The lavish new superhero series Runaways seems to have everything going for it. The source material — the Runaways comic book by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona — stands as one of the best new ideas Marvel comics has had this millennium, a series that’s right up there with the ongoing Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. The premise is killer: A diverse batch of bickering, crushed-out teens in a richy-pants Los Angeles suburb learn one night that their parents are supervillains of all taxonomies: mad scientists, evil magicians, city crime lords, creepy cult leaders, exiled space aliens.
As the title suggests, the kids, of course, must run away, headlong into adventure, as they discover their own super-potential, their powers and abilities each manifesting with a twist. The pubescent girl with impossible strength gets all tuckered out after every feat, slumping down into a nap. The flying solar-energy woman lives in terror at what she’s found out that she is. She hasn’t become this strange being, she’s always been it and not known. A goth teen spellcaster can only cast each of her spells once, and forever has to improvise so as not to get stuck without one. Young Gert, one of the great sass-talkers in all 21st-century entertainment, sics a pet velociraptor on the bad guys — and she named it “Old Lace,” as in Arsenic and….
What I’m saying here is Runaways comics are comics at their best, a case of the creators seizing every opportunity the medium offers, dreaming up rococo patter and continually surprising twists while investing their characters with rare agency and gravity. As they run, the runaways grow and change, sometimes tragically. A decade after the original creators’ run-on series ended, I’m still mad about the fate of two of these characters.
But I’m nowhere near as mad about that as I was at the second episode of Hulu’s adaptation. The pilot, while slow, has promise and builds to the revelation of these kids’ parents pulpy-ridiculous wickedness with some power. It takes some 45 minutes to get its bickering teens into a room together. They used to be friends, while younger, hanging out as their parents did whatever they do in another part of the house, but with high school and the death of the sister of Nico (Lyrica Okano), the goth, everything changed: Gert (Ariela Barer) dyed her hair purple and started speaking out at school about the patriarchy; sunny Karolina (Virginia Dean) beams inanely as per the teachings of the Church of the Gibborim, a Scientology-like religion run by her mother; glib hunk Chase (Gregg Sulkin), a whiz at mechanics, has gone jock; and young Molly (Allegra Acosta), Gert’s adopted sister, has found that with her first menstrual cramps she’s acquired a fleeting super-strength. But since nobody listens to her, she mostly keeps quiet about it.
Only handsome geek Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) — and you, the viewer — eagerly want to reunite these onetime pals. In his case, it’s because he’s got it bad for Nico. In ours, it’s because when two or three of the kids share a scene, Runaways suddenly pops. All of their unsteady hormones, smartass dialogue, sullen teen resentments, tack-sharp costume design — the air between them combusts, something like what happens when Betty and Veronica team up on Riverdale, another shambling show that on occasion can thrill. The young performers ace every swoon, carp, side-eye or moment of sweaty, awkward turned-on confusion. And when this crew at last stumbles upon a secret passageway in the room where their parents are supposed to be having some sort of meeting for charity, well, Runaways seems poised at last to run.
That pilot ends on a knockout to-be-continued. Then, when it is, the show becomes truly shocking. After a brief getaway scene, the second episode spends its first half-hour flashing back to the lives of the runaways’ parents. Rather than show us the heroes doing the detective work to learn what the villains are up to, we get a full accounting of every little thing the villains did the day before the cliffhanger. It’s like if thirty minutes into E.T., after Elliott has hidden his new alien pal in his bedroom, Steven Spielberg cut to the absent father’s assignation in Mexico. Or if the second-ever Friends barely had the Friends in it at all and was instead about what the Friends’ parents did the day the Friends became Friends. This is the first time a Marvel TV show has stunned me: Why in the era of binge-able continued-narrative TV series would the producers kill dead their momentum? How could they so wildly misapprehend the appeal of their own premise?
That’s not to say that the actors playing the parents fail or that some of these scenes aren’t perfectly acceptable superhero TV drama. And there’s hope, unlike with the Inhumans series, that this could work: Nothing looks flimsy or silly, and the ensemble delights. But I’ll make you this bet: Even if you cheer through the pilot, there’s no way you’ll avoid checking your social feeds all through the second episode.
Things pick up, a little, in the third and fourth installments. The dinosaur shows up, the edges sharpen on the love triangles, and the kids get proactive trying to figure out what their folks are up to. (And Molly and Karolina begin experimenting with their nascent superpowers.) But the proportions remain off, with the evil parents commanding far too much screen time — we’re expected to care about their affairs, for Gibborim’s sake. Our knowing what the villains are up to puts us ahead of the heroes, so we’re waiting around for them to catch up. And after four hours, Runaways seems nowhere close to living up to its title. The producers have this talented cast — and these first-rate characters — running in place, not running away.
Marvel’s Runaways premieres November 21 on Hulu.