Runaways probably shouldn’t work as a TV show, much less as one of Marvel’s streaming endeavors. We’ve had seven chances to see what Marvel’s vision of a superhero show without the constraints of mainstream networks would be thanks to the extensive MCU-offshoot they’ve created over at Netflix, and what they’ve built so far is anything but conducive to teenage coming of age action-dramas. Marvel’s streaming universe has plotted a course straight for the prestige drama: a world where heroes tote guns, snap bones, and largely scoff at the idea of wearing anything but purely utilitarian costumes.
That’s not to say it hasn’t worked–shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and The Punisher have, for the most part, despite–or maybe thanks to–the fact that these shows have gone great lengths to sidestep their comic book roots. They’ve garnered a wide range of fans and brought characters like Matt Murdock and Luke Cage to new levels of prominence, and the point’s been proven: Sometimes you need to downplay the superhero angle to make superheroes work.
But where does that leave the show that can’t divorce itself from comic book camp–one with a telepathic dinosaur, a bubbly tween in a cat ear hat with super strength, and a girl who can turn herself into sparkly rainbow light? When you put it that way, Runaways should be a catastrophe for Marvel’s streaming formula, but somewhere along the line, a miraculous thing happened. Maybe it’s the new platform (Hulu, rather than Netflix), or the showrunners with some teen drama chops (Gossip Girl and The O.C.), but either way, Runaways embraces its comic book roots, and does it in spectacular fashion.
That’s not to say Runaways is a slavish adaptation of the source material. It’s actually pretty far from it, and if you’re looking for a shot-for-shot recreation of your favorite issues of Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alopha’s original run, you’re out of luck (at least, based on the episodes available so far). Runaways as a show is taking some pretty obvious liberties with its cast and plot. Molly, the bubbly kid sister with super strength has been aged up, made more independent, and positioned as the adopted sister of Gert Yorkes, while the entire roster of adults has been expanded in terms of character depth and involvement in the story. Maybe most importantly, their cult-like organization, The Pride, has been given a new and (currently) mysterious purpose.
It’s a pretty far cry from what a diehard Runaways comics purist might expect. In fact, bearing in mind that we only have four episodes to work from, it looks like the team might not actually “run away” anywhere. Instead, an increased focus on the parents and the intrigue of just what The Pride actually wants makes it easy to infer that there will likely be very little escaping from their families, at least for this first season. It’s feeling less like a ragtag group of caravaning, emancipated teens and more like a secret club operating under their parents’ noses. As of episode four, the “Runaways” moniker is getting used as the catch-all for The Pride’s sacrifices, rather than the team itself.
But regardless of those narrative liberties, Runaways exalts in the fact that it’s drawing from a well of pure, unfiltered super hero bombast. It’s making absolutely no apologies for itself. The aforementioned telepathic dinosaur? Comics fans might remember her as Old Lace, the genetically engineered guard dog of the otherwise super-powerless Gert Yorkes. Old Lace is one of Runaways’ most absurd features and pretty high up on the list of things a live action adaptation should be bending over backwards to handwave away, gloss over, or cut entirely. Instead, we get a close encounter with Old Lace almost immediately, in the first episode.
Rather than trying to paint the inherent camp of an actual living, breathing dinosaur running around Los Angeles away into the background, Runaways turned her into a conversation piece to open the show. That displays a level of trust in audiences previously unheard of in the Marvel streaming world–the confidence that viewers are going to see a dinosaur in a basement and think “I want to know more” instead of “this is completely ridiculous, what else is on?”
But Old Lace isn’t even the most comic book-flavored accent the show’s folded in without a hint of self-conscious cringing. The kids themselves are embroiled in their parent’s (potentially extraterrestrial? Demonic? Mutant?) conspiracy almost instantaneously by way of stumbling across a trap door in a parent’s office, leading to a full on gothic-flavored ritual altar complete with ominous red robes and a magical sound barrier.
And not once does the show pause to wring its hands by way of explanation. Sure, the kids are understandably baffled, but the story itself is full speed ahead. The confusion and concern exist in the universe of the story itself as part of the narrative, but never punch through the fourth wall to wink or nudge at viewers hoping that they’ll write a hall pass on this one. No one ever turns to the camera to voice their incredulity. Everyone is completely bought into the stakes of their situation.
They find an excuse to put all-american jock Chase Stein in his trademark green tinted x-ray goggles by Episode 2. Molly, the cat ear-wearing pre-teen, is lifting up cars in Ep 1. Karolina, reinvented for live action to be the daughter of a cult-like mega-church founder, is finding out she can transform into prismatic light by the third or fourth time we see her alone. By Ep. 4, Chase, straight faced and earnest, informs his father than his engineering passion project is a pair of ambiguously purpose gauntlets he calls “Fistigons,” a name plucked right off the page.
Runaways is a show that not only expects its viewers to be completely on board with over the top comic book flavor; it also trusts them to enthusiastically play along–so much that it’s hurtling towards as many superhero tropes as it can shake out of its source material, as quickly as it possibly can. And if the enthusiasm and confidence of first four episodes are any indication, the rest of the season is going to be an absolute blast.
Runaways is streaming now on Hulu.