Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded over the years, trying out different thematic masks like Captain America: Civil War‘s conspiracy thriller or Ant-Man‘s heist plot, while never straying too far from superhero genre archetypes. There’s always a hero, always a villain, always a few chatty sidekicks and a last-act throwdown; it’s not broke, so Marvel doesn’t appear too keen on fixing the formula anytime soon.
Runaways — the first MCU project to debut on Hulu — is something similar, but also different. The show has the DNA of a superhero arc, with a gaggle of grumpy teens on the verge of discovering unknown powers at the same time that they discover they’re the offspring of maniacs, but it’s also unapologetically angsty. That’s probably unsurprising, given its creators, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, were the minds behind such juicy classics as The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Still, Runaways is no phony teen drama, and although the first episodes somewhat falter when trying to merge awkward angst and fascinating mythology, when it succeeds the show is as effective as any of Marvel’s other big-screen genre mash-ups.
Of course, like other MCU TV shows, there isn’t much crossover happening with the films, at least early on. Although I might have missed some things, I also barely spotted any references to the show existing within the world of Iron Man and Thor at all. For now, that’s working greatly in its favor, as it opens with a day in the life of Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), Chase (Gregg Sulkin), Gert (Ariela Barer), Molly (Allegra Acosta), Karolina (Virginia Gardner), and Nico (Lyrica Okano), a group of teenagers who have been quietly and irrevocably shattered following the loss of one of their friends a few years prior.
Rudderless and scattered to different cliques in their sunbaked California high school — which is amusingly detailed with standing desks for every classroom and posters that scream “Sitting is the new cancer!” — Alex finds himself yearning to reunite the six remaining friends in hopes of getting things back to how they were when they were younger. Runaways‘ hook lies in a slow-build pilot that lays out characters with actual depth and history (the kids’ dialogue is also welcomely snarky without being overbearing), leading up to the group’s discovery of what their parents really do when they say they’re meeting for a voluntary charity organization.
That slight tinge of Marvel’s usual sci-fi mysticism is just enough to make the rest of Runaways sing. The characters have believable and normal problems, and played against a supremely heightened version of a normal teen trope — “Eugh! My parents are evil!” — the drama pops even more. The show only stalls when it actually has to stop and get in the superhero origin part of this superhero story, particularly in scenes where one member of the group starts exhibiting unknown powers. Their reaction to the abilities, decisions made afterwards, and dialogue with other characters is all frustratingly cliché.
Thankfully, there are signs moving forward that Runaways will get better footing once a few initial speed bumps are passed in the first set of episodes. It helps that the show’s six lead actors are great across the board, particularly considering lead Feliz, who has the mopey nerd thing down to a science (at one point he looks off into the distance when his dead friend’s gamertag still appears in Star Wars: Battlefront). He’s engaging, likable, and never annoying, and he has great ringleader chemistry with the five other characters as he tries to Nick Fury them all together for a throwback hangout session.
Another standout is Barer as Gert, who somehow manages to deliver insufferable lines like “dance squad is just reinforcing hegemonic masculinity while marginalizing women’s identity” and still remain endearing. To start, she and a few other characters — like pretty blonde Karolina — are a bit set into types, but Runaways gives them slight twists so as to feel new. That’s especially true for Karolina, who’s the scion of a new-age “church” of Gibborim, depriving her of any popularity in the school due to Gibborim’s fairly easy categorization as a cult.
They all have issues, naturally, but they also play off one another nicely and end up feeling like they were deeply close friends at one point. The show can be a bit heavy-handed with the constant references to the off-screen death that divided the group, but their eventual need to stand by one another in the face of their parents’ nefariousness is a plot hook that feels honest within the world of the show and maniacal in ours — Hulu, as is tradition, is releasing the show one episode per week after initially dropping the first three on November 21.
Going off the amount of intriguing — and sometimes WTF — moments in the first four episodes, the wait between each will be excruciating. But that’s a criticism of Runaways‘ streaming home, not of the show itself, which at this point I’d easily categorize somewhere atop the pile of MCU series that I’ve seen so far. Although it stumbles when actually integrating the superhero genre into the soapy teen world of a show like The O.C., there’s ample potential on display here moving forward.
Runaways isn't always the perfect mix of superhero science fiction and soapy teen melodrama, but when the show hits that sweet spot it's an intriguing, weird, funny, and addicting addition to the Marvel world.