Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Inhuman treatment

This week I paid money to watch a TV show on an IMAX screen. I am an idiot.

The TV show in question was Marvel's The Inhumans, the latest spin-off from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), itself, of course, based on the characters of the comic book universe of Marvel Comics. I'm going to stop using the prefix "Marvel's" which comes before many (if not all) of the movies and shows I'll mention, firstly for expedience and secondly because it's silly.

The MCU currently has (at least) three distinct areas of storytelling.

1; The Movies

These started with Iron Man in 2008 and built up the characters who became The Avengers as well as Ant Man, Doctor Strange and The Guardians of the Galaxy.

There is also Spider-Man, who exists in a legal grey area.

2; The Netflix TV shows


Starting with Daredevil in 2015 these shows were designed to give us a "street-level" look at superheroes (which sort-of means "TV budget friendly"), a darker, grittier take on the big colourful movies world. It also gave us Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and the team up show The Defenders. The Punisher will also be getting a show soon. They have no direct tie to the movies beyond the occasional oblique reference to "events" in them.

3; The ABC TV shows

These began with the highly-trumpeted Agents of SHIELD in 2013 a show us nerds got very excited about (there were Whedons on board) and then most of us sort of fell away from. I mean, I'm told it got good in later seasons but there's too much actual good telly now, right? It even brought a version of Ghost Rider into MCU continuity which is fun.

We also got Agent Carter, which was much better but suffered worse ratings so ended after only two seasons.

The second season of Agents of SHIELD introduced the concept of Inhumans to the MCU, having the character Skye discover her true parentage (teased since the first episode).

And this is where we'll take a little history detour, as is my wont.

If you were to look up the origins of The Inhumans on TV's the internet, you'd be told that they debuted in Fantastic Four #45, in 1965. This is not strictly true. So it's a good thing I'm here.

Medusa is the first Inhuman to appear in a Marvel comic, and that is in Fantastic Four #36, earlier that same year. She was one of a team of super-villains, calling themselves the Frightful Four. Wikipedia describes the Frightful Four as "the antithesis of the Fantastic Four", which is overstating things considerably. The other three were the Wizard (who had previously battled the Human Torch), Spider-Man baddy the Sandman and *ahem* Paste-Pot Pete.

Now, I have a certain amount of affection for Paste-Pot Pete. His criminal gimmick was glue and pretty soon after he was renamed "The Trapster" because even Stan Lee thought "Paste-Pot Pete" was dumb. The Trapster still occasionally pops up in Marvel comics today (he was one of the inmates of Pleasant Hill during the Avengers story Standoff! for example) and others will mock him by calling him Paste-Pot Pete. I believe he should embrace his original name and reclaim it. But I'm a sucker for ridiculous superhero characters. Give me Bat-Mite or Doctor Bong over Deathblow or Thunder Strike any day.

We are not given much information about Medusa on this first appearance. She has prehensile hair (and a lot of it) and a general stand-offish attitude but her background is a mystery. It strikes me as a character Jack Kirby came up with whilst doodling that Stan then put into the script.

Medusa appears a few more times in FF before we find her home and that is found via Crystal.

In FF #45, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) spots a pretty young woman in a state of distress in the streets, so immediately puts some moves on her.

Oh, Johnny!

This leads to the FF going back to the young woman's home. A land in the Himalayas (oh, the mysterious East....), shrouded in fog. Well, not fog, exactly, it was more of a mist. Terrigen mist to be precise.

This land, Attilan, is home to Crystal's people: The Inhumans. We find that they have kept themselves secret from the regular humans of the 616 world because of their mutations extraordinary abilities.

Yes, the Terrigen mists that surround them imbues them with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. And we are introduced to the Attilan royal family.

The queen is Medusa and we find that she was suffering from amnesia during her previous appearances and is not (as previously seen) a villain of any sort.

