Marvel series have become their own genre, and it's one of the larger ones in the television-and-streaming universe: 13 live-action shows by next spring, if plans hold.
A couple of these ” FX's 'Legion' and Netflix's 'Jessica Jones' ” are sufficiently well made and interesting to be in the peak-TV conversation. The rest of the lineup, though, is marked by a determined mediocrity. Some shows punch a little higher (the cancelled 'Agent Carter'), some kick a little lower ('Iron Fist').
Which brings us to Marvel's 'Inhumans' (ABC) and 'The Gifted' (Fox). 'The Gifted' stays within its limits and looks like a solid time-passer in the CW mold. 'Inhumans' flounders, trying to make the best of a dodgy premise, and looks like the worst Marvel show out there.
Fairness note: Both networks only gave critics a pilot; for 'Inhumans', that was a two-hour episode that's already played in IMAX theatres.)
The problems with 'Inhumans' ” whose showrunner, Scott Buck, also held that position on the first season of the much-maligned 'Iron Fist' ” set in right away, with a clumsily directed jungle chase that looks like a game of laser tag in the Home Depot plant section. IMAX's financial participation in the show was supposed to beef up its budget, but the pilot looks noticeably cheap.
The situation only gets worse as the script starts to roll out the back story, which comes from the mystical, quasi-religious side of the Marvel brain. The Inhumans are an ancient race of mutants who have secluded themselves on the moon, where much of the action in the pilot takes place. Their king, Black Bolt (Anson Mount), thinks they should stay there; his non-mutant brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon of 'Game of Thrones'), wants to return to earth.
The setup ” a superhuman minority with a royal family and a restless underclass ” has echoes of another ABC fantasy, 'Once Upon a Time', but it's presented in such a stilted, sluggish way that it mainly recalls costume epics like 'Clash of the Titans', which at least had Ray Harryhausen's cool special effects.
The royal Inhumans have a grab bag of powers ” prehensile hair, hooves capable of generating shock waves, a deadly voice. (The last belongs to Black Bolt, meaning that Mount has to act mostly with his eyes and shoulders.) Ken Leung plays a cousin whose mutation is seeing the flaws in everything ” he's a superpowered downer.
Even the family pet is a mutant. He's about as adorable as a 6-foot-tall computer-generated teleporting bulldog could be, and you get the feeling that the show is going to lean heavily on scenes of humans grabbing his fur and ordering him to fly them to the moon or other locales. (Most of those will be in Hawaii, where the royal Inhumans find themselves exiled.)
'The Gifted' has a promising pedigree ” it was created by Matt Nix ('Burn Notice'), who wrote the pilot. The Marvel veteran Bryan Singer was brought in to direct the pilot, presumably because of his extensive experience with the X-Men movies.
The show features an original story and new characters not taken from comic books, but it's loosely situated in the X-Men continuum, with references to those more famous mutants having gone missing. Free of existing origin stories, the premise is simple: A young brother and sister manifest their powers, and their non-mutant parents take them on the run with the help of photogenic members of a mutant underground.
The 'Gifted' pilot is all the things 'Inhumans' isn't: quick, tense, funny, occasionally moving. Exposition is at a minimum, and the obligatory speeches about intolerance and conformity are kept short. Mutant abilities ” telekinesis, teleportation, fire rays ” are straightforward and effectively filmed.
And the cast benefits from getting to play characters with recognisably human reactions to superhuman events. Natalie Alyn Lind, who has comic-book experience as Silver St Cloud on 'Gotham', is good as the sister, and the parents are ably played by Amy Acker and Stephen Moyer.
(It's a little disappointing to see Acker, so good as an action hero-mad genius in 'Person of Interest', portraying a churchgoing, minivan-driving mom here. But her character shows signs of feistiness in the pilot, so here's hoping she emerges as a derriere-kicking avenger.)
There's room in Marvel's big tent for all kinds of shows, of course, not just traditional action dramas with family overtones like 'The Gifted'. But if you're scoring, only one of the two new Marvel shows features a Stan Lee cameo, and it's not 'Inhumans'.
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