(Photo: Patrick Wymore)

I actually laughed out loud when I realized “Kingdom” was starting with an extended, 18-year flashback into the incarcerated life of Geoffrey Wilder, and not just because it looked like Marvel dusted off the exact same wig-and-beard combo it used for Luke Cage’s prison flashback. Mostly, it’s because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that so badly misunderstands what makes it interesting. Right now, reviewing Marvel’s Runaways is like reviewing two shows at once. One is about a group of teenagers with clashing personalities and charm to spare discovering they’re all more special than they could have ever imagined. The other is about...so much. Too much. It’s a gritty take on gangs and social class, but also a Lost-style mystery-pile that throws out unexplained terms like “Ultra” and “Gibborim,” but also kind of a cult-flavored horror story; there’s hidden brain cancer, seedy motel affairs, a child’s possible murder framed as a suicide, and the most casual invention of time travel in storytelling history.

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Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage—minds behind The O.C. and Gossip Girl, two series defined by being as extra as possible—aren’t interested in telling a simple story. But when Runaways is simple, it’s great. Right now it’s averaging out as, let’s say, two-fifths of a great show.

Let’s get the heavy lifting out of the way because life is short and I want to discuss the double-pistol wielding gangster getting blasted with rainbow powers. “Kingdom” picks up where “Fifteen” left off; Alex’s kidnapper turns out to be Geoffrey’s old gangbanging buddy Darius Davis, who we learn—through flashback—falsely confessed to a murder charge so Geoffrey could make a $5 million dollar land deal with a mysterious benefactor (played by veteran evil-faced actor Julian McMahon, so you just knew he’d pop back up eventually).

On any other show—one preferably not titled Marvel’s Runaways—the grudge between Geoffrey and Darius would be a fascinating story. I especially love the brief but effective interaction between Alex and Andre (Nathan Davis Jr.), two young tech wizards from two completely different walks of life. “You think the only people good with tech live in Brentwood?” Andre asks, and Rhenzy Feliz plays Alex’s reaction perfectly. Without a word, it’s an admission of guilt. Like I said, this is interesting stuff...but it’s not Runaways. Smashed in-between a dozen other interlocking storylines it feels like a distraction from the main event that you know won’t have much of a payoff even before it starts; the fact that Geoffrey does simply rush in with “three guys in an unmarked car” to bust the situation up does largely take the weight out of any previous tension.

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Luckily there is, quite literally, a bright spot to all this. Alex’s kidnapping does give the core cast a reason to band together. Now that we’ve reached the halfway point of the season, I’m no longer holding out hope that the runaways are going to truly run away; I just want them to do anything, really, other than brood on the time they saw their parents murder a teenager.

The wild ride that Karolina, Gert, Nico, and Molly take in pursuit of Alex’s abductors is a great example of Runaways at its best. It’s that perfect melding of high and low concepts that made classics out of stories like The Goonies or Adventures in Babysitting. It’s chasing gang members while remembering to check your blind spots. It’s admitting there’s a playful thrill to chasing after life-or-death danger. “This is kind of fun!” Molly yells in the backseat, and she’s right.

“Kingdom” also gives us our first true Justice League Jr. team-up, complete with a shoulder-to-shoulder hero shot from director Jeffrey W. Byrd sure to make a poster or two. But what elevates this scene above your average “Avengers Assemble” moment is that it’s as much about self-discovery as it is a flashy comic-book display of superpowers. Each lifted SUV or blast from the Fistigons is met with wide-eyed wonder instead of steely confidence. It’s the exact type of endearing sloppiness you’d expect from characters who have trouble overcoming a Spanish test, much less a barrage of bullets.

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I love the scene afterward in the Wilders’ guest house; it’s like a sleep-over but instead of swapping gossip the kids are swapping superpowers. (“Speaking of superpowers, Gert has a dinosaur that she can order around,” Molly says.) There’s a great youthful blend of uncertainty, fear, and excitement to the whole thing—a real fun urgency that’s missing from this show—which lasts...right up until we check back in with another Pride meeting. One step forward, two Yorkes back.

The meeting at least comes with some kind of revelation. Pride sacrifices a wounded Andre—Alex shot him with his own father’s gun, which I hope feels more important down the road—and the process works. The crusty man in the Church of Gibborim’s attic bedroom gets his much-needed vagrant vitamins and, revived, is revealed to be Geoffrey’s benefactor from the episode-opening flashback. According to the credits, his name is Jonah and damn if it doesn’t immediately seem like he is Karolina’s real father. “When I was laying here my biggest fear wasn’t dying,” he tells Leslie Dean, “it was that I might die without ever having looked into her eyes. I want to meet her.”

If Jonah is saying his time hooked to a mysterious soul-sucking machine would have been better spent getting to know one of this show’s main characters then, my dude, I agree.

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Stray Observations

  • I do like that Alex’s guilt extends just a bit further than his friends now that he is personally responsible for handing Pride a sacrifice. It’s possibly the only way his [big character thing] from the comics would make sense in this show’s context.
  • It’s endlessly funny to me that Victor Stein straight-up manipulated light and time itself to see into the future but he didn’t make the screen on his device just a little bigger.
  • With everything else going on, the writers cannot expect me to care about Frank Dean’s continued attempts to go “Ultra.” They cannot. They just simply cannot.
  • “You try lifting an SUV with your bare hands. It’s exhausting.”
  • Without spoiling too much, I do hope there’s a very comics-accurate reason that Karolina seems upset to walk in on Nico and Alex mid-kiss.

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