For its next TV show, Marvel Studios seems determined to hit as many “firsts” as possible. Not only will Inhumans be the first TV show to focus exclusively on the Inhuman Royal Family, but it will also be the first TV series to premiere in IMAX. Even more intriguingly, Inhumans is the first Marvel show to be set in Hawaii. It’s an odd choice for Marvel — one that has the potential to hit the mark, or else miss it entirely.
Hawaii is the most ethnically diverse state in America, and yet too often it has suffered from misrepresentation in popular culture. Some TV shows and movies just don’t seem to understand that Hawaii is more than a tourist destination. Yes, Hawaii’s main industry is tourism, but there’s so much more to its culture than what meets the tourist eye. Let’s see how Inhumans might compare to its predecessors in terms of portraying Hawaii’s culture.
In Any Depiction, Hawaii’s Culture Matters
Because I was born and raised in Hawaii, I’ve always paid close attention to how my home state is portrayed in multimedia. The best stories about Hawaii focus on a meaningful aspect of local culture. Thankfully, several films have done that.
One of the most visible depictions of Polynesian culture occurred last year in Disney’s blockbuster hit Moana. Even though the movie focused on Polynesian culture more so than Hawaiian culture, it thoughtfully reflected the voyager roots which many Polynesian groups share. The film’s directors relied on input from experts across the South Pacific who ensured that the story preserved its cultural accuracy, particularly in its depiction of the demigod, Maui. The movie also earned praise for its casting of Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho, then a freshman at Kamehameha School, in the lead role.
Another blockbuster hit that earned praise in Hawaii was The Descendants (2011). Based on a novel of the same name by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, the movie nabbed an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, capping off its astounding critical and financial success. Even though the cast — led by George Clooney, and Shailene Woodley in one of her notable pre–Divergent roles — lacked personal ties to Hawaii, the film offered poignant social commentary by focusing on the meaning of Hawaiian/hapa (mixed heritage) identity. The Descendants endures as one of the most captivating depictions of Hawaii in modern cinema.
Hawaii, But Not Really
Any examination of Hawaii in popular media would be incomplete without a look at Hawaii Five-0, which rebooted the famous crime procedural from the ’70s. Ever since the CBS-produced series began in 2010, it has received criticism for not hiring enough local acting talent and instead relying on stars from the mainland. CBS has garnered additional criticism for the recent high-profile loss of actors Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim, over an alleged pay inequality between them and their white co-stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan. I severely doubt the show can be true to Hawaii without two of its leading Asian characters.
From Moana and The Descendants to Hawaii Five-0, local culture serves as an integral part of any depiction of Hawaii in pop culture. Any filmed project can’t — or rather, shouldn’t — be set in Hawaii without acknowledging the 50th state’s vibrantly diverse culture. It remains to be seen whether Inhumans, a comic book show, will take the requisite time to examine Hawaii’s culture in a meaningful way.
The Inhumans are Tourists to Hawaii
Until the first trailer for Inhumans dropped last week, somehow I missed the memo that the miniseries was filmed on location on Oahu. It’s certainly not an obvious choice for Marvel. As a comic property, the Inhumans have zero ties to Hawaii. It seems like a plot-driven decision to have the show in Hawaii, but whether the setting will fit the show is another matter entirely. For now, it seems that Black Bolt and his loyal followers will be tourists like most everyone else who visits the islands.
There’s barely any precedent for an Inhumans story set in Hawaii from the comics. Kei Kawade, who became the Inhuman known as Kid Kaiju, was briefly based on Oahu’s north shore, but he lacked any ties to the Inhuman Royal Family. Also in the comics, Daisy Johnson, whom Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans know well, visited Hawaii in a 2011 issue of Secret Warriors. Within Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Inhuman known as Giyera was born on Oahu, a nod to the fact that his actor, famed martial artist Mark Dacascos, was also born on Oahu and lived there until he was six.
So, why did Inhumans choose Hawaii as its primary setting? The choice seems random, especially since the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of Atillan, the Royal Family’s traditional floating island, will be located on the moon. (Fun fact for Hawaii friends: the University of Hawaii at Manoa exists in the Marvel Universe.) We can only speculate whether Marvel’s decision to send the Inhumans on a Hawaiian vacation will make sense in the long run. It’s entirely possible that the eight-episode miniseries will merely serve as a prolonged vacation ad for Hawaii — which would be an economic boost for the state, but wouldn’t do anything to cultivate Hawaii’s image in pop culture.
Will Marvel Properly Explore its Setting This Time?
Real-world settings don’t always figure prominently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Agent Carter and its Netflix counterparts all relied heavily on their New York locales, as did Spider-Man: Homecoming. On the other hand, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. periodically roams the country, and real-world locations matter little to the show’s plot. The danger in having Inhumans in Hawaii is the possibility that it will only serve as a colorful spectacle — a mere backdrop for the miniseries instead of a setting that fits the story.
Still, there’s incredible potential for Inhumans, as it represents a chance for Marvel to do Hawaii justice. Given the Inhuman Royal Family’s historic isolation from humanity (they’re now based on the moon, after all), it would be amazing for the Royal Family’s first modern contact with human culture to occur in the most diverse state in America. Nevertheless, due to the series’ fixed eight-episode length, the show might only be able to offer the same limited perspective that any tourist to the islands can receive.
To be a true success, Inhumans needs to take full advantage of its proximity to Hawaii’s diverse culture. Given the hype that Marvel is trying to generate for the show, this is a chance for Marvel to provide a mainstream audience with meaningful insight into Hawaii’s rich cultural history. Will we recognize the Hawaii that we see in Inhumans, or will it merely be a paltry facsimile? We won’t know until the show premieres in September.