Ever since a bully first pointed to Peter Parker in Amazing Fantasy #15 and said, “that bookworm wouldn’t know a cha-cha from a waltz”—an absolutely devastating burn in 1962—comic book heroics and high school drama have existed in perfect harmony. After all, the selling point of comic books is that they are human stories painted larger than life, and high school is a time when your own story feels larger than life; bullies are monsters, your crush is a glowing ball of light, the awkward noise your shoe made in gym class is literally the end of the world, and, most of all, your parents are supervillains lording over their domain with an iron curfew. Marvel’s Runaways—adapted for Hulu by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage from Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s comic series—is the purest example of that Breakfast-Club-meets-The-Avengers aesthetic in years: A group of California teens—six former childhood friends driven apart by the loss of a seventh—find themselves changing in ways more in line with superheroes than hormones, and that’s before they discover that their parents are sacrificing teenage girls in the basement.
It’s a great premise, and a certifiable layup for two creators that cut their teeth in the angst-ridden worlds of The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Unfortunately, Runaways’ premiere, titled “Reunion,” has a bit of a freshman year vibe to it, a fumbling start unsure exactly of its identity, more exciting in overall idea than it is in execution.
In some ways, it’s understandable. Ask anyone involved in crafting the DC Cinematic Universe, introducing six different characters is hard, sloppy work. “Reunion” successfully debuts our core cast, but its runtime forces Schwartz and Savage to—at least at the outset—paint them in the broadest strokes possible; there’s goth Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), perfect blonde Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), alarmingly jacked teen jock Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin), social justice warrior Gertrude “Gert” Yorkes (Ariela Barer), younger-than-the-rest Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), and nerdy Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), who, suffice it to say, wouldn’t know a cha-cha from a waltz. As a result, the first half of the premiere feels more like a John Hughes checklist than its own show. “Rebelling, what’s that like?” Karolina asks in all sincerity at one point, which is more of a general character note than it is something a person would say.
Luckily, things take flight once “Reunion” gets around to reuniting, and these stereotypes begin to bump against each other and subvert themselves. It helps that the young cast is incredibly game; it’s not quite the several thousand volts of lightning captured in a bottle that is the Stranger Things cast, but Runaways’ star players have their own sort of crackling chemistry. By the time they’ve all assembled in Alex’s swanky guest-house, we might not know these characters as well as we should but we at least believe there is deep shared history here. The cast—and director Brett Morgen—fills the spaces between the Whedon-esque one-liners with small glances and shrugs that suggest these kids understand each other on a natural level despite growing apart. It’s like Alex’s father tells him: “The kids you know when you’re young, no one will ever know you like that again.”
As the olive branch of the group, Alex is ostensibly the leader, but the premiere doesn’t give Rhenzy Feliz much to do other than play Star Wars Battlefront—you almost have to admire Disney’s ability to turn anything into ad space—and react to his louder, more outlandish friends. As the purple-haired Gertrude, Ariela Barer is an immediate stand-out. This wouldn’t be a teen-drama without a bit (see: a lot) of unrequited crushes, but Barer plays Gert’s pining for Chase with a kind of quiet obviousness that is, at once, incredibly mature and heartbreakingly relatable to any kid who has ever been infatuated with a friend.
For my money, though, the premiere is stolen by Allegra Acosta as suddenly super-strong Molly Hernandez, the focal point of the episode’s two best scenes. The first— in which Molly discovers what looks suspiciously like a velociraptor behind a door in her parents’ basement—is mostly a delight because I’m a simple critic and the presence of a surprise basement dinosaur is always going to make for quality TV in my humble opinion.
But the second is all on Acosta’s performance; Molly, a few hours after crushing a nurse’s room desk, manages to move a van with her bare hands. It’s not what happens—we’ve seen fledgling heroes discover their powers almost as much as we’ve watched Bruce Wayne’s parents die—but the way Molly reacts. “Yes! I did it!” she yells, sounding childlike because, well, she pretty much is a child and having super strength would be really, really cool. A character reacting to their newfound ability with straight up youthful glee is something refreshing that we don’t see enough on comic book TV; definitely not in Netflix’s gritty street-level Marvel Universe, but not even in The CW’s relatively sunnier Arrow-verse. It’s why the superpowers-as-coming-of-age-story works so well, and why Marvel’s Runaways has so much promise despite a slow start. The best comic book stories, like the best high school memories, are about discovering great potential in the unlikeliest of places.
- In a show that seemingly wants to touch on every high school beat imaginable, it’s admirable that Runaways doesn’t shy away from the topic of sexual assault. But the scene in which Chase saves Karolina from a pair of pervy jocks would have had more weight if it didn’t feel like such a rushed through story beat. It’s far more about displaying the fact Chase isn’t actually a dick than it is about Karolina. The fact that the two are casually strolling down the street immediately afterward—with Chase actually chiding Karolina for taking “some strong shit”—feels very, very awkward.
- This isn’t a Game of Thrones review so I’m not contractually obligated to tell you I read the books every week. But there are some interesting changes from Vaughan’s comic that are worth highlighting. For one, Nico’s dead sister Amy is new, added to give the group’s splintering some heft. Also, Karolina’s parents are both actors in the comics; the Scientology-like Church of the Gibborim is a show invention, but the name itself should be familiar to fans of the source material.
- The only disappointing change-over from page to screen is the fact Molly seems to be aged up a bit. One of the sweeter aspects of the comics is that, once the Runaways actually run away, they’re forced to become sort of pseudo-parents to their youngest friend, who just happens to be physically stronger than all of them.
- I’m not sure what is less likely: A secret society disguising the entrance to their lair as a stack of coasters, or a group of teenagers stumbling upon said stack of coasters.
- Since this is a safe space free from judgment, I’d like to admit that I straight up did not know James Marsters’ English accent as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t real until he showed up here, as Chase’s intimidating genius father, Victor Stein. But what a great, menacing presence he strikes right out of the gate: “If you were really afraid of me, you’d be getting an A.”
- “Tonight, another becomes eternal,” Karolina’s mother says to...some crusty thing laying in an all-white bedroom.