Teen Angst Meets Marvel Superheroics In Hulu’s Fun ‘Runaways’

Runaways wouldn’t rank particularly high on a list of unadaptable comic book or sci-fi/fantasy epics, especially in an era that’s given us TV shows based on the likes of Game of Thrones and Preacher. But it has some inherent challenges in moving from page to screen. In Marvel comic book form, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, the series introduces an array of wild concepts about six kids who discover that their parents are supervillains, run away together, and realize that most of them have powers themselves, involving magic, aliens, time travel, and more. In part because Vaughan assumed the book would be canceled any second, it churns through what feels like years’ worth of plot in every issue, and of course takes advantage of the comic page’s unlimited effects budget to show the kids fighting with, or against, dinosaurs, extraterrestrials, and giant demons.

That the Runaways TV show (it debuts tomorrow; I’ve seen the first four episodes) slows the plot waaaaaay down and makes other significant changes(*) could be a warning sign that the people involved either don’t understand what makes the comic great or simply can’t make it work in this format. But the creative team of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage have made one of those adaptations that’s true to the spirit of the original, even if the letter looks very different.

(*) One change is institutionally-mandated: per Schwartz (from a spoiler-filled interview running tomorrow), Marvel Television has a “no magic” rule, which means what was sorcery in the comics is here treated as advanced technology that just looks like magic. It’s dumb, but as we’ve seen from many of the recent Marvel TV shows, their executive decisions are often head-scratchers.

Schwartz and Savage first worked together on The O.C. and later Gossip Girl (among others), and Schwartz was co-creator of Chuck. They know from teen drama, and from nerd culture, and both the Vaughan/Alphona Runaways and their version neatly intersect the two. It’s essentially The Breakfast Club with powers, involving six high schoolers who were once close but are now tied together because of what they think is their parents’ shared charity work: Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) is a nerd, Chase (Gregg Sulkin) a jock, Nico (Lyrica Okano) a goth, Karolina (Virginia Gardner) a good church girl, Gert (Ariela Barer) an outspoken activist, Molly (Allegra Acosta) the younger kid who tags along. Even after they witness their parents committing a crime together, they opt to hide in plain sight at first, living at home and going to school while they work in secret to figure out exactly what they saw and what it means.

Where Preacher has altered/slowed the plot of the comics because a straight translation would be too difficult (and has yet to come up with an interesting enough alternative), and where most of Marvel’s Netflix shows move at a crawl because of the “13-hour movie” nonsense, Runaways‘ deviations from the source material feel less like Schwartz and Savage running away from something they don’t know how to make and more running towards something that’s interesting in its own right, and faithful enough to Vaughan’s ideas that it feels worthy of the name.

Schwartz, Savage, and company continue to have a great eye and ear for casting and writing young characters. Even though it’s a slow burn waiting for each kid to realize what they can do (only a couple of powers are on display even briefly in the first hour), the kids themselves are so well-articulated, so quickly — and so impeccably cast — that a version of the show without superheroes and villains would probably still be compelling. But Runaways deftly borrows the Buffy model of using all these heightened elements as metaphors for adolescent rites of passage, from Molly’s abilities manifesting themselves in a way that others mistake for her getting her first period, to the many secrets the kids and parents keep from one another.

“Finding out my mom is evil would actually be the least surprising explanation,” Nico suggests at one point.

The parents are often played by more recognizable actors (James Marsters from Buffy as an Elon Musk-type inventor, Kevin Weisman from Alias as a crunchy scientist whose presence the other parents barely tolerate, Annie Wersching from 24 as the head of a cult with more than a passing resemblance to Scientology) and are given more complex motivations than the comic had room for. Because Hulu’s releasing the first three episodes at once (after that, it’ll be weekly, as was the case with The Handmaid’s Tale), Schwartz and Savage employ a binge mode play, telling the first hour from the kids’ POV, then devoting most of the second episode to seeing what the parents were up to during those same events. That approach quickly answers a lot of questions on a show with several metric tons of backstory — when you have six kids and five sets of parents (Molly’s an orphan living with Gert’s family), you have many origin stories to tell, even if some overlap — but feels like it maybe could have waited until later, if only because the kids and their stories come so much more vividly to life in the early going.

Documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen (whose Jane is in theaters now) directs the pilot episode, establishing a visual template that employs a lot of harsh natural LA light, and jittery camerawork, clearly distinguishing it from all the Marvel shows set on the East Coast. (The show makes no reference to Daredevil or the Avengers, whether or not it’s meant to be set in the same fictional universe.)

Though the pace is drastically slower than the comic’s, it feels positively breathtaking compared to Luke Cage or The Punisher, not only because it has so many characters to bounce around between who all feel like narrative equals, but because Schwartz and Savage are by nature aggressive storytellers. The O.C.‘s first season moved at a rate that makes the Runaways comic feel like a Henry James novel in comparison. They’ve grown more patient over the years, in large part because The O.C. suffered later on for discarding too much plot in that opening year, but for the most part it feels purposeful, rather than like stalling; the kids, their world, and the conflicts within each family feel too rich to simply jump to the next thing.

So no, this Runaways isn’t a literal recreation of a beloved comic. But it works in its own right, and feels more fun and durable than a lot of its Marvel TV counterparts.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.