Among the heroes of ABC’s latest Marvel Comics adaptation Inhumans is Karnak (Ken Leung), who has the power to…
…well, I knew what he could do, having read many comics with the Inhumans over the years, but after they watched a rough cut of the first episode, I asked several critic friends if they could explain to me what they thought his powers were based on the show. Among the responses:
“He can go back in time?”
“He can project illusions?”
“He can read minds?”
“He can see the future?”
“He can do math?”
BZZT! Karnak can, as this nifty Jack Kirby panel explains, destroy any object or opponent, usually in a single move, by quickly identifying its deepest flaw.
The TV show intends for his powers to be the same, but does such a poor job of conveying this that you would have no way of knowing without years of comic book learnin’.
Karnak’s a relatively minor figure so far in Inhumans, which debuts Friday (I’ve seen the two-hour premiere), but the show’s ineptitude in explaining who he is and what he can do feels symbolic. Maybe the creative team didn’t want viewers to understand the whole “spot the biggest weak spot” gag because it might prime them to notice that Inhumans is pretty much all weak spots, as cynical as it is awful, clearly made by people with no idea how to tell a story about these characters, or perhaps interest in doing so.
Let’s back up a bit. The Inhumans are, to explain it as simply as I can, a group of aliens who live together in a city on the moon called Attilan. At puberty, every Inhuman is exposed to the Terrigen Mists, which can cause radical physical transformations, with amazing powers to go with them. Those who get powers are part of the societal elite; those who are untransformed are consigned to live and work in the mines below the city, as part of a rigid caste system. The characters — particularly the royal family of Black Bolt, Medusa, Karnak, Gorgon, Triton, Crystal, and Maximus — were introduced as Fantastic Four supporting players in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Kirby, and have for most of their existence struggled to rise above Marvel’s C-list, at best. There have occasionally been good standalone Inhumans stories (a late ’90s self-titled miniseries by Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee, primarily), but few Marvel fans have strong feelings for any of them beyond the gigantic teleporting bulldog, Lockjaw.
So why are they at the centerpiece of ABC’s new Marvel collaboration, and one that was part of an elaborate — and hastily-assembled — plan to premiere the first two episodes on IMAX movie screens ahead of this Friday’s premiere? That’s a business decision, not a creative one. You see, before Marvel realized it could make gajillions of dollars by producing its own movies based on famous characters, the company licensed out the movie rights to a bunch of their big names to outside studios. Spider-Man’s now partially back in the fold, but you will pry the rights to the X-Men from Fox’s cold, dead hands. In response, Marvel’s comic book line started downplaying the X-Men’s importance in the fictional universe, while trying to swap in the Inhumans as their quickie replacements, with Terrigen gas spreading across the globe and affecting anyone with Inhuman DNA somewhere in their ancestry. Though this has led to some terrific ancillary books (most notably the Kamala Khan-led Ms. Marvel), the core Inhumans are to Marvel as “fetch” was to Gretchen in Mean Girls: something the company keeps trying to make happen, even though few care.
Which brings us to this terrible show, which has had a windy and difficult path to the screen. First, a movie was announced back in 2011. Then, Agents of SHIELD was given permission to incorporate the concept of the Inhumans, but not any of the traditional characters like Black Bolt, into their second season, much to the chagrin of some of the Marvel film people. (As you may have heard, the movie and TV sides of the company do not get along.) The film, meanwhile, languished in development for years before being abandoned, at which point the TV team was given a crack at it. Who was handed this plum assignment? It was Scott Buck, the showrunner for everyone’s least-favorite Marvel show — so far, anyway, but talk to me on Friday night — in Netflix’s Iron Fist.
Was Buck chosen because Marvel needed someone who, like premiere director Roel Reine, was on board with getting this done fast and cheap to make the IMAX deadline? Or because Marvel execs had blinders on about how Iron Fist was going to be received? It can’t be because he had some kind of elaborate vision for how to tell this particular story, because time and again, the Inhumans premiere seems to go out of its way to avoid or outright eliminate anything even vaguely unique about these characters.
