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Marvel’s Inhumans’ long, difficult road to television, explained

For Marvel, it’s been a struggle turning Inhumans into a mainstream superhero team.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The underlying lesson of every Marvel superhero story is to never give up. Spider-Man pinned under a crumbling building? Don’t give up. Kitty Pryde trapped in an intergalactic bullet hurtling through space? Don’t give up. The Avengers fighting Chitauri forces while locked out of Earth because of a force field and a turncoat Steve Rogers? Don’t ever give up.

But in the case of the Inhumans, the stars of Marvel’s latest television show, maybe the better lesson is knowing when to actually give up.

After an editorial push in the comic books with a couple of big crossover events to pump up their popularity (with lukewarm results), a broken promise to turn the Inhumans into a movie, and a grand IMAX release of the show’s first two episodes in theaters earlier this month, the Inhumans have once again found Marvel’s floor with a resounding thud.

Critics have panned the upcoming show, calling it “the TV disaster of the year” and giving the Inhumans the dubious distinction of a 6 percent rating (as of this writing) on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. And its haul in theaters was a crummy $2.6 million — as THR reports, it was beat out by a 40th-anniversary showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and did about as well as the 2015 theatrical release of two previously aired episodes of Game of Thrones.

Coming from a company that has approached the superhero entertainment business with clinical precision, Marvel’s struggle to expand the Inhumans beyond their comic-book source material — which is, truth be told, not that different from the rest of the company’s cadre of superheroes — is an anomaly. But if you look deeper into Marvel’s history with the Inhumans, their unique story, and the executive decisions behind the failed movie and the freshly panned show, it feels like Inhumans has been set up for failure. Here are the three factors working against Marvel’s most ignominious new property.

The Inhumans matter less to Marvel’s live-action stories than they did a couple of years ago

To fully understand the struggle to bring the Inhumans to the screen, you have to understand the gradual depreciation of their importance to the greater Marvel universe.

A few years ago, Marvel’s initial plans for Infinity War — the two-part, Avengers-like team-up movies where all of Marvel’s superhero movie characters come together and find a giant evil — included an Inhumans movie that would debut in 2019, between the two halves of Infinity War. At the time, that movie seemed like a natural extension of the burgeoning Inhuman presence in Marvel’s comic books, which in 2013 introduced a major comic book crossover event called “Infinity,” where the king of the Inhumans, Black Bolt, detonated a Terrigen Mist bomb and spread the substance all over Earth, creating countless numbers of Inhumans. A similar storyline happened in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s third season in 2015.

The fallout over the Infinity arc, dubbed “Inhumanity,” sees the Inhuman Royal Family beginning to live on Earth after their homeland, Attilan, is destroyed. This increased their interactions with the Avengers and made them a central player in everything going on from there out. In the comic books, the Inhumans also clashed with Thanos, the main villain of the Infinity War movies. This heightened profile in the comic books, combined with the Inhumans’ increased television presence on the third season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., looked like it was setting the table for that Inhumans movie, and presumably for the Inhumans’ ongoing involvement in Marvel’s cinematic universe.

But in April 2016 it was announced that the Inhumans movie was officially taken off the schedule, and in November it was clarified that the Inhumans would no longer be anchoring a movie. This was around the same time that Marvel had announced it was bringing Spider-Man back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, indicating a shift in focus away from one of Marvel’s lesser known properties to perhaps its most famous character. Further, adding the Inhuman Royal Family to Infinity War might have been considered a logistical headache, considering how many Marvel movie characters are already set to appear in the film.

Instead, Marvel announced that the Inhumans would instead live on as a television show, one whose premise seems drawn from the “Inhumanity” arc in the comics.

