Runaways

Created by Josh Schwartz, Stephanie Savage
Adapted from Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan Adrian Alphona
Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta, Angel Parker, Ryan Sands, Annie Wersching, Kip Pardue, Ever Carradine, James Marsters, Brigid Brannagh, Kevin Weisman, Brittany Ishibashi, James Yaegashi (cast)
Released November 21, 2017

For the past nine years, Marvel Studios has proven time and again that the way to make interesting superhero fare is to break out of the mold of grimdark storytelling that dominated comics for so long. Since Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel’s films have been most successful when they were stories that happened to feature superheroes, rather than “superhero movies.” But while Marvel Studios was becoming increasingly experimental with genres in its cinematic fare, its television series have been much less stylistically diverse.

At least, that is, until now. In its first three episodes, Hulu’s Runaways offers of glimpse of something all-too-rare in Marvel’s television outings so far: a colorful world we might actually want to live in, full of characters we might actually want to spend time with. After the dark and serious tones of Marvel’s Netflix series, Runaways is a breath of fresh air.

The series’ Los Angeles setting certainly plays a role; it is sunny and colorful, where Marvel’s New York—especially Hell’s Kitchen—is presented as dark and foreboding, even during the day. But, when looked at alongside this year’s Thor: Ragnarok or Spider-Man: Homecoming—which was itself set in New York—Runaways feels like part of a broader shift away from the cold and detached cinematography that marked Marvel’s Netflix series even when they were technically colorful, as with Jessica Jones’s use of the color purple as a recurring motif.

Based on the comic series created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, Runaways tells the story of six teenagers who discover their parents are secretly a team of supervillains (called the Pride), and who then “run away” in the hopes of finding some way to stop them before they destroy the world.

The Runaways discover the secret passage in Geoffrey Wilder’s study. From left: Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), and Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin).

The series is immediately recognizable to anyone who read the comics, down to a color palette drawn directly from Brian Reber and Christina Strain’s coloring, though the details are subtly different. Showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage have managed to create a series that feels at once familiar, while different enough from the source material that even those familiar with the Runaways are left wondering what will happen next.

The Runaways are now all students at the same elite private school; Karolina Dean’s (Virginia Gardner) parents are now the central figures in a Scientology-esque cult, the Church of Gibborim; Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) was adopted by Gert Yorkes’s (Ariela Barer) parents after her own parents died in a mysterious fire several years before; and, perhaps the biggest change of all, Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano) once had a sister Amy, who died exactly two years earlier. In addition, the Runaways’ parents all have greatly-expanded roles, especially Leslie Dean (Annie Wersching), who is now the leader of the Church of Gibborim. Together, these changes suggest that while the series might look like the Runaways we know, all bets are off when it comes to what will happen next.

Molly wearing overalls, holding her bedpost in her right hand, with a mirror and picture of a rainbow behind her.

In the TV series, the parents of Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) died in a fire several years earlier, and she now lives with Gert Yorkes and her family.

On the whole, the changes make for a much stronger TV series. Adding nuance to the members of the evil Pride makes them much more compelling than their comics counterparts ever were. The comics version of Geoffrey Wilder (Ryan Sands), for instance, was border-line abusive at best, while his television counterpart comes off as a loving parent struggling to draw his son Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) out from an extended depression brought on by Amy’s death. Amy’s death also reframes the actions of her parents, Tina and Robert Minoru (played by Brittany Ishibashi and James Yaegashi, respectively), who both struggle to grieve and get on with living in their own, occasionally-destructive ways.

Recentering the Pride’s activities around the Church of Gibborim is also a welcome change. The comics take on the Gibborim was anticlimactic, if not outright ridiculous, while the Church of Gibborim already feels ominous and threatening, even without the alien figure locked away in Leslie’s “meditation” room.

Karolina Dean in a letter jacket holding a phone

Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner) is the daughter of Scientology-esque cult leaders.

The opening episodes were also helped by Schwartz and Savage’s decision to expand the role of Destiny (Nicole Wolf), who appeared in the comics only to be sacrificed. Here, though, she is the first character we meet, a runaway in her own right. Destiny has her own mini arc, in which she becomes an acolyte of the Church of Gibborim and potential flirt-object for Karolina, which gives her inevitable death meaning that it did not have in the comics.

There is, however, a downside to adding in new characters and plotlines in the process of adaptation: sometimes additions are ill-considered and make the story worse. The first episode, for instance, added an attempted sexual assault that was not in the source material and added nothing to Karolina’s character. Instead, it seemed to be present solely to show the viewers that while Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) might be an asshole jock, he is at heart a “good guy.” However the scene might have played months ago when it was written, it feels naive and insulting coming at this particular post-Weinstein moment. It, along with a later scene in which Chase declines to tell Karolina about the attempted assault, are major stains on what was an otherwise stellar adaptation.

Chase, shirtless, works out in his bedroom.

We’re supposed to think Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) is a good guy because he stopped an attempted sexual assault, but that doesn’t make him any less of a jerk.

On the whole, though, Runaways was very much the series I had hoped it would be. And, there are plenty of questions to keep me coming back: Was Amy an earlier Pride sacrifice? Is the figure in Leslie Dean’s “meditation room” her allegedly-deceased father? Are the Deans actually the Gibborim, or are they something else? What are the Pride planning to do at that school they’re building? And are all of the members of the Pride even really evil to begin with?

Coming out mere days after Netflix’s Punisher, Hulu’s Runaways offers a different way forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe on television. It is bright, funny, hopeful, and optimistic about the ability of a bunch of teenagers to tear down the system. More like this, please, Marvel—I’ve had enough of the grimdark.