There aren't costumes or code names in Marvel Television's latest series, and matters of "good" and "evil" are dictated by circumstance. Instead of taking the safe route and putting together another series where the hero seeks justice and the villain falls, Marvel's Runaways deals with tragically flawed humans attempting to find their place.
And it might be their best series yet.
The House of Ideas' Hulu debut is also one of their most faithful adaptations of a comic book put to screen. Even though there are many deviations — with some bigger than others — the DNA created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona in their first 18 issues lies at the core of every character and plot point.
Showrunners Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz first stab at a superhero property embraces the qualities of the genre while staying true to the kind of storytelling that earned them success in the television industry. While some fans have affectionately referred to the series as Marvel's Riverdale, the two actually don't have much in common. Comparisons to The OC and Gossip Girl are more applicable.
Where Runaways shines is its ability to breathe, letting small moments boil over and explore into climactic crescendos, further pushing the teens and their parents into uncomfortable situations. Only so much can be accomplished in 20-plus comic book pages, and the team makes use of their runtime to expand in new directions.
The series has humor and heart, blending teen angst and dramatics with compelling character conflicts, all heightened with some super powers and a conspiracy driving the action.
The group of teenagers is mostly made up of unknown actors, excluding Gregg Sulkin who has had a few roles on Disney Channel productions. But Allegra Acosta, Lyrica Okano, Ariela Barer, Virginia Gardner, Rhenzy Feliz, and Sulkin are perfectly casted.
Despite the shared inexperience on a production of this size, they all play their parts very well.
Considering the ensemble nature of the show, the show's best parts occur when they are interacting with each other. At first these moments consist of hostile micro aggressions, showing how divided they've all become in their teenage years. The bonds of friendship that used to exist have been replaced with cliques and expectations.
Each character is given ample exploration to show who they are and what makes them tick in just the first few episodes. But they all share something in common that's almost cliched in teen dramas; they're all lonely. That's not a knock on Runaways, as it's pretty much ubiquitous in any teen drama, much like as it is in adolescence.
The characters are all lonely and depressed, affected by the death of Nico's (Okana) older sister a year before the series begins. She herself is guarded, pretending her isolation is a strength. Alex (Feliz), however, cannot get over the tragedy, and has been depressed and lonely ever since.
Karolina's (Gardner) seen a significant change from the comic book, making the source of her optimism a devotion to faith that borders on unhealthy. Chase (Sulkin) is the victim of an abusive parent, but his athleticism has made him popular at school at the sake of his intelligence.
Molly (Acosta) has been changed the most, which is understandable given that Marvel does not have rights to the term "mutant," though Runaways handles the themes of the X-Men stories better than most movies and TV shows from Fox.
Her character is going through puberty when the show begins, bringing on a change in her physiology that ignites her super strength (and super exhaustion). But being the youngest, no one believes her or takes her seriously.
She is adopted by Gert's family after her parents die under mysterious circumstances that may or may not have to do with the Pride. It's a mystery that will surely be developed in the future.
Gert herself might be the most true to the comics. She's often the source of comic relief but is also so tightly wound that no one is safe from her biting observations. The character is played very well by Barer.
But after circumstance reunites them for an evening of pizza and, of course, bickering, a shared trauma unites their purpose. They still don't get along well yet, but they're willing to put aside their petty squabbles in order to get to the bottom of the mystery.
And what is the mystery? Fans of the comic will be pleased to know that it's very much like what occurs in the pages. The kids stumble upon their parents performing a cultish ritual in which they sacrifice a teen runaway, though there is a bit of uncertainty surrounding the action.
Instead of stabbing her in the gut with a sacred blade, the girl is stuffed into a pod exploding with bright light. The kids aren't sure what exactly they say, but they know it's weird and have a strong feeling that the girl was killed. Those suspicions are rewarded in a later episode.
And so, the parents who raised and nurtured them and were making the world a better place? They're actually monsters, zealots, and murderous manipulators who will let nothing stand in their way.
The Pride, the corporation-or-maybe-it's-a-cult group of parents, benefits most from the translation to television. In the source material, the group are cartoonish villains that feign nurture to their kids in order to reel them in after being discovered. They might love their kids, but they still won't let anything stop their goals.
In the show, they are all given their own backstories and motivations, making it clear they don't see eye to eye. Even their own separate unions are threatened, with marital issues threatening a few of the couples.
It's these character dynamics that Savage and Schwartz nailed in their previous series which make Runaways more than a superhero show. It's a compelling drama first, with characters who make mistakes and try to fix them or not, and sometimes they suffer the consequences for it. Adding in glowing skin, a magic staff, and a cloned dinosaur serves to heighten the dramatics rather than take away or make it silly.
The production values in Marvel's Runaways are surprisingly wonderful. It doesn't have the sheen or polish that you might find in its big screen counterparts, but it's done well enough that it looks good on the TV screen.
The first time Karolina lights up like a roman candle is a welcome surprise. It's blown out, almost to the point where it looks like the camera's aperture can't take all the light in, as opposed to digitally painting the effect to look like a glowing texture on the skin. She truly glows in these scenes.
But what's most surprising is the use of practical effects, specifically in the scenes with Old Lace. Yes, Old Lace is an animatronic puppet on par with Jurassic Park.
The show does well in building up the dinosaur's presence, and when she finally shows up in full glory, fans get their first chance to admire the craft put in by the effects team.
Of course, juggling all this disparate aspects might seem difficult, but Runaways is surprisingly well balanced. This is credit to the writing and the directing.
The first two episodes both serve as the season premiere, in a way, with the first one focusing on the teens and the second showing many of the same events from the parents' perspective.
The show then builds off of the explosive moments that kick off the series in organic ways, breaking the kids and parents down into smaller groups so that we can see how their dynamics differ depending on who they're with.
Marvel's Runaways is an entertaining show and a strong debut for the superhero studio on Hulu. Unlike the Netflix series, there doesn't seem to be any "downtime" to slog through. Unlike the network series, the show is allowed to breathe and tell a complex story.
Character dramas punctuated with action might not be what comes to mind when a fan first thinks of a Marvel TV show, but that doesn't take away from the quality of Runaways. The cast is talented, the story is compelling, and the production is high quality. We should be thankful that we got this show instead of a movie, like Marvel originally planned, if only because we'll get to relish in the story for more than two hours.
This review is based on the first four episodes of Marvel's Runaways.
The first three episodes of the series premieres Tuesday, November 21st, on Hulu.