderman, Thor, Iron Man, or Black Widow. Even in the content-ready world of animation, Inhumans are a side story, a sub-cult inside the bigger Marvel universe. That’s a hard place for a show to start from, even if we’re dropped in at a moment of crisis designed to draw such viewers.
The first two episodes offer little hope that Inhumans will draw a wide audience. The show displays a quirky and colorful world undermined by black-and-white acting and narrative. Marvel deserves kudos for creating a canvas to explore the plight of the oppressed among the privileged, but fail in that they never manage to engender real sympathy. We don’t any of the characters enough to care enough to cheer when privileged fall, nor to find ourselves echoed in the hearts of downtrodden. While the Inhumans may have superpowers, they don’t have numbers. That scarcity could be expressed as an existential threat to the entire Inhuman race. Only Black Bolt seems to grasp this, but by making him unable to communicate or work well with others cuts off this narrative possibility.
For a series predicated on a need for audience empathy and sympathy, Inhumans debut needed to be clear about who’s good and who’s evil, or how and why those distinctions require more subtlety. The Marvel Netflix series Jessica Jones and Daredevil succeeded at this. Inhumans, and its Inhumans, however, have given viewers little reason to care.