Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. is not exactly a popular time to see a movie, but at the AMC Century City Imax theater, there were a total of four people sitting in the audience to catch the first two episodes of ABC’s “Marvel’s Inhumans.” All of them purchased their tickets less than an hour before showtime.
Just a few days earlier, the same theater had still been screening Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” the meticulously made and visceral World War II drama that’s become a box office success and an awards season contender. Based on both this weekend’s disappointing box office reports and even worse initial reviews, “Marvel’s Inhumans” will not be remembered for either of those qualities.
“Inhumans” was a given a special theatrical release in IMAX, a new sort of effort to somehow blend the line between what we consider TV and film. While film lives on TV, TV rarely makes the sojourn to theaters, and thus “Inhumans” is the first original TV show to premiere on IMAX (though HBO did release a few Season 4 episodes of “Game of Thrones” in the large screen format a few years ago, following a TV premiere).
TV or film-wise, based on what’s being shown in IMAX right now, “Inhumans” is legitimately the worst Marvel adaptation of the year (yes, even beating out “Iron Fist”). In fact, as far as terrible Marvel adaptations go, you might have to go all the way back to Roger Corman’s unreleased 1994 “Fantastic Four” film to best it.
OK, nothing in “Inhumans” looks as bad as that rubber Thing suit — in fact, Marvel reportedly spent some serious money on polishing the effects prior to release, and on screen the money shows. But that can’t make up for deeply flawed storytelling filled with plotholes, poorly thought-out characters, and lackluster direction.
What, exactly, are Inhumans? If you haven’t been watching “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” or if you’re not a huge comic book fan, we’ll put this in simple terms: They’re a species separate from humanity, derived from alien origin, most of whom live in a city hidden from human eyes on the Moon. (It’s played for laughs only a few times, but every time an Inhuman mentions they live on the Moon it’s hard to keep a straight face.)
At a relatively young age, Inhumans go through a process where they’re exposed to magic alien crystals that awaken mutant powers in them. Those powers are received at random, which means if you get an awesome mutant power like butterfly wings or the ability to reverse time, you get to live in the upper caste of Moon society. If you don’t, then you’re down working in the mines as part of the lower caste.
There’s something dark and twisted about a society where parents are expected to put their adolescent children through a process that will permanently mutate them — not to mention the fact that their class status is determined by the results of said procedure. But it’s not something that ever gets called into question in these first two episodes by the characters we’re ostensibly meant to see as the heroes of this story, the royal family that rules Moon City (not its real name).
Black Bolt (Anson Mount) is the city’s mute king, his wife Medusa (Serinda Swan) has magic hair that can kick ass, and among the other supporting characters is Lockjaw, a human-sized CGI bulldog with the ability to teleport — as bad as this show is, Lockjaw is easily one of the best things to happen on TV this fall. Meanwhile, there’s Maximus (Iwan Rheon), the powerless brother of the king who is clearly set up as the show’s villain…theoretically, at least.
In terms of the IMAX projection, there are a few big panoramic shots that make use of the size of the screen, but also a few camera choices that prove more dizzying than eye-catching. And in general, the fact that director Roel Reiné, who told CNET that Marvel hired him because he was “fast and cheap,” brought a direct-to-video approach to a project on this scale is horrifying when you consider the size of the screen to which he graduated.
It looks better than anticipated, but Reiné misses key opportunities to create epic scale for the format. [Editor’s note: Mild spoilers.] For example, one early scene features a character being chased through a Hawaiian forest, reaching a cliff, and falling into the ocean. The cut goes directly from him running to the cliff face to a shot of the ocean, completely missing the chance for an always powerful gut-turning moment: the cliffside descent. It might be a bit clichéd, but it’s the only cliché “Inhumans” seems to avoid.
Meanwhile, it’s sad to see actors struggling with bad material while making a genuine effort. Despite Medusa’s ridiculous wig and lavender gowns (guys, you don’t have to mimic the look of the comic exactly), Swan has a few resonant moments as a performer, including one silent shot, following a personal tragedy, that does for a moment make you feel for the character. Mount, despite having to play the entirely mute Black Bolt, does get a few moments to emote with his eyebrows, which are the highlight of his otherwise stone-faced performance.
Rheon may have a reputation for evil after spending a few seasons of “Game of Thrones” mutilating and murdering folk, but he’s proven able to bring an immense amount of humanity to his characters in other roles. And this creates a fascinating imbalance that leads to the biggest flaw of both this 75-minute long presentation, as well as most likely the series itself.
Basically, it comes down to this: We’re given no reason to like or care about what happens to the royal family. In fact, a few characters get moments so off-putting that the idea of them not having any abilities sounds like a great idea. One needless scene involves Karnak (Ken Leong) humiliating a servant waiting on him for absolutely no reason; no wonder Maximus has very little problem instigating a shift in power over the course of these first two episodes.
If the ultimate twist of “Inhumans” is this switcheroo, that this attempt at Shakespearan high drama in a superpowered context actually commits to the reveal, then that’s points for creativity. But the story simply doesn’t have the sophistication to sell the premise, and the writing in general relies on narrative tricks like flashbacks to scenes that we just watched two minutes before – in case we didn’t get the point – or characters wandering by themselves but helpfully narrating what exactly their situation is, and what their goals are.
(Talking to yourself: The sign of a highly disturbed mind and/or a character being written by someone who doesn’t know how visual exposition works.)
Creator and writer Scott Buck was also responsible for “Iron Fist,” another disappointing effort, and was clearly a connective factor in both shows failing their audiences this year. It’s always possible for a writer to learn from their mistakes and bounce back — but Buck has so much learning to do.
Writing a pan like this is never a pleasure, but it’s also not pleasurable to watch a show that feels more driven by a corporate need to create content than an actual interest in storytelling or in real (in)human issues. The first two episodes will re-air via regular-sized TV screens on ABC September 29, but while the run time will expand to 84 minutes, it’s hard to believe that an extra nine minutes might reveal that “Inhumans” will ever delve beyond the surface, or introduce something that inspires further interest.
Well, except perhaps for Lockjaw, the giant teleporting dog. But even if Lockjaw were the size of a skyscraper, it would be impossible to want to watch beyond this.
“Marvel’s Inhumans” is currently playing in IMAX theaters.