Marvel’s Inhumans: Partial Eclipse of the Big Screen?

Marvel's Inhumans hit the IMAX

There’s no hiding place now. Marvel’s moon dwelling Inhumans have evaded live screen adaptation for years. But now it’s caught up with them. Jokerside visits their comic past and reviews their television future. At the cinema, of course.

It can’t really be that bad, can it? Well… Shh, the King’s about to speak…

It’s no King’s Speech…

The show’s apparent existential crisis couldn’t deter fans from a rarity

PICTURE THE HEART OF A METROPOLIS, WHERE HUGE STACKED BLOCKS AND GEOMETRIC SHAPES LIE SCATTERED ACROSS A BROAD TARMAC BANK LIKE ROLLED DICE. Asymmetric inroads, sheared by irregular narrow alleys and broad lanes that somehow loop to a centre; channels of asphalt that loop and swirl around a central monolith. Underground, a warren of tunnels spiral from that structure’s base, marking each compass point of its rounded walls, providing quiet foundations to the lit, glass and metal column as it soars through and past ground level.

No, not Attilan, the moon surface city and home to Marvel’s Inhumans. This was BFI IMAX in London’s Waterloo, home to a crucial, further step on those same Inhumans’ biggest leap into mainstream pop-culture.

But while seeds of this leap, and their existence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were laid the franchise’s longest continuing storyline, via Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Inhumans’ route to adaptation has been tortuous. In recent months, the mini-series format Marvel settled on for its moon-based regulars has met with mockery. For its posters, promos… And then a legendary screening of a new trailer at this year’s San Diego Comic Con that was met with laughter. And they say, not the good kind. Mockery was becoming the default…

We caught our ticket on the opening night of the Inhumans IMAX outing – the opening two episodes shot especially for the format and edited together for a limited run. Surely a nod to the middle ground of the ever-extending web of the MCU on small and big screens, but risky given the run-up. Notably, the screening wasn’t near selling out earlier in the day, booking only popping up on listings shortly before. But on the night, while not a full-house, the show’s apparent existential crisis couldn’t deter fans from a rarity: An exclusive, cinema-shot limited release Marvel film. Really, that’s what it amounted to.

This was the moment that Inhumans’ journey reached its end. Two weeks before the small screen premiere of the eight-part ABC television series that developed from a once-announced film adaptation, a limited run of the first two episodes at IMAX cinemas across the world. In all, it’s a confusing start, if not inauspicious, for what Marvel’s know is one of their hidden gems.

Enter the Mist

The Inhumans properly appeared in the 45th issue of the Four’s comic in December 1965

There may have been a clue to this adaptation in the Inhumans mid-1960s four-colour introduction. Then, two prominent Inhumans, Medusa and Gorgon found their way in the pages of Fantastic Four in early 1965. Of course, that premier family of the House of Ideas has struggled to make it on the big screen, under Fox’s watch, over two instalments. Following the two heralds, the Inhumans properly appeared in the 45th issue of the Four’s comic in December 1965. But just as they’ve popped up in many off-screen chats since the emergence of the MCU powerhouse, the seeds for this impossibly close-to home new race, was actually sewn two decades before. It was in the pages of Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941), a story penned and drawn by Jack Kirby, that the city of Attilan was first mentioned – populated by a nearby race that had advanced its civilisation while humans floundered in the Stone Age.

Come 1964, was the inkling of a mysterious new super villain named Madame Medusa apparently aided a group of the Fantastic Four’s foes. By 1965, the hoofed powerhouse named Gorgon came into opposition with the Four as he pursued that mysterious Medusa. But the fear not  True Believers! Soon both were revealed to be members of the Royal elite of Attilan, and the wonderfully punctuated tales, Those Who Would Destroy Us! and Beware the Hidden Land! had the Fantastics unite with these freshly revealed Royal Inhumans. Gorgon and Medusa, Queen to the recently dethroned King Black Bolt, working to seize back control from the despotic, and wonderfully named Maximus the Mad – none other than the king’s brother. The readership, along with young Johnny Storm were most taken by Medusa’s sister, Crystal and her gigantic teleporting dog Lockjaw.

