Spiderman? Great. Captain America? Terrific. Iron Man? Brilliant. Even the Hulk and Captain Marvel have their favourites.
But then we come to the Inhumans. This was the MCU’s big fiasco. There’s a lot of history with the Inhumans, and it’s pretty much all crap from start to finish. Let’s work backwards.
The Inhumans appeared in theatre as an MCU movie notable for being cheap looking, plastic, with mediocre special effects, costumes, and sub-par acting. After a couple of disastrous week or two in the movie theatres, it played on television as the pilot to an eight episode series. Now this isn’t the first time that a television pilot was released theatrically. Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica got that treatment. But it’s generally not a good idea.
The subsequent series was basically more of same – crap CGI, crap characters, crap costumes and acting. It might have had a moment now and then, but it was shabby. And it undercut itself – Medusa the lead inhuman with the octopus tentacle hair got her head shaved. Karnak, the ultimate martial artist got a concussion and lost his skills. So these ‘special attributes’ are barely introduced then written out? The series died hard no one cared.
Behind the scenes, it seems like the Inhumans were the pet project of Ike Perlmutter, who was one of the people behind the MCU. The general consensus is that Kevin Feige is the brilliant pilot of the MCU. Perlmutter was the racist, sexist, cheapskate troll who was eventually forced out of the movies and exiled into the television branch, where he could only mess with Agents of Shield. He also pushed the Inhumans there to.
Why did Perlmutter push the inhumans? Because way back in the day, when Marvel was having a hard time, they sold their most lucrative property, the X-Men. Now that they’re a big thing, they can’t get the X-Men back.
The X-Men were about mutants, regular people who got all these fantastic weird powers and amounted to another race alongside humanity. That’s pretty much the same basic description as the Inhumans. So Perlmutter basically figured that the Inhumans could be replacement X-Men.
Okay, let me show off my Nerd Cred by giving you a little of the background of the whole Inhumans shtick.
The Inhumans first showed up in Fantastic Four, and have actually spent most of their history there. Now and then they’ve showed up in other comics, and in the last few years, they’ve had a big push. But mostly, until the whole X-Men fight boiled over, they were perennial guest stars.
The first Inhuman was Medusa, who showed up as a villain in Fantastic Four #38. She was a sexy redhead with hair down to the floor, and she could use her hair as tentacles.
The rest of the Inhumans started appearing in Fantastic Four #45. That introduced the rest of the main cast of Inhumans, particularly Crystal, who was the Human Torch’s girlfriend, human appearing. The others were a fish man, Triton. Karnak, a martial arts master. Gorgon who had bulls hoofs and could cause earthquakes by stomping. Lockjaw, a teleporting dog the size of a pony with a tuning fork on his head. Maximus, the official villain, had no powers, so he just got to be a jerk.
Black Bolt, their leader had a sort of winged suit, a tuning fork on his forehead. He was mute, because if he spoke, he blew things up – he could destroy a mountain with a shout. He never had any dialogue, just fun expansive gestures that must have been funky to draw.
Black Bolt wore a mask. In fact almost all of them wore masks, which made me wonder what the point was. It’s not like they had secret identities or any reason to disguise themselves.
The whole point of the Inhumans was that they were this other society. They weren’t humans, they were a parallel race. They had their own culture, their own society, their own kingdom, even their own city, Attilan, hidden in the Himalayas. (Eventually, they moved the whole city to the Moon, but that’s another story). So why the masks? Why the superhero costumes? Who knows.
They had been created thousands of years ago by a group of aliens, the Kree, who had shown up, messed with human DNA and then went home, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves.
And this is the first big difference between the Inhumans and the Mutants. Mutants were just regular people, people like you or me, living in our society, part of our culture, who manifested super powers and had to deal with it.
The Inhumans were never like that. They were this bizarre alien society, a kind of super-powered version of Shangri La or Prester John, an exotic faraway kingdom. They just didn’t have any relatability.