We meet most of the other Inhuman characters including Gorgon, who has stomping powers from is big ungulate legs. Triton, the water-based one (there's always one). And Karnak, whose power is to see the flaw in anything. My Mum has the same power. Especially with anything I do.

The king of this realm, to whom Medusa is queen, is Black Bolt. An Inhuman whose power is in his voice. Even the smallest whisper sends out massive shock-waves that can floor a person.

And also, as any medium-level superhero fan can tell you: His full name is Blackagar Boltagon.

Think about that. Obviously either Stan or Jack just came up with the name "Black Bolt" because it sounded cool and then, much later it was decided to give him a full name, perhaps because the name Black Bolt had no connection to his powers. And they called him Blackagar Boltagon

Now, I know I'm not the first to make this joke but it is like finding out Spider-Man's full name is Spideragar Managon.

Greenagar Lanternagon

Ghostagar Rideragon

Jessicaagar Jonesagon

Make your own up.

I have saved the best till last though. Lockjaw!

I bloody love Lockjaw, me!

You really have to appreciate the creativity of Stan and Jack in the sixties, throwing off new characters like sparks off a Catherine wheel. The truly remarkable thing is that most of those characters still exist in today's Marvel comics and are constantly being given new stories by each new generation of writers and artists. Lockjaw is one of those characters creatives love to pull out and drop in a story. Outside of Inhuman stories he has spent time as sidekick to The Thing and Ms Marvel among others and he is very loyal to his friends.

Oh, and he can teleport.

The only potentially disturbing thing about him is the question of his origin. See, as explained, humans become Inhumans after teregenesis mutates transforms them. Lockjaw is a dog but it has been heavily implied, if not outright stated that he was humanoid before changing. I don't know if there is an official, canonical answer to that and quite frankly I don't want to look it up in case it's too upsetting.

We also get to see The Inhumans' chief Big Bad: Maximus the Mad. Deposed king of Attilan and brother of Blackagar Boltagon (hee hee).

This set a precedent that meant most Inhuman stories tended to revolve around power grabs for the iron throne.

As well as the key characters (mostly referred to as the royal family) we are shown something of how Inhuman society works. It seems the terrigen mist assigns powers at random and if you get a good one you get to live the high life, a bad one gets you sent to work the mines or similar. A sort of Eloi/Morlock relationship. Let's make no bones about it, Inhuman society is based on slavery.

Shortly after, Jack Kirby pitched his own Inhumans series to the publishers wherein he intended to introduce many more characters and expand on how their society worked. It was rejected and after Kirby gave us on set up story in new anthology comic Amazing Adventures, he left the company.

During a Fantastic Four run by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, an attempt is made to ret-con Inhuman society to make them seem less monstrous and the slaves are freed.


They get their own series in 1975, by Doug Moench and George Perez wherein Maximus teams up with the Kree, a pre-existing alien race with designs on Earth. We would eventually find out that the Inhumans themselves were a result of genetic tampering from the Kree in Earth's distant past. All Inhumans have Kree DNA in them but only exposure to terrigen triggers their power.

After that, in 1982's Fantastic Four #240 Reed Richards helps the entirety of Attilan relocate to the Moon to preserve their privacy.

This will directly lead to their first fight with The Avengers as the world governments want to make sure they pose no threat from that significant strategic vantage point.

Various things happen. Attilan returns to Earth, goes to war with the USA, Maximus makes more power grabs, Black Bolt is revealled as a Skrull, the real Black Bolt returns, they decide to take over the Kree empire, Black Bolt dies heroically, Black Bolt comes back, Attilan returns to Earth as a floating city above New York. You know, standard superhero universe stuff.

Then came Infinity, a needlessly complicated cosmic story centred around Thanos (the upcoming Big Bad of the MCU) who demands (among other things) that Black Bolt gives him the terrigen crystals (source of the terrigen mist). In order to stop him getting them, Blackagar (nope, still silly) destroys Attilan and the crystals with it.

This has the unintended effect of having the crystal become a giant cloud which would float around the world, triggering terrigenesis in any human with Kree DNA in them.

