Mutants have come up in the world.
Once, they were monsters fumbling at the door, former humans warped and usually diminished by scientific overreach or accident — cousins to zombies, something to avoid.
Marvel’s “X-Men,” a comic book since 1963 and a movie franchise since 2000, made them superheroes and supervillains — made them sexy. In a way, this echoes the progress of Marvel itself, once the weirdo alternative brand, now, as part of the Disney empire alongside all that is “Star Wars,” ruling the world’s screens, big and little.
If you think you can’t get enough of these stories, you are about to be tested. Tonight brings “Marvel’s Inhumans” on ABC, to be followed by “The Gifted,” Oct. 2 on Fox. (A third, “Marvel’s Runaways,” pulls into Hulu in November.)
Oddly, the Disney-owned ABC is running the worse of the first two, while the better goes to Fox. Oddly, both begin with a young woman, a fugitive mutant, running hard from people who mean to do her harm.
Many superheroes — Spider-Man, the Hulk, Plastic Man — who would seem technically to qualify as mutants are never classified as such. The difference, maybe, is that mutants are pictured as a race, a people, even if the details of their mutations differ; as such they are tailor-made for stories about otherness and intolerance. They may be persecuted, they may rise against their persecutors, they may become persecutors themselves. “Got to make way for the Homo superior,” sang David Bowie.
All that and more is afoot in the nutty, yet not quite nutty enough, “Inhumans.” Briefly: An ancient race of mutants lives on the dark side of the moon in an invisible city called Attilan. Attilan, when you can see it, is built in a style one might call Late Mesopotamian Fascist, with interiors straight out of a 1990s Ian Schrager hotel. Theirs is a caste society, where one’s place is determined by the quality of one’s mutation, brought on by purposeful exposure to a mutagenic mist. Those with a bad result have to work in “the mines” — there are always mines. (No one in sci-fi is ever condemned to work retail, say.)
There is a king, Black Bolt (Anson Mount), and a queen, Medusa (Serinda Swan), whose hair, as you would expect, is special. There is a giant bulldog called Lockjaw, the companion of Medusa’s sister Crystal (Isabelle Cornish). Black Bolt, who never speaks because his voice wreaks havoc, has a brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon, Ramsay Bolton for “Game of Thrones” fans), who covets his sister-in-law and the crown and whose only gift is for revolution. Current events in the moon palace and related happenings on Earth will move much of the action to Hawaii, where the scenery is lush, the air balmy and the film production tax credits creditable.
This could be a recipe for something fun, but “Inhumans” doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It tries for a joke now and again but it is overall somnolent and solemn where it should crackle and kid. The oft-forgotten lesson of the original “Star Wars,” sometimes forgotten by later “Star Wars,” is that sci-fi is allowed to be dumb fun, and “Inhumans” could afford to push a little harder in that direction, to embrace the dumbness it already contains. It does seem to want to.
Much better is “The Gifted,” an original property in the X-Men-iverse rather than a comic brought to life. Created by Matt Nix (“Burn Notice”), it has been partially framed as a family drama about what to do when the kids (Percy Hynes White and Natalie Alyn Lind) turn out to be mutants and not only are the parents not mutants, but Dad (Stephen Moyer) is a prosecutor specializing in prosecuting the much-feared, routinely incarcerated genetically different.
There is confusion at first (“Mom, accept it, Andy’s a mutant”), but the family soon pulls together. “We are Americans, we have rights,” says Dad; but he is about to get woke.
That Bryan Singer, of “X-Men,” “X2: X-Men United,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” is an executive producer and directed the pilot guarantees some quality control. There are certainly plot points that seem insufficiently thought through. But the actors — including Sean Teale, Jamie Chung, Emma Dumont and Blair Redford as the mutant resistance — give a good account of themselves. And unlike the less-than-sympathetic royals on “Inhumans,” the family members, rounded out by Amy Acker as Mom, are convincingly sweet with each other — the domestic business is as well-handled as the fantastical stuff. It’s nice to see!
And “The Gifted” does seem to have a point, with ICE-like agents talking of an “amended Patriot Act” — not amended in a good way — and the Mutant Underground moving fugitives “somewhere the mutant laws are looser.” Mexico is mentioned as a possibility.
Premieres 7 p.m. Friday on ABC
Premieres 8 p.m. Monday on Fox