If there’s a single common thread through all the new franchises announced for Marvel’s Phase 3, it’s that all the new characters are being culled from Marvel‘s periphery. For better or worse, Doctor Strange and Black Panther aren’t exactly A-list heroes. Even when they’ve had solo titles that won mountains of critical praise, sales-wise series for these characters have often struggled to keep their heads above water, and have usually failed. A guy like Doctor Strange usually endures as an ever-present guy on the side; a character who shows up to let all the other heroes know things are about to get serious, but rarely takes center stage himself. But apparently with the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel learned that a comic book franchise doesn’t need to be a superstar in the comic book shop in order to be a promising concept for the big screen, hence films for Ant-Man, Captain Marvel and, yes, the Inhumans.
So who are the Inhumans? Out of the endless crowds of guys and gals in funny outfits, what makes them ripe for cinematic treatment? What role do they fill in the larger universe and what makes them unique?
The Inhumans were introduced during one of the most creatively rich periods of early Marvel: during the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run of Fantastic Four. Within a few issues of the Inhumans’ introduction, equally memorable and enduring characters like Black Panther, Silver Surfer, and Galactus saw their premiere on Earth 616.
Fantastic Four #45 was the first time the Inhumans were seen as a group ,(though individual members Medusa and Gorgon were introduced earlier), after FF horn-dog Johnny Storm followed the Inhuman known as Crystal to her family’s hideout.
The Inhumans are a super-powered off-shoot of humanity. In the distant past, while the aliens from 2001 were leaving black obelisks for cave people, the Kree (blue guys, you saw them in Guardians of the Galaxy) recognized potential in early humans and altered them, hoping to use them as weapons against their enemies the Skrulls. Once their potential was realized, however, the Inhumans refused to be mere pawns of their alien benefactors.
Like the X-Men and the mutants who fill their ranks, all adult Inhumans have super powers which often bring with them strange physical mutations like scaled skin, hooves instead of feet, tentacles instead of eyes, or, well, there’s the one guy who’s basically a dog.
Unlike the X-Men, the Inhumans aren’t really a super-hero team. The Inhumans are essentially their own race. They have their own home: the city of Attilan which has moved numerous times. At one point Attilan was on the Moon, and earlier it was in the Himalayas. The Inhumans have their own culture, their own customs, and their own rigid caste system.
Their king is Black Bolt, one of the most powerful heroes of Marvel, having gone toe-to-toe more than once with powerhouses like the Hulk and Thor. Black Bolt transforms energy into strength, speed, and flight, but the power that tends to define him is his nuclear option: his voice. If Black Bolt speaks even a whisper, it unleashes a ridiculously destructive wave of energy. Basically, if the guy walked into your living room and whispered “hi,” he’d probably knock you through the wall, blow out all your windows and totally destroy your flat screen and any gaming consoles. If he said, “Yo, what’s up,” in a normal voice, you would just explode and your home would probably collapse on top of him, but he’d be totally fine. If he yelled “Yo, BRAH!” you would just instantly liquify and your town would collapse into the earth.
After their first appearance in Fantastic Four, there have been numerous attempts to bring the Inhumans to the forefront of Marvel. They were featured for a while in Amazing Adventures, had their own back-up feature in Thor, and continued to appear as peripheral characters in other series, most notably Fantastic Four. Inhumans Crystal and Medusa have both enjoyed brief stints as members of FF in fact, and Crystal was married for years to Quicksilver of the Avengers.There have been a few shots at Inhumans series, including one by writer Paul Jenkins and artist Jae Lee from the late nineties that updated the look of many of the characters and won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best New Series.
More recently, Marvel saw an event called Inhumanity in which the Terrigen Mists – the substance that gives the Inhumans their powers – were released on Earth and lots of civilians who had no idea they shared ancestry with the Inhumans suddenly sprouted brand spankin’ new super powers. The fallout is being chronicled in the series Inhuman.
So why these guys? What potential does Marvel Studios see in them that they don’t see elsewhere in their long list of franchises?
Well, one of the possible answers is in one of the franchises that Marvel Studios can’t do anything with: The X-Men. The Inhumans and the X-Men have a lot of things in common. They are both separated from the larger family of humanity and both are groups of people defined by either being born with super powers or with the potential for super powers (Inhumans do not develop their powers until they come of age and are exposed to the Terrigen Mists). They both have the outsider/rebel vibe that makes Wolverine and His Amazing Friends so popular. So Marvel likely sees it as a way at making money off the X-Men without needing to use the X-Men, or more accurately using the same concepts that made the X-Men popular.
The Inhumans may even be how Marvel intends to handle their No Mutants problem (as in, they can’t use the word “mutants” in their movies). There has been a lot of speculation that what’s been happening in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be leading back to the Inhumans somehow. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – both appearing in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron – are the mutant children of Magneto in the comics but this origin won’t be possible in the films because of Fox holding on to the rights to the X-Men. Considering we saw the siblings as Hydra prisoners in one of Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s post-credits scenes, I can’t help but wonder if – should the Inhumans/S.H.I.E.L.D. speculation be accurate – Joss Whedon will be using the Inhumans to explain how the Maximoff twins got their powers.
Another possible reason why the Inhumans make a good choice is that while they have always lived either on Earth or close to Earth, their roots are in the stars. Because of this, they serve as the perfect bridge between the Earth-based heroes we’ve seen in most of the movies and the more cosmic stuff like Guardians of the Galaxy. We know Thanos will eventually be locking horns with the Avengers and that green-skinned heroes like Gamora and Drax are going to meet green-skinned heroes like Hulk. Black Bolt and his family may very well be one of the things that makes those team-ups possible.
Though there is the question of how to make the Inhumans appealing to a wider audience. One of the weaknesses of the franchise is part of what makes it unique: they’re not really super-heroes, they’re just people who happen to have powers and as such they have no more fallible halves with whom to relate. No secret identities. There are no Peter Parkers among the Inhumans. No Clark Kents. The character most closely associated with the franchise – Black Bolt – almost never speaks (and when he does, it’s usually in order to liquefy someone). Telling the story through his point of view would be difficult.
It seems likely that Marvel will have to find a character with a foot in both worlds: the Inhuman world and the more mundane one. A good choice might be Crystal. As I mentioned previously, in the comics Crystal has arguably spent more time among humans than the rest of her family, and has generally seemed less outright xenophobic than her Inhuman brethren. She married Quicksilver, had love affairs with Johnny Storm, and has been a member of both Fantastic Four and the Avengers. Also, focusing on one of the female Inhumans would further Marvel’s commitment to diversity.
Of course, if Marvel does intend something like the Inhumanity event in its live-action universe (and that is still a big if), then maybe it would be one of the newly “evolved” humans that could act as a touchstone for the audience.
Regardless, there’s something about the notion of an Inhumans movie that puts an unexpected smile on my face. Unexpected because I’ve never been a big fan. Not that I’ve disliked them, they were just never large enough on the Marvel canvas to have a passionate opinion about either way. But there’s something about Marvel giving such attention and committing such resources to franchises on the periphery of its comic book universe that makes me happy.
On the other hand, it can be kind of annoying having all of these B and C listers in the news because when you’re one of the known geeks of the office, you end up getting drilled with questions like “Who the hell are the Inhumans? Is that guy a dog?” Honestly, those questions aren’t coming yet, but they will. Right now it’s “Who the hell is Ant-Man and how is being as small as an ant even remotely helpful?” But somehow I will endure.