With an unusually long gap between new Marvel Cinematic Universe releases, I decided to finally check out “Marvel’s Runaways” Season 1 (2017-18, Hulu). Now through three seasons, it’s part of the young-adult wing of the MCU, and I appreciate that it’s more colorful, sunnier (it’s set in Los Angeles, the opposite side of the continent from most MCU goings-on) and more fathomable than the other YA series, Freeform’s recently canceled “Cloak & Dagger.” It also has an amazing cast, but Season 1 has one big problem at its core.
The 10-episode first season of “Runaways” is about Parents versus Teens. That’s a juicy premise, but it’s tone deaf in Season 1, despite being guided by executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (the duo who recently gave us the excellent “Looking for Alaska”). The kids – who had drifted apart but are now brought back together – have grown up in wealthy Brentwood homes. Some of their parents are a bit distant, but all love their kids.
Yet when the kids sneak a peek of their parents sacrificing a homeless kid as part of a ceremony in a chamber below one of their houses, instead of asking their parents what’s going on, they decide to gather more evidence with the goal of turning them into the authorities. This doesn’t ring true to me at all. It’s neither kid nature nor human nature to turn in a loved one for a crime as a first option; at the very least, it’s something we’d struggle with.
“Runaways’ ” biggest strength is its casting. It wisely assembles the best B-list actors from TV shows of 20 years ago, perhaps making a play for viewers who were teens then and curious about current teen fiction. James Marsters has his meatiest role since Spike, playing a moody scientific genius. He’s also the one with the worst relationship with his kid by far, having beaten Chase (Gregg Sulkin) when he was younger.
Also among the parents are Annie Wersching, one of Jack’s girlfriends on “24”; Ever Carradine, the sweetie from “Once and Again”; Brigid Brannagh, Wesley’s girlfriend on “Angel”; and Kevin Weisman, the alien enthusiast tourist from the pilot of “Roswell.” As a pair of adult nerds, Brannagh and Weisman’s Stacey and Dale Yorkes have fun spousal interplay.
I wasn’t familiar with the actors playing teens, but they are a solid group, drawn from the modern equivalent of the WB Stable of Hot Teens (to crib from “Gilmore Girls’ ” Amy Sherman-Palladino). Sulkin will have a steady career if he wants it: He’s handsome and he can act.
Gert (Ariela Barer) is purple-haired and big on political correctness, but “Runaways” refreshingly makes fun of this: Chase, who likes Gert, marvels to his mom (Carradine) that he had no idea there were so many ways to offend someone, until Gert taught him.
De facto Runaways leader Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) is a milquetoast, but Nico (Lyrica Okano) brings broody Goth flavor, Karolina (Virginia Gardner) brings religious struggles and Molly (Allegra Acosta) brings innocence, being three years younger than the others; Acosta doesn’t look it, but she sells it.
The group’s various love triangles (love pentagon?) are kind of cute, although the Nico-Karolina thing seems forced for the sake of having the inevitable non-heteronormative romance (Oh no, Gert’s terminology is rubbing off on me, too).
Lest we forget, this is an MCU show, so the kids have superpowers. I like that the superpowers do not define the characters (it’s like “Jessica Jones” in this way), even though the reason why they accidentally got superpowers is probably related to their parents’ sacrifice-based cult (called PRIDE). Karolina can glow and fly, Alex can know things inexplicably, Nico can use a magic staff, Molly has super strength when she’s mad, and Chase – inheriting his dad’s genius – wields a power glove.
Gert’s power is that she can communicate with and soothe her pet velociraptor, which was created by her parents, the Yorkes, in their basement lab. What’s even weirder than “Runaways” having a velociraptor in the cast is the fact that the raptor is simply a member of the Runaways, like a dog. It doesn’t actually attack anyone “Jurassic Park”-style. The CGI and live-action raptor work is top-shelf, but it’s strange that the show spends so much money to animate a pet.
“Runaways” Season 1 gets past its extremely unbelievable midseason hump wherein the teens almost turn their folks in to the authorities. The teens live up to the show’s title and run away in the finale, initially hiding out in the L.A. hills (Kim Bauer could tell them to watch out for mountain lions).
This being modern times, there’s no way they’ll get far. In a bit of clunky writing, some unknown players in PRIDE (probably the boss, Julian McMahon’s Jonah) want them to get away – perhaps so the cult can remotely track Karolina. And some other unknown players don’t want the teens to escape: They see on the TV news they’ve been framed for one of the sacrifice’s deaths. Or maybe the goal is to have them run away, get nabbed, and then be out of PRIDE’s hair.
Some of the parents are good by season’s end, turning against PRIDE, so the uncomfortable Parents versus Teens era of the show has thankfully passed. But I’m on the fence about wanting to continue into Season 2. “Runaways’ ” breeziness and strong cast list are countered by bouts of stupid writing, stiff staging (like the climactic and awkward Parent-Teen square-off) and a sense that it has no bearing on the wider MCU. But if you’re looking for an enjoyable teen superhero series, you could do worse than “Runaways.”