And in fact, that’s what they were. The exotic faraway place the Fantastic Four or others visited, or got involved with now and then. Because they were a faraway land removed from everyday life, the writers could tell some funky stories, and even get topical.
Attilan was an autocratic monarchy, we discover. Everyone has superpowers, but some people are just more special than others – the main cast of Inhumans turn out to be the royal family, ruling by hereditary superiority.
There was a ritual when the Inhumans came of age, they’d be exposed to a ‘Terrigen’ mist, and either end up superpowered, or as monsters, or both. That didn’t actually affect the class status though. The royal family were royal, no matter what powers they got. Someone else gets really terrific powers – great, now step into the ditch commoner, while your betters passed.
So… the Inhumans ended up being a non-meritocratic meritocracy. Everyone could be super, but it didn’t matter.
Except as it turned out, it really did matter. Non-super powered inhumans got to be on the bottom of the social ladder as labourers and slaves. They got to do all the brutal dangerous work, get spat upon, and live lives of tedium and degradation. This allowed the Fantastic Four to confront issues of racism, civil rights and apartheid, without actually coming too close to the awkward politics of the real world.
There was even a series of adventures where the lowlies revolted and forced the ruling classes to acknowledge their humanity. It didn’t really take, of course, because the society was set in stone, both in continuity of the Marvel Universe, and in the comics. They had this narrow niche role and they stuck with it.
But here’s the big problem with the Inhumans, and where they part company with the X-Men’s mutants.
In the X-Man universe, Mutants are usually a metaphor for a persecuted minority – jewish people, black people, gays, trans, or just lonely teenagers. They live in our world. They have special gifts that manifest suddenly and unexpectedly at puberty. They’re special, but no one appreciates their specialness, rather they’re hated and despised. They have to deal with all the angst of their bodies changing, of their social isolation and loneliness, of their specialness and abilities, and find friends and allies like them.
That made for a lot of story potential. You could do things with that. You could talk about gay rights, or minority rights and issues, women’s rights. And you could really appeal to your teenage audience, going through puberty, confused, lonely, angsty. There’s a reason the X-Men were a huge property.
Now look at the Inhumans: They are a completely self contained society devoted to pageantry and spectacle. They are a caste based society, which lives by the principle of genetic superiority, who have a powerless underclass that they have enslaved and that they treat cruelly and with contempt. They believe in and have super-powers which they access through ritual ceremonies. Their society of ubermen is run by the most uber-mannish of them all, a man prone to big sweeping gestures whose words shatter mountains.
If Mutants were jews, or gays, or blacks or just lonely misunderstood teens….
Then the Inhumans were Nazis! They were literally Nazis. Their entire civilisation was built on principles of genetic superiority and enslavement of the underclass.
Sure, they were very diverse Nazis – some were fish men, some were tree men, their powers were the luck of the draw. But they were still Nazis. Every one of them was special and superior, and they came from a society that believed every bit of that. Including the autocratic royal family, who could move their entire civilisation to the moon, because they’d decided to.
That’s pretty hard to sell as a mainstream concept. No one likes Nazis, even if they have tuning forks on their head, and weird bodies or super powers.
Bizarrely, this is the concept that they translated directly to the MCU. They soft pedalled and fudged it a lot in Agents of Shield.
But with the Inhumans movie and television series, it was totally front and center! It’s all there. Rigid caste society. Genetic superiority. Hereditary royal family. An underclass of undermen. It was a show about the trials and tribulations of the Nazi high command, thrown into a world of inferiors. Holy crap!
That problem front and centered, because the villain, Maximus kept making sense. In the comics and in the MCU, Maximus is the brother of Black Bolt, but the Terrigen mist didn’t work on him. He still gets to be a member of the royal family, but his ‘untermensch’ status makes his position a little awkward.
In the movie/series, he’s basically cast as a rabble rouser, speaking for the powerless, and leading a revolution. He’s officially the bad guy, so of course he can’t have genuinely good motives, he’s all about power, sadism and murdering his way to the top.
