The hype train to Marvel’s Inhumans hasn’t really taken off, a fact certainly not helped by the IMAX movie event, which debuted to a less-than-stellar response, resulting in a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The characters' path to prominence in the eyes of the larger pop-culture landscape has been a rough one; the Inhumans were initially intended to star in a feature film, before abruptly being diverted last year to television.
There may be many reasons for this failure, but the big one is almost simple when you think about it, and it begins in 1998.
Every long-running comic book character or team has that one story arc that forever casts a shadow over who they are. The X-Men had Chris Claremont and Len Wein's reinvention, Daredevil had Frank Miller, and so on. In 1998, Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee released a 12-issue miniseries about the Inhumans, telling a story that presented Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s assortment of alien weirdos as an allegory for eugenics, the science of improving a population via controlled breeding in order to ensure desirable characteristics become more common. For the Inhumans specifically, this ties to their origin. The Kree experimented on the homosapiens of long ago to give them desirable traits as unwilling troops of a superpowered army in the Kree Empire's eternal war against the shapeshifting Skrulls. It was only when the Kree learned, via a genetic prophecy, that the Inhumans would eventually overthrow them that the experimentation stopped. Kirby and Jenkins were both very much aware of the creepy undercurrent running through this -- they're basically a genetic cult.
Considering how prevalent the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides were in the minds of the public at that time, it was seen as a big deal that a superhero comic was addressing such a topic. As a result, not only did Marvel Comics have a surprising hit on its hands, it also had one that could be viewed as topical. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a superhero comic being political. After all, the X-Men have served as political allegories for most of their existence, with mutants viewed as a stand-in for the marginalized -- minorities, LGBTQ, the disabled, and so on. Even now, in a time when people would like politics to stay out of their capes-and-cowl stories, Ms. Marvel or Batman's take on police brutality have proved to strike a chord with readers, while Benjamin Percy’s Green Arrow run has been tackling police brutality, big corporations and even the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s difficult to separate politics from characters who live in the a world much like ours, and who have to quite literally get with the times in order to remain relevant.
But the Inhumans are different because they’re tied directly to eugenics, something that's also a big tenet of the Nazi party. Not only that, the Royal Family also unashamedly makes slaves out of Inhumans who fail to successfully emerge from their Terrigen ritual, dubbed Alpha Primitives. It’s easy to view the Alpha Primitives as subhuman, given their general appearance and mannerisms. With that in mind, you might be surprised to hear that the Royal Family are intended to come off as good guys rather than villains that the X-Men or Fantastic Four would go up against.
It’s easy to gloss over this fact when the Inhumans are treated as supporting players, such as Karnak hanging out with Daredevil, or Medusa and Crystal spending time with the Fantastic Four. But positioning them front and center in their own story brings all their problematic issues to light. Making the eugenics-based Inhumans into superheroes was already going to be a hard sell, but trying to pit them against the allegory for the marginalized made matters even worse. It was never going to fly for fans, toxic Terrigen cloud or no.