The Buzz: 'Marvel's Runaways' Is a Welcome Return to Form

Marvel, for all their success on the big screen, has run into a few roadblocks with its forays into television. While its initial block of shows earned praise, recent efforts like Iron Fist or Inhumans have highlighted the bloated, at times generic storytelling that can sink otherwise compelling characters. This was especially true with Netflix’s The Punisher, a clunky espionage thriller that felt less like a Marvel property and more like a mediocre season of 24.

Runaways, on the other hand, represents a charming return to form on the small screen. Released as Marvel’s first collaboration with Hulu, the series ditches the self-seriousness of its predecessors for a lively adaptation of Brian K. Vaughn’s beloved comic book of the same name. It won’t rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe anytime soon, but as far as televised superheroes go, you could do much, much worse.

The premise of Runaways is garishly upfront in its gimmickry: a group of teenagers discover that their parents are moonlighting as supervillains. Before you can scream Disney Channel movie, however, the show uses the gimmick to its startling advantage, establishing a central mystery and a cast of characters who offer complexities that go far beyond their given stereotype. I could easily describe each teen by their default descriptor: there’s Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) the nerd, Karolina (Virginia Gardner) the sweetheart, Chase (Gregg Sulkin) the star athlete, Gert (Ariela Barer) the “social justice warrior”, Nico (Lyrica Okano) the goth, and Molly (Allegra Acosta) the loner, but to do so would be to sell them short. There’s much more than meets the eye here, and it's largely due to the efforts of showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage.

The production duo have proven adept at handling a ensemble drama with hit shows like The O.C. and Gossip Girl, and with Runaways, they continue their winning streak. They fashion the series as Marvel’s loose riff on The Breakfast Club, in that the compelling material is often culled from how mismatched the ensemble cast of teens are. This turns out to be an inspired choice. A project like Runaways would never be able to compete with the Marvel films in terms of scale, nor with the stark grittiness of something like Netflix’s Daredevil, so focusing more on the character dynamics and the toll that heroism (or, in this case, villainy) can take on a family is uncharted, and equally compelling territory.

Another welcome flourish is the way in which Runaways neither demonizes nor lionizes the parents. After the initial shock of the reveal in the pilot, their motives for turning to crime feel genuine and rather understandable-- something that Marvel has never been too fond of providing for their villains. The relationship between parent and child never feels simplified or short-changed here, further blurring the line between what is right and what is wrong. These complex pieces will make the inevitable showdown between the titular heroes and The Pride (the parent’s evil organization) all the more weighty.

Fans of the comic books will also be pleased. Runaways, having apparently learning from the missteps of the critically panned Inhumans, have stuck closely to Vaughn’s source material, whether dropping subtle hints to beloved stories or translating characters to the screen with minimal edits or alterations. Even stories that some may have feared being silly or too ambitious for television are retooled for success here, enabling viewers to build a trust with the show and its writers-- a trust that, in the over-saturated market of superhero adaptations, is increasingly rare.

The acting is solid for the most part, with fine work from Feliz and Okano, but the real selling point for newcomers to the Runaways brand will be it's youthful exuberance towards heroism. The series works much in the way that Spider-Man: Homecoming did this summer, which is to say, teenagers geeking out over their own abilities is an easy way to ramp up the fun. Molly moves a truck with her bare hands at one point, and instead of the prerequisite montage that usually rushes through this stage, we get to see her beaming with excitement (“Yes! I did it!”), like any normal teenager would.

It remains to be seen whether Runaways will continue its success into a second season, or whether its ratings will inspire Hulu to collaborate with Marvel on future adaptations, but as it stands, things are certainly looking good. The stories are fresh, the writing is sharp, and the characters, flush with adolescence and energy, are a welcome change of page that proves Marvel is still the best at making stylistic course corrections.