Hulu’s answer to Netflix’s recent run of freshly canceled Marvel Knights series — from the potent Daredevil to the barely passable Iron Fist — is the teen drama Runaways. Based loosely on the Brian K. Vaughn series penned alongside artist Adrian Alphona in 2003, it’s essentially Riverdale-level drama playing lightly on the edge of the Marvel universe. Is this series related to the aforementioned adventures of Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, or (barf) Danny Rand? Well, your guess is as good as mine after 2 solid seasons. But that’s neither here nor there. With 23 episodes come and gone… the question I’m still trying to answer remains: Is it any good?
Admittedly while I was a big fan of the original digest-sized graphic novel series, by the time I clicked on the show, my knowledge was limited only to broad strokes. I remember the characters and their powers… albeit vaguely. Above all else, I’d remembered so much of the series banked on a very quick cold open scenario — of a group of friends coming to discover their parents were a super-villain cabal, and shortly thereafter being on the lamb. Hilarity, teen angst, and super-powers followed in a delightful romp.
Upon booting up the pilot, everything I’d recalled began to click into place. The cult meeting. The friendly banter. The — gasp! — evil machinations. Powers are discovered. A dinosaur. Aliens. The whole kit-and-caboodle. As the episodes starting ticking off, I noticed how any semblance to the source material seemed to fade off into the Los Angeles smog. What I was left with was a show that seemingly had an amazing budget, a writers room familiar with the original treatment, but an awkward fear to leave their comfort zone. As if, perhaps, the show was being thought of as a broadcast serial versus a binge-worthy show-for-the-millennials. As such, as often as I’d find myself enthralled at various plot points and character moments… I’d find an equal number of times where my eye-rolls were audible.
Working in the favor of the show is a wonderful ensemble of young and less young actors playing the titular Runaways and their now-very-much-a-part-of-this-story parents. Whereas the moms and dads of the comic series were seemingly dispatched quickly (or, at best were not a primary focus once things got going), the TV show is clearly curious about the comings and goings of The Pride (aka the Book Club from Hell). We’re treated to brilliant scene-chewing by sci-fi-aficionados like James Marsters and Julian McMahon anchoring the elders of the show balancing against newcomers like Rhenzy Feliz and Allegra Acosta. Simply put, the acting on the show — while occasionally cheesy as pizza due to some questionable writing — is played to the rafters. Every sneer, snicker, yelp, and deeply angsty teen conversation comes from a believable place.
Acting aside, the show simply looks incredible. Over-dressed sets are choked with details of personality — from the Yorkes’ hippy-by-way-of-former-bumpkins abode to the Wilders’ Hey, we watch ‘Empire’ too… mansion of cool urban-chic-ness. Effects are near movie-quality, with every wave of emitted heat from the fistigons to the maybe it’s not CG dinosaur, and everything in between. Save perhaps for the treatment of alien-light-powers… which more or less feels like a photoshop filter writ-large. But I digress.
Beyond the visuals, Runaways really falls flat on its face more often than not. For being… you know, runaways, the kids seemingly are never more than 5 minutes from being cornered by their parents — who want them to return home, but never seem to be able to get that to stick. The second season removes any feeling of nomadic flight by landing the titular teens in the most conspicuous secret hideout since Dr. Evil’s self-portrait-made-submarine. And from there, the series basically settles into an episodic merry-go-round where individual runaways get a character arc, a dramatic moment, and resolution that lands them right back in their bunker where they can scowl at the walls the following episode. Rinse. Repeat.
While moment to moment, we’re granted some amazing set pieces and memorable drama… the larger story and mystery the show wants us to solve is as pedantic as it is cryptic. Simply put? One can’t solve a mystery if the modus operandi isn’t stated outright until the final moments of the show. As an audience member, we’re left seeing the chess pieces being moved about simply for the sake of ending on a tense moment; as presented it’s unearned, and feels like the story isn’t ending so much as really right in the middle of things, but you’re just going to have to wait. Color me as meh as Gert pontificating about my obvious mansplaining.
What grinds my gears most about the show though, is seeing where the choices being made are clearly in the name of keeping the show alive versus telling a coherent story. What made the comic so uniquely compelled was that the kids — scared witless by the notion that everything they ever knew was a lie — truly ran away. They were on their own, in big bad world, with only a few trinkets and untested powers to help balance the ledger. As presented on the silver screen? The Runaways are never not an angsty scream away from solving all their problems — until the plot has decided they’re not. Admittedly the in media res season finale piqued my interest enough to continue watching when the show returns… I do so with a finger on the back button ready to leave the Runaways stuck in the tar pits the writers can’t seemingly escape.