Regal rivalry: The powerless usurp the powerful in 'Marvel's Inhumans'

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Kat Mulligan / TV Media
Ken Leung stars in "Marvel's Inhumans"

Ken Leung stars in "Marvel's Inhumans"

When it comes to out-of-this-world heroics and stellar character development, no comic book franchise has been able to surpass the gravity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the company dabbled in television and film during the 1970s, Marvel has really come into its own in the last 20 years.

Now, the studio is a staple of all forms of media, dominating film, television and streaming services with quality content like the X-Men franchise, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" and "Jessica Jones." Marvel's greatest strength has always been its ability to create complex, multidimensional characters, who are neither pure hero or villain, but are lost in the gray space in between. The relatability and humanity of their characters continues to pull in fans.

The latest addition to this fictional universe is "Marvel's Inhumans," premiering Friday, Sept. 29, on ABC. Some may have seen the first two episodes already, as they were given cinematic IMAX treatment in a selected release in theaters across North America for a limited run starting Sept. 1. Unlike numerous other series developed by Marvel Studios, "Inhumans" is a relatively unknown comic, and an interesting choice for an on-screen adaptation.

"Inhumans" centers around the Inhuman royal family of Attilan, a city located on the moon. The king of the Inhumans, Black Bolt (Anson Mount, "Hell on Wheels") maintains order amongst his people with the help of his queen, Medusa (Serinda Swan, "Graceland"). This order is quite fragile, however, and threatened by the king's own brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon, "Game of Thrones"), whose desire to challenge Attilan's traditions leads him to become the leader of an Inhumans uprising. What follows is a military coup, with members of the royal family transported to Earth by Princess Crystal (Isabelle Cornish, "Puberty Blues") and her 2,000-pound bulldog, Lockjaw. The dog's teleportation abilities land the family in Hawaii, where they work to reclaim their kingdom and save it from Maximus's plans. 

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Inhuman royal family first appeared in print in an issue of "Fantastic Four," and did not receive its own stand-alone series until 1975, with a 12-issue run. Since then, the series has had limited runs throughout the decades, continuing to attract new audiences looking for something beyond Marvel's flagship icons. "Inhumans" may not have instant brand recognition, but the potential for a cult following is great, given the depth of its story and parallels with modern socio-political concerns.

Isabelle Cornish as seen in "Marvel's Inhumans"

Isabelle Cornish as seen in "Marvel's Inhumans"

A cast as dynamic as the royalty they portray shows the versatility required for a super-powered series. Mount took on a lofty challenge with the role of Black Bolt. The process of Terrigenesis, which is how Inhuman powers are bestowed, results in Black Bolt being gifted a voice that, even at a whisper pitch, causes mass devastation. For the sake of his people and the city -- and, no doubt, the moon itself -- Black Bolt chooses to remain mute, which Mount claims was the reason he took the job.

Black Bolt relies heavily on his counterpart and queen, Medusa, to communicate on his behalf, an act accomplished via a unique form of sign language, influenced by, but in no way related to, American Sign Language. Mount and Swan developed this unique form of communication together, with Mount sending Swan recordings of his signed dialogue so that she could match the pace and tone of Black Bolt's words.

Black Bolt's situation lends itself well to Mount's own thoughts on Marvel's treatment of super powers, which he discussed with IGN at an "Inhumans" panel at San Diego Comic Con. To Mount, Marvel's strength lies in how these abilities "are so well thought out that, oftentimes, they're more like a burden or handicap." 

But what about characters without any abilities? Those robbed of the chance for a power? Rheon's Maximus, brother of King Black Bolt, is one such character. Terrigenesis robbed him of his Inhuman gene, but garnered him a different kind of ability -- perspective. While it is easy to quickly dismiss Maximus as the bad guy, Rheon is just as quick to reject the notion and distance himself from the weight of his monstrous "Game of Thrones" role as Ramsay Bolton. In a talk with Kevin Smith, Rheon emphasized that Maximus is "not a villain," that rather he is just out to find justice for Inhumans living in an unjust world. The actor takes pride in his character, whom he sees as more of an "antagonist" and a "thinker."

Maximus looks to tear down the flawed caste system enabled by the Terrigenesis process and reinforced through Attilan tradition, in which a large majority of Inhumans are seen as less-than, and only worthy of so much before their free will is denied. This battle of tradition versus compassion, and questions of the death and rebirth of societal structures, make it difficult to distinguish which brother would truly be the better king. 

Sibling rivalry over royal rule gets an added layer of depth with Marvel's latest show. Explore the politics of the moon -- a welcome escape from Earth's own -- when the two-episode, two-hour series premiere of "Marvel's Inhumans" airs Friday, Sept. 29, on ABC.