Though the Inhumans have been a mainstay of Marvel’s comics for decades, their journey to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been fraught with (understandable) uncertainty. Think about it: How do you even ground the Inhumans’ epic, larger-than-life story in a “realistic” world like the MCU?
While every good story about the Inhumans is quintessentially about family drama, it is the literal majesty and wondrous trappings of their world that sets them apart from other Marvel characters. In the comics, when the Avengers and co. don’t get along, it’s because they’re a bunch of relatively normal people who get caught up in their feelings and decide to punch each other until they feel better. The Inhumans’ drama, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in the sort of long-held resentments, betrayals, and power struggles that are the natural byproduct of monarchies both fictional and real.
The Inhuman royal family aren’t just a bunch of superheroes and villains, they’re literal kings and queens and usurpers battling for the control of the throne and the fate of their people. In space (sometimes). Theirs is the sort of story that would be difficult to bring to a movie or TV screen, even in the best of circumstances, but in a truly surprising way, Marvel and ABC’s Inhumans television show actually manages to do something... interesting.
Whatever complications that led to Marvel revamping the Inhumans movie as a TV show are readily apparent the moment that Inhumans begins. If you’ve watched pretty much any of ABC and Marvel’s promotion for the show, then you’ve heard just how how heavily the studios are emphasizing the fact the series was partially filmed with IMAX cameras. The IMAX corporation’s involvement in Inhumans is undoubtedly a large reason why the show even exists and, to their credit, there are moments in the first two episodes that are currently showing in IMAX theaters that the technology involved really do convey a grandeur befitting of the story being told.
Black Bolt (Ansom Mount) and Medusa (Serinda Swan) rule over the Inhuman kingdom Atillan, an improbably hidden city located on the moon where the majority of the population lives as a disenfranchised underclass that works in mines. Princess Crytal (Isabelle Cornish) enjoys her charmed life and breezes through the city with the family’s gargantuan teleporting dog Lockjaw, while Maximus (Iwan Rheon) broods in his brother Black Bolt’s shadow, resenting the fact that he himself isn’t king.
The royal family’s unsteady balance of power tips when Maximus launches a coup against his brother just as Triton, their cousin, is dispatched to earth on a mission to investigate an event involving an Earth-born Inhuman (see: Agents of Shield). Fearing for the lives, the bulk of the royal family flee to Earth as Maximus and those loyal to them rally the underclass to their side, arguing that the time for change and true equality amongst the Inhumans has finally arrived.
Inhumans effectively sets the stage for a grand, sweeping narrative in which every major player is on a distinct personal journey that would make for an excellent season of television. Though Black Bolt is king, Medusa is the fulcrum of power at the center of the family’s drama—not just because she acts as her silent husband’s interpreter, or because she’s the object of her brother-in-law’s romantic desires, but because she’s keenly aware of the fragility of the monarchy. Karnak (Ken Leung) is both Black Bolt’s cousin and trusted advisor who can visualize the structural flaws in people and things as well as predict the probability of events at superhuman speeds. After an accident on earth, his abilities begin to falter and for the first time in his life, he’s unable to move through the world with absolute certainty. Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor), another cousin to the king and head of the Royal Guard, grapples with the fact that he was unable to see Maximus as the traitor that he is or stop the insurrection before it happened.
For all of the potential that these threads have, the larger tapestry that Inhumans could try to weave is undeniably tarnished by the show’s obvious budget constraints. Atillan is meant to be an impressive, if discreet, kingdom, yet every shot of the city either looks like a badly rendered cutscene from a video game (the wide shots) or like it was shot on a sound stage (the interior shots). Medusa’s superhumanly strong, prehensile hair, which is her power, moves with all of the special effects magic of a film from the late ‘90s.
There are fleeting glimpses of what Inhumans could have been in an alternate universe where the show was given the necessary resources to truly shine. During a fight scene between Karnak and a squad of Maximus’ rebels, we see the world as he perceives it: What seems at first to be a very choreographed battle that ends in Karnak’s death is actually his visualization of one potential sequence of events in which he and everyone in the room are marked with translucent, glowing sigils that track their movement. After Karnak is seemingly “dead,” he gets up, the scene resets, and he choses a different course of action that ends in his victory. It’s a clever, fun riff on the way the Karnak is portrayed in the comics that suggests a genuine creative spirit that’s a victim of Inhumans’ budgetary happenstance.
To be clear, if you go to see Inhumans in this weekend, it will dawn on you at some point that you are in a movie theater watching a television show that was supposed to be a movie and will also be airing on television in a couple of weeks. That realization will confuse you, perhaps make you chuckle to yourself, and probably make you wonder whether your money would have been better spent elsewhere.
Inhumans is neither good nor bad. Rather, it’s in a perpetual state of existential flux that is impossible not to recognize.