The Inhumans: How Marvel is Getting Them Ready for Stardom

Agents of SHIELD season 3 promises us an Inhumans heavy storyline. We trace their road to Marvel movie stardom.

At the end of Iron Man, when Nick Fury showed up, he said he wanted to talk about the “Avengers Initiative.” At the time, it sounded like it was a reference to a comic series of the same name, but over the years, it found itself a new definition. Marvel, for better or worse, has been adjusting its media output to lay the seeds for what will come. This isn’t like when Spider-Man 3 came out and Spider-Man started wearing black again in the comics because he was so angry! That was synergy, but more for the sake of cashing in on what was topical at the time of release.

In the years leading to its release, people scoffed at Guardians of the Galaxy‘s prosects of success because…who were these guys? A talking tree and a raccoon in space? What? But Marvel knew what they were doing. The Guardians of the Galaxy appeared on the Avengers cartoon a year or so before the movie hit. Rocket Raccoon was shoved into Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 at a time when the character was in limbo. The current Guardians of the Galaxy comic was cancelled and then brought back with a roster resembling what we got in the movies. Marvel even gave the previously obscure property to their top writer at the time, Brian Michael Bendis.

And now its the Inhumans‘ turn. These previously obscure characters are getting the “Guardians of the Galaxy” treatment from Marvel at the moment. The Marvel Cinematic Universe needs mutants, but since Fox is making X-Men movies and won’t be stopping any time soon, it’s the Inhumans who will have to fill that gap. It’s the same basic idea, but with the serial numbers filed off. Marvel has spent the last several years priming the characters and concepts associated with The Inhumans for their time in the spotlight, even hinting at their presence in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie and going all out with it on the Agents of SHIELD TV series. 

Let’s see if all this is going to work…

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Both the X-Men and the Inhumans were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s with the X-Men appearing two years earlier. The big difference is how their debuts worked. The X-Men began with Uncanny X-Men #1, their own comic, while the Inhumans were introduced in Fantastic Four #45, which was in no way their own comic. They became regular parts of the Marvel Universe in the decades that followed, but their stories never earned them any mainstream appeal. They were guest characters, meant to be revisited, but doomed to never really get the spotlight. The most they got was some backup cartoons on the ’90s Fantastic Four animated series. 

It’s no wonder, really. On the surface, Inhumans and mutants are about the same, only mutants manifest their random powers naturally while Inhumans manifest their random powers through a ritual. The thing that really separates them is how we relate to them. The X-Men and mutants in general are part of society. They’re our classmates. They’re our coworkers. They might even be us. Meanwhile, the Inhuman race is off in its own corner. They live on the moon or on a flying island or whatever. They have their own specific culture and their king wears a mask for no reason whatsoever.

The X-Men are Clark Kent while the Inhumans are General Zod.

If anything, it makes me wonder how the Inhumans have lasted so long as a concept. “Royal weirdos walking around in spandex for some reason” doesn’t have the same staying power as the “superhero with real life problems” who gave Marvel its identity. Don’t get me wrong, Black Bolt, Medusa, and Maximus are cool as hell. They just aren’t all that grounded and only live on because they’re early Kirby/Lee concepts who have only recently carved out a niche in Marvel Earth politics. If it wasn’t for Black Bolt’s position as a world leader (we’ll get to that in a minute) making him an essential supporting hero, he and his kind would be just as obscure as fellow Kirby creations the cosmic Eternals (who at least had a quick background appearance in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie).

In 2005, New Avengers writer Brian Michael Bendis helped the cause by putting Black Bolt at the center of a team known as the Illuminati. It didn’t matter if there were no ongoing Inhumans comics at the time (although the ones that did pop up like Son of M and Silent War were awesome). The simple retcon that Black Bolt was constantly having meetings with Iron Man, Xavier, Reed Richards, etc. was a statement that he – and his people by extension – is a critical piece of the Marvel Universe.

As Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers/New Avengers epic was in its early days, the rumors started to gather that Marvel wanted to increase eyes on the Inhumans franchise for the sake of downplaying mutants, likely because they can’t use the word “mutant” in Marvel Studios productions since 20th Century Fox has the X-Men movie rights. The Inhumans had already been a major part of Hickman’s lengthy Fantastic Four/FF run and compounding that with Black Bolt’s Illuminati status, it organically led to the major happenings in another Marvel comic that will probably have some bearing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Infinity.

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Infinity is an event that is a fantastic read if you’ve been following Hickman’s Avengers/New Avengers works, but confusing if you haven’t. One of the subplots is that Thanos, on a quest to kill all of his children, goes to Attilan to give them an ultimatum: either Black Bolt hands him the heads of all Inhumans between the ages of 16-22, or he’ll kill them all. Bolt instead evacuates Attilan of everyone but himself, Maximus, and Lockjaw. When Thanos comes for the offering, Bolt screams in his face, which not only blows up the city, but also causes a bomb filled with Terrigen – the gas that activates their powers – to explode and spread the gas across Earth.

Interestingly enough, this is reminiscent of 1999’s alternate reality/future story Earth X, where Jim Krueger and Alex Ross decided that mutants and Inhumans are basically the exact same thing. That’s not the case in regular Marvel continuity, but with all that’s going on right now with the Inhumans being cinematic scabs, it’s amusing the way Krueger and Ross shrugged their shoulders on the concept way back when and called it out.

Infinity also introduced an important wrinkle to Inhuman lore. Many years ago, a group left Attilan to venture out into the world. Inhuman offshoots have been spread across the world for many generations, leading to the bloodline spreading into human society. That means that when Black Bolt detonated the Terrigen bomb, the gas caused average people all over the world with no knowledge of their true heritage to suddenly develop powers. The story ended with Black Bolt and Maximus surviving in secret, showing that Maximus is intrigued with Black Bolt’s strategy, mainly because it’s the kind of insane plan he’d expect himself to make.

If this doesn’t sound like something that can be teased between Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Inhumans, and one of those Avengers: Infinity War installments, I don’t know what does.

Much like how the Guardians of the Galaxy were meant to be reintroduced as a big deal by Bendis, Marvel figured the best person to make the Inhumans into a big deal would be star writer Matt Fraction. It kicked off with Inhumanity, a mini event featuring one-shots and tie-ins about the aftermath of Infinity in relation to the Inhumans brand. Random people are locked in cocoons, undergoing transformations. People are popping up with new powers all over. Black Bolt is presumed dead. Karnak realizes what Black Bolt did and commits suicide, showing how bad things are about to get for their race.

Inhumanity was a pretty big misfire, all things considered. It was meant to lead into the new ongoing series, Inhumanwith Matt Fraction writing and Joe Madueira drawing. Then Fraction dropped out and made it apparent that once Hawkeye finished up, he was leaving Marvel. He was quickly replaced with rising comic writer Charles Soule (who rules), but Madueira’s not exactly known for churning out quick art. Several months after Inhumanity failed to set the world on fire, Inhuman #1 finally hit the stands. Then there was another few months in-between issues #2 and #3. Ryan Stegman took over art duties as of Inhuman #4 and the series has finally leveled off into something resembling a regular schedule.

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Inhuman has mostly centered around Medusa and new character Inferno. Medusa has been trying to bring all of the Inhuman beings under her new kingdom while being opposed by insane Inhumans, new and old. Inferno (real name Dante. Yes, really) is one of the citizens whose powers were recently unleashed. Like the new readers, he tries to make sense of this new world. He tries to understand the old characters while trying to make newer characters – such as the reluctant Jason – understand that this change might in fact be for the better.

