Today, Marvel so completely dominates the superhero genre that it's easy to forget how recently it got into the game in the first place. 2008's Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was hardly a sure thing with mainstream audiences — but at that point, Iron Man was one of the better-known superheroes in Marvel's cinematic stable.
The decision to license many of its most popular superheroes to film studios in the late '90s continues to handcuff Marvel today. In the years since Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the company has successfully reacquired Daredevil from 20th Century Fox and cut a deal with Sony to bring Spider-Man back into the fold. The critical and commercial failure of 20th Century Fox's Fantastic Four reboot probably increases the odds that it will also end up back in Marvel's hands eventually.
But Fox also holds the rights to a much more lucrative Marvel franchise: X-Men. Fox has been riding high on the X-Men franchise since 2000 — to the tune of $3 billion and counting — and it has no interest in letting the X-Men revert back to Marvel anytime soon.
And so we have the Inhumans. Look beyond the alien origin story, and the Inhumans are the mutants from X-Men in everything but name: superpowered, persecuted, and divided over whether to protect humankind or destroy it. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, the Inhumans of Avengers: Age of Ultron, are the children of X-Men's Magneto in the comics. In the film, their parents are a footnote.
This is the complicated process of capturing the full range of Marvel comics without access to many of Marvel's characters. Beginning with last year's mid-season finale, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been tasked with organically weaving the Inhumans into the fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and this week's "A Wanted (Inhu)man" hints at just how massive the oncoming war between humans and Inhumans might turn out to be for Marvel's future.
The episode opens with Lincoln (Luke Mitchell), a familiar Inhuman face, who's on the run from the Advanced Threat Containment Unit. When he escapes, the ATCU turns him into a full-blown fugitive by blasting his picture out to every law-enforcement agency and news outlet — though, as he repeatedly pleads, he's never actually killed anyone. It's a grim development in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a clear push toward the kind of politically resonant storytelling that has made series like X-Men so compelling for decades.
In desperation, Lincoln falls back on John, a longtime friend who has apparently helped him out of a number of jams in the past. But whatever they've been through together, it's not enough to overcome John's fear of Lincoln's newly revealed Inhumanity. (One friendly suggestion for the Inhumans: Rebrand as something less evil-sounding.) "I don't even know what you are. They say you're an alien," says John, failing to recognize that he literally just identified what Lincoln is: a beloved and trustworthy friend. In his desperate attempt to escape before the authorities arrive, Lincoln accidentally triggers a heart attack in John — and despite the not-inconsiderable asset of electricity powers, he fails to shock his friend back to life.
On a macro level, "A Wanted (Inhu)man" serves a similar function to last year's "Heavy is the Head," which integrated Lance Hunter into the sprawling ensemble cast by zooming in on him for an entire episode. Last year Lincoln played a relatively small role in the overarching narrative, introducing Daisy (and the rest of us) to the world of Inhumans. The show's creative team liked Lincoln enough to bring Luke Mitchell back as a full-blown cast member — but "A Wanted (Inhu)man" doesn't quite manage to make the case that we need an entire season's worth of Lincoln stories. At the end of the hour, Lincoln is still pretty ill-defined, and what we do know about him — addiction problems, a self-pitying streak, and a general desire to be "normal" — is a lot less fun than Hunter's devil-may-care badassery has proven to be.
"A Wanted (Inhu)man" also gambles, and loses, by pulling the trigger on a Lincoln/Daisy romance. It makes sense on paper: two attractive people with a similar problem and a shared trauma who want to suck on each other's faces for a little while. As Daisy says, Lincoln was the one who helped her come to terms with her strange new powers. But in practice, their big kiss still feels a little premature — less a logical evolution of this relationship than a plot point designed to increase Daisy's feelings of divided loyalty between Lincoln and Coulson in the episodes to come.
Fortunately, the episode's other big romance is much more convincing. I'm on record as an acknowledged skeptic of Fitz and Simmons; both characters have gone through many, many permutations, and as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has openly grappled with how to use them, most of the answers haven't worked for me.
But after so much drama packed into two short episodes, this week's relatively subdued Fitzsimmons story was a welcome breath of fresh air. The immediate aftermath of Simmons's return from the alien planet is handled with just the right mix of mystery and realism. The months she spent a galaxy away from home have led to a number of minor health problems: respiratory and cardiovascular irregularities, vitamin-D deficiency, and a general discomfort with Earth's gravity, along with occasional strange mental flashes (that will presumably be explained in more detail down the road).
Simmons's transition is intriguing, and I'm curious to learn what happened to her — but for now, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. wisely tables the details in favor of tracking her emotional reaction to the event. Simmons is clearly damaged, and uncomfortable around almost everybody, which gives Fitz the chance to step up in a way that feels both heroic and more organic to his character than his actions so far this season. In an effort to cheer her up, he takes Simmons to the empty restaurant where he made reservations for their first date so many months earlier — and when she's overwhelmed (or overcome) enough that she breaks down, he puts down his glass of wine and offers her a shoulder to cry on.
Back in the field, Skye's attempt to rescue Lincoln comes to an intriguingly unsettling conclusion. When the ATCU comes in to arrest Lincoln, she learns — to her horror — that Coulson is the one who told them where Lincoln could be found, as part of a grander bargain with Rosalind Price. Lincoln escapes, and the ATCU takes Daisy as a consolation prize, until Coulson offers them something even more valuable: a full-on partnership, with all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s resources at their disposal. "I'm done fighting with people over who gets to fight the real fight," he says, and it's easy to understand why he's so leery of another protracted game of spy vs. spy.
But how will Coulson feel when he sees the ATCU's methods in action? Again, "A Wanted (Inhu)man" hints at a more political future for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in which the safety of the average citizen is weighed against the rights of Inhumans. It's a heady cocktail of themes that strikes at the core of what Marvel has always done so well, and I'm eager to see the show explore it — even as I can't quite help but imagine what this already compelling story would look like if Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto were along for the ride.
- Meanwhile, the search for Grant Ward inches forward. Hunter and May join a fight club that promises meeting with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent turned Hydra leader as the prize for winning. Lance Blood and Ming-Na Wen do their best with the material, but it's pretty thin and contrived.
- In general: It's bold to keep May, who is probably Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most interesting character, on the periphery of the story — but after three episodes, I'm ready to see her rejoin the whole team. (And while we're at it, let's get Bobbi out of rehab and into the field beside her.)
- The subtitles during Hunter and his frenemy Spud's drunken cockney chat: funny and helpful!
- Still loving the flirty wordplay between Coulson and the ATCU's Rosalind Price. It's always nice to see Coulson go head-to-head with someone who can keep him on his toes.
- Next week: The Inhuman Lash returns to threaten humans and Inhumans alike.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.