Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>Inhumans </i>was never going to live up to the rest of the MCU, but it never even tried

Inhumans was never going to live up to the rest of the MCU, but it never even tried

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Given the last six episodes of Marvel’s Inhumans, hopefully most audiences went into this penultimate one with low expectations. “Havoc in the Hidden Land” thankfully breaks away from the pattern of focusing on one character per episode and pushes the royal family back to Attilan. This means that we’ve successfully avoided an episode focused on Crystal, who has proven both useless and callous, but it also means that the show was crafted in such a way to provide each member of the royal family except Crystal their own feature. This is almost the perfect lense through which to look at all the problems that the writers have set up for themselves: in avoiding some problems, they’ve created even more, and in doing so sidelined characters and ideas that could have saved them.

Pacing for this show continues to be a problem, as very little of import happens over the course of the hour. There’s some fighting within the ranks of what’s left of the royal family, with Black Bolt (Anson Mount) ultimately deciding that he wants to try to reason with his brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon). For his part, Maximus is continuing to disappear into his own plots and scheming, and only now, seven episodes in, does the audience get a good look at his ultimate plan. Since the beginning of the show, the writers attempted to use slow reveals to keep audiences interested in the various questions and mysteries that swirled around each of the characters, but the end result was that nearly every character lacked any discernible motivation. If people can’t tell why a character is doing something, particularly if it seems nonsensical or counterproductive to what they should want, it makes for a boring show.

The real challenge that the Inhumans faced tonight is that I saw Thor: Ragnarok last night. Every single part of this show pales in comparison to most of the MCU, but particularly Taika Waititi’s contribution, which injected the bloated franchise with some much needed personality and life. Maximus has since the beginning been a barely passable rip off of Loki, and that is never more apparent than when he’s trying to trick someone. Loki’s deviousness and mischief making may be predictable in that one is always aware it’s going to happen, but he can at least be counted on to be both clever and self-motivated. Maximus only has the latter. And as good as Iwan Rheon is compared to much of the rest of the Inhumans cast, he’s no Tom Hiddleston. Not that the writers are giving him any chances to try.

There are two things that you need for at least a marginally successful comic book or related media: a sense of humor and suspension of disbelief. Even truly grim and serious comic books have moments of hilarity, physical comedy that serves to make the rest that much darker. And to be honest, superheroes are an inherently ludicrous concept. Cape and cowl comic books that don’t have space for laughter in them just aren’t good reads, and as most complaints about Dawn of Justice would show you, they don’t make for good movies, either. Though there have been occasional moments of levity in this show, none of them were intentional on the parts of the writers. They wanted to write a serious show about people with superpowers, without understanding that’s frankly just not possible. The harder they leaned into the humorlessness, the less successful the show has been.

But the real problem is that Marvel’s Inhumans has never even tried to get audiences to believe. Though it’s distracting, it’s possible to get past bad special effects, so that’s not the root cause of the problem. Talk to any comic book lovers long enough about this problem and the truth will eventually come out: you can convince us that an alien man that’s sort of a Norse god exists and comes to Earth now and then to save people, but you can’t convince us that anyone would follow Maximus for even a couple of days if he just keeps murdering people. Audiences approach comic books, like science fiction and fantasy, with the understanding that there will be utterly impossible elements to the story, and that they’ll have to just accept that in order to come along for the ride. But being a comic book franchise doesn’t mean that the nature of people inherently changes or that the internal logic of the world being built doesn’t have to hold together on it’s own.

