Conceptually speaking, there’s always been a fundamental disconnect at the heart of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Inhumans, at least when presenting them as outright heroes. Sans either self-awareness of self-criticism, Blackbolt, Medusa and their kin are monarchs whose entire kingdom functions on blood-purity. That element is understandably carried over to Marvel/ABC’s Inhumans, the first two episodes of which premiere in IMAX today (for a now reduced one-week engagement), and a neat narrative subversion manages to circumvent this glaring blind-spot – that is, until the only thing that works about its initial episodes is subverted, resulting in a haphazard mess from top to bottom.
Chances are you’ve made up your mind about Inhumans based on its trailers, and I wouldn’t begrudge you skipping out on it for its cheap design. It doesn’t feel like something that belongs on IMAX screens, though its presentation issues run far deeper than its chosen fabrics. Its meticulously designed opening credits scream “Prestige TV!” as they shimmer with character logos familiar to all 0.001% of the audience, but they’re also the entry-point into this universe; a full two minutes of music and neon tribal insignia that promise something awe-inspiring before even a moment of actual footage. When we finally cut to the chase, literally speaking, the flaws in this large-screen presentation become awfully apparent. While no single costume or set element is given the chance to stick out sorely (a mid-forest chase is where we meet our first Inhumans, characters we only see once), the canvas becomes the narrative’s worst enemy. Where television can healthily be a format of medium-shots, the several storey high window into this world feels neither large enough in scale to grab attention – that is to say, it presents no sense of scale to begin with – nor intimate enough to truly matter.
Once we do get to Attilan, the Inhumans’ moon-kingdom shielded from Earth’s cameras, there is at least some sense of novelty. Medusa (Serinda Swan) and Blackbolt (Anson Mount) lay in bed, her hair sprawled out all over him, clutching his wrist when he reaches for his beeping hi-tech communicator. “Remember what it was like before we were King and Queen?” she asks him. A logical introduction to a King and a Queen despite its heavy-handedness, but neither in this moment nor in any other over the first two episodes is this question ever answered despite it coming up multiple times as an integral part of the narrative.
The city of Attilan has a sense of physical presence, but it has no real sense of place. Every corner is a muddy grey, from its royal chambers to its slave mines to the hallways connecting the two, and nothing truly distinguishes its people from one another aside from miners having a bit of facial dirt. The Inhumans’ royal quarters (referred to as “apartments”) are indistinguishable from Earth’s hotel rooms, and the only indication that these characters are meant to be regal comes through dialogue.
Blackbolt’s cousins, his advisor Karnak (Ken Leung) and his hoofed royal guard Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) are the only two characters whose interpersonal dynamic makes them feel like they have a history, and a playful one at that. The motivations of Blackbolt’s brother, Iwan Rheon’s Maximus, also make complete sense at first. He’s a revolutionary who finds kinship in his fellow “un-evolved” Inhumans, i.e. simple humans whose genetic rituals yield no super powered results. He promises them freedom on Earth rather than having to work in the mines when they display no Inhuman genome… yet somehow even this premise fails to stick, as Inhumans with powers and physical mutations are later seen in the mines. It also turns out Maximus has been secretly planning a coup so he can rule Attilan. Ignoring the fact that the social structure of this kingdom makes no sense – it ought to, since this society determined by a “genetic council” is the central point of contention and the sole reason the royal family 1) refuses to return to Earth, and 2) sends help to retrieve the few Inhumans who have evolved on the surface – this sudden turn also robs Maximus of clear motivations when he was the only character who had any.
Karnak and Gorgon, after their playful banter with one another, come off as slimy aristocrats when they talk down to their servants, and given that Blackbolt can’t speak, the only insight we have into his psyche is the social order he wishes to maintain, i.e. a genetic caste system. There’s no way to empathize with those goals, especially once we’ve seen the lowly non-Inhumans (or Inhumans? It isn’t quite clear) slaving away in the mines. So once the royals are forced to escape to Earth during Maximus’ coup, scattered from one another though not by much, there’s not only a lack of immediacy to their goals with regards to re-uniting – they’re simply lost, and nobody’s taking any immediate steps to find anyone else – there’s also no reason to root for these characters. Forget supporting their goals of re-establishing or continuing a monarchy, they have no discernible internal struggles or points of view in relation to this setup.
