Most Likely to Succeed: Marvel’s Runaways

The pilot for Marvel and Hulu’s Runaways doesn’t culminate in a catchphrase-worthy moment like “Welcome to The OC, b—h!” Nor does it have Kristen Bell as Gossip Girl smugly narrating the goings-on of its preternaturally mature teenage protagonists. But there is a moment near the pilot’s big turning point that sums up The OC and Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s take on Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s comic book series.

“This is some Narnia s–t,” Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz) whispers upon discovering the secret passageway in his own house leading to the lair for the Pride, the cabal of villains made up of the six kids’ respective parents. Joke aside, this is the Runaways’ Narnia moment: They’re about to enter the figurative wardrobe, a short trip into an entirely new world that will strip them of their innocence and force them to become heroes.

Marvel screened the Runaways pilot at New York Comic-Con, six weeks ahead of its premiere on Hulu. While this is a non-spoiler review, I will be touching upon a few minor plot points to discuss the adaptation from comic book series to teen drama.

Of course, the Pevensies were effectively orphans, hiding in wardrobes and battling in eternal winters completely unsupervised. Every step of Alex and his estranged friends’ heroic journey is entirely because of their parents: a group of rich, successful adults who meet yearly to commemorate the establishment of the Pride foundation, a nebulous charity organization that helps the Los Angeles community… somehow.

That’s as much as the kids know, because up until their Narnia moment, they’re too wrapped up in their own dramas to pay too much attention to what their parents are up to. Schwartz and Savage have done an excellent job fleshing out each character from the comics, smoothly updating them from 2003 to 2017 without losing what makes each of them unique:

  • Alex Wilder is bright but moody, the most earnest of the group and the most invested in bringing the old gang back together. Rather than the awkward connection of “our parents are friends” from the comic, these kids make a point not to hang out with each other because of, in typical teen drama fashion, Something That Happened. That backstory involves the inclusion of a new character, who I won’t say much about aside from the fact that she may act as a Ryan Atwood or Serena van der Woodsen kind of character—a lynchpin for the group, or the creators taking the notion of runaways even more literally, perhaps.
  • Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano) is the other character, aside from Alex, most affected by the new plot point. Her goth style and interest in magic speak to hiding a deeper pain and trying to summon something she’s missing.
  • Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer) is a teenage social justice warrior, charmingly awkward yet self-possessed enough to make acerbic asides about any situation. She’s my current favorite.
  • Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) seems to have more dimensions than the version in the comics, a lacrosse player who’s failing Spanish yet displays a clear affinity for engineering—so far as none of the popular jocks notice him caring about anything but parties.
  • Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), while not the child of actors like in the comic, is nonetheless the most public-facing of the group: Her family runs the cult-like Church of Gibborim, and she’s the Millennial brand ambassador of the faith; yet beneath the sunny smiles for Instagram, she feels like a prisoner.
  • In the biggest plot change, Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) is Gert’s adopted sister, her parents having perished in a fire when she was a child. While she’s still the youngest member of the group, she’s less of the innocent charge and more of the younger tagalong who will be part of the older kids’ conversation whether they like it or not.

This ensemble is also officially Marvel’s most diverse lineup: an “ethnically diverse, female-centric cast,” as Acosta described them at the NYCC panel. Speaking of diversity, there’s a moment in Karolina’s story, when she defies her parents and sneaks out to a classmate’s party, that gives me hope that the writers will maintain her character arc from the comics. But then, that same scene dangles the threat of what could happen to a naïve teenage girl at a party—the kind of subplot that exists in most teen dramas but feels out of place in this one, mostly because of what an afterthought it is.

Aside from the occasional narrative misstep like that, it’s a really solid pilot, mostly because of how the story is adjusted for the medium of hour-long TV. Schwartz and Savage have reversed the action of the first issue or even the first arc of the comic book series: Instead of revealing the Pride before the first commercial break, and then having the Runaways begin learning their parents’ respective secret identities and powers, the kids spend most of the pilot apart. Further, some of them encounter hints about their pedigrees and their own inherited powers without laying out all of the information at once: Molly experiencing changes to her body that are about a lot more than “that time of the month”—not to mention the mysterious pet in the Yorkes’ basement (!); Karolina having a trippy experience at the aforementioned party; and Nico exploring magic in a way more reminiscent of The Craft than anything else, though Okana did hint at getting to wield a certain staff in season 1…

The creators also do an excellent job at legitimizing the kids’ estrangement at that key age where the last people they want to be associated with are the children of their parents’ friends. Key scenes like Gert and Chase connecting across clique lines, or Karolina and Nico almost having a teary truce in the girls’ bathroom, contain impressive subtext that I can’t wait to see explored this season.

And lest you think it’s just about the kids, the Pride will get their due as well. While Vaughan had always wanted to spend more time on the other side of the story, with the Runaways’ parents, it just didn’t make sense in the comic book. But in a one-hour drama, there’s plenty of room to explore the Pride’s backstory, as well as their own idiosyncratic relationships, some of which surface in amusing ways in the pilot. The panel mentioned that episode 2 will retell the pilot, this time from the point of view of the Pride. Hopefully that extra attention will flesh out the characters beyond stock villains, because some of them—notably, James Marsters’ abusive dad Victor Stein—come off far too one-note. Though, on the flipside, the Yorkes (Brigid Brannagh and Kevin Weisman) are delightfully awkward, which is fascinating to see in supposed supervillains. Seeing as the parents of The OC and Gossip Girl had enough drama to rival their children, I have high hopes for this take on the Pride.

The Avengers were formed after Nick Fury and Phil Coulson painstakingly tracked down half a dozen isolated superheroes and assembled an idiosyncratic super-crew. The Defenders crossed paths often enough in their united goal of defending New York City that eventually it made sense to team up. By contrast, what has always made the Runaways premise so fascinating is that these kids wouldn’t be friends if their folks weren’t friends—and the only reason they unite as a mismatched group of wannabe heroes is because they don’t want to follow in their parents’ evil footsteps.

And yet, even if the six teenagers clash worse than the Breakfast Club, there’s something prophetic about coming together at this particular stage of their lives. “The kids that know you when you’re young—no one will know you like that ever again,” Alex’s father tells him in an early scene where the only stakes are for his weird, reclusive son to have friends. It’s the kind of line that’s a bit heavy-handed, yet it’s also relatably profound—much like the series itself.

Runaways premieres November 21 on Hulu. Watch the first trailer!

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