One might assume that a special release of a television show in IMAX would come with striking clarity and amazing special effects, but with ABC’s Marvel’s Inhumans I found myself struck not by the wonder and the ‘super’ but by the sheer humanity involved. While villains might exist in the series, the very person of the characters lies central to the conflicts and the underlying themes of the narrative.
Marvel’s Inhuman series follows a race of humans who possess extra genetic potential, making them “different” from humans and forcing them into exile as refugees. In exile in the city of Attilan, they create an entire society based on “potential”—it is so important that King Black Bolt, his wife Medusa, and the rest of the royal family personally supervise each individual as they undergo their transformation when they come of age. That genetic transformation might awaken “powers” within the person or it might not. A person’s “powers” may seem far afield in terms of fantasy and science fiction, but the attention to each person and their potential turns the story inward towards the humanity and pressures involved.
Maximus, the king’s brother who lacks superpowers, faces the challenge and frustration of being underestimated by all around him. The society continually highlights him as “just human,” which leads to the very human experience of jealousy and self-loathing. Maximus turns this jealousy and anger into a weapon which eventually motivates a coup d’état for the throne of Attilan. It’s painful to watch, as everyone around King Black Bolt can see the jealousy and manipulation of his brother Maximus building. Yet, in this escalating tension, Black Bolt remains silent. Even though Maximus seems evil, his brother cannot see it, and he cannot help but underestimate him.
Silence and inaction are important themes for Black Bolt. By comic standards, Black Bolt is perhaps one of the most powerful superhumans in the Marvel world. His voice—which is his weapon—excites the very atoms which stand in his way, disintegrating everything. A single word can demolish a city or an army, and if he raises his voice the scale of destruction would be limitless. The power and potential of his voice remains feared, but also silent: Black Bolt knows that with a single word he can defeat anyone and anything, but his potential scares him more than empowers him.
We see a glimpse of his power in a single moment when Black Bolt it punched. He releases an insignificant grunt, but that sound—no louder than a whisper or exhale—crushes and flips a police car hundreds of feet. This accidental manifestation of power brings him to his knees. Ashamed and afraid, he surrenders. His power and potential remain self-silenced by the shame he has for those mistakes he has made in his past and his fear of future destruction.
As a result, Bolt remains silent. He sits within the very human tension of holding potential and not knowing what to do with it. His fear of destruction, much like the human fear of failure, ties his hands and his actions. He is the most powerful, rendered powerless… a feeling not inhuman at all.
ABC’s Inhumans pits two opposing human experiences against one another: the frustration of being underestimated, and the fear of your past mistakes and future potential.
The two human experiences come to a moment of pregnant tension at the close of the series premier. Maximus sits upon his brother’s throne, having proven himself so much more than just a human. As he sits, he receives a call from Medusa who says, “the king will have words for you.” Her statement of course implies the use of Black Bolt’s power, but more importantly it indicates that Bolt is going to move beyond silence and inaction. Maximus though, unwilling to be underestimated again, replies that he is looking forward to it.
The closing conversation captures the tension which will unfold not in superhuman or inhuman terms, but in terms of the underestimated and unrealized potentials of the person. The superpowers, the inhuman capabilities, and the special effects all fall into the backdrop of a distinctly human tale. We may be entertained by the superpowers and special effects, but we are fundamentally drawn to the way a super-tale allows us insight into our own human experience.
The cover image is courtesy of Jamie of the Flickr Creative Commons.