Karnak and Crystal were both awed by the ocean and unable to comprehend how massive it was, because there’s nowhere in Attilan they could see anything like it. But Triton survived and thrived in the water like Namor’s ugly cousin, somehow. Gorgon’s hooves were there one minute and gone the next. A couple days on earth with her new girlfriend Louise and one barb from a dying subject and Medusa is suddenly a voice of reason, advocating for a nonviolent solution despite acting like murder incarnate in the first two episodes. There are apparently no ramifications for the fact that Black Bolt was the subject of a massive police chase, Medusa and Louise stole a car, and Karnak was involved in a pot growing operation that resulted in several deaths, not to mention Gorgon’s paramilitary buddies. If the writers can’t care enough to make some sort of underlying structure to this story,, why should audiences? Every reveal in the show has felt like it came an episode (or more) after when it should have. My least favorite habit in long running shows, sitcoms especially, is the sudden reveal of a “preexisting” story element that didn’t exist at all in past seasons, and likely won’t ever be mentioned again. The example that’s stuck with me the longest was the mock salutes in How I Met Your Mother. Three seasons in, as part of the set up for the truly ongoing gag of a slap bet, Ted reveals that he and Robin have an inside joke about military ranks that has never been mentioned before. And nearly every reveal feels like this in Marvel’s Inhumans: the audience is expected to accept something because it exists, not because it makes sense or is actually compelling. It’s closely related to the hamfisted attempts the show makes to invoke feelings with swelling violin music instead of an emotional plot or actual acting.

The inconsistent and weak world building applies to characterization as well, of course. Medusa wasn’t the only character to apparently abandon earlier beliefs and personality traits, with Auran flipping to help Karnak after he invokes a relationship between her and Gorgon that no one ever mentioned previously. The royal family, after what is probably decades of abusing their own people, now seem at least nominally concerned with the wellbeing of other Attilan residents, but Maximus is willing to kill them all if he loses, after spending the first few episodes talking about how he’s really staging the coupe so he can save them. Only Karnak’s transformation really seems to make sense, in the wake of a serious head injury and likely a copious amount of marijuana, not to mention the death of his best friend. Because the characters had no roots to begin with, it takes only the slightest breeze to upend them and send them toppling in every direction, flat and affectless.

Like I said about the first two episodes of the show, Marvel’s Inhumans is ultimately a victim of all the weight placed on it. Mediocre acting from most of the cast couldn’t overcome the terrible effects and the poorly constructed story. All three crumpled under the weight of the expectations set on them both by audiences and by ABC and Marvel. The show might have been able to at least deliver something of value, despite those flaws, if it was funny. Jokes can absolve shows of a lot of sins, but Marvel’s Inhumans insisted on taking itself so seriously that audiences wouldn’t able to. There’s only one episode left in the season, and likely in the series as a whole. Hopefully Marvel will walk away learning three important lessons: network TV is generally not a good place for a serious comic book show (unlike Netflix), Scott Buck shouldn’t be involved in future endeavors, and people should be allowed to laugh at shows where the main character’s name is Blackagar Boltogon.

Stray observations:

  • The writers should have watched Speechless to learn how to effectively write a show where one of the main characters is mute and another translates for him. Listening to half a conversation all the time is boring.
  • Medusa being Black Bolt’s mouthpiece also totally undermines his power and control as a ruler. If you’re shooting for royal “we” and another person has to say it for you, it removes any sense of intimidation.
  • It’s also deeply uncomfortable to watch a woman keep speaking on behalf of a man, only to be ignored by all the men responding to him directly.
  • Triton’s sudden turn as a badass means that this show is in the awkward position of only featuring people of color when they’re weaponized on behalf of a white royal family. Karnak, Gorgon, Auran, and now Triton are all just tools for the royals.
  • The last clip of (SPOILERS) Gorgon returning as a zombified version of himself leans into the worst stereotypes of the animalistic, violent black man and I really hope they manage to salvage that next week. I don’t think they will.
  • Crystal is a whiny baby and the show could have happened without her entirely.
  • Ascribing Karnak’s abilities to Inhuman powers is really a stupidly lost opportunity. I know I said it before, but (sometimes) in the comics Karnak choses to not undergo Terragensis and his abilities are all the result of training. Putting that up against Maximus’s “give me a menu of powers, clearly my shitty life is the fault of my lack of powers” attitude would have been an interesting and powerful story element.
  • The scene where present-day Medusa and Black Bolt are laid over a flashback to how they became friends as teens is the most painful and poorly executed “special effect” I’ve seen since high school. It looks like it was made fifty years ago by carefully putting two reels of actual film together. I bet they hired the same ABC exec’s film student kid as they paid to do the opening theme.
  • I’m conflicted about it, but I wish they hadn’t passed up a chance for a Doctor Who joke when Declan looks at the Terragenesis chambers and says “Looks like a phone booth.”