But here’s the problem: Every time he opens his mouth, he makes sense! All his criticisms are spot on. He has their number. Even his ultimate agenda, move the Inhumans to earth… he was right on that one, Black Bolt moves everyone to Earth and leaves Maximus trapped in a broom closet on the moon.
There were a lot of things that went wrong with the MCU Inhumans. But ultimately, everything else was forgivable. We all overlook stupid plots, or crap CGI, bad performance, silly costumes, cheapness… Usually one at a time. It’s tough to overlook when it’s all together.
But the problem is that the Inhumans are an autocratic royal family ruling absolutely and dictatorially by divine right, of a racist culture steeped in genetic superiority, with an underclass of slave/victims. And the narrative they chose to put those issues front and center.
What the hell.
They could have gotten away from that. They could have done something else. In recent runs of comics, they’ve had a role reversal, as the warlike Kree have returned to enslave the inhumans. That works actually. How do you un-Nazify the Inhumans? You have them persecuted as pseudo-jews by an even bigger more racist empire of Space Nazis.
Why didn’t they do that? I suspect because it would have involved mucking with the entire MCU. You can’t just throw an alien empire like that in and not make ripples.
And in the comics, they’ve kind of gone squicky. It seems that Black Bolt has released a giant cloud of terrigen mist which is slowly sweeping around the globe activating all the latent inhumans. It’s a story device to replace mutants. But then they took it a little too far, when they changed the plotlines so that the terrigen mists actually kills mutants on contact. So the mutants of the X-Men are literally facing genocide and extinction.
So… Just to recap: The Inhumans, who are essentially metaphorical Nazis, deliberately and as a power play release a poison gas which kills all the Mutants, metaphorical Jews. Did I get that right? Someone thought it was a good idea to do a comic book superpower version of the holocaust, but from the Nazis point of view? WTF? Seriously? What the hell, people?
The point is – no wonder the MCU Inhumans were a disaster. The basic concept was fundamentally toxic, and I think people picked up on it.
If you wanted the Inhumans in the MCU, you would have had to strip them right down to bedrock and build them back up again. Which would violate some of the comic lore, but who cares. The MCU departs from Comics all the time, it’s allowed to tweak things.
So here’s what I would have done.
The Kree come to earth, experiment on humans and create the superpowered Inhumans. Just like in the comics. But instead of just buggering off and leaving the Inhumans to evolve into pseudo-Nazis, they go back into space with their new slaves, and basically use the Inhumans as a disposable race of super-powered shock troops.
Fast forward a little bit – say to five thousand years ago. The Kree are having one of their apocalyptic planet destroying wars. They’re deploying the Inhumans as disposable shock troops, and prepared to let them all die, while they win their battle.
But the Inhumans get tired of being cannon fodder. Instead, they stage a mutiny, hijack part of the fleet, and flee off into deep space. They’ve been planning this for a long time, so they manage to erase the location of Earth from Kree data banks.
They flee to Earth, their homeworld, where they discover the beginnings of human civilisation. But they have a problem. The Kree are not a forgiving people. They’re an Interstellar Empire which fights wars for thousands of years. They’re not happy about mutiny, and they’re looking hard for the runaways. When they find them, it’s not going to be happy time.
So the Inhumans have to keep hiding from the Kree. They take all their stolen warships, and bury them on the moon, and start building a fortress. Because they know that one day, the Kree are going to show up, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a thousand or in ten thousand years. And when they do, it’s going to be on.
So they have to be ready. They maintain a rigidly militaristic society. Not a caste society, but a military structure. Not a royal family, but a high command, literally training from birth for the day the Kree show up, and they will have to fight and maybe sacrifice themselves to save Earth and the rest of the human race.
Now this works better.
Because now the Inhumans society works. They aren’t Nazis any more. They’re sentinels standing guard for humanity. It’s not about hereditary dictatorship and genetic superiority, it’s about discipline and a mission.
