Sunday, January 7, 2018

Marvel’s Runaways: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Rhenzy Feliz, Virginia Gardner and Gregg Sulkin in Marvel's Runaways, on Hulu.

On November 21, Hulu premiered Marvel’s Runaways (or Runaways). The Hulu original series has been airing weekly ever since, and its ten-episode first season will be concluding this Tuesday night (January 9). It is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed 2003 Marvel comic series, and like any adaptation of beloved material, it was anticipated with a mix of excitement and cautious expectation. My own reaction to hearing of the series' going into production early last year was: “Wow, I can’t wait to see how they will screw this up.” Our recent history of comic-book adaptations, which reached fever pitch with the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the large and small screens, and DC’s own parallel efforts (currently in the form of its growing – and consistently uneven – stable of CW’s television series), has done nothing to reassure audiences that such adaptations will be of a reliable quality. (The less said here of DC's big-screen productions the better.  Its television offerings began with Arrow in 2012 and the most successful, in my mind, has been Legends of Tomorrow, whose 3rd season continues next month.)

Like all of Marvel’s current television productions, Runaways takes place within the same continuity universe as the tent-pole movies that show up in theatres every few months, but, in the nine episodes that have aired so far, there have been no sign-posts at all of that universe – and this has been to Runaways’ benefit. As fascinating as it sometimes is to explore the small corner of the MCU the Netflix series have staked out, that ever-enlarging story has been more often a burden rather than a gift when it comes to storytelling, because the pressure of that continuity invariably goes only in one direction. (The flagship Marvel series, ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has battled mightily under that weight for five seasons, and most recently has come up with some rather creative solutions: last year setting the latter half of its story in an entirely virtual universe and this year thrusting its heroes into a deep, alternate future.) But absent even the lip service often paid by Netflix Marvel shows to their noisy big-screen cousins, Runaways feels firmly set in a narrative universe all its own, providing the new series the space to find its own unique voice.

The biggest credit for that uniqueness should be given to the show’s source material. Created by writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and artist Adrian Alphona, Runaways struck an instant chord with readers when it emerged in 2003. It introduced us to a sextet of adolescent heroes struggling with the sudden revelation that their parents are, quite literally, super-villains. Those early books (the first volume especially, which take our young protagonists through their initial team-up and ultimate head-on confrontation with their parents) are standouts, and, until the 2014's remarkable reinvention of Ms. Marvel (by Alphona and writer G. Willow Wilson) joined them, held a singular place in my heart. A wild and gritty new take on young superhero stories, Runaways resisted most established and well-trodden tropes of the genre – it took adolescent characters seriously as young people, faced with a nearly universal crisis of adolescence: figuring out that your parents are almost never who you think they are, nor are you are once you step out of the looming shadow/security of their expectations. The books’ focus, however, was firmly on the kids themselves, with the stories of the six sets of parents emerging almost parenthetically. (And – spoiler alert – that original storyline comes to an explosive, and final, conclusion with the end of the 18th issue.)

The Hulu adaptation’s creators – Josh Schwarz (The O.C., Chuck) and Stephanie Savage (who worked with Schwarz on The O.C. and later on Gossip Girl) – have wisely gone the “inspired by” route with their series, taking the spirit and feel of the source material without binding themselves to the (ironically) more episodic plot of the comics. The result is an adaptation not quite as liberal as Rob Thomas’s iZombie but still powerfully free to explore the characters on new terms.

Ever Carradine and James Marsters in Runaways.

Central to the narrative are still our six angst-ridden young heroes, all convincingly played here by relative newcomers: nerdy Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), goth and moody Nico (Lyrica Okano), sheltered good girl Karolina (Virginia Gardner), athletic underachiever Chase (Gregg Sulkin, Wizards of Waverly Place), counterculture warrior Gert (Ariela Barer), and upbeat and youngest member Molly (Allegra Acosta). The characters not only survive their transitions from page to screen, but thrive. That the series is committed to developing its own voice is clear from the outset by the attention given to the parents’ characters and backstories, and to the talented ensemble of actors playing them: most notably Chase’s father Victor, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters, and Gert and Molly’s father Dale, portrayed by Kevin Weisman, who brings to this show the same bumbling, scene-stealing charisma I’ve expected from him since I first watched him on Alias.

In the comic, the kids find out about their parents in the first pages and become the series’ titular runaways soon after. We are given little sense of the individual relationships of the teens to their parents, and what interactions we do get are mainly in the form of dramatic fight sequences. The same applies to the relationships among the teens before their respective worlds get turned upside down. (If there was a single comic book scene set in their schools, I can’t recall it.) Schwarz and Savage’s story wisely stretches out the central arc of the kids’ difficult coming to terms with revelations about their parents over the course of its entire (short) first season – thus effectively telescoping that struggle into the fulcrum of the narrative as a whole. (And since the teens spend the entire season decidedly not running away, the show’s title, if anything, gets re-purposed to refer to the parents, a good portion of whom spend the bulk of their time trying to get out of the dark situation they’ve gotten themselves into.) The result is a story far richer than the show’s subway poster, which had an admittedly awesome tagline, “At some point in our teenage years we all thought our parents were the most evil people alive. But what if they really were?” For one, the “evil” choices continually made by the parents almost always come from a place of fear. We might not have sympathy for them when they make those choices, but they are always human beings. And so when Nico tells Alex, reassuringly, “None of our parents are who we thought, but they're still our parents,” it is a measure of her maturity, not her naiveté.

And it is precisely in those character-based details that Runaways moves from a broadly allegorical account of adolescent-coming-into-one's-own-writ-large to something more substantially and universally compelling. (In this, Runaways joins the best of recent young adult stories – from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials to Lemony Snicket to the recently-cancelled Class in tracing the morally ambiguous paths from childhood to maturity.) As the season progresses and the teens are pulled – bit by bit – out of their respective senses of who they believe they are (some combination of simultaneously unthinking acceptance and unthinking resistance to parental and social expectations), they discover that they, like the story itself, cannot progress by running away from the truth of their parents. One of the most powerful features of their journey is that in almost all cases they are truly becoming their parents’ children – or least, the children of the people their parents were pretending to be.

Runaways also certainly has all the cleverness we would expect from a Josh Schwartz production – dry asides and banter, from the young and the old alike. There are also some nice, up-to-moment updates, like the evolution of Molly’s signature pink, pom-pomed hat to a pink Pussy Hat straight from a 2017 Women’s March (and no doubt gifted to her by Gert). Also, yes, the dinosaur is a hoot.

Last week’s ninth episode brought us finally to the story's first intergenerational face-to-face confrontation, and I can honestly say that I am not sure how that will turn out. But once that confrontation – theoretically – resolves itself in Tuesday’s episode, Runaways will firmly enter into uncharted territory. There has not yet been any official word from Hulu if the series will return for a second season, but I’m hoping Los Angeles survives long enough to give us one.

Postscript: On Monday January 8, Marvel and Hulu confirmed that Runaways will return for a second season,

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.


  1. [Jan 8] 'Runaways,' 'Future Man' Score Second Season Renewals at Hulu

    1. Yes -- updated accordingly. Great news, especially since the second season seems likely to have to make good on the show's title finally.