In joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Inhumans was always going to have a lot to live up to. There’s been a consistent quality of superheroes, from the crime-fighting vigilantes, stalwart American icons, even to lowlife criminals that rise above and still keep saving the galaxy. There are a few pivotal elements that exist across the realm of superheroes — and unfortunately, they are things Inhumans lacks.
When a story is told, there is a default perspective, one that is built around a lead character (or an ensemble of heroes). There is also a villain, one whose motives and actions are suspect, working in dangerous contrast to those heroes. Unless it is specified otherwise by the writer, the audience will inherently try to sympathize with and root for the heroes. But a big problem of Inhumans is that it's much easier to root for the show's villain — and hard to see why we should even like any of the de facto heroes.
The Premise Itself Is A Problem
The basic story itself has promise: A king and queen atop a power structure of gifted individuals in an enclosed society, when a jealous and vindictive brother stages a coup so he can take his place as the "true" king. Unfortunately, this particular society is based on a strict caste system, guided by a Genetic Council, where genetics and heritage determine one's value, where regular humans are enslaved, and where our heroes live a life of privilege and wealth atop the highest rungs.
The show's seeming obliviousness to these matters is not only one of its biggest issues, it's also one of the most troubling. Without the writers defining for us as to how we should feel for each of the characters, we default to that expectation of rooting for the heroes, and against the villain. And so the audience is then left wondering why we would want to root for Black Bolt, Medusa, and the people around them, who have seemingly enjoyed a life of privilege built on the backs of genetic purity and slavery.
This was always going to be a tough sell for audiences, one that would need to be handled with care, as this foundation informs our perception of every action they make. What's worse, the show has made very little attempt to give any of its heroes redeeming qualities.
Privilege Defines The Characters
This life of privilege informs the characters, and none of it looks good. In the third episode of the series, a young Black Bolt complains about how his impending kinghood is “boring”, uncaring of the slavery that mantle has been built upon. Later, we see Medusa demand money from an ATM on the pretense of being queen, steal clothes and food from a family, and then capture another person at gunpoint.
These are people who have seemingly never had to work a day in their lives for their own benefit, with no indication that they see anything wrong with the caste-based society in which they live. So over the course of the show, they look less like heroes to root for, and more like spoiled, privileged people who have been thrust into a difficult situation where, for the first time in their lives, they no longer have everything handed to them.
What’s worse, this isn’t helped by the actions from the villain Maximus. Jealous and vindictive brother he may be, he already has more complex motives than any of the show’s heroes. His actions to free the slaves are commendable; his desire to overthrow the caste system is revolutionary. His status as a human born into this Inhuman society — one that so ardently prizes genetics — would make him the hero of almost any other story. But as even Maximus exploits the voiceless, oppressed masses for his own selfish gain, the audience is left with no one to root for.
To be fair, the writers behind the show are likely hoping that the audience will have conflicted feelings about both sides, unsure of motives and actions and a clear-cut "right" and "wrong" (not unlike Game of Thrones). But the writers still need to have a clear idea of how it wants us to feel about each main cast member. And all that's really certain so far is that the show's villain is the only one doing anything worth rooting for.
They Don't Fit In With The Rest Of The MCU
This is also a problematic approach for a series when stacking it alongside its MCU counterparts, all of whom (across every TV show and film) boast heroes that, at the end of the day, provide lead characters the audience can easily root for. Daredevil fights for and protects those affected by street crime; Iron Man saves people from invaders taking over their village; Captain America always stood up for the little guy, long before he had superpowers.
Even when there are moral ambiguities, the audience can trust that they have good intentions, and mean well by the human race. Like the Inhumans, heroes like Vision and Thor aren’t even human — and yet, unlike the Inhuman royal family, they are still willing to stand up and fight for us mere mortals.
This is where Inhumans has really failed. Superheroes earn the moniker through selflessness and sacrifice, and it is downright perplexing what this series wants to be — or the place it hopes to hold in the MCU. While The Defenders save New York and the Avengers save the world, the Inhumans squire themselves away on the moon and punish anyone born among their ranks that is not up their genetic level. This isn’t a matter of complex anti-heroes or even crafting a successful replacement for the license-wayward mutants. This is about the show inadvertently creating an uncomfortable social metaphor of individuals that none of us would (or should) ever want to root for. When there’s a world of oppressors and those who are being oppressed, the oppressors are never the good guys.
Perhaps it would’ve been better had the show, like Agents of SHIELD before it, taken the approach of shamelessly cribbing from the X-Men playbook. This would’ve inevitably cast them in the mutants’ shadow, but that’s where they were always going to end up anyway. And given the alternative, seeing Inhumans on the run from a humanity that fears and misunderstands them would be far more preferable to what we’ve been given on this show.
How do you feel about the heroes of Inhumans? Shout out in the comments below!