Marvel’s small screen legacy has become slightly tarnished in the last year. What began impressively, with Daredevil and Jessica Jones on Netflix, led to the underwhelming Iron Fist and the openly slated Inhumans. Into that awkward party walks its latest superhero outing: Marvel’s Runaways.
The series, based on the comic books by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, follows a bunch of kids who, we suspect, will have their own abilities of some form or another. But writers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage aren’t in a hurry to show them off: in fact, you’d barely guess this was a Marvel show from the opening hours at all, as it focuses instead on relationships and teen drama.
That’s both Runaways’ biggest strength and weakness. Schwartz (of The OC fame) and Savage (of Gossip Girl) are veterans at teenage soap operatics, and they skillfully build the world around our central kids: Nico (Lyrica Okano), a goth who’s struggling to move on from her sister’s death two years ago, Gert (Ariela Barer), who throws herself into campaigns about social issues, Chase (Gregg Sulkin), the jock who Gert has a crush on, Karolina (Virginia Gardner), the do-gooder daughter of a religious leader, Molly (Allegra Acosta), Gert’s young adopted sister with untold strength beyond her years, and Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), nerdy guy who misses the time when they all used to hang out.
That’s the masterstroke of the show’s starting point: our Runaways all hate each other, and the script gives the cast the chance to sink their teeth into each unspoken grudge, faded connection and lapsed communication. Rather than watch a group bond, we’re watching a group learn to rediscover a bond that already exists, a nuanced difference that helps to turn these characters into something more rounded than they might have been.
The other smart move is the way the series gives equal weight to their parents: the various squabbles and frayed loyalties are echoed a generation up, as we see their guardians gather for an equally tense meeting of their group known as The Pride. The Pride, for all intents and purposes, are a select bunch of influencers and leaders who are championing improvements in the local community. But when Alex persuades his old mates to come over one evening when their parents are meeting, an accidental stumble into the wrong room reveals something far more nefarious about their parents. Firstly, they’re not meeting to talk about zoning laws or affordable housing. And secondly, wait, did they just sacrifice someone in a ritual ceremony?
It’s a surprising, unexpected reveal, one that moves the show into enjoyably original territory – and the adults clearly relish the chance to get as much screentime as the kids. Episode 2, in fact, switches up the focus to introduce us properly to them all, from Annie Wersching’s deliciously sinister Leslie, mother of Karolina, to Kip Pardue’s token husband Frank, a washed-up actor who just wants to feel important again. Chase’s dad (James Marsters) is a tech whizz who disapproves of his son, the bullying counterpart to Ever Carradine’s mum. Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh are the most likeable of the bunch as Gert and Molly’s parents, who secretly want to move away from it all and live in a ranch, and have their doubts about… whatever it is that The Pride is up to. And, in charge of them all, is Angel Parker as Alex’s mother, Catherine, a ruthless lawyer with a genuinely intimidating streak, and Ryan Sands as his dad, Geoffrey, who has fought his way up from the streets to become a seemingly respectable figure – a face-off between him and a local gangster is a nice piece of writing that brings real depth to his gritty good intentions.
The grown-ups all get welcome time with their offspring to flesh out their family relationships, with Molly and Gert proving the MVPs of the show – not least because Molly’s powers begin to shine through first out of our young ensemble. The only problem is that the show is so deliberate in taking its time that it might well lose those hoping for something more immediately jaw-dropping, a la Legion, or action-packed, a la Daredevil. For a series called the Runaways, it’s pretty obvious what our story’s turning point will be, but halfway through the first season, no running away has actually happened yet.
Will that take place in the finale, setting up the scenario proper for a second season? If so, it feels like something of a cop-out, as this maiden run becomes effectively a pilot for the overall show. However, the hesitation in going full comic book manages to set Runaways apart from the X-Men-lite premise it might have been, making the bursts of superpowers that we do get to see all the more effective; this is a grounded comic book series that dares to treat the everyday drama of teenage lives as seriously as it does the creepy supernatural goings-on (complete with beasts, shady labs and magical sceptres). With a likeable cast and a reluctance to follow the more obvious genre formulae, Runaways may not sprint into your must-watch pile, but certainly has the potential to accelerate away from the rest of the superhero pack.
Marvel’s Runaways airs on Syfy in the UK on Wednesdays. Syfy is available on Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk TV and BT TV. Don’t have pay-TV? You can also stream it legally on NOW TV, which gives live and on-demand streaming access to Sky’s main TV channels, including FOX UK (Legion) and Sky Atlantic (Billions, Westworld), for £7.99 a month – with no contract and a 14-day free trial.
Episode 1 of Marvel’s Runaways is available on-demand until 11.59pm on Tuesday 15th May 2018.