We are going to take a little sidebar here to talk about how this relates to the wider Marvel empire.

Nowadays we know Marvel as a massive world-conquering brand. Twas not ever thus. The crash of the collectors market in the 90s lead to them filing for bankruptcy and selling off the family silver. By which I mean the rights for other companies to use their characters. We're going to focus specifically on movie rights.

Around the turn of the century the rights to make Spider-man movies belonged to Sony, X-Men and Fantastic Four belonged to 20th Century Fox and a handful of other characters belonged to Universal and Paramount (there was also another company that bought the rights to Namor the Submariner which I can't imagine they look back on as a wise investment).

Now, Spidey and Wolverine have been (by some considerable margin) Marvel's two biggest characters for many years, in terms of both comics sales and merchandising. The superhero movie genre had been in decline until Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man proved you could make good superhero movies that were also hugely popular. Pleasing moviegoers and comics fans at the same time.

A few more movies come and go based on other Marvel properties but eventually we get 2008's Iron Man. Yes, we've come full circle. That film was made by Paramount and later that same year a movie of The Incredible Hulk was released, which tied in to the characters and events of Iron Man (I don't understand the legal wrangling that must have gone on here).

Then in 2009 Disney buys Marvel outright. This has a a huge effect. The cinematic rights to most of Marvel Comics' characters now belong to Disney as do the publishing rights to all those characters.

Except for the exceptions...

So Sony retains Spider-Man and Fox retains X-Men. There are others but I'm keeping this simple with the important ones.

It is Fox and the X-Men that interests us here. With ownership of X-Men screen rights, Fox also has the rights to most X-Men related characters and concepts. Not only do they get to use every character from Wolverine or Deadpool to Warlock or Doop, they get the cosmic Phoenix Force, the Shi-Ar Empire and the very concept of "Mutants", which is significant.

See, when Stan and Jack created "mutants" in X-Men #1 in 1963 it was an easy way to explain how every one of this super-powered team had gained their powers. This new atomic age of nuclear testing had unlocked extraordinary abilities within ordinary children once they reach puberty.

Boom. Now whenever they need to introduce a superhero or villain they didn't need to come up with a backstory where they were victims of an experiment gone wrong or bitten by a radioactive puffin or whatever, they were a mutant. Job done.

The problem (as far as the Disney-owned Marvel is concerned) is that Fox now can use any mutant character in Marvel Comics. Even ones created after the movie series started. And now Disney has a massively successful movie series with The Avengers whose only significant rival is a film series made by a rival studio featuring characters and concepts created by their own company.

The fan theory here (and be assured we have not yet seen any evidence of this being officially mandated by Disney) is that Marvel started deliberately sidelining X-Men and other mutant characters and promoting Inhumans instead.

The Inhuman royal family became cosmic players in Infinity (mentioned above). Professor X and Wolverine were killed off. New characters were introduced with Inhuman origins such as the terrific Ms Marvel, whereas few if any new mutant characters are created.

Then there's that terrigen cloud unleashed by Black Bolt. It floats round the world creating new Inhumans wherever it goes but also...

...it is killing the mutants. Terrigen affects mutants in an adverse, irreversible way. Mutants are dying.

More recently the Civil War II crossover event entirely hinged on a new inhuman called Ulysses with apparent precognitive abilities and a disagreement between Iron Man and Captain Marvel over how to use him.

All of which brings us to TV's Marvel's The Inhumans.

I was aware on the way in of this particular project's reputation. More than one viewer had called it the worst thing produced in the MCU, but do you know what?

They're not wrong. It sits fine alongside the sort of fantasy TV we got in the 90s. It's actually better than the pilots for Justice League or Generation X.

But today's TV is awash with comics adaptations. Ironically, the MCU has raised the bar for such material that every TV company is throwing cash at any property they can get their hands on.

And even the most ridiculous of them can still be fun. I mean, no-one could mistake, say, Legends of Tomorrow for quality television (the bar for that, too, has shifted significantly) but it remains fun to watch.