It goes well beyond the cryptic presentation of Karnak’s abilities, which in theory are the simplest and most TV-friendly of any of them(*). Several characters lose their powers early in the premiere, most likely because they were either too expensive and/or because they would too quickly solve many of the simplistic problems Buck and the other writers throw at the heroes. One of the more distinctive things about the Inhumans is that most of them either look weird or have weird powers, or both; if you have security chief Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) wear boots to cover the hooves he can use to create miniature earthquakes by stamping, what’s the point? In the comics, Inhuman king Black Bolt (Anson Mount) not only has a voice so deadly that he never speaks, but other powers that make him one of Marvel’s heaviest hitters; here, it’s just the voice, and since he’s so afraid to use it, he’s just a guy who glowers a lot and knows some martial arts.
(*) At the TCA summer press tour, I told Buck and Marvel TV boss Jeph Loeb about my informal poll of fellow critics about what it is that Karnak does. Loeb replied, “I’m sorry that you had that poll. I would have loved to have been part of that poll because I would have been happy to explain that it’s an opportunity for him to be able to see how he would deal with a particular situation and then take it on from there.” Suffice it to say, most people in the viewing audience will not have the luxury of one of the executive producers sitting with them to explain the show as it airs.
There’s also severe tonal confusion. Some Inhuman characters speak and carry themselves like aloof Star Trek villains, while others sound like they just had to wait on a really long line at Starbucks, and wasn’t that so annoying, right? As Black Bolt’s evil brother Maximus — who stages a coup that results in most of the royal family fleeing to Hawaii — Iwan Rheon is going for faux-Shakespeare (or wannabe Loki), where Black Bolt’s queen Medusa (Serinda Swan) and her sister Crystal (Isabelle Cornish) speak in a flat, contemporary manner. This may be a way to inject life into a bunch of characters who are historically quite boring — this version of Gorgon seems like he might be fun to have a beer with, at least — but it doesn’t add enough to compensate for losing the alien quality that’s supposed to be at the foundation of this whole thing.
Then again, the more the show focuses on the alien of it all, the worse it gets. Maximus is presented as an utter monster for wanting to abolish Inhuman traditions and take everyone away from their moon city and its lack of resources, when it’s the caste system that Black Bolt and the others support that seems awful. This could be good fodder for a more thoughtful and morally grey drama that was willing to question whether its heroes are at all heroic, but this is all done in the broadest and most simplistic fashion possible. Black Bolt is good because we’re told he is, despite evidence suggesting he’s running a cruel dictatorship, and Maximus is bad because he’s played by Ramsay from Game of Thrones. That’s it.
The whole thing — whether on the moon or down here on Earth — also looks incredibly cheap, given the resources Marvel has at its disposal. None of Marvel’s TV shows have ever resembled budget-busters (the Netflix urban vigilante shows can devote long chunks of time to two people talking in a small room), but it’s much more noticeable on a show aiming for a vastly bigger scale than Agents of SHIELD or Jessica Jones has aspired to. There are a few sequences — a chase scene in the opening minutes, our early glimpses of Attilan, a slow-mo fight in Oahu — that you can tell were shot for the IMAX experience. Maybe they look cool enough on a giant screen (for the handful of people who paid to see a TV show that would be airing on free TV within a few weeks) to compensate for how thin everything else is, but at TV scale, they’re just filler with slightly better digital effects than the rest of it.
At that TCA panel, Loeb repeatedly scolded critics who took issue with one aspect of the show or another, insisting we were being unfair in judging an unfinished product. Amazingly, the version that will air on Friday night is worse than what the TCA got to see in the summer. With each passing minute, Inhumans feels slower, dumber, and emptier. Even the one thing the show does well at first — the CGI version of Lockjaw, so enthusiastic and helpful — gets screwed up before long. The show has no reason to exist except that Marvel wanted it to, by any means necessary.
And so it does.