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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Weak acting and unlikable protagonists plague <i>Marvel’s Inhumans</i><em></em>

Weak acting and unlikable protagonists plague Marvel’s Inhumans

Watching the two-episode Marvel’s Inhumans premiere feels oddly anticlimactic. The trailers released this summer were the subject of some hilarious and pointed criticism, and beyond the usual early screenings for fans and critics, the first two episodes were aired as a 90-minute film in IMAX theaters earlier this month. Seeing the premiere now feels almost like an exercise in futility, a pity watch as ABC modifies ads for the series to include the ominous phrase “the complete series.”

Opening without any explanation on a fight scene isn’t inherently a bad choice, but your average ABC viewers, and even your average Marvel Cinematic Universe fans, don’t have any idea why there are humanoid people with decidedly non-human features in Hawaii, let alone why they’re getting shot at. Sometimes, pushing the audience into the deep end and slowly unpacking the story around them works really well, but this feels more like an excuse to do some slow motion shots with carefully crafted driving music than a story-driven choice. Even though it’s a setup for a major plot point, the opening scene feels very different from the rest of the episode, like it was tacked on later in an attempt to provide a little bit of context when the first few screenings confused audiences. It does have the added benefit of ensuring the show didn’t begin with two people naked in bed together, which is appreciated, but the transition from fight to bed isn’t a smooth one, and the post-coital cuddle is just as awkward as TV can make it.

Doubling down on that initial choice, Marvel’s Inhumans dives in feet-first to the kind of drama and ridiculousness that fans have come to expect both from Marvel and from these characters, specifically. Superhero comics are closer in nature to soap operas than some people want to admit, carrying decades of canon and over the top interpersonal theatrics just like soaps. If superhero comics writ large are soap operas, the Inhumans, in comic form, are Shondaland on the scale of Lord Of The Rings. But on TV, Marvel’s Inhumans doesn’t lean into that skid, leaving us with a messy 90 minutes full of too much talking and several completely unnecessary flashbacks.

Most of the first episode is dominated by trying to set up the backstory of the royal family and the city of Attilan, which is on the moon for reasons that aren’t discussed. Black Bolt (Anson Mount) is the king of Attilan, with Medusa (Serinda Swan) as his queen. Introductions happen quickly and with a lot more exposition than is necessary, and far too much of the episode is devoted to the ceremony that helps Inhumans discover their personal superpowers, especially since there’s no explanation of how the Terrigan mists trigger their powers, or how the mists apparently started appearing on Earth. Almost immediately, Black Bolt’s brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon) begins to foment political unrest that he quickly leverages into a coup that’s clearly been waiting in the wings for some time.

The coup seems to catch everyone by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t. Maximus bungles his attempts to take Black Bolt, Medusa, and their closest friends captive, and several of them end up on Earth, close to where the first scene took place. They’re separated from one another and from everything they know, and in the second episode it finally feels like things start to happen as they try to locate each other and regroup. Black Bolt and Medusa both start to show some actual personality once they’re trapped on Earth, but it might be too little, too late.

Pacing is a huge issue for Marvel’s Inhumans. Unlike even the less popular members of the MCU, there’s no real pop culture institutional knowledge about these characters, so the first two episodes oscillate between pushing backstory and context onto the audience through painfully excessive exposition and ramming the plot forward with and speed that isn’t ever explained. Maximus in particular talks a lot, which is a classic comic book bad guy fault, but the sudden and rapid escalation of his takeover feels contrived and there’s no sense of urgency despite the breakneck pace. As the sole human of the group with no powers of his own, it’s clear that he has reason to resent Black Bolt in particular, but the show relies far too much on Rheon’s ability to act with his face and doesn’t manage to convey any tension between the brothers beyond some pointed expressions.

