Review: Marvel's INHUMANS 'All Dressed Up But Has Nothing To Say' (4/10)

"Inhumans" still
Credit: Marvel Television
Credit: ABC/Marvel Studios

Inhumans: The IMAX Experience
Directed by Roel Reine
Written by Scott Buck
Starring Anson Mount, Serinda Swan, Iwan Rheon, Ken Leung, Eme Ikwuakor, and Isabelle Cornish
Produced by ABC Television Studios and Marvel Television
In IMAX Theatres August 31
‘Rama Rating: 4 out of 10

On paper, Inhumans feels like the answer to much of what ails Marvel Television. As opposed to its larger-than-life cinematic counterpart, Marvel’s live-action TV unit has felt like a paradox - with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, these series both live in a world full of wondrous superheroes... yet are defined largely by the absence of any of these budget-heavy superpowers. But with Inhumans, that perception looked ready to change, as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s wild and eccentric Royal Family of Attilan will finally make their grand debut on IMAX screens Thursday evening.

Well, at least it looked grand on paper.

Credit: Marvel Television

The more people involved in any creative production, the more likely you are to wash out any sort of voice or style in a production. But in Inhumans, which already would be a weird, tough sell to really deliver that Kirby-esque strangeness, the final product feels aimless and bleached-out, with its network television sensibilities and budget feels self-consciously evident. And given that viewers will be able to see a quarter of the entire series beginning this week at IMAX, there’s not a lot of room for showrunner Scott Buck and company to maneuver to give this Game of Thrones-lite series its necessary punch.

Credit: Marvel Television

If there’s been any word that Marvel and ABC have used to describe Inhumans it’s “family,” showing that Black Bolt, Medusa, and their clan on Attilan have to deal not just with political intrigue but also their own interpersonal dynamic. And like I’ve said before, on paper that sounds fine - but the devils that plague this show are all in the execution. Much of this comes from normally talented actors being shoehorned into some very awkward roles -Anson Mount, the usually terrific Hell on Wheels alum, loses every weapon he has to emote in the thankless role of the silent king Black Bolt, as he’s locked into a perpetual wide-eyed frown that feels half-deer in headlights, half-Mister Bean. It’s a shame, because Mount has done his homework in trying to create a series of gestures for Bolt to communicate with, but it either comes across as redundant when other characters translate for him, or doesn’t quite have the comedic punch when he’s inevitably cast out to Earth on his own.

Credit: Marvel Television

Unfortunately, with the show’s foundations this shaky, the rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Serinda Swan, who plays Bolt’s queen Medusa, becomes almost the metaphor for the show - a character who is defined by her wild living hair, but is largely trapped in a flat, cheap-looking wig. She’s given the most emotional scenery to chew on, from having her living hair shaved off during Maximus’ coup of Attlian to engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat in the two-parter’s finale, but Swan doesn’t have the weight of a Lena Headey to show how heavy the head is that rests the crown. Medusa’s sister, Crystal, will likely be the Danny Rand of the show, making little use of Isabelle Cornish’s charm - coming across as the spoiled brat of the Royal Family, she’s sidelined almost immediately, locked in her apartment by Maximus while the rest of her family flees to Earth, kept company by her way-too-CGI’d dog Lockjaw. When Crystal’s one attempt at escaping winds up leading Maximus’ forces directly to Medusa, you can’t help but facepalm.

Credit: Marvel Television

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is Ken Leung as Karnak - as a fan of both the actor and the character, it really stung to see the actor’s expressions blocked out by the barest of green tattoos, while his meant-to-be-bleak dialogue instead comes across as awkward and overwritten. (And that’s not even including the use of his unique, combat-ready powers - if you thought the fight scenes in Iron Fist were bad, you’re about to get one-upped with Karnak, a slow, unenergetic affair which takes place under unforgiving fluorescent lights.) The two actors who fare best in the series is Iwan Rheon’s Maximus, who coasts through the episode with an expressiveness that laps the rest of the cast, and Eme Ikwuakor, who plays Gorgon with charm as an impulsive bruiser (who unfortunately doesn’t get much to do, getting sidelined with a laid-back group of Hawaiian surfers while he waits for his ride to return).

Credit: Marvel Television

And that’s where things looking good on paper come back into play. Showrunner Scott Buck’s instincts to rely more on his characters than on his plot is a good instinct - but because the acting and the production values seem so wooden, that makes the overall arc of this series seem more threadbare than ambitious. There’s an interesting kernel of political drama at the heart of Inhumans - namely, that Attilan is a closed-off, stagnating society of dwindling resources, with Terregenesis providing the catalyst between the haves (the people who develop superpowers) and the have-nots (the normals who get thrown into the mines as slave labor). It’s inherently unjust, and Maximus - the only Royal Family member to not have powers - feels like the sole voice of reason as he begs Black Bolt to allow the Inhumans to return to Earth. (It’s telling that even Medusa seems to waver from her indecisive king in this regard, which would have made for some rich drama as the Queen pulled between two brothers who desperately prize her political and romantic allegiance.)

Credit: Marvel Television

But when you cast somebody like Iwan Rheon as Maximus the Mad, there’s little room for dramatic ambiguity, and he goes into full-on monologuing dictator mode almost immediately, conjuring up an armed Inhuman insurrection off-screen and forcing the Royal Family to flee via teleporting dog to various parts of Hawaii (which, honestly, where do I sign up for this kind of exile?). It’s here that the inconsistencies of Inhumans start to really pile up: Why would superpowered Inhumans rally around Maximus, who’s already established himself as the champion of the oppressed non-powered citizens? Why would Black Bolt and company flee to Earth as opposed to another corner of Attilan, given Bolt’s antipathy towards the planet? Even the coup and its aftermath have their own errors to grapple with - such as how the isolated kingdom of Attilan could produce an electric shaver (!) to deal with Medusa’s irksome hair, or how Black Bolt can be confused by the concept of cars in one scene, while Medusa knows about cars, buses and traffic in another. (Even Gorgon’s massive hoofed appearance is immediately shrugged off when he’s spotted by a group of humans, who seem to know almost as much about Inhumans as he does!)

Credit: Marvel Television

There’s a lot of potential in this series’ twin settings of Earth and Attilan - either as political drama about the future of a self-destructing society or as the ultimate fish-out-of-water story - but this series not so much refuses to choose between the two as much as fails to acknowledge any particular angle whatsoever. Some of this might be due to the unique monetary and timing issues of this series, which was likely compounded by the requirement to premiere in IMAX - Lord knows I wish some of that money had gone into CGIing Medusa’s hair permanently, or beefing up Karnak’s power set, or even into making the sets seem a little more Kirby and a little less modern IKEA.

Credit: Marvel Television

But given Buck’s track record with Dexter and Iron Fist (which, for the sake of comparison, is far worse than this show), Inhumans also seems to have been misdirected from the jump, and every layer of the show has unfortunately followed suit. Much of this might be attributed to the constraints the show was working under - this show would have been a difficult feat to pull off for many producers, and if the enthusiasm of the cast is any indication, the result is not of a failure of effort but a failure of imagination. We live in a world where DC Television has shown us a rollicking superhero show is possible (and across far more episodes), from The Flash to Supergirl to the sprawling, ambitious DC'sLegends of Tomorrow, the latter of which should have been Inhumans’ guiding light. This show sounded great on paper, but after years of buildup, Inhumans feels like its lead character, Black Bolt - all dressed up but has nothing to say.

Inhumans debuts Thursday, August 31 in IMAX theaters with its ABC debut September 29.

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