Today’s scifi and fantasy television is chock full of fiery vengeance demons, terrifying ice dragons, and massive hordes of the undead—all beautifully rendered by visual effects artists. But then there are other, more cringeworthy VFX like the handful of moments we see Medusa’s hair in action on ABC’s Inhumans. Fox’s The Gifted uses a fair amount of computer-generated visual effects to give its mutants their various powers, but it’s the show’s clever, careful use of practical effects that ultimately makes those powers and the world they exist in feel real.
The Gifted isn’t really a show about superheroes as much as it’s a show about relatively normal people who happen to be able to do extraordinary things. The show plays up that idea in the way its characters casually use their powers as they move from scene to scene. Eclipse, a photokinetic mutant, uses his hand as a flashlight and Lauren Strucker, a telekinetic who can form shields, uses her power to steal chips from a vending machine.
In scenes where the action is minimal, The Gifted errs on the side of practical effects in a way that makes the moment feel as normal as possible. Lauren’s chips, for example, just fall into the vending machine’s receptacle because by the time her shield’s knocked them free, it’s already gone.
It’s in Polaris, though, where The Gifted’s reliance on practical effects really shines. Like her comic book counter part, this take on Polaris is Magneto’s daughter and shares his ability to control magnetism. In Fox’s X-Men movies, Magneto’s powers are usually depicted as him manipulating multiple metallic objects or floating in mid-air.
The Gifted gives Polaris these abilities as well but also makes a point of emphasizing the effect that electromagnetic pulses have on electronics around her (they short out and explode) and depicting her manipulation of metal as happening in sudden bursts of action.
As Polaris and Eclipse try to escape from a squad of Sentinel agents in the first episode, she pushes a number of squad cars to obstruct the agents’ path. When Eclipse is shot in the arm (to reveal a glowing wound that looks an awful lot like a light that’s been stuffed into the actor’s short) an enraged Polaris lays into one of the agents, repeatedly bashing him into a dumpster.
It’s a visceral moment that echoes the flashback of a young Magneto being separated from his mother at a concentration camp in Bryan Singer’s original X-Men film and it’s all seemingly done with a few wires and a very talented stunt man. More importantly, though, when Polaris flings the agent (and others in the scene) around, it looks specifically like she’s grabbing them by the bits of metal that are attached to their bodies like their guns, belts, and badges.
The decision to create effects this way might not seem like all that big a deal individually, but as a whole they add up and give The Gifted’s mutants a distinctly realistic feeling to them that isn’t true of many other superhero series, including its fellow-X series Legion (and especially Inhumans).
Practical effects like these work best as supplements to VFX as opposed outright replacements, but it’s good to see a show like The Gifted heavily leaning on them because they suggest that the show’s creative team understands that these powers aren’t just for show. They’re organic parts of the people they belong to.