Runaways fans have been holding their collective breath ever since it was announced that Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage were adapting the Marvel comics series for TV. With Runaways’ impending arrival on Hulu, those readers can breathe a sigh of relief: The Gossip Girl duo have done an amazing job of transcribing Runaways, veering from the source material in a wholly reverential way. In the comics, school-age Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), Molly (Allegra Acosta), Karolina (Virginia Gardner), Chase (Gregg Sulkin), Gertrude (Ariela Barer), and Nico (Lyrica Okano) are friends who’ve gone their separate ways, having hung out together only because their parents were friends. One night they discover that their parents are not only pals, but ringleaders of a dangerous cabal called the Pride, which leads the kids to go on the lam (hence the series title) while they plot to defeat their supervillain parents. Meanwhile, their own special powers begin to emerge, from mutant super-strength to a psychic link to a dinosaur, abilities teased in the Hulu series’ clever opening title sequence.
As engaging as they are, the Runaways comics are probably better suited to a three-hour movie. In order to meet the demands of an ongoing TV series, Schwartz and Savage stretch out Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s original premise like an all-day sucker. After learning the truth about their parents, the kids don’t take off immediately, instead dealing with their varying levels of grief and disbelief as these highly unusual circumstances force them to become friends again. This gives Schwartz and Savage, well-versed in acerbically witty teens, a chance to do what they do best: depict the lives of adolescents through winning, biting dialogue. “Great party, Alex! Thanks for all the pizza and sadness,” sneers Chase when the group’s first social gathering goes awry. Activist Gert and the more polished Karolina snipe at each other, with Gert sarcastically snarking that “’cause having shiny hair gives you moral authority!” A nonplussed Nico shrugs in episode two, “Finding out my mom was evil would be the least surprising explanation.” Alex cloaks it all as “delightful banter”—an apt description.
The beauty of the Runaways concept is that many teens already think of their parents as evil supervillains; for these particular teens, that’s not a metaphor, which gives their acts of adolescent rebellion tremendous dramatic stakes. Runaways also throws together Breakfast Club-like archetypes—princess, jock, nerd, goth—in a blender and delights in how they collide with each other. The most valuable part of the series is how these not-yet adults somehow bring the best out in each other as they learn how to survive and create their own, vital family-of-choice, a bond that’s only more effective when it’s displayed on a more granular level in the TV show. The series’ slower pace is less about survival overall than about surviving high school specifically. Intergalactic conflicts can come later: What if the boy you like stands you up for a Spanish tutoring session, or you’re jealous of two girls at a party who start making out without a second thought? There are some hurdles even rapidly developing super-powers can’t easily clear.
The drawn-out plot also gives the parents a larger role, fleshing out what are relatively limited wrongdoers and placing them on a broader spectrum of good and evil. Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Spike, James Marsters, is inspired casting as Chase’s cruel father Victor Stein. Army Wives’ Brigid Brannagh and Alias’ Kevin Weisman add some necessary compassion to the roles of Gertrude’s time-traveling hippie parents. Karolina’s mom and dad (Kip Pardue and Annie Wersching) aren’t just movie stars, but leaders of a pastel-palette cult. There’s one less pair of parents, actually, and an added lost sibling, raising intriguing questions as to how these plot shifts will factor into pre-existing storylines.
True to its roots, the series is visually accomplished, too. The casting of the kids is spot-on, the very first image of the team perfectly mimicking the cover of Runaways #1. (Rhenzy Feliz and Virginia Gardner are dead ringers for their 2-D counterparts.) Hand-held camera helps make a documentary-style feel for the lighter high-school scenes, while the darker shots of the parents’ nefarious undertakings unfurl an unsettling, enigmatic mystery, set against the backdrop of Pacific Palisades opulence—yet another link to Schwartz and Savage’s past collaborations. As unlikely as it sounds, even Old Lace the dinosaur fits into the Runaways world as easily as everything else.
Meanwhile, Runaways still addresses everyday teen experiences like same-sex attraction and substance abuse alongside criminalities like child abuse to sexual assault. Sometimes the issues that regular youths deal with can be more confusing or scarier than rapidly emerging mutant tendencies or trying to create a bionic hand. The Runaways are figuring out, though, what every superhero team does: They’re stronger together than apart. And the family that they make with each other is better than the one they already have. It’s clear where they’re headed, but this series offers a fascinating and surprisingly funny path for them to get there.
Reviews by Vinnie Mancuso will run weekly.