Royal pains: Marvel’s ‘Inhumans’ is massive disappointment

By Jim Sabataso

Where do I even begin? Marvel’s “Inhumans” is bad. It’s a painfully boring series that squanders a solid concept through bad pacing, poor storytelling and weak character development. After nearly a decade building a sprawling universe across close to two-dozen films and TV shows, Marvel was bound to miss a step or two. But if Netflix’s “Iron Fist” was a stumble, “Inhumans” is a face plant.

The “Inhumans” property has had a tortuous journey to TV. Initially billed as a feature film, Marvel Studios subsequently repackaged it as a series on ABC. Hoping to maintain some of that big-screen gravitas, the first two episodes were released in IMAX theaters last month. That play did little to pique interest, however, as early buzz was largely negative. It didn’t help matters that showrunner Scott Buck was also the showrunner on much maligned “Iron Fist.”

Similar to the X-Men, Inhumans are an offshoot of homo sapiens with unique abilities. For Inhumans, those powers are unlocked when they are exposed to special crystals. As a set of Marvel comic book characters, the Inhumans have always been third-tier, despite being around as long as the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men.

In recent years, however, the characters have been thrust into the spotlight in a number of comic book events. A cynical read on Marvel business strategy suggests that both the studio and publisher have forced Inhumans into prominence since it doesn’t have the film and TV rights to the more popular X-Men properties.

Inhuman characters have been featured prominently in ABC’s other Marvel show, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” for several seasons now. “Inhumans,” then, is a spinoff of sorts that focuses on the heretofore-unknown Inhuman royal family that resides in an advanced city on the moon called Attilan.

The pilot episode of “Inhumans” quickly establishes the status quo in a montage of scenes that introduces key characters. There’s Black Bolt (Anson Mount), the silent king whose voice can level mountains; Medusa (Serinda Swan), the queen with prehensile hair; Crystal (Isabelle Cornish), Medusa’s young sister with elemental powers; Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor), the cloven-hoofed brawler; and Karnak (Ken Leung), the warrior who can see the flaw in all things. Just outside the inner circle is Maximus (Iwan Rheon), Black Bolt’s scheming brother.

Character development is nearly nonexistent across the first two episodes, which is only compounded by the incredibly dull story and godawful visual effects. Maximus is jealous of his brother and apparently has been sowing seeds for a populist uprising. I say apparently because, while we don’t actually see this detail, Maximus does effectively stage a coup, so he clearly has supporters.

Sorry, spoiler alert: Maximus is a bad guy who overthrows the royal family by the end of the first episode. This plot development highlights the show’s pacing problems. I am assuming the impetus was to get the characters off the moon ASAP, but I can’t help wondering how much more interesting this show would be if the coup was developed as a season-long arc. Why not spend more time introducing and complicating these characters and their relationships before turning everything upside down?

It’s especially surprising given Rheon’s previous work as the sadistic Ramsey Bolton on “Game of Thrones.” I was initially excited when I learned Rheon had been cast as Maximus, who is a lot of fun in the comics. Unfortunately, Rheon’s talents are squandered as the show avoids nuance and subtlety for quick exposition.

Another bright spot character-wise is Leung’s Karnak. Leung, who played Miles on “Lost,” brings a similar snarkiness to Karnak. It’s a good fit for the character, who in comics is a disagreeable nihilist whose power compels him to find flaws in everything, including people.

The failure of “Inhumans” is unfortunate, because it had potential to carve out an interesting niche in the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though even here it strikes out by seemingly actively ignoring the rest of the MCU. I understand that Marvel likes to keep its properties semi-compartmentalized to avoid alienating new viewers with too much continuity, but to not even give passing acknowledgment of events in the MCU seems silly.

Even more silly is the terrible-quality special effects. Attilan is a dull pile of CGI cinder blocks. Medusa’s hair looks ridiculous. Yes, this is broadcast TV, but viewers have come to expect more than this.

It’s that overall lack of effort that makes “Inhumans” so frustrating. This doesn’t look like a series anyone wanted to make. It’s a passionless, creativity-empty show that Marvel was obligated to produce. At best, it’s a reminder that studio mandates don’t make for good TV.

“Inhumans” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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