It’s exactly what they needed to do, as it further helps make the Inhumans concept a little more ready to make the jump to the movies. Think back to nearly every introduction of the X-Men across media. The first issue of Uncanny X-Men. The first episode of the various animated series. The awful Generation X live-action television movie. The X-Men Legends video game. The first Bryan Singer superhero movie. They’re all told the same way: a new person finds out they have powers and is inducted into this weird world, acting as our window. Inferno and Jason ground us into this strange reality where kings can blow up mountains with a single word and giant dogs can teleport. It even has a moment I absolutely adore when Gorgon talks to Inferno about his love for heavy metal, showing a minor side to the character that helps us relate to him and makes him seem less alien.

Other interesting new characters are brought in. When Soule was writing Thunderbolts during Infinity, he did a tie-in issue where a joke of a mob boss was turned into an Inhuman and became a scheming monster named Lineage. There’s an Akuma-looking villain named Lash who is all about only allowing the strong Inhumans to survive while destroying and dismissing the weak. Inhuman #4 introduced a mysterious wild card character named the Reader who can stop time and seemingly only see through his dog’s eyes. Inhuman #7 introduced the Attilan detective Nur, who tries to keep himself grounded in this sci-fi status quo.

While this is all going on, Marvel is championing their new series Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona. The critically-acclaimed series stars Kamala Khan, who herself is an Inhuman and received her powers from the Terrigen cloud. Meanwhile, Secret Wars shows more of a presence from the Inhumans, with the comic Attilan Rising.

Once the dust settles on Secret Wars, there will be a decent share of Inhumans comics out there. All-New Inhumans by Charles Soule, James Asmus, and Stefano Caselli will center on Inferno and his newly-introduced allies. Uncanny Inhumans by Charles Soule and Steve McNiven is more about the bigger names of Inhuman lore while including Human Torch (as there’s no Fantastic Four comic anymore) and Beast. Karnak by Warren Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino will hopefully breathe some interest in that character after his return from death. Then you have Inhumans in the pages of Ms. Marvel, Uncanny Avengers, Agents of SHIELD, and so on.

All while the amount of X-Men titles have been cut down.

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Even though it’ll be several years until Inhumans hits theaters, Marvel is already planting seeds (Terrigen bombs?) in the Agents of SHIELD television series. As of the end of the first season, it had been hinted that main character Skye and the antagonist Raina are Inhumans. That was confirmed by the middle of the second season, which then proceeded to make the show all about this hidden race headed by Skye (or Daisy)’s long-lost mother Jiaying.

Jiaying is interesting because after painting her as an apprehensive, yet level-headed, leader, she ended up being completely against the human race because of the horrors of what Hydra did to her so many years ago. Yes, the Nazis drove her to hate humanity in the name of protecting her people. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn’t have Magneto, they would just make their own.

The second season ended with Terrigen being mixed into the ecosystem, leading to the third season where more and more Inhumans will show up. Lash will be a major villain, which makes sense. Much like Jiaying was the Inhuman stand-in for Magneto, Lash is the Inhuman stand-in for Apocalypse, demanding that only the strong survive.

This new direction for Inhumans isn’t the worst idea. By eating the X-Men’s lunch, Inhumans become relevant to today’s society. Mutants have always been portrayed as a minority, and places like Genosha, Asteroid M, and Utopia became a home to the race after the fact. But with Inhumans, it’s different. By establishing Attilan first, it gives them a real culture. Their genetics liken them to not only other members of the Inhuman race, but to a nation itself. There’s more teeth to the prejudice than just being different.

Plus the story is a bit easier to swallow, at least in a cinematic way. I mean, X-Men is one of those concepts that’s just weird the closer you look at it. Why does this professor have all this futuristic, super expensive technology all over the place? The Danger Room, Cerebro, the jets, etc. As strange as it is to say, I’m more willing to accept that you’d see that kind of stuff when you discover a secret nation of people tampered by aliens. But with Professor Xavier, well, we just don’t pay teachers that much in this country.

* this article originally ran in March of 2015 *

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Gavin feels bad for Black Bolt. Dude never gets to play Marco Polo ever. Follow Gavin on Twitter!