When it was first announced, the idea of filming the first two episodes of Marvel’s new ABC series Inhumans with IMAX cameras and releasing them together in theaters ahead of the network premiere seemed like a fun and clever way of helping the show stand out in an increasingly cluttered superhero marketplace. Especially given the competition—Fox is launching its X-Men universe series The Gifted this fall, as well—debuting with an eye-catching big-screen adaptation of the comics property made good sense. Not only that, but the Inhumans themselves are tailor-made for the kind of larger-than-life potential of an IMAX-shot story: They’re mutants, meaning there will be powers aplenty to showcase. And they live on the moon, for god’s sake, an ideal opportunity for some outsized designs among the chances for CGI-aided pyrotechnics.
So how the hell did Marvel—or ABC, for that matter—let something this shoddily assembled and ugly-looking get out the door?
Inhumans is appalling on a number of levels, easily the worst page-to-screen adaptation Marvel has done since it launched its studio (more on those failings in a moment), but the most disappointing part of this project is that the studio squandered its ambitious launch of a new TV show with the most unappealing and unsightly product imaginable. This was like announcing you’re going to release a big new action spectacle on IMAX theaters, then screening an unreleased episode of Manimal, but without the quality writing.
I was one of the apparently 41 people who actually went to see Inhumans on an IMAX screen this weekend, and came away less disappointed than perplexed anyone would have seen this and agreed it should be shown to the public, rather than buried at the bottom of a very deep landfill, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial-style. No one likes to admit defeat and start over, especially on such a costly endeavor, but better that than putting your failure up on hundreds of screens around the country for everyone to recoil in horror. And recoil they did: “The Worst Thing Marvel Has Done In Decades,” reads a typical review headline. As our own Erik Adams put it (after seeing a work-in-progress cut of the first episode) in his piece about Marvel’s inability to accept its mistake, “Since the premiere of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has had so little experience with failure that they’re still learning to recognize it. But the criticism and backlash spurred by Iron Fist... must’ve provided some training in placing hats in hands.” Yet here we are, with a finished product I can’t imagine is demonstrably better in any way than what he saw a month ago.
There are a few bright spots to the fiasco, so let’s address them first in the interest of fairness, despite my feeling that doing so is a bit like greeting someone lying in a hospital bed after a bone-shattering car crash with a half-hearted, “Hey, have you been working out?” Inhumans looks like it had a second-unit IMAX director who knew what they were doing. There are establishing shots in Hawaii that are just gorgeous. The plot (the Inhuman royal family lives on the moon, ruling the hidden city of Attilan, then are forced down to Earth after a coup by the king’s scheming brother, leaving them scattered across Oahu) affords excellent opportunities for both CGI lunar cityscapes and beautiful Hawaiian vistas, and the show wisely attempts to insert these whenever possible. Each time it pans out to survey the magically guarded moon city, or cuts to a lovely overhead shot of a sun-dappled cliff, the IMAX money looks well spent. And yes, the giant dog is adorable. Thus endeth the compliments.
If anything, the superb IMAX shots only serve to provide a jarring and unwelcome reminder of how bad everything else looks. It’s like cutting back and forth between a big-budget movie and a YouTube fan film of that same property. Almost every interior shot resembles a Syfy show from the 2000s, which means at best you get some decent cinematography à la Battlestar Galactica. More often, though, you end up with Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.
Most of the derision regarding the aesthetic is focused on the costumes, though, which is honestly as it should be. When the first images of the series were released online, they were met with scorn, and for good reason: Everyone looks like a cosplayer who didn’t have time to put together a decent outfit. The worst offender is the hair on Medusa (Serinda Swan), a shockingly bad blend of ill-fitting wig and computer-aided movement that inspired laughs among the seven or eight other people in my theater when the tresses suddenly went to work beating up some goons. It’s almost as if the show was aware of just how bad its execution of the animated locks would be, however, as a plot development halfway through these clumsily shoehorned-together installments gives Inhumans an excuse to not allow Medusa to use those powers for a while, thereby sparing the series from more hair-vs.-man fight scenes for the time being.
The action, too, suffers from a dearth of excitement. The fights are choreographed in two ways: either slow and listless, thereby sapping them of momentum, or frenetic and choppily edited, thereby draining them of coherence. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for a Marvel superhero series to deliver some butt-kicking fun—even at its worst, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has consistently delivered at least the occasional good fight sequence—but nothing here generates much enthusiasm. Even poor Ken Leung, doing his best to kick some ass in a powers-aided struggle (as Karnak, he can sense weak spots in enemies and determine the best mode of attack—think the predictive fight scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films), is left floundering by lumpen pacing.
But the worst culprit in this misfire is showrunner Scott Buck and his god-awful dialogue. This is some of the weakest writing on any new TV show of the season, let alone a genre property. After a hilariously abrupt introductory scene (“Hi, we’re Inhumans, we live on the moon, humans fear us, let’s go” is honestly not that far off the actual script) which ends with Nicola Peltz being shot—something more than a few Bates Motel fans have probably longed to see onscreen—the screenplay veers clumsily between sodden exposition and humorless banter. Oh, god, the banter. It resembles lazy pandering, the way old fantasy shows often felt like the writer thought they were too good for the material. Dramatic scenes are unintentionally funny, and comic relief beats were met with a grim silence. (“Was... was that a joke?” someone behind me whispered to their friend at one point.) You know something has gone wrong when the villain’s evil plan actually seems like the most reasonable idea of any of the major characters, at least when they’re not saddling that person (gamely portrayed by Game Of Thrones’ Iwan Rheon) with a creepy and juvenile romantic obsession with his brother’s wife.
To be fair, there’s blame to go around. Some actors rise or sink to the level of the material they’re working with, and in this instance, Buck’s words have done in everyone. Anson Mount’s Inhuman king, Black Bolt, is saddled with the ability to cause immense devastation with the merest murmur, meaning the character is silent. The actor has chosen to play him like he’s perpetually constipated, interrupting it only to portray “surprised,” which he does by shifting into facial expressions better suited to a mime. But everyone is forced to deliver narrative details in a variety of ham-fisted ways, giving the whole enterprise the feel of a high-school play.
But bad TV shows come and go. Sometimes the writing just isn’t there, and Buck, despite having a poor track record, is just one of the many people who can’t seem to create a good series, a tough job under even the best of circumstances. But these should’ve been the best of circumstances. Marvel and ABC throwing a ton of money at a big, splashy project, sparing no expense, should have allowed imaginations to run wild, and inventiveness to flourish. Instead, the company weirdly made its worst product and threw it up on the biggest possible screen, a miscalculation that serves to highlight what my colleague said almost a month ago: That forcing people to pay more to see less (74 minutes, versus the 84 that people watching the two episodes at home will get) is an error only compounded by refusing to admit just how bad the end result looks. IMAX should be a chance to see something beautiful that normal cameras can’t capture. Unfortunately for Marvel and ABC, it also makes ugliness that much harder to ignore.