Justin Cook reviews the first four episodes of Marvel’s Runaways, which debuts on Hulu on November 21st…
In another busy year for Marvel Television, where the division has brought us a dragon-fighting martial artist, a royal family of Inhumans and a New York City-centric superhero team-up, it’s the teen drama about six teenagers who realize that their parents aren’t who they once thought them to be that stands out above the rest, arriving like a refreshing, if imperfect, breath of fresh air in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Hulu, coming off of September’s Outstanding Drama Series Emmy-win for The Handmaid’s Tale, makes its first foray into the MCU with Marvel’s Runaways, which comes to us from the minds of Gossip Girl and The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. Adapted from Brian K. Vaughn’s comic series first published in 2003, Runaways follows the lives of six diverse, rich and privileged teens living in Los Angeles, California. Despite having grown apart since childhood, the high-schoolers are forced to team up, forming the titular Runaways, when they see their parents, collectively known as the Pride, committing a bizarre, ritualistic sacrifice. In unlocking the secrets of their parents’ mysterious dealings, the teens become a dysfunctional family, of sorts, and learn more about themselves and each other.
At its core, the show tells an affable but earnest coming-of-age story, where each character’s teen angst, confusion and rebelliousness are only heightened by the fact that their parents are the villains in their own superhero origin stories. The stakes may not be nearly as high as some of the world-ending narratives of other MCU properties, but as teenagers often find, even the most minor occurrences can feel hugely significant in the right context.
While the show deserves praise for its ability to navigate its large, 16-member cast without any character getting too lost in the shuffle, it’s also worth mentioning that the reason we understand these characters even after spending only a few moments of screen time with them is that we’ve seen all these characters before, in one form or another. For example, the Runaways are clearly archetypes; Alex is the nerd, Nico is the goth, Karolina is the innocent church girl, Gert is the feminist, Chase is the jock and Molly is the naive optimist, and, on a certain level even the deviations from these archetypes can’t help but feel familiar. Chase is an inventor seeking the approval of his father, Molly is smarter than her youth makes her seem, Karolina feels the need to rebel against her controlling mother and so on and so forth.
Yet these clichéd characterizations don’t really detract from the show. The Runaways are handled with such a deft level of sincerity by both the writers and actors that you can’t help but root for them. Their similarities to characters from classic high school comedies/dramas (cough, cough The Breakfast Club) certainly exist, but the show, smartly, doesn’t lean too heavily in to the aforementioned archetypes.
Perhaps the biggest misconception portrayed in high school-centric movies and TV shows is that all high schoolers abide by some school hierarchy, some social code that says nerds can’t interact with jocks and jocks can’t interact with social justice warriors, etc., but such is not the case. If anything, Runaways ultimately understands that high school, while still an environment filled with cliques, popular and non-popular kids alike, is a far more integrated experience than Hollywood will oftentimes let on, especially nowadays. Rifts between high schoolers, like anyone else, exist because of genuine strife and emotional wounds, not because of some faux social order, as demonstrated by the damaged relationship between Alex and Chase, for example. In a show that not only aims to be authentic to the high school experience, but the teen experience as well, such a detail is important.
What fuels the show, however, is the dynamic chemistry between the six main teens, who, despite being quite damaged by the desolation of their friendship and engaging in verbal sparring matches, appropriately so, can’t quite suppress their affection for one another. When the team is together, the show is at its most exciting, almost feeling the way one does after reuniting with a group of old friends and settling into an old rapport. In the first four episodes alone, the show only features a handful of these scenes, which is a bit of a disappointment, and seems to go about deciphering the show’s central mystery by splitting up the group. Having said that, it seems reasonable to expect to see the team working together more as a cohesive unit in future episodes.
After an exciting first episode that serves as an excellent introduction to the world, the series stumbles a bit in its second outing, which spends most of its runtime telling the story of the first episode from the parents’ perspective. Schwartz and Savage, obviously, want to devote just as much time to the parents as it does the teens, seeking to humanize the enemy, but the true heart of the show lies with the Runaways. Some of the parents’ storylines are undeniably engaging and drive the story forward, while others come across as filler, but regardless, none are imbued with the same energy, intrigue or sense of discovery as their childrens’ adventures. Thankfully, the spirited narrative rarely allows for too much time to get spent on a plot thread that isn’t working.
Between the parents and teens, Runaways has a perfectly game cast. Occasionally, an actor will be given an awkward line or goofy storyline, but they are always more than willing to make it work. Lyrica Okano stands out among the Runaways, perfectly marrying the guarded, gothic side of her character Nico with a degree of vulnerability that can’t help but eek its way to the surface, as the result of a major family tragedy. Ariela Barer also does strong work portraying Gert, a character whose highly sensitive radar for social injustices could have made her an easy punching bag, but is played with an undeniable likeability and charm. As for the Pride, Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh’s Dale and Stacey Yorkes bring an unabashed goofiness to the proceedings, stopping the show from getting too self-serious when it’s in danger of veering into that territory.
Runaways, through all of the magic, powers and superhero jargon, is a teen drama, closer in tone to The O.C. than Daredevil or Agents of Shield, and despite a scientology-esque religion, magical staff and, most of all, actual dinosaur, a fairly grounded one at that. The show could benefit from a slightly lighter tone and a stronger dose of comedy, to make some of its weirder elements easier to swallow, but it takes some legitimately bold risks and deserves praise for doing so.
On the plus side, Runaways provides a new playground for MCU characters to play off of and is better for it, trading in the doom and gloom of New York City’s monochromatic streets for the luminous vibrancy of Los Angeles’ mansions, private schools and beaches. After running around in the concrete jungle for a number of seasons across a number of shows, a change of scenery is much welcomed.
Runaways also continues the trend started by Jessica Jones and continued by Luke Cage of addressing certain social issues that our society faces today, especially those of sexual assault, the African-American experience in America and socio-economic dynamics. Surprisingly enough, the show even name drops former U.S. President Barack Obama and alludes to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and Hillary Clinton, using Gert as a mouthpiece for voicing various social concerns.
Four episodes in and there haven’t been any mentions of “The Incident” and strangely enough few mentions of superhero activity in general. As of now, Runaways looks like it’s going to be fairly similar to Netflix’s Marvel shows in terms of its connection to the larger MCU. Superheroes and magic clearly exist in the show’s universe, as characters aren’t nearly as surprised upon finding out about certain otherworldly items/abilities as they would be in a superhero-less world, but the narrative remains unaffected by the events of Marvel’s blockbusters. It has the freedom to move around within Los Angeles without being bogged down in the lore of the MCU.
Iron Fist, Inhumans and The Defenders, have made this a more mixed year than most for Marvel Television, with the former two earning mostly negative responses from critics and fans and the latter’s reception being decidedly mixed, but Runaways, for the most part, is a win for Marvel. While not without its flaws, Marvel’s Runaways is the most engaging show to come from the MCU’s television department in quite some time and will have you anxious to see more.