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Marvel’s Runaways ended its first season with the promise of teen-show greatness to come

One dinosaur and countless makeouts later, Runaways is an okay superhero show with a more promising teen soap trapped underneath.

The Runaways: Molly (Allegra Acosta), Chase (Gregg Sulkin), Nico (Lyrica Okano), Karolina (Virginia Gardner), Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), and Gert (Ariela Barer).

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for January 7 through 13 is “Hostile,” the first season finale of Hulu’s Runaways.

For all the DNA it shares with superhero shows and teen soaps alike, Marvel’s Runaways isn’t quite like anything else on television. The CW’s DC universe mostly deals in 20-somethings grappling with their powers while juggling day jobs and/or intensive brooding. Netflix’s Marvel output is grim, its heroes trudging through New York City with the weight of the world strapped to their strapping backs. But Hulu’s Runaways, based on Brian K. Vaughan’s 2003 comic, enlisted the creators of The OC and Gossip Girl specifically to tell a story about teens in way over their heads once they discover that their parents might be truly, deeply evil.

Runaways has come under two specific, distinct criticisms since it first debuted. On one hand, there’s the fact that the show — which is ostensibly about a group of extraordinary teens banding together to take on nefarious forces way beyond their control — put a much bigger emphasis on their parents than both fans of the original Marvel comics and new fans of the show might have reasonably expected. On the other, there’s the fact that the show is called Runaways, and with every passing episode and increasingly convoluted plot twist, it became more unclear when, exactly, these kids might actually make good on the show’s premise and, y’know, run away.

As someone who loved the comics and is a general sucker for teen melodrama, though, I haven’t been nearly as bothered by either of these things as some others have. For one, the Runaways parents probably needed some shading in, given that their comic counterparts were flatly, generically evil. And overall, the adults on Runaways are frankly just stronger actors than their plucky kids, most of whom took their time stepping into their characters’ shoes. (The biggest exceptions to this rule are Ariela Barer as Tumblr teen Gert and Lyrica Okano as the grimly determined Nico, both of whom were immediately at home in their characters, bringing more nuance to them than even the scripts generally allowed.)

But the main reason I didn’t get too bothered by the parents taking over more of the Runaways narrative is that the time the show spends with each family has made that family’s respective teen characters richer — which, as it so happens, is also why I don’t especially care that it took the full season for the teens to run away. The comics moved at lightning speed, ditching the evil parents almost the second the kids found out the truth to speed along toward superpowered misadventures. But if Runaways is going to be a successful TV show, it was always going to have to slow down, take a step back, and figure out how to tell the story in a way that makes sense outside the pages of a comic book.

In this season finale, Runaways finally gives the teen dynamics room to grow into their potential

Whether by accident or design (since at least the majority of the show would have been filmed before reviews and recaps came out), the first season finale of Runaways acts as an answer to its critics’ biggest gripes. It opens with the team of teens — made up of Gert, Nico, Chase (Gregg Sulkin), Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), Karolina (Virginia Gardner), and Molly (Allegra Acosta) — finally facing off against their stunned parents, who have been hiding their nefarious, often murderous activities with the “Pride” organization for years. After nine episodes of buildup and red herrings and intrigue, the Runaways — an unofficial moniker, since they themselves reject that label as too “bleak” when Alex suggests it — reveal they know about their parents’ disturbing double lives, before making a break for it.

Several episodes in the middle of the season took care to flesh out the parents as people, not just villains, putting their moral compromises in a more gray area of trying to protect their kids and the Greater Good. I was generally fine learning more about them; while Alex’s parents (Ryan Sands and Angel Parker) got lost in an eyebrow-raising dud of a gang subplot, I would happily watch an entire show about Nico and Gert’s conflicted parents. But I still craved more time with the teens, whose characterization became scattershot as the season wore on.

The finale, however, wisely shifts the focus back to them, and sharpens their characterization in the process. As the parents deal with their increasingly ruthless boss (Julian McMahon) on the fringes of the episode, the teens figure out how the hell to get Karolina back after she put herself in the line of fire to save them — in the midst of dealing with life on the run after growing up in the lap of Los Angeles luxury and trying to keep Gert’s “emotional support dinosaur” fed. (This is not a metaphor; this show includes a literal dinosaur, and she is perfect.)

They also have to deal with more classic teen problems, since, as befits teen soap tradition, all of them (minus younger Molly) have made out with each other at some point and are overflowing with conflicted feelings about every single interaction. And for however exciting and perfect Gert’s dinosaur is (which, again, is very perfect), these are the moments when Runaways reveals what it can do like no other superhero show on TV.

After unsuccessfully chasing Karolina, Chase has realized that Gert’s feelings for him might not be so unreciprocated after all; in the penultimate episode, they threw caution to the wind and had sex. Fans of the comic knew this pairing was coming, which may be why the show didn’t see a huge need to belabor the beginning stages of their relationship before throwing them together — and that’s a shame. Sulkin and Barer do their best, but since the season barely bothered to set up their characters’ connection, the two actually getting together feels more like an afterthought than the climactic moment it could’ve been.

But in the finale, the two of them are genuinely sweet together, throwing each other the kind of shy glances teen dreams are made of. In season two, with all their fumbling flirting behind them, Chase and Gert could become the cornerstone relationship the comics promised.

Karolina and Nico aren’t the Karolina and Nico of the comics, and more (super)power to them.

But the best work that the finale does is with Karolina and Nico, a pairing that both deviates from the comics and flies in the face of Marvel’s overwhelmingly heteronormative approach to romance. In the comics, it takes a long, long time before Karolina fully comes to terms with the fact that she not only likes women but has feelings for Nico — feelings that, when she expresses them, are not at all reciprocated. But in the show, a tense night in the penultimate episode — the same in which Chase and Gert went for it — leads to Karolina kissing Nico. More importantly, it leads to Nico kissing her back.

It’s a choice that directly contradicts the comics, but oh man, is it a good one. While it’s Nico and Alex who have a tumultuous back-and-forth relationship in the comics, their TV counterparts’ chemistry was DOA by season’s end, thanks to Alex keeping a devastating secret from Nico (and Feliz’s limited acting range). Gardner and Okano are lovely in the few scenes they get throughout the season to sell their characters’ affection for each other; the finale makes beautiful use of it in a couple of stolen moments between the show’s more bombastic stories. Karolina and Nico’s connection, tentative though it is, immediately has more electricity and promise than Nico and Alex ever would have, and the show is smart to see this pairing through.

Karolina and Nico also make for Marvel’s first explicitly queer onscreen relationship, which is both encouraging and entirely fitting for a show centered on teenagers figuring out who they are and what their places are in the world. If season two recognizes the unique opportunity this show’s premise offers, and loosens the reins on its ever-ballooning plot, Runaways could become the empathetic teen superhero series TV has improbably, and unfortunately, lacked.

The first season of Marvel’s Runaways is currently available to stream on Hulu.

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