Marvel Studios announced its superhero plans for 2016 and beyond in a splashy media event Tuesday, and even casual fans have plenty to get excited about: High-wattage sequels like Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Captain America: Civil War, and a third Avengers movie so massive it needs a two parts? Great. Milestones like Black Panther, the first Marvel Studios creation starring a black superhero, and Captain Marvel, the first starring a female one? Excelsior. A Dr. Strange adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch rumored to star? The game is on.
Still, one of the announced films might have left you as confused as Bruce Banner the morning after: The Inhumans. What’s an Inhuman, you ask? Huff some Terrigen Mist, and I’ll explain.
As a quick Google search may have already told you, the Inhumans are fairly obscure, have interstellar origins, and involve a cosmos-hopping dog with a tuning-fork thing on his forehead. This should not worry you! The Guardians of the Galaxy were until recently even more obscure, undertake all manner of outer-space hijinks, and count among themselves a talking raccoon with a very large gun. And that movie made more than $700 million. (And was, well, pretty great.)
While execs at Marvel and its parent company Disney surely wouldn’t greenlight a movie without seeing, well, green, it’s worth picking apart why they decided The Inhumans deserves the big-screen treatment: The choice says a lot about Marvel Studios’ tolerance of risk and its willingness to step outside the obvious realm of superheroes, as well as some of the weaknesses in its plan to translate the shared universe of Marvel Comics into a cinematic one.
The movie doesn’t open until Nov. 2, 2018, but four years really isn’t that much time to catch up on 50 years of continuity, so I won’t delay the basics any longer: The Inhumans are a race of genetically modified superhumans, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who debuted across a handful of Fantastic Four issues in 1965. They were initially antagonists of the FF—in Fantastic Four Nos. 45 and 46, they brawl with each other on the streets of New York—but have for the most part been allies of Marvel’s heroes. (20th Century Fox, not Marvel Studios, currently holds the movie rights to the Fantastic Four, so don’t expect an on-screen encounter between Mr. Fantastic and Black Bolt anytime soon.)
The Inhumans inhabit the moveable city of Attilan, which has been located on Earth, on the Moon, and far off in space (more on that later). Their king is Black Bolt, whose voice is so concussive he rarely speaks. (Imagine how cool that will look and sound on screen.) He’s married to his cousin Medusa, who can manipulate her own hair into powerful tendrils. Gorgon (super-strength), Triton (fishlike anatomy), and Karnak (strength and agility) are also cousins of Black Bolt, and serve as his inner circle. Bolt’s brother Maximus, who has telepathic powers, is in love with Medusa and eager to take the throne. Meanwhile Crystal (elemental powers), another member of the royal family, has had more contact with the rest of the Marvel Universe than most, serving as a member of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers and becoming romantically entangled with the Human Torch and the Avengers’ Quicksilver (who had a post-credits cameo at the end of this summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and will appear in next year’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron). Got all that? Think Star Wars, think Hamlet, and definitely think X-men.
Right, the X-Men. Currently, Marvel Studios doesn’t hold the rights to make X-Men films, which means Marvel and Disney make less money from one of 20th Century Fox’s mutant movies than they do from the features they make in house. But an Inhumans movie might not be so far off from an X-Men one: It’ll have to feature a large ensemble cast, showcase a wide array of superhuman powers, and likely share some of the X-Men franchise’s frequent themes. Like the mutants of the X-Men stories, the Inhumans have exceptional abilities, initially cloister themselves from a human race that might fear and harm them, and ultimately go public. With the X-Men, those elements allowed Stan Lee and other writers, and notably filmmaker Bryan Singer, to draw parallels between the X-Men and civil rights movements. That wouldn’t be a bad play here, either.
There are, however, some important differences between the X-Men and the Inhumans. While mutants are products of evolution, the Inhumans can thank extraterrestrial tampering for their powers. As the comics tell it, the Kree—a race you’ll remember from Guardians of the Galaxy—experimented with humans millions of years ago, creating and abandoning the Inhumans. In order to activate their powers, the Inhumans are exposed to the Terrigen Mist, which sounds like a futuristic deodorant but is in fact a mutagenic vapor rising from something called the Terrigen Crystals. In some recent comic books, the Inhumans even took over the Kree empire. (It’s all actually way more complicated than that, involving Eternals and Celestials and some other uppercase Marvel heavies, so, if you want to dig deeper, consider consulting Marvel’s useful wiki.)
What’s most important is that the Inhumans provide a link between Marvel’s terrestrial characters and its trippier cosmic ones, like the races glimpsed in Guardians of the Galaxy as well as Thanos, the purple meanie portrayed by Josh Brolin. Thanos will be the main villain of Avengers: Infinity War, whose two parts come out in May 2018 and May 2019. I doubt it’s an accident that The Inhumans is scheduled to come out between those two; at Tuesday’s press event, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said audiences would get to know the Inhumans “sooner than you think.” That sounds like a big bet on a set of characters that’s never really captured comic-book fans’ attention. While the Inhumans have starred in a handful of edifying limited series, they’ve never managed to sustain an ongoing one for more than a year. Comic fans have mostly appreciated the Inhumans as peripheral characters; movie audiences could feel the same way. Then again, the Guardians of the Galaxy had an even spottier dead-tree history than the Inhumans, and they’re now one of the hottest film properties on the planet. Four Halloweens from now, maybe the trendiest accessory will be a Black Bolt-style tuning fork.
Which brings us back to the dog. His name is Lockjaw. He can teleport across space. He’s generally pretty adorable. I bet he’s going to make for an awesome meme.