Alien interference

So was another example of the great staple of a lost or unknown civilisation unlocked through the adventures Marvel’s premier family, under Stan Lee’s pen. But it was in the pages of Thor #146 to #152, over the winter of 1967 to 1968, that the Inhumans’ origins was revealed. Tying directly into key Marvel-mythos, the moon-dwellers were the result of experiments by the alien Kree, abandoned when a prophecy foresaw the experiments’ role in the destruction of the Kree Empire. The Inhumans evaded death, but in leaving Earth to hide on its satellite, forced an acceleration beyond their human cousins that any reasonable comic book character would anticipate as leading to an inevitable confrontation.

What’s most intriguing is that this society long separated from humans developed strictly imposed societal constraints, quite at odds with those fast-emerging on the less advanced Earth by the time the two cultures came into contact with each other.

Their society is predominantly dictated by power, with the ruling Royal family sitting atop a city where citizens are assigned a specific place, based on their abilities. The meritocratic caste-system is unbreakable: Once assigned, an Inhuman cannot change their place, standing, nor mix with any other species to any great degree. Except, of course for members of the Royal family as Crystal proved by marrying the mutant Quicksilver.

From monarchy to revolution

Elevated by Kree science, Inhumans are well named.

Since their emergence, the Inhumans have had a chequered publication history of cancellation and major arcs. Frequently embroiled in the fate of the Fantastic Four, their soap opera led to a short-lived series of their own in the 1970s, before they went missing in action for much of the 1980s. Later decades saw them back in vogue, with the introduction of many more Inhumans and the complication of NuHumans – an off-shoot among others not helped by things like Terrigan bombs and secondary terrigenesis – and taking point on major maxi-arcs.

Elevated by Kree science, Inhumans are well named. Through exposure to Terrigen Mist Inhuman powers are revealed, select physical, mental or other abilities beyond humans. Depending on your perspective, the process was transformative or unlocked the inner Inhuman that was always there. But most important of all, the Inhumans are downright comic book crazy. They are literally out of this world, their difference exacerbated by the close proximity to humans.

A race apart

The outlandishness that the Inhumans tapped into would precede Kirby’s quest

A genetically enhanced race, rather than the generation X evolution of Earth, when we met these moon-dwellers, the only family association equivocal with Xavier’s school or the X-Men themselves was the ruling elite. It’s a reversal, but one that kept the Inhumans, in spite of their outlandishness, in Marvel’s second tier. In laying the earliest hints of their existence, the legendary Jack Kirby helped shape the Inhumans journey on the page – even though their initial storyline was quickly wrapped up to make way for Kirby’s soon to be seminal Galactus storyline. The outlandishness that the Inhumans tapped into would precede Kirby’s quest to promote the truly, jaw-droppingly, seminally bonkers – from Marvel’s Eternals in the early 1970s to DC’s Fourth World later in that decade.

Leap forward five decades from their advent and the Inhumans arrive on screen at a crucial time. Ahead of the release of back-to-back Avengers films, as Marvel Studio’s switch to a three film per annum release schedule, the MCU’s continued ascendance on the big screen is matched by profligacy on the small screen. Cancellations are to be excepted – poor old Peggy Carter – but their first real misstep came with the fifth Marvel Netflix series Iron Fist. It was all the more apparent as  And there’s a larger concern. The film expansion of the DC Expanded Universe, as ever Marvel’s direct rival, has at its heart the wealth of Kirby’s Fourth World barminess. Those adaptations will face many of the gaping holes that Inhumans does and…  Manages to fall into.

The Series

*And here flow the spoilers for episode one and two thick and fast*

Marvel’s Inhumans may have many precursors in the pages and rushes of Marvel history, recent and old, but the rumours that have hounded the property since a film was first mooted have coalesced like an untypical Terrigen Mist. It has to be noted off the bat that, quite astonishingly, nothing in this adaptation happens for any reason whatsoever. That in itself makes it a bit of an MCU oddity. In fact, reason is willfullyy misunderstood. When events kicks off and Crystal reasonably asks her cousin Karnak why Maximus is taking over Attilan, he replies, “it’s a coup”. It’s happening, because of what it is. And that comes shortly after Karnak’s made an unsubtle speech predicting the very same. Yes, the script struggles, and that doesn’t help a simultaneously simple and  muddled narrative.

There’s a shame and an inevitability in that. Because as much as it follows the Inhumans earliest comic appearance, it makes some changes that at best border on the detrimental and at their worst play up the bland.

