Two new Marvel-branded TV series demonstrate how translations from comics to the small screen can pan out very differently.

Marvel’s The Inhumans had a checkered path to ABC. It originally was announced as the capstone to “Phase Three” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but amid rumors that corporate had forced the property onto an uninterested movie division, the project got pushed further and further back, until it disappeared from the schedule altogether. So when ABC announced Inhumans as an 8-part “event” series, fans at least hoped it would carry some of the high quality Marvel’s TV division has brought to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the grittier Netflix franchise entries.

The results have drawn some very harsh criticism. And while a lot of it is deserved, the show isn’t exactly unwatchable, but more a study in missed opportunities. Inhumans focuses on the well-known “Royal Family” characters from the comics, rulers of the “hidden” city of Attilan, tucked away on Earth’s moon. The first hour sets the series up as a clash between the king, Black Bolt (Anson Mount) and his treacherous brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon), for control of their society. But that concept takes a backseat fairly quickly. As the palace coup unfolds, the Royals are sent to Earth and scattered across Hawaii, where the show instead veers into a “fish out of water” story, plus a “fight for survival” tale, as Maximus sends his one dimensional Squad o’ Evil Minions to capture/kill his family.

That kind of split narrative focus hobbles the show. Picking a single narrative direction would have been wiser, as the melodramatic throne room drama seems almost entirely at odds with “strangers in a strange land” stories, which are played with a far more farcical tone. It’s a jarring tonal clash that serves to keep viewer investment at a remove. It also seems like a misstep to separate the main cast fairly early on, it pulls the series in too many directions and robs the actors of opportunities to build onscreen relationships that could engage viewers. So while Maximus goes through the motions of a revolution on the Moon, Black Bolt lands in a Hawaiian jail after a misunderstanding, Medusa (Serinda Swan) struggles to find her way to her husband while dodging one of Max’s assassins and Gorgon (Eme Ikwuakor) and some islander survivalists mix it up with an Inhuman ambush squad. Meanwhile, Karnak (Ken Leung) is stranded in an existentialist subplot that probably seemed more high end in concept; Crystal is moved around the board without purpose, played by an out-of-her-depth Isabelle Cornish; and poor Triton (Mike Moh), the most misused Inhuman in the comics, fares no better in the realm of TV. The human characters are all indistinct stock types.

The scripts make other significant missteps. Maximus at first has a revolutionary fervor, whipping up the downtrodden non-powered Inhumans to resist Black Bolt’s reign. It was a potentially fascinating idea that’s abandoned fairly quickly for a more conventional “hungry for power” route. Medusa, whose wild mane of living hair is her defining trait, has her locks shorn in the first hour. And while seeing the character learn how to fend without her biggest asset has some interest (it’s a current comic book plot), it seems a mistake to go that route immediately, missing an opportunity to define the character in her most iconic form for a new medium.

Unlike Marvel’s other TV properties, which all work up quite a bit of visual style without movie budgets, Inhumans often looks cheap, as though it could have been a refugee from ’70s network TV. Attilan, supposedly a futuristic city, comes off as a Brutalist office park. The sets are “generic sci fi” and the costuming, hair and make-up are atrocious. The wigs and CGI used for Medusa were especially bad, which may be why the show chose to go with the “lost her hair” plot. And given that the residents of Attilan in the comics tend to be colorful, with many possessing prominent non-humanoid features, that element is largely absent here.

To the extent that the show works, it’s thanks to the solid casting of Mount and Rheon. Rheon can do “evil scheming” with both hands tied behind his back, but makes an effort to add more depth to Maximus than is apparent in the script. Mount has a tougher assignment with the non-speaking Black Bolt, but makes good use of his imposing physicality, intense eyes and granite jaw to do some solid non-verbal acting. Swan has some good moments as the imperious Medusa, though the character’s more vulnerable scenes aren’t her strong suit. There are some good fight sequences and the gorgeous Hawaiian locations are always welcome. Ultimately, Inhumans isn’t irretrievably bad, just mismanaged in several crucial ways. But given fan reaction and a tepid ratings start, it’s unlikely the show will get a second chance to make proper use of its assets.

Off to a far more promising start is The Gifted, a Marvel/Fox co-production set in the world of the X-Men movie franchise. It focuses on the Struckers, a seemingly “normal” family whose life veers wildly off-track when teenagers Lauren and Andy (Natalie Alyn Lind, Percy Hynes White) are revealed as mutants. That’s especially problematic as their father Reed (Stephen Moyer) is an attorney who prosecutes mutants under restrictive anti-mutant laws. Mom Kate (Amy Acker) goes into survival mode immediately, taking major risks to protect her kids. The only chance the Struckers have is to hook up with the same ragtag mutant underground that Reed’s been chasing in hopes they can smuggle Lauren and Andy out of the country. With the X-Men said to be mysteriously vanished, the underground could be the family’s only hope, as the relentless Sentinel Services team hunts them.

Whereas Inhumans suffers from a lack of focus and inconsistent tone, The Gifted is sharp and focused right from the start. Instead of coming off like a franchise extension designed by committee, it communicates an actual creative vision, mixing familiar X-characters into a grittier, more grounded setting. Some have described the show as “modern dystopian,” but really, it’s more a clever distillation of the original Marvel ethos of “the world outside your window,” imagining what the impact could be if people with dangerous powers started popping up in a world very close to the real one.

One of the more interesting parts of The Gifted is that, while the show clearly wants viewers to sympathize with the hunted mutants, it also doesn’t ignore the reality that some mutants are quite dangerous. Andy’s a decent kid and viewers will empathize with him over the bullying incident that triggers his power for the first time. But simultaneously, it’s not glossed over that Andy destroyed half his school and endangered hundreds of people. By not ignoring all the nuances and showing how each side has some compelling motivations, The Gifted sets up a structural metaphor that references current real world events without acting as though there’s a simple or obvious solution to a very complicated problem. That moral ambiguity provides drama and a compelling hook.

The large ensemble is well cast overall, but benefits tremendously from having well-liked TV vets Moyer and Acker lead the cast. The pair’s credibility helps sell the jagged turns their characters have to take in the pilot. Moyer is especially good at communicating Reed’s genuine belief that his work was serving the greater good and what it costs him to pivot and team up with the very people he was prosecuting. Acker provides an effective audience proxy, a normal woman and good mother who’s thrust into an unthinkable circumstance. Together, they help bring viewers into the world of The Gifted and provide an anchor for the chaos that surrounds the characters.

A strong pilot is no guarantee of a successful series, of course. But with a lot of smart choices, stylish production, an effective evocation of mood and actual narrative intent, The Gifted suggests a potentially exciting adventure story suffused with actual substance and nuance. Of the two new Marvel series, it’s far more in tune with the sensibilities that comic book fans have come to expect from the company. 

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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