The move from movies to television means the Inhumans almost certainly aren’t going to be joining the army of big-name, silver screen Marvel superheroes going up against Thanos in Infinity War. It also means the team won’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt general audiences usually give to lesser-known characters in Marvel movies (see: the welcome reception given to the Guardians of the Galaxy, a team of characters previously all but unknown to non-comics readers). Instead, the show seems like it will function in conjunction to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which leaned on the Inhumans plot heavily in its third and fourth seasons.

Now, television isn’t necessarily a bad place for a superhero series to live. Marvel’s Netflix series like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage have drawn praise from critics and found loyal, vocal audiences. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is primed for its fifth season on ABC. DC Comics characters have also found life on the CW in well-liked series like The Flash and Arrow.

But the biggest difficulty with superhero stories on television is that they don’t enjoy the blockbuster effects budget afforded to superhero films — hence why characters with relatively thrifty-to-execute powers, like martial arts or super strength, thrive in the television format. That’s a problem with a roster of superheroes like the Inhumans, who have powers like magnificent prehensile hair (Medusa), the manipulation of elements (Crystal), and a voice that can shatter planets (Black Bolt). Those powers could look great with a movie-sized effects budget, but they become more difficult to execute on television’s smaller scale.

To put television budgets in perspective, in its sixth season Game of Thrones cost around $10 million per episode to make and consisted of 10 episodes — roughly $100 million spread over 10 hours in total, for one of television’s most expensive-to-produce shows. In comparison, Doctor Strange, which at the time didn’t have the same recognition as Marvel’s Avengers-related heroes, had $165 million to play with in its two-hour runtime.

The other thing to keep in mind when it comes to budget and the difference between a television show and a Marvel blockbuster is the audience. Marvel has shown time and time again that it can make movies featuring less well-known heroes, like Doctor Strange or Guardians of the Galaxy, and that there will be an audience for it; Doctor Strange had a worldwide haul of $677 million.

Based on Marvel’s track record, people would likely go see an Inhumans movie simply because it had the Marvel name attached. But the Marvel guarantee of a massive audience doesn’t play out in the same way on television, which values an ongoing week-to-week commitment.

The success of Marvel’s Netflix series and the CW’s superhero series shows that it is possible to create a thriving television universe (especially on a shared network) that winks and nods to the cinematic universe while functioning independently from it. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ratings have steadily declined since its first season. Further, a spinoff of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. called Marvel’s Most Wanted was never picked up, and Agent Carter, a spinoff of Marvel Captain America movies that received rave reviews, was canceled in 2016.

With Inhumans is sitting on a pile of bad reviews and a disappointing showing in its special IMAX rollout, its fate currently looks more in line with Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tepid ratings than it does its Netflix and CW competitors.

It’s hard to make a relatable story when your main character can’t speak

Adapting sprawling, visual comic book stories into something that looks great and makes sense on screen is a difficult calculus — and the Inhumans are no exception. The aforementioned shift in budget is a major factor. But the other, equally important part of the comic book translation equation is adapting the concept, and the Inhumans have a tricky one.

The main characters of the comic books are a group of beings known as the Inhuman Royal Family. The Inhuman civilization is structured like a monarchy, and the individual members who make up the Inhuman Royal Family function like a traditional super team, with members possessing super powers. Aside from their monarchy and the strange process of terrigenesis that creates Inhumans, what sets the Inhumans apart is that their leader, a king named Black Bolt who is the cornerstone of Inhumans stories, is silent.

Black Bolt can’t speak because he possesses a superhuman voice that can flatten cities and destroy planets. This usually works in comic books because writers have figured out work-arounds, like Black Bolt and his wife Medusa forming a telepathic bond with each other, and artists are able to emphasize and exaggerate his expressions and body language; writers and artists can also add narration. Comic books can play on the build-up and suspense of Black Bolt using his powers, and then show us what those powers look like without the restraints of an effects budget.

