'Marvel's Inhumans': TV Review

After its Imax debut, at least now the only cost is your time.

Marvel's latest venture (on ABC) combines poorly developed characters, confusing superpowers and lovely Hawaiian scenery into a leaden dud.

Inverting the traditional drug-dealing formula, Marvel decided to give viewers a first taste of Inhumans at inflated and entirely unjustifiable Imax theatrical costs a couple of weeks back before bringing the superhero dramedy to the more reasonably priced terrain of ABC starting Friday. Frank Sinatra and others sang about the best things in life being free, but at least now the same is true of the worst things.

Even though they're corporate siblings, ABC has rejected potential shows from Marvel before, which puts the onus on the network for agreeing to a straight-to-series order for Inhumans at all. Run through the regular pilot process, nobody could possibly have looked at the first hour or two and seen any real potential. So yes, there's a critical dogpile on Inhumans, but it's one that was completely and easily avoidable.

The first two hours of Marvel's Inhumans, slightly changed in ways I can't identify from the Imax cut, introduce us to the royal family of Attilan, a secret city on the moon where a ritual called Terrigenesis brings out genetically inscribed powers in the upper caste and forces the ability-free to toil away in lunar mines as part of an economic system that doesn't make a lick of sense. Black Bolt (Anson Mount), he of a killer voice that has made him voluntarily mute, is the king, married to Medusa (Serinda Swan), gifted with the ability to control her long, red, computer-generated hair. Black Bolt's entourage includes cousins Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor), whose power is either hunting or just having hooves, and Karnak (Ken Leung), blessed with a power that both writer Scott Buck and director Roel Reine have been unable to express onscreen. My best guess on Karnak's power was "practical nihilism," but that may just have been how I was feeling as I watched Inhumans, not that Leung, the best human piece of the cast, is at fault.

Powers are fun and cool. They're also a tool of oppression on Attilan, and Black Bolt's all-too-human brother Maximus (Iwan Rheon) has only been spared from the mines by his family connections. Overlooked too long, Maximus is plotting a revolt and since he's definitely the Bernie Sanders of Attilan, we'd probably be rooting for him were he not played by Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones.

Despite having the same writer and director, the first two hours of Inhumans are two entirely different shows, neither even slightly successful.

The opening hour plays like warmed-over Shakespeare, performed with an all-model cast and a gigantic CGI dog named Lockjaw. It's supposed to be character-building and world-building, all mired in an ultra-seriousness that dooms every snippet of dialogue and every attempted articulation of powers. Each stab at exposition raises more questions than it answers, and whether it's the ill-fitted suits or the artificial gravity of the mood, the actors have all been instructed to be as wooden and close to immobile as possible. It's bad when the show is unprepared to handle the stilted courtly intrigue, but at least it isn't offensive. When the show tries to wring emotions from a scene of metaphorical rape, it's much worse. The nadir comes when the pilot utilizes not one but two montages set to dirge-like covers of classic rock hits. Guys, you were entitled to either a superfluously murky "Break on Through" or a redundantly gloomy "Paint It Black," but not both. Definitely not both.

The first hour at least has some pretty Hawaiian scenery, and some of the effects aren't wretched. Medusa's ultra-powerful hair has been much improved from the original cut sent to critics, and there's little doubt that if Inhumans weren't a dud, the lovably slobbering Lockjaw would be a breakout character. I'd praise some of the other power effects as competent, except that in a pilot, clarity is the most important thing and if I can't tell you what half the characters' powers are, the effects have at least partially failed.

In the second hour, again there are some lovely shots of green Hawaiian cliffs and blue ocean, but Inhumans becomes essentially a fish-out-of-water comedy with the royals down in Honolulu. Think Marvel's Coming to America, but with an inconsistent sense of humorous intent. Not to harp on the music supervision here, but a scene trying on suits set to ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" is the low point in an episode that also abandons almost all of its effects, including poor shelved Lockjaw. I can't say if the decision to de-emphasize powers in this episode is based on budgetary concerns or the desire to concentrate on character, but it's one of those circumstances where a show says, "Here we are upending everything you think you know about the characters," and I say, "But I don't know anything about the characters."

Underwritten parts and miscasting does nobody in the ensemble any favors. Rheon's sincerity as Maximus is unquestionable, but it's also completely one-note. Mount, who I think is an underrated performer on many levels, is a poor choice for a character who has to mask his lack of speech with other forms of expressiveness and, in the second hour, becomes an exaggerated walking gif of reactions to the strange world around him. Ellen Woglom is playing a scientist in a private aerospace company, and each time she appears, I kept forgetting we'd seen her before and this is completely the fault of the writing, or lack thereof. Really, Leung is the only Inhumans star who escapes unscathed, and that's because Karnak's approach to the world around him is general distaste.

Who and what we're supposed to be rooting for is maybe the biggest flaw in a series of insurmountable flaws and a crucial bit of storytelling Buck was unable to crack. He had a similar problem on Netflix's Marvel's Iron Fist, where the easiest rooting interest was "anybody other than the title character."

Like I said, Maximus is the populist who should have our support, but he does evil things in evil ways and the show definitely finds no empathy in his quest for equality. Woglom's Louise is the only Earthly character with more than a line or two of dialogue, but she has no motivations and the show presents no stakes for what the arrival of the inhumans might mean for Earthly society. The royals are cold, disinterested aristocrats and we're given to suspect they're repressive. I feel bad for Attilan's mining minions if the royals restore order, but since I don't know anything about their lives, what they're mining for, what they're even there for and Maximus is their only representative figure, I have no interest in their taking over.

Upon reflection, I guess I'm prepared to take a side: If Black Bolt and Medusa win, the inhumans go back into hiding and isolation on the moon and we need never hear from them again. That, I guess, is something to endorse.

Cast: Anson Mount, Serinda Swan, Ken Leung, Isabelle Cornish, Ellen Woglom, Iwan Rheon, Lockjaw
Creator: Scott Buck
Premieres: Friday, 8 p.m. ET/PT; subsequent episodes airs Fridays at 9 p.m. (ABC)