What WAS it like before Medusa was queen? Why do her loyalties lie with a lineage she married into, one we’re told her family hated? What’s the alternative to kingship for Blackbolt? What does he lose by stepping down or being overthrown? He’s on Earth shoplifting suits and assaulting cops and security guards, sure, but not a single character has any kind of objective one can understand. These could hypothetically be answered later on in the series, but they’re vital to empathizing with where these characters are right now. Physically, the royals are stuck on Earth and Maximus is in the throne room. The royals want to get back to Attilan. Maximus wants to stop them.
We can certainly intellectualize it, in that Attilan is a kingdom both factions want to rule, but there’s no dramatized reason for us to be interested in either of them ruling. The royals are the protagonists of this series. What would we get out of them returning? There’s not a single challenge to their beliefs, internally or externally for a full two episodes, so why after 90 minutes would we be invested in their journeys? Maximus had what felt like an interesting motivation at the outset. As an Inhuman cast aside as merely human for failing to evolve, he has every reason to be a revolutionary to his fellow non-Inhumans on Attilan, but these motivations are revealed to be a ruse and no actual motivations come to light other than his ascending to the throne. Besides, who would he even be a revolutionary to, and why, if the series’ caste system can’t even decide what it is? If his true goal is to rule Attilan in his brother’s stead, then why be the only voice rallying the people against the idea of a monarchy?
Karnak, an Inhuman whose powers allow him to calculate choices and probabilities to the nth degree, loses these abilities by falling down a cliff and knocking his head, when it’s established that he’d be able to calculate past these sort of happenstances. It may sound like nitpicking, but it’s emblematic of how the established logic of the show fails itself at every turn. Gorgon, whose royal family touts the idea that humans would hate and fear his kind, makes instant friends with some surfers who save him from drowning in Hawaii. This is one of the very first encounters between humans and Inhumans we see in the series. The humans not fearing him despite his hooves is a nice twist (they appear to have read about Inhumans, who are commonplace post Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but it’s never contextualized in terms of Gorgon learning something markedly different from the narrative of his entire kingdom. Instead of a vastly important character moment, it’s tensionless and works against the show’s very premise.
The Inhumans have lived on the Moon for generations, yet they’re familiar with contemporary Earth concepts like cars and buses when they appear to have nothing of the sort on Attilan. This shouldn’t be an issue, and I’d ordinarily ignore it, but Blackbolt & co. also have wrist-communicators that function like smart phones, yet his first fish out of water moment comes when he’s bewildered by a cell phone. What? There are minor inconsistencies one can look past, and then there are major holes in the very construction of this world and these characters, and how they function in relation to each other and to us. Everything is a head-scratcher, and looking past the logistics yields little by way of character motivations to latch on to.
I hate nitpicking. Hate it. But everything about Inhumans feels like it can’t be approached without sounding like a nitpick, because it all fails to coalesce on even the most basic dramatic levels. I’m easy to please when it comes to superheroes too, but if there’s no semblance of who a character is, what they want, how their out-there world functions (or why) and how any of these factors affect each other, then even I will lose interest! Instead of establishing any of this, the first two episodes take their time to re-tread easily understood factual information (like the fact that Maximus planned a coup) via flashbacks to a few minutes prior, ad nauseam. Not just a few minutes when measured in screen time, but a few minutes within the narrative itself. No, really. There are several instances when characters recall information that was told to them minutes prior, and we see snippets of conversations play out a second time despite knowing what’s happening from every angle.
As far as these first two episodes go, it’s a show made entirely of baffling, wrong-headed decisions that actively work against capturing your interest. This is usually the bit where I dig deep to find some sort of redeeming quality, but other than the performances (which are all fine, despite being wasted on a tonally confused approach), I’m struggling to find anything good to talk about. Which sucks, because these characters and this world have so much dramatic potential. All the seeds are right there! There are perspectives waiting to be challenged! A revolution waiting to happen! Characters waiting to learn and introspect! And all this could very well happen in future episodes, but after an hour and a half, the fact that absolutely none of it feels like a possibility doesn’t inspire confidence.
Look, maybe Inhumans will pick up. Maybe the ass-backward, lazily sketched out premise will be clarified, and maybe there will be actual reasons to understand or even root for one or more of these completely despicable assholes. But everything in this entire feature film’s worth of storytelling (presented to audiences. In theatres!) feels like a complete waste of time with nothing worthwhile teased or promised. Nothing works in terms of character or story, and the design elements that aren’t complete disasters are… fine, I guess. Lockjaw is fine. The effects are fine. Nothing in these first two episodes really helps tell an actual story, and trying to enjoy it is exhausting.