I can’t tell you anything about the premiere episode of Marvel’s Inhumans. The 40 minutes or so of the show that I and other members of the TV press have seen is a work in progress, with incomplete video and sound elements. It’d be a dereliction of our duties and responsibilities to render our opinions into reviews at this point. Fine, one divulgence: Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ massive, teleporting dog, is one of the best characters of the new TV season.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough in that work-in-progress cut to form an impression of Inhumans’ first episode, and what it portends for Inhumans as an ongoing television series. Nor has that kept us from weighing those impressions against one another, in conversation at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Those impressions couldn’t be completely stifled when the members of the TCA met with the producers and stars of Inhumans on Sunday, a tense press conference in which many variations on “What happened?” were asked, each met with a variation of “No comment.”
Will tickets to the two-part premiere’s IMAX engagement cost as much as a standard IMAX screening for a feature? “I suppose the folks at IMAX would know that,” said Jeph Loeb, Inhumans executive producer and executive vice president of Marvel Television.
Does it bother the producers that multiple critics failed to figure out what, exactly, a major Inhumans character’s powers are supposed to be? Loeb again:
I think one of the challenges of what it is that you’ve seen so far is something that’s unfinished, and so while I can understand that it may not have been something that you readily understood, it is something that once you’ve seen the whole finished product, you actually do.
Is what we’ve seen so far the show that the talent set out to make? Loeb, one more time:
I can tell you, and it was written on the material that you were given, that the show that you have seen is not the finished product. So if you are asking me whether or not it is done, it’s not. So I don’t, to be perfectly honest, I don’t understand the question.
The trajectory of the conversation mirrored the rest of 2017 for Marvel Television, a reversal of fortunes after a few years in which their Netflix series looked untouchable. Now, on the eve of the team-up that pulls the heroes of those four shows together, the studio could potentially follow its first full face-plant—Iron Fist—with another. The TCA tangle comes on the heels of Inhumans’ tepid showing at Comic-Con, a setting where Marvel projects can typically expect a more coronation-like atmosphere. But the people in charge are either unable, or unwilling, to admit that trouble is brewing. It’s a situation suited to one of the publisher’s famously conflicted heroes: A formerly invincible entity struggled to come to grips with newfound weaknesses.
In some respects, this too may be a premature call. Inhumans and its large-format debut represent a huge play for Marvel, but The Defenders will bow first, a full two weeks prior to Inhumans’ IMAX run. The Punisher is still out there, too, having wrapped filming this past April. So it’s not like Marvel’s TV division is in any immediate danger, and besides: It’s still just one part of the Marvel Studios behemoth, whose movie wing is being outclassed and out-earned by Wonder Woman, but can still lay claim to the box office successes of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming while looking forward to space-gladiator melee of Thor: Ragnarok.
What Inhumans signals is a chink in the armor at Marvel’s broadcast cousin. Disney’s acquisition of Marvel (and the screen rights to most of its most popular characters) has never benefited ABC the way it once seemed it might. Part of this has to do with the way its shows run counter to what the network currently excels at: Family comedies, nighttime soaps, reality competitions, and retro game shows. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. failed to convert enthusiasm for the Avengers films into ratings; save for the stretches when it’s been engaged in call-and-response with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s big-screen output, it’s also fallen short of creative triumph. Lack of quality isn’t endemic to ABC’s Marvel shows: Agent Carter struggled to find an audience, but it at least managed to produce some stellar capers in its two seasons on the air.
But whatever they failed to bring in to the network, Agents and Agent Carter never asked viewers to pay to see less content on more screen. The IMAX cut of the Inhumans premiere runs 75 minutes as opposed to the 84 minutes of the network cut. As Loeb put it, “There will be footage that you can see on ABC that you won’t see in IMAX, and there will be things in IMAX that you’ll see that are shot on the IMAX cameras that are simply extraordinary and should be seen on that screen.” It’s an odd strategy, but one that explains all the effort Marvel and ABC continue to put behind Inhumans, which has its origins in a cancelled film that was originally pitched as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “third wave.” The cancellation of that movie was a rare example of Marvel admitting defeat—consider that this is the studio that canned Edgar Wright but still forged ahead with Ant-Man. Since the premiere of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has had so little experience with failure that they’re still learning to recognize it. But the criticism and backlash spurred by Iron Fist—whose much maligned first season shares a showrunner, Scott Buck, with Inhumans—must’ve provided some training in placing hats in hands.
It’s usually not in the best interests of a huge studio and a major broadcaster to be so frank about its mistakes. But Marvel’s many devoted fans could hope that mistakes and flaws might be more readily identified by the company responsible for the Avengers’ bickering, Captain America’s humility, and Spider-Man’s vulnerability. Ironically, the Inhumans character that so flummoxed TCA critics, Karnak, has the power to see the flaw in anything and anything—“whether it be a person, a plan, a building, a fortress,” said Loeb. He and his colleagues could learn a thing or two from Karnak. They have a lot riding on Inhumans, and they’d only expose themselves to more risk by dropping the traditional promotional facade and admitting, “This got away from us for a little bit, but we tried to get better as the series went on.” But there’s a middle ground between that kind of candor and the defensive crouch Marvel took at the TCAs. Because here’s the thing: The Inhumans premiere might be a work in progress, but so are the critiques of the fundamental flaws within that premiere. Neither are in their final state of evolution yet.