Sunday, June 23, 2024

Runaways Mostly Shines Amidst Some Rough Edges

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Let me first qualify by saying I’ve never read a Runaways comic. I’d never even heard of them before the show. I went in having no idea what to expect outside of the synopsis I read. And that synopsis was an interesting one; superpowered teenagers whose parents all belong to an evil criminal organization? Hell yeah I’ll watch that show.

So to be fair to fans of the comics, I have no idea how this compares to the source material. I can only judge based on what I’m seeing here. What did I see? A show with a lot of rough edges surrounding a promising core.

Runaways spends most of its first three episodes focused on introducing us to our teen heroes and their parents. Alex is the smart one who puts the reunion in motion. Nico dresses like the most stylish goth on the planet and can use her mother’s magic wand. Karolina is the daughter of a church leader who literally turns into a rainbow. Chase plays lacrosse and tries his best to pretend he doesn’t totally crush on Gert, a purple-haired girl who doesn’t hide her crush at all and tries to be a hardcore feminist. Her sister Molly is the youngest of the group but seems to be both the coolest and the strongest, with super strength letting her rip doors off hinges and barred windows out of walls.

We learn that the kids used to be friends until the death of Nico’s sister, Amy. The fragile reconciliation between these kids takes up half of the episodes, and is easily the best part of them. The dynamic between these kids just plain works. Runaways does a good job establishing the history between all these kids and hinting at their separation. It’s made clear just how important Amy was to their initial friendships, and how losing her broke things.

Even better, Runaways takes an almost gleeful approach to tearing down the tropes each character represents. I was worried when each of them first appeared on screen. You had the Breakfast Club setup of the nerd, the jock, the popular blonde, the goth girl, the “SJW”, and the young hanger on. Knowing nothing about the show, I feared the worst.

Then Runaways spent just about every scene afterwards stripping those tropes away from them to show the many dimensions beneath. The closest any of these characters come to their tropes occurs with Nico and Alex. Nico plays the goth witch thing almost too much at times, but as she directly says to Karolina, it’s mostly a ploy to hide herself. A ploy that fails plenty enough for Nico to not be the depressed goth stereotype.

Alex fares less well, mostly because he’s cursed as the “dad” of the group. He brings everyone together and tries to rekindle the friendships. He’s the voice of reason seemingly keeping everyone focused. Call it Cyclops syndrome, where the team leader often comes across as the least interesting character. Even then he avoids the socially awkward personality most “nerds” have.

It makes for some really engaging characters I loved to watch. I’d be surprised if you watch this show and don’t find someone you relate to and/or stan. Runaways does too good a job humanizing the heroes and making them relatable. I’m struggling between Molly and Alex, myself. What can I say, I have a type when it comes to favorite characters, and those two fit the criteria.

Every time these characters get on screen together, Runaways excels. All the history and former connections show, and the show becomes a total pleasure to watch. I love how Chase and Karolina are the stereotypical jock and cