'Inhumans' #fail: Marvel show's rollout may mark another TV stumble for studio

Key Points
  • Fans took to social media to gripe about new ABC series "Inhumans" after getting a first look at the cast in full superhero attire, which many fans compared to Halloween costumes.

  • Marvel has more than three months to right the ship, but the initial reception hardly marks an ideal start for a new franchise.

The Inhuman’s Black Bolt. Artist: Jim Cheung.
Jim Cheung | Marvel Entertainment

Disney's Marvel Studios is an undisputed heavyweight at the box office, but the hitmaker is already off to a rocky start with its latest television offering for ABC.

Recently, fans took to social media to gripe about "Inhumans" after Entertainment Weekly published a first look at the cast in full superhero attire. Many lambasted the outfits, comparing them to Halloween costumes and cosplay — homemade get-ups made by fans and frequently worn at comic book conventions.

To be sure, Marvel has more than three months to right the ship, and the underwhelming online response could be turned around by the finished product (or at least solid promos). However, the initial reception of "Inhumans" hardly marks an ideal start for a new franchise — especially one that the studio will launch with a theatrical release on 1,000 IMAX screens across 74 countries.

@TheJordanRoss: This #Inhumans cosplay is pretty good. Oh wait... Those are the ACTUAL costumes for the Inhumans IMAX TV show? Ummm... #Yikes

@MinddKidzag: Are these official or just Halloween costumes from a party store? #Inhumans

@tommyblakes: Even The Costumes in the Failed Justice League Pilot look Better than the Inhumans costumes

A Marvel spokesperson declined CNBC's request for comment.

'Double-edged sword'

"Inhumans" may have one more handicap ahead of its debut: Showrunner Scott Buck was also the creative force behind Marvel's "Iron Fist," a mystical martial arts series whose premiere on Netflix was dogged by controversy and negative feedback. Some fans have already taken to Twitter to lament the choice.

@Jayelliott6ix: Petition to keep Scott Buck away from Marvel Television

@Hello_Tailor: judging by Iron Fist + the early response to Inhumans, Scott Buck is carving out a niche role as "the one Marvel filmmaker nobody likes."

Is a bit of the Marvel magic wearing off?

To be sure, the studio is faring well in the online streaming space. With the exception of "Iron Fist," Marvel's gritty, violent Netflix series have largely drawn critical acclaim. So have its two ABC shows, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Agent Carter."

Still, "Agent Carter" lasted for just two short seasons, totaling 18 episodes. "Agents" has seen ratings slip over the last four years. It premiered in 2013 with an 8 p.m. time slot and had crept back to 10 p.m. by last year, ostensibly to allow the show to take more risks, according to ABC President Channing Dungey.

"Inhumans" gives Marvel an opportunity to breathe new life into its network television business. The plot revolves around a royal family that rules a secluded race of beings enhanced by alien genetic engineering. It's seen by some as a stand-in for Marvel Comics' more popular "X-Men" property, whose film rights are still held by Twentieth Century Fox.

However, data from marketing technology firm Amobee suggests fan blogs that picked up on the Twitter drubbing weren't just cherry-picking tweets. Sentiment was far more negative than positive after Entertainment Weekly released the photo, according to an analysis performed for CNBC using Amobee data.

The firm counted nearly 27,000 tweets that either mentioned or hashtagged "Inhumans" between May 4 and 9. More than a third were negative, while just over a quarter were positive.

"The high level of audience engagement in Marvel TV shows is a double-edged sword for the company," said Jonathan Cohen, principal brand analyst at Amobee.

"On one hand, there's great anticipation around any nugget of information for an upcoming TV series," he said. "On the other hand, when a segment of that audience is disappointed, that reaction is magnified as well."

Meanwhile, fans can be counted on to obsess over details the average viewer might not notice. In the case of "Inhumans," they focused in particular on the wig used to bring to life Medusa, the Inhuman queen who does battle with powerful, prehensile hair.

After fans got a look at the character, 65 percent of tweets mentioning Medusa were negative; just 6 percent were positive, according to Amobee. Mentions of "hair" and "wig" accounted for 17 percent and 7 percent of all Inhumans digital content engagement.

To be fair, Buck told Entertainment Weekly that rendering Medusa's odd ability on screen has been one of the biggest challenges. The show's special effects artists are still working out the kinks, he said.

Cohen said the photo likely does not reflect the finished product, but said Marvel now has a clear directive to get Medusa right. He suggested a marketing campaign targeting the character's fans with trailers that feature her hair in action to "alleviate those fears and win over those initial skeptics."