The Inhumans has been in development since at least 2011 and was announced as a movie project in 2014. Somewhere along the way the concept got kicked back to television. This could be a good sign for a TV show. Companies put far more money into developing a movie than a TV show so this starts with all that extra work already done.

To start with the concepts. This is an Attilan that is on the Moon and we begin with an okay FX shot of the city with a pretty good design. I like that they chose Moonbase Attilan, it gives us an awe-inspiring opening and also explains why these characters have been absent from the MCU, Agents of SHIELD in particular (which has already found the Earth-bound Attilan). Some of the individual designs are great, I especially like Lockjaw, who is like the Kirby drawing come to life and is movie-quality CG, and I love seeing Crystal's weird hair patterns IRL.

We are introduced to the Inhuman Royal Family. Triton is being hunted on Earth (Hawaii, it turns out) and I initially thought they'd deliberately killed him off early as the least-interesting character.

We see Gorgon, who has animal legs and hooves. Except when it's too difficult to do the effect and he doesn't. This is really sloppy. It reminded me of the centaurs in Xena: Warrior Princess, but the production team on that were smart enough to usually only shoot them from the waist up.

The version of Karnak we get is played by Lost's Ken Leung (at least he knows Hawaii already) and has a fun way of showing his ability to see patterns and quickly work out the best course of action. Borrowing from two different recent screen Sherlocks we see words and numbers on the screen flashing up explaining what/who is in the room and calculating the probability of success. However this somehow doesn't stop him from accidentally walking off a cliff later, which is dumb.

Crystal is our point-of-view character, seeing the royal family thing as an annoying burden.

Medusa is the queen, wearing a huge red wig that.... I'm sorry, it looks terrible. Maybe it looks okay on a normal TV screen (I doubt it) but in IMAX it could not look more like a wig. The actor (Serinda Swan) looks like she's cosplaying as Geri Halliwell. And that thought made me wonder how much more forgiving I'd have been if they HAD actually stunt-cast Geri Halliwell as Medusa. Oh, and Lockjaw clearly ate up the CGI budget as Medusa'a hair is kept from moving as much as possible, which is a shame. It would have looked pretty good if it was just moving all the time, like Doc Ock's tentacles in Spider-Man 2. And (spoiler) it all gets shaved off later to make sure this isn't a problem for the series.

And Black Bolt (Blackagar Boltagon) doesn't really have to do anything but stand there stoically and occasionally point. Anson Mount seems to struggle with that.

The main cast are all as bland as the blandest CW show cast, which I believe is the tone they were asked to deliver. I believe this because of Iwan Rheon who plays Maximus the Mad and is an actor I've respected since he played Simon in Misfits, a wonderfully nuanced weirdo. And as Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones proved to be the best scenery-chewing bad guy in a show full of scenery-chewing bad guys. Here, he just sort-of... is. Which is a shame. It feels like the better actors were told to reign it in, maybe to keep the tone of the show more low-key. Which in a show with a giant teleporting dog is an odd choice.

We also see the two-tier system of Attilan's government. The long-since abandoned comics concept of the Inhumans keeping slaves is brought back. We see a ceremony as two teenagers get exposed to terrigen for the first time. One gets beautiful wings and is deemed worthy to live above. The other gets a far less tangible power so is sent below. It's hard to be on the side of the royal family at this point.

The rejected Inhuman is later rescued by Maximus and his power is revealed to be, like Ulysses, to get visions of the future (something that seems quite useful to me, but what do I know?). Maximus then launches a coup against the royal family exiles most of them to Earth and frees the slaves. A reminder: Maximus is meant to be the Bad Guy.

A sort-of fish-out-of-water story begins as the royal family stumble about Hawaii, looking for each other, doing dumb, illogical things because they propel the plot (which is also dumb and illogical).

I wanted to like it, I really did. I like being the contrary critical voice and I PAID MONEY!