This begs the question of how Rheon got cast as Maximus, and doubly so how Mount became Black Bolt. Rheon is a not a big guy, and it does at least lend Maximus an air of Napoleonic resentment that’s useful in filling in the characterization gaps the writers left behind. But Rheon spends most of his scenes acting circles around other people, and he looks a little bored, which further highlights that Mount in particular was a bad choice for his role. Black Bolt’s power is that his voice creates destructive sonic blasts, so he spends the majority of the episode entirely mute; the problem is that Mount seems to have confused “mute” for “stoic” and “stoic” for “confused and maybe a little constipated.” He spends most of the 90 minutes scowling at everything, only showing a little bit of teasing humor by moving his eyebrows half an inch when interacting human police after his exile to Earth.

Mount’s flat affect is compounded by a lack of chemistry with Swan. In other shows with grand scope and large casts, that missing spark might be something easy to overcome, but Black Bolt relies heavily on Medusa to translate for him, and these two are supposed to be a love affair for the ages, if the swelling violins every time they’re alone together are any indication. Swan flings herself into her lines and delivers them with the kind of teeth-clenched, wet-eyed determination that show she could probably do pretty well with a better script, and she and her terrible wig steal every scene right out from under Mount’s nose.

Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) and Karnak (Ken Leung) bring some much needed levity and personality to the show. Leung has often been one of the most enjoyable parts of everything he’s in, but his talents are often not leveraged to their full extent. Karnak is a great opportunity to show off Leung’s comedic timing and his dry delivery, though the choice to display his skill at puzzles and observation visually on the screen diminishes the character’s backstory a bit. Like Maximus, Karnak has no powers of his own, instead relying on martial art skills and strategic abilities to dominate situations; unlike Maximus, Karnak chose not to undergo the ceremony to unveil his potential Inhuman power, and that makes his backstory far more nuanced and interesting than it’s framed in the show; it would especially complicate Maximus’s coup, relying so heavily on the oppression of non-powered Inhumans to support his bid for the throne.

Like Karnak and Gorgon, the massive teleporting bulldog Lockjaw isn’t on screen for nearly long enough. Whereas the visual effects for Attilan, Medusa’s hair, and other Inhumans’ abilities feel mediocre at best, Lockjaw looks pretty great on the screen. That’s the benefit of not having to directly attach to a human actor. Unfortunately, Isabelle Cornish, who plays Medusa’s sister Crystal and the character who most frequently interacts with Lockjaw, isn’t really up to the task of acting opposite a completely computer-generated costar.

Marvel’s Inhumans feels a lot like ABC’s attempt at making their own Game Of Thrones, but without the brutality and sex, or the budget. There are decades of stories to pull content from, and generally speaking the Inhumans are a good fit for that kind of story. The problem is that, unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there’s no built in audience with at least a passing fondness for some of the characters and familiarity with the basic premise. That’s not a problem of ABC’s making, and they’re now saddled with the same problem Marvel has in the comics.

In serious financial trouble in the 1980s, Marvel sold the rights for several of their characters to other companies: that’s how we ended up with the X-Men at Fox and Spider-Man at Sony. With the success of the MCU, particularly after Disney bought Marvel in 2009, Sony has been increasingly willing to play ball with the House of Mouse, but Fox is holding out. With the X-Men largely off limits on screen, Marvel has been trying to diminish their role over all, pushing the Inhumans to replace them. It’s a relatively convenient swap: trade mutant powers for Terrigen mists and you’re done. The problem is that the X-Men have long held a particular spot, and the Inhumans just aren’t up to that kind of story. The X-Men have, to varying degrees of success, been used as metaphors for all sorts of bigotry, from racism to homophobia. Oppressing, fearing, and killing mutantkind is a cornerstone of a lot of Marvel mythos, and it can be really powerful when done right. But with Fox still holding on to the rights, Marvel can’t use those characters, and trying to shoehorn literal royalty into the moral heart of their universe doesn’t go well.

Every other word out of Medusa’s mouth sounds petulant. She repeatedly calls herself the queen of Attilan, and generally looks like she’s on the verge of throwing a tantrum when people don’t treat her with the respect she believes she’s due. Making her the literal mouthpiece for Black Bolt, and giving her a snarky, irreverent young sister only furthers the impression that the royal family are spoiled assholes that are more concerned with their own status than the survival of their people. This leaves Maximus as a hero to the people, intent on expanding Attilan’s control to ensure all Inhumans have access to resources and enough to survive. His coup is firmly founded in a political uprising that takes power from the privileged few and redistributes it to the people who have suffered the most. It certainly doesn’t help that the people who control access to Terrigan, and thus the Inhuman powers, are called the Genetic Council; the Genetic Council also reinforces a structure that puts non-powered Attilanians into what looks a lot like slavery. Anybody fighting that is going to come out smelling like roses, comparatively speaking.