The first-misstep reads like a terrible joke: in the opening Earth-bound scene we not only meet a wrong Inhuman, we watch her get slain like a red shirt red herring. Triton’s there, a fleeting, failed appearance for a Marvel mainstay, but before we can marvel at the sense behind immediately killing off a freshly-transformed Inhuman who Triton fails to save (a double-fail), or indeed Triton’s make-up, we’re propelled to the moon and the Inhuman status quo cascading from its Royal Family. Compared to their mystery-packed arrival in the comics of 1965, it manages to make the whole affair a great deal more impenetrable, while diluting the mystery.

Calling the bad guy

The Richard III, conniving underdog, mould

Maximus is the big bad. Well, in a Richard III, conniving underdog, mould. There isn’t enough time in the early scenes to pull much interest from him, despite Karnak’s warnings. On one level Maximus case is helped by the need to right the wrongs of an, on the face of it, imbalanced society, and the fine niggling motivation that terrigenisis failed to affect him, yet has kept him in a privileged position tantalisingly close to the throne. His nominal goal, drawing on the will of the similarly disenfranchised people, is to betray his brother and break what he calls “Black Bolt’s meritocracy” – where generally, the terrigenisis-failed-’humans’ are sent to the mines while Inhumans enjoy the perks. It’s blunt and shallow, as the pilot attempts a short-hand for the rigid caste system that the comics spent years building up. We shouldn’t buy into the lie that lays the blames at his brother’s feet – after all, we first see the regal first couple imagining their life before they were called to the throne – but there’s really very little time to dig into it.

Quite what the non-Royal Inhumans get up to in their lower castle dwellings is unclear, but on screen it amounts to swanning around just above the humans, especially helpful if you’re gifted wings.

The trigger for Maximus’ long-gestating coup, unbelievably isn’t simply that there’s a coup. It’s the very real threat from Earth as humans develop. He plays up this threat as a moon buggy crashes into the invisibility wall that hides the city, although it soon becomes evident that in one of the many wasted twists that he’s pulling strings on two spheres. The Inhumans are not immune to activity on Earth, thanks to their inexplicable regal feeds, to the point that the stranded Queen Medusa later enquires after a Hawaiian bus.

Maximus the not quite mad

Way to endear the main characters to an entirely human audience

We’re left in no doubt that Maximus is evil, if not quite mad as his name suggests in the comics. But the depths of his plotting are left to ferment as he tries the outlandish and obvious move of stealing his brother’s wife at a moment of not-terrible crisis.

But regardless of his actions, it’s difficult to argue for the society that’s presented, as shallow and dull as it is. Crystal, Medusa’s sister is one of the characters of interest, yet plays the spoilt princess, truly living in her ivory tower. And crucially, for all her bouts of bravery and loyalty as she resists the usurper while her family are stranded on earth, she loses a great deal of empathy when she spits at Maximus that he’s human. Way to endear the main characters to an entirely human audience. Even if there’s a slither of intriguing greyness in there, the opening two episodes leave little space to manoeuvre.

Into the Mist

Judged and monitored by the silver cloaked genetic council

Terrigenesis takes the form of a regally sanctioned ritual on the moon, but presented in a  split-broadcast season with Agents of SHIELD, it’s unlikely many of its audience will be unfamiliar with the concept. The comics have presented a mixed history for the brutal terrigenesis cocoons that added an element of tension and surprise to SHIELD, but here they make way for a hideous debutant awkwardness. Like the more familiar structures of Krypton – itself the subject of a brewing eponymous proto-show which will also have to deal with many of the problems Inhumans faces – the subjects (in many ways) are judged and monitored by the silver cloaked genetic council… A council we crucially never get to see.

The dialogues suggest that they will turn up before long. Yet, the ritual is an early example of narrative strain. Maximus, seeking to comfort an apparently failed-Terrigenesis subject, is the only one who notes his emerging prophetic powers. But still, he lets someone who many might consider a very promising apprentice head to the mines, even after he seizes the throne. These niggles are frequent as scene after scene fails to live up to its promise, harshly back-lit against broad sets that betray a disappointing budget. When the Queen is captured, the shaving of Medusa is symbolic, horrifically so given its blatant and layered subtle connotations. Yet, the merest threat the Queen can level against Maximus for his betrayal is that she will never forgive him.