It explains what they’re doing on the Moon. And it explains why they haven’t just taken over Earth, or uplifted the rest humanity. Both of these are kind of questions that the MCU movie and television series had to dodge.
And it opens up some interesting story-telling doors.
For instance, the Inhumans have been on the moon for thousands of years, watching Earth. They’re probably fascinated by it. This is the world they’ve been raised from birth to protect, there’s probably a lot of interest. You can’t be running drills and preparing for battle 24/7, there must be some leisure time. The high command would probably encourage interest in Earth, it would help to motivate people..
Particularly now. For the last century, the Inhumans have been picking up Earth’s radio and television, so there could be all kinds of influences. Maybe there are fashions of dressing up in Earth styles, or what they think are Earth styles. Maybe they’re fans of Star Trek, the Shadow, Russian soap operas, Bollywood musicals. Maybe when they meet Earthlings, the first thing on their minds is not ‘Take me to your leader’ but ‘Do you know Taylor Swift?’ Learning to speak Earth languages is a hobby. Maybe they have a zoo, where there’s a line up that goes around the block of people waiting to see… a cat! And this is an old, very disciplined society, so a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding.
There’s some interesting story colour and character bits to be had from the Inhumans, not being alien and aloof in their ‘genetic superiority,’ but fascinated by a random grab bag of bits and pieces of Earth cultures. Scenes and dialogue could just literally write themselves. Characters could literally pattern themselves after 1950’s film noir detectives, or superheroes, or samurai.
And there’s potential story angles. For instance, it’s been thousands of years, the Kree haven’t shown up. Maybe among the Inhumans, there’s a movement that says ‘the Kree aren’t ever going to show up. Let’s call it a day, move down to Earth and live on the beach.’
Maybe there’s a faction among the Inhumans that are actually anticipating the Kree any day now. Earth has been putting out a lot of radio noise for the last century, and anyone passing within a hundred light years could pick it up. The day of Judgement is coming soon.
Maybe there’s a faction among the Inhumans that are thinking that humanity is finally advanced enough, maybe it’s time to make contact, explain what’s out there, and getting the whole planet ready to defend itself.
Maybe there’s a faction that says, ‘you know, ruling over humans while they were living in mud huts wouldn’t have been much fun. But now that they’ve got a decent civilisation, maybe it’s time to enslave them…. because we’re disciplined and superior, and they owe it to us for watching over them and keeping them safe.’
Maybe all these discussions are happening. The Inhumans have been standing guard for thousands of years. They’re pretty set in their ways, and they haven’t needed to make decisions quickly. In the last century, humans have finally advanced far enough to get noticed, and now there’s been this decades long slow motion debate going on in Inhuman society, while the military command structure maintains the mission.
How about this as a curve ball – what if, during the original mutiny, the Inhumans weren’t the only slave race to flee the Kree. Maybe the fleet included a couple of other non-human alien races, who came along with them, and when they got to the solar system, the others settled on worlds more suitable to them like Mars, or Titan, where they all dug in settled down and waited for the Kree to come looking for them.
Maybe in the MCU there really are Martians, and Europans or Titanians. Maybe there’s a version of NATO in the Solar system, maintaining alliance. Or perhaps some of them have fallen out and are no longer friends. Or fallen into something like barbarism and forgotten their role.
So, just tons of potential, you can still keep all the worthwhile trappings and elements of the Inhumans, the weird super powers, the hierarchical society, the city on the moon, the exotic diversity. But you can ditch the Nazi/Racist genetic superiority shtick, toxic caste system, and replace it with something grander, something nobler, a past and a future.
They could have done that. But they didn’t.
Still, I like this alternate premise. It would make a terrific space opera: “The Sentinels. Ancient slaves, kidnapped from Earth by aliens to use in their wars, mutinied and fleeing back to their long lost homeworld. Standing guard against the alien menace…”
Maybe I’ll write it myself.