Within the realm of scripted television shows that are currently airing, streaming, or otherwise readily viewable, comic book superheroes are pretty much their own separate genre at this point. You can’t swing a genetically enhanced dinosaur without encountering a TV show based on a comic book property, from the “Arrowverse” of The CW to the Netflix shows about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and all of the above, to FX’s Legion and Fox’s The Gifted, both of which follow lesser-known characters from the X-Men canon. When Hulu announced that a live-action version of Marvel’s Runaways comics was officially in the works, it wasn’t just the sign of yet another streaming service getting into the small-screen superhero game—it was an opportunity for a show that could take a different approach to the concept.
One aspect that sets Marvel’s Runaways apart from other superhero shows is who it chooses to focus on: teen characters. There’s a lot about the advent of superpowers that tends to fall alongside the period of growing up, and while many hero narratives use the emergence of superhuman abilities as a metaphor for adolescence, the refreshing thing about Runaways is that it finds the balance in teenage years co-existing with discovering one’s abilities or special skills. On this show, powers actually serve as a backdrop to the real-life issues each of the characters faces, whether it be coming to terms with one’s identity, navigating complex relationships with friends and family, or just trying to endure the hellish years of high school.
When you look at the overall story arc of Runaways’ first season, the pace doesn’t feel nearly as breakneck as it does in shows of a similar vein. Not only does this make for more quality time spent with each member of the group (Alex, Nico, Karolina, Chase, Gert, and Molly) as well as their parents (who are revealed to have significant criminal ties), it means that the time spent is focused on expanding these characters beyond the constraints of the present day. Several episodes dip into flashback, adding more narrative weight and nuance to the decisions characters have made and fleshing out their relationships with one another. This shift away from a traditionally sequential timeline allows the audience to understand why the teens can’t suddenly disavow their parents, or really beat them in an all-out battle yet. Runaways gives us the history to make sense of it all and relate to what happens.
Although the beginning of the first season sets up the Runaways’ parents as potential villains, further examination within each episode contributes to the situation becoming much more complicated than a simple good-versus-evil narrative. We learn how the parents wound up sacrificing teens in a mysterious ritual—because they’re under the thumb of their leader, Jonah. We discover that Nico’s sister Amy didn’t die as a result of suicide—she posed a threat to Jonah’s plans. Yet as mysterious a bad guy as Jonah remains, one critical aspect of his character makes things even trickier: He’s revealed to be Karolina’s biological father. These biological links between both sides of Season 1’s major conflict make the show more compelling than if the Runaways had merely established themselves as a team of teen superheroes and proceeded to save the day from bad guys.
If the dynamic between teens and parents is complicated, the way the Runaways relate to one another shifts and evolves significantly even within the short course of the first season. Crushes are fully acknowledged (in the case of Alex-to-Nico), while other crushes are acted upon toward the end (in the case of Karolina-and-Nico, or Gert-and-Chase). The penultimate episode, “Doomsday” (or “The One Where Everyone Kisses”), is an opportunity for the team to catch their breath before the ultimate showdown in the finale, but it also represents instances in which characters are finally honest about their feelings—and hormones. For Karolina, this is showcased twofold in the acceptance of both her attraction to Nico and her identity as a lesbian, without necessarily falling into the standard coming-out narrative that typically precedes these in-universe revelations. The show’s decision to have Nico reciprocate Karolina’s feelings is a notable shift from the source material where Karolina is rebuffed instead. As for Gert and Chase, there are elements of the classic rom-com in their burgeoning romance—the nerdy, slightly awkward girl gets paired up with the handsome jock—but Runaways puts its own spin on that, too. Gert is more assertive than the girl nerds of the past, while Chase is more compassionate than the athletes who came before.
The show isn’t completely grounded in reality. There are some larger-than-life elements that remind you that Runaways is more than your average teen drama. Part of Karolina’s abilities involve her literally manifesting rainbow-colored light around her body, not to mention being able to fly. Molly is capable of huge feats of strength, though the ordeal usually takes a lot out of her and forces her to nap afterward. Then there’s Old Lace, a dinosaur telepathically linked to Gert who occasionally pops up in the trunk of cars, old shopping carts, dumpsters, anywhere one could conceivably hide a dinosaur. But the show doesn’t give its characters a lengthy adjustment period when it comes to dwelling on the extraordinary, which means that eventually even the most unbelievable storylines simply become par for the course on an otherwise engaging series. If a show can turn a dinosaur into something resembling a domesticated pet/companion, it can probably accomplish anything.
At the most basic level, Runaways works because it isn’t about teens who have to save the world. It’s about superpowered teens living in the world and doing their best to survive it in any way they know how. Now that the show has been renewed for a second season, there’s every chance the story will eventually change to incorporate the occasional threat to humanity or address that looming end-of-Los-Angeles future we keep getting brief glimpses of. For now, however, we can let the Avengers focus on saving the world; the Runaways have enough problems to deal with.