If the acting was better, if Marvel’s Inhumans gave the audience several episodes of character development and backstory instead of rushing through, I can see the show working. I can see how Rheon would have leaned into his role as the mastermind manipulating plebeians to amass power for himself. But as it is, there’s no reason to sympathize with Black Bolt, Medusa, or Crystal. I want Gorgon and Karnak to come out of the whole thing alright, but that still leaves Maximus as the Robin Hood to his brother’s silent King John, and trying to haul the audience back to the point where they care about the royals more than their replacement is going to be tough. Although the supporting cast has a lot of skill and might be able to carry the leads, the budgetary restrictions and clunky writing have hamstrung the show. Retaining an audience after a premiere isn’t easy for any show, let alone one that exists in such a crowded niche. There are better family-centric science fiction and fantasy shows out there, and the fact that this is on broadcast TV probably just won’t be enough to keep people coming back. Just like with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netfilx shows, there’s no indication Marvel’s Inhumans will have any impact on the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, so finding a compelling reason to tune in regularly is hard.

Stray observations:

  • Someone needs to be punished for not revealing in this episode that “Black Bolt” is his nickname, his full name is Blackagar Boltagon.
  • The blatant indulgence of the female gaze when Black Bolt replaces his crappy pleather king costume for a properly fitted, brightly colored suit is a pleasant change of pace.
  • Despite being set in Hawai’i, which feels like an attempt to recycle Lost, there’s not a lot of actual Hawai’i in this show. The most we get are some wise surfer bros that Gorgon hangs out with, so at least they managed to sneak in some benevolent racism.
  • Isabelle Cornish looks weirdly like Kaley Cuoco for most of the episode and it was a struggle not to hold that against her.
  • Triton (Mike Moh), one of Black Bolt’s cousins/advisors, is on screen for maybe three minutes and continues the grand MCU tradition of painting actual people of color green or blue instead of letting them be who they are. Gorgon is a rare exception to that rule, toning down his character design just a little and letting Ikwuakor’s excellent facial expressions come through.
  • I would happily watch a Karnak and Gorgon buddy cop show.
  • I’m confused by pretty much everybody’s lack of motivation in this show, but particularly Auran (Sonya Balmores) who does whatever Maximus tells her to for...some reason?
  • Cornish and Swan should sue ABC for creating a hostile workplace with those terrible costumes and the hamfisted attempts at sci fi hair. The men don’t look much better, but the costumes for the two women are so poorly designed and constructed.
  • They should have used the Karnak tattoos from Gerardo Zaffino and Warren Ellis’s run, they’re way cooler.
  • The Inhumans have a pronunciation and enunciation problem: said aloud, Attilan sounds like the bastard child of Adelaide, and the line between Terrigen mists and “terra” as in “from Earth” is too blurry to be comfortable. The royal family thankfully has names that are at least vaguely recognizable to most English speakers, but the rest of the citizens of Attilan are tough to follow. Without subtitles on, it took me a couple tries to understand the names of two teens who undergo the Terrigan mist ceremony, and I’m pretty sure I still didn’t get them right. Because the Inhumans have their own written language, there are no written cues for the audience to latch on to. These are problems that comics just don’t have, and the show is paying for it.
  • Allowing Mount and Swan to create their own sign language to communicate instead of using American Sign Language was stupid. That was a bad decision. What’s worse is that the only person who bothered to learn Black Bolt’s personal sign language is his wife. He’s in at least his thirties, there’s no excuse for his brother and closest advisers to not at least try.
  • Now I want Nyle Dimarco to play Black Bolt. He’s a lot more compelling, charming, and he’s got actual human facial expressions.