Hulu's adaptation of Marvel's teen superhero drama Runaways keeps the superpowers to a minimum, playing with heavy doses of teen angst instead.
In the time since superheroes and comic book adaptations ascended to the top of the pop cultural food chain, dominating film and television (and the coverage of both) to an almost absurd degree, few products put out by Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., and the like, have chosen to put the spotlight directly on characters whose age reflects a significant portion of the consumers trading both their cash and time for such stuffs. There have been some exceptions, but perhaps the biggest made its way onscreen this year, with the younger-skewing, high school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming (and, briefly, with the appearance of angsty teen Groot at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). The induction of Peter Parker: Teen Hero into the pantheon of Marvel's cinematic universe is a small but perceptible shift toward adolescent characters that, considering the ideal demographic of most superhero films, might give one pause as to why the young'uns haven't been more widely represented onscreen – either as a central or supporting protagonist – until now.
The general shortage of high-profile teen-centric superhero programming, then, made for a gap in the Marvel lineup that is filled perfectly by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, co-creators of FOX's hit teen drama The O.C., and the minds behind (among other things) The CW's outrageously privileged teen drama Gossip Girl and the network's not-quite-wild-enough reboot of the '80s primetime soap Dynasty. The idea of Schwartz and Savage taking on Marvel's Runaways is such a natural fit the biggest surprise is that it hadn't happened already, and their take on the acclaimed series co-created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona positions itself as not only a departure from the norm, in terms of the ages of its main characters, but also in how the series – in its first four episodes, anyway – isn't all that concerned with the comic book-ness of it all and instead aims to set up an appropriately angst-filled teen drama that will soon be populated by would-be, and maybe even reluctant, superheroes.
Looking at Runaways in either its two-dimensional or live-action iterations, the first thing that strikes you is the size of its central cast. The story follows a group of fairly wealthy (naturally) high school students, Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin), Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), and Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), and their parents, whom the kids soon discover may actually be super villains, just as their individual gifts/powers begin to manifest. That's an impressive amount of characters to juggle, let alone introduce, which speaks to why the first hour is a fairly clunky getting-to-know you affair that struggles at times to make the kids into people the audience actually wants to spend time with (regardless of their potential superhuman abilities) while also establishing the criminal ties that bind them. All of this is, of course, in addition to a central mystery set up in the opening moments that hints at Nico's missing sibling and sites that as the largely unspoken wedge that drove a presumably once close-knit group of kids apart.
In the comics, the scale of the ensemble played to Vaughan's advantage as he essentially had a junior Avengers or X-Men squad in the making, the members of which were only tangentially related to the larger Marvel universe. To their credit, Schwartz and Savage clearly understand the benefits that come with bringing a show to life under the mighty Marvel corporate umbrella, but they also know the value of working with characters who, despite having been around for nearly 15 years, don't have nearly the baggage of, say, Daredevil or Luke Cage, much less Captain America, Iron Man, or, the company's flagship character, Spider-Man. And though the size of the cast may seem unwieldy from the outside, it affords the duo a veritable character buffet that plays to their well-established strengths in the realm of teen TV dramas.
The first two hours are largely an investigation of who these kids are as individuals and their relations to one another – mostly via an as-yet-unseen history and the fact that their parents are card-carrying members of a secret society of villains complete with an underground lair beneath one of their McMansions. Being a comic book series, Runaways gets away with some superhero-y shorthand to begin with, offering each teen a device that makes them stand out – presumably until the show can devote some post-plot-building time to flesh them out appropriately. Case in point, Chase and Karolina, a fairly typical jock desperately seeking the approval of his overbearing father (James Marsters), and a teen tired of being used as the poster child for a spiritual movement (i.e., cult) run by her parents. Fitting the characters into these types early on serves a variety of ends, in that it cursorily establishes a familiar character baseline and promises to deliver a greater impact when that baseline is eventually rebelled against.
To that end, there's a sense that Runaways is moving down a character to-do list in the first two hours to a certain degree, as worries over the relative shortcomings of characters like Chase and Karolina – and Nico, too – are assuaged by the amount to which Alex and Gert manage to stand out. Alex makes for a solid ringleader of the group, as marked by his initial efforts to bring the kids back together, while Gert offers the show a terrifically charismatic know-it-all harboring a crush on Chase, who is as ready with a quip as she is a statement on social justice. Not coincidentally, Barer also delivers the strongest performance in the show's early goings, which is saying something considering the amount of time Runaways devotes to the kids' parents, who are made up of actors like the aforementioned Marsters, as well as Kevin Weisman, Ever Carradine, Brigid Brannagh, Annie Wersching, Kip Pardue, Angel Parker, Ryan Sands, and James Yaegashi.
That devotion to the parents is something of a double-edged sword, though. While it makes the super-villains more substantive and the aspects of their lives beyond being villains feel more lived-in, time spent with them is noticeably time not spent with the budding teen heroes. That only two of the core cast of kids stands out has a lot to do with Schwartz and Savage's decision to split the focus and essentially retell the first part of the story from two perspectives. Playing the long game like that is certainly one of the big benefits long-form TV storytelling, but it also means Runaways doesn't really run away at all – it's more like a leisurely stroll away.
Ultimately, Runaways is even more of a family drama than you might expect (it could certainly give FOX's The Gifted a run for its money in that regard), one that keeps its superhero components hidden for as long as it can, and even when it finds a reason to use them, does so sparingly. The effect, then, is a show that plays entirely in Schwartz and Savage's well-established wheelhouse, mixing teen angst and all the difficulties associated with growing up (rich, but, you know, with totally evil parents), with the more traditional aspects of a superhero narrative. Describing Runaways as The O.C. meets The X-Men would be apt even though it sometimes lacks the immediate appeal of either. Still, there's a sense that once the series really gets going, powers are on display, and Old Lace finds a way to not be cost prohibitive, the show could turn into something really special. Right now, Marvel's Runaways is a cautious but hopeful wait and see.
Marvel's Runaways premieres its first three episodes on Tuesday, November 21 on Hulu.
Photo Credit: Paul Sarkis/Hulu