While Medusa’s torture may have some logic it underlines how the needs of the characters override the narrative. Maximus’ coup breaks after the earlier, rather weak, prophecy comes through, while the episode’s greatest twist – that he is linked to Inhuman-hunting death squads on Earth- is held back to throwaway a few scenes later. It’s left to his underlings, descending stairs to greet Karnak and proclaiming themselves envoys of “King Maximus”. It’s weak, and clearly twisted to parallel the responses from two of King Black Bolt’s loyalist lieutenants, Gorgon on Earth and Karnak in Attilan. That we don’t see the issuing of any Order 66 is just one element that, dictated by the need to a twist the dramatic flow of events, is perplexing. No wonder Crystal was confused. It’s a coup! That the series can continue, and Maximus’ coup face any opposition at all is down to the strategy-dissolving fact that Maximus didn’t deal with Crystal’s sweet but under-engineered teleporting dog LockJaw first.

None of the character’s powers are explained. Scenes are heavily chopped, fleeting and a few served up merely for show or to provide a backdrop for some dialogue dripping in exposition. No doubt aided by the budget constraints, it undermines its character’s abilities almost as wilfully, as it lets Hawaii become an increasingly distracting backdrop (“Stupid dog”, as Karnak remarks of Lockjaw when left on cliff peak for half an episode). And the splitting of the party breaks the welcome comic relief of Karnak and Gorgon. It may have sat uneasily with the rest of proceedings, but the close of episode two suggests it won’t be making a comeback for some time.

Aside from the wasted characters littered around the 50th State, Inhumans great mistake is misreading the true heart of the story: the Inhuman leader – absolute ruler though he may be – Black Bolt.

The quietest heartbeat

From Fox letting their hair down… To Marvel fumbling

While character’s powers range from the laboured (Gorgon, Medusa) to the inexplicable (Crystal, and comic-defyingly, Karnak), the flashback to Black Bolt’s evisceration of his parents is notably brief and chilling. But perversely, it can’t shout the trick it misses loud enough. The last full debut of a Marvel property was the willfully obtuse, eccentric and thoroughly brilliant Legion. That was Fox letting their hair down, but this is Marvel fumbling. It’s a huge step back for their small screen properties. The challenge set by a lead who can’t speak is a great opportunity, particularly given his pivotal role in the comic storylines of the past two decades.

While the sign-language invented for his live-action debut is a marvellous balance to the thought bubbles of the comics – neither could work in the other media – the show should have saved the Royal soap of the moon for flashbacks and cantered on his confused arrival on Earth. Imagine the scope of following this mute, alien and noble ruler through our reality… At least then there may have been a notion to expand the Hawaiian adventures of the second episode to something more than arrest for shoplifting (three police cars arrive to deal with that, no less) and being called a “freak”.

In Black Bolt a bold, inventive premise far removed from the staid and poorly sketched betrayal of family members that’s been tackled with far greater success elsewhere. After two episodes, it’s sad to think that wherever the show goes it faces a struggle. And to think it’s cutting the episode count of its parent. The endlessly inventive SHIELD that itself emerged from an ignoble opening half season.

Wasted

An unfair comparison when creating a feuding and fraternal web is Game of Thrones

There’s little mystery to these big or small screen Inhumans, and that’s a travesty for a huge, undiscovered, and fantastic corner of the Marvel universe. An unfair comparison when creating a feuding and fraternal web, as with any new pretenders, is Game of Thrones. That show established an enviable and immersive world for all its stumbles. But any comparison set by Inhumans’ opening forest hunt and Throne’s original and bloody prologue sortie beyond the Wall, ends with the blood.

The concept of Inhumans was shouting out for a local story, told through either a king, or the lowest of the caste, to bridge the inner-Gormenghast with the wider-Marvel universe and set the stage for the wealth of its kingdom. Where Guardians of the Galaxy rooted the fantastic in an ‘80s obsession, it’s proved an anomaly as much as Inhumans reinforces the difficulty of establishing a Marvel universe on screen that can fuse all the facets of its comic properties. The hard, political and solid pinnacle set by Captain America 2: the Winter Soldier (oh gosh, it’s so good), looks harder to breach than ever.

That said, some of the clues to helping the struggling Inhumans have already made it to the screen in the affecting tale of Steve Rogers. He proved more than anyone that the comic drama needs to be character driven. It needs to be personal. As Maximus and Black Bolt respectively, Iwan Rheon and Anson Mount wring phenomenal promise from some narrowly sketched characters. But that’s not enough. What Inhumans really needed was a Jon Snow; apparently they only got the Ramsey Bolton side of the equation.

Read more MARVEL at Jokerside.

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