On a television show or a movie, however, a main hero who can’t speak becomes really, really awkward. For evidence, watch this Inhumans clip of Medusa (Serinda Swan) trying to reach Black Bolt (Anson Mount):

Never mind that Swan has to say the phrase, “I’m in a crater, I think?” juxtaposed with B-roll of a crater. The problem is that having a character remain silent puts a lot of the weight on the abilities of the actors surrounding that character. Swan’s Medusa is basically a character from one of those Emma Stone acting vignettes from La La Landshe’s not given anything to work with or bounce off of, and is putting in a lot of work to make this scene not as silly as it looks.

A silent protagonist might have been one of the factors working against the scrapped Inhumans movie; it’s hard to imagine a studio booking an A-list actor to anchor the film and not have him speak (voiceovers and zoomed-in facial expressions would likely be the workaround), let alone appear silent in subsequent Marvel movies.

Granted, the comic books have shifted away from making Black Bolt the centerpiece of the Inhumans’ stories: Medusa learning how to govern without her husband has been a main story in a couple of big crossovers. But still, not having Black Bolt speak could become a distracting liability on television, instead of a comic book-specific storytelling feature.

Scott Buck’s track record with Marvel television isn’t great

Perhaps the biggest obstacle on The Inhumans’ path to success is the person making all the creative choices. The showrunner behind Inhumans is Scott Buck, whose previous credits include work on Six Feet Under (which was good-great) and Dexter (which, while starting off strong, ended poorly under his run). But his latest work, and the one most relevant to Inhumans, is a bit questionable: Buck was the showrunner on the critically panned Marvel Netflix show Iron Fist.

Yes, there was a whitewashing controversy regarding the casting of Finn Jones as Danny Rand, but that wasn’t a reason Iron Fist was awful. (I actually like Jones’s Danny Rand in The Defenders). The show’s dialogue and action were glaringly subpar compared to its peers like Daredevil and Jessica Jones. But the show’s mortal sin was not being able to find any excitement or fun in a martial arts series full of ninjas and power-punchy, glowing fists. Buck and his team never seemed to figure out the superhero they had in Iron Fist, and the reviews, which hit right when Inhumans began production, were awful (it should also be noted that the show was announced in November 2016 and began filming March 2017 — a really short, perhaps rushed, turnaround for a show):

Tellingly, the early reviews of Inhumans echo the main problems critics had with Iron Fist, notably the lifeless script and flat storytelling, as pointed out in IGN’s review:

The clunky dialogue sounds like a first draft, not the sharp material you’d expect from the MCU. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the show that first introduced the idea of an Inhuman and which this new show has the thinnest of connections, earned its fans with a quick wit and some slick spy high jinks, whereas Inhumans has no firm tone or personality, it just globs along from one scene to the next.

And Indiewire’s review attributes the show’s major weaknesses to Buck’s failings as a writer:

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.

It’s not like Marvel has a dearth of good showrunners and writers to choose from; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and FX’s Legion (a Fox-Marvel collaboration) all received good to great reviews. Choosing Buck, who was unproven compared to his cohorts, to head up another series is a puzzling choice, and may turn out to be the final nail in the coffin for the Inhumans’ pop-culture presence beyond their comic books.

As we’ve seen with recent dismal comics adaptations like Suicide Squad, there will always be fans who flock to a movie or show and defend it ferociously in spite of its flaws, and Inhumans could conceivably pick up a loyal fan base that keeps it around long enough for it to get through its growing pains. But it also would be better if Marvel made decisions that would set up Inhumans for success from the start, developing a property that has something to offer to viewers who aren’t already diehard fans.

There’s a chance that Inhumans could turn around this nosedive; perhaps the two episodes shown in IMAX and screened by critics were anomalies, and the first season will turn itself around after a few episodes. Maybe the show will find a rhythm around its strange protagonist. And it could always switch showrunners if it makes it to a second season. But as it stands now, Inhumans the TV show seems destined for the same sad fate as the Inhumans movie that never was.

Marvel’s Inhumans premieres on September 29, at 8 pm on ABC.

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