It’s kind of stunning that Marvel’s Runaways has only become a television show now, 14 years after the comic series made its initial debut. It features the sort of concept many shows (most especially those on The CW) have come to rely on in the past five or so years, centering on a group of witty teens who learn they’re part of Something Bigger, and/or have superpowers. Runaways even has a clever twist on that formula baked into its premise, giving the series a darker sheen: Not only are these teens special, but their parents — who, so far as anyone else knows, are just a group of particularly talented and wealthy innovators — are in fact harnessing some serious evil to put toward their own nefarious ends.
The moment the kids learn this bombshell — and decide to keep it from their parents until they figure out what the hell is going on — sparks a cataclysmic chain of events. In the comics, the teens almost immediately became the runaways promised in the title, packing up whatever magic and weaponry they could once they realized their parents were up to no good. But the first four episodes of the TV show, adapted by Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, take things slower, allowing the adults, previously flat personifications of evil, room to grow into real characters as they make calculated, often devastating sacrifices in the name of the Pride, the vague name for their mysterious collective.
But the most important thing about Runaways is the teens themselves, and the space Hulu’s adaptation gives the story to unfold also gives each teen time to process his or her confusion and fear. It also gives us more time to get to know them — which, even for an established Runaways fan like me, proved important.
This adaptation takes some calculated diversions from the source material, making the teen characters’ world feel current and full and frightening in its own specific way, so that even diehard fans of the comics will have to pay attention to the show in order to get the full picture.
The good news is you’ll want to pay attention to that full picture no matter your level of Runaways expertise, because man, is that full picture fun.
In a surprising twist, the best thing about Hulu’s Runaways is that it isn’t afraid to deviate from the comics that inspired it
I’ll be honest: I was nervous about how Schwartz and Savage would adapt Runaways, even if “rich kids trading banter” is kind of their jam (see: the aforementioned Gossip Girl, The OC, and The CW’s currently airing Dynasty reboot). But to my relief — and, yes, surprise — their teen-soap savvy proves to be a fitting match for Runaways.
The first episode, which concentrates on the teens, leans on the usual high school clichés — cocky jock versus loner nerd, outspoken witty girl versus blonde babe — and then twists them just enough to prove that the show is more excited to move past those clichés than indulge them. And while Runaways can still feel like a show written about teens by adults (here’s looking at you, #blessed selfies and rando man at a rager peddling pills by asking girls if they “want to party”), for the most part, Runaways demonstrates empathy for its characters by allotting them time and consideration beyond their most basic descriptors.
What’s more, the biggest differences from the comics make for some of the show’s most intriguing details. Molly (Allegra Acosta), the youngest member of the group, is now an orphan whose parents died in mysterious circumstances, and who now lives with sarcastic feminist killjoy Gert (Ariela Barer) and her nerd parents. Beatific blonde Karolina (Virginia Gardner) is the determinedly blissed-out face of her parents’ “church” (read: cult). Slacker jock bro Chase (Gregg Sulkin) is still an athlete, but he’s also sporting perpetually concerned puppy eyes and some serious scientific smarts. Surly Nico (Lyrica Okano) has embraced her signature dark witch aesthetic as a response to her universally beloved sister (who didn’t exist in the comic) dying two years before the show picks up.
In fact, the only Runaway who hews about the same as his original character is de facto ringleader Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), who spends most of the first few episodes blinking in confusion — but depending on how the show continues to adapt his particularly turbulent story, that may not be the case for long.
On the parent side of things, just about every couple gets some new attributes that explain why they’re a part of the Pride and how they interact with their respective kids. Standouts include Brittany Ishibashi and Angel Parker as the ruthless moms of Alex and Nico, respectively, and Brigid Brannagh and Kevin Weisman as Gert’s earnest parents. Also, to this former Buffy obsessive, there’s something both hilarious and unsettling about seeing former teen-show heartthrob James Marsters in the role of genius jerk dad to Chase, this teen show’s resident heartthrob.
Some of these differences are more significant than others; all work toward building out the characters and their 2017-specific world in a way that could pay off big time down the line once the story reaches the fantastical heights of the comics. (That said, the one particularly surreal part of Runaways I would have been devastated to lose remains firmly intact for the show, in the form of a curious feathered dinosaur.)
Most significantly, positioning Molly’s parents and Nico’s sister as probable collateral damage for the Pride’s grander schemes immediately makes it clear just how far the parents are willing to go to keep their double lives secret. Giving the characters a shared trauma also kicks off Runways with a palpable sense of grief, casting a visceral gloom over what would otherwise be a slick teen soap.
And that holds true for many beats in Runaways. The combination of the comics’ source material, Schwartz and Savage’s wry approach, and some savvy directing consistently takes what could be high school drama clichés and makes them something more human (or in this case, superhuman).
Take Molly discovering her super strength, which is appropriately played like a mystery she has to solve about her own body; whenever she tries to clue someone in, they assume she’s talking about her period and shrug off her concerns as negligible. Take Chase, whose attempts to live up to the expectations of his awful dad and lacrosse team are typical of a teen show, until he takes a hard look at both and decides he’d rather give compassion a try. Or take Karolina, whose attempts to rebel keep faltering in the face of her flickering faith.
All these moments are rooted in who the characters have been since the beginning. But the show takes some time to feel them out rather than glancing over them on the way to more supposedly interesting events, because it knows that growing up is in itself one of the most interesting things there is.
Going into Runaways, I thought I knew what to expect. The fact that I didn’t only makes me more excited for what comes next.
The first three episodes of Runaways are currently available to stream on Hulu. New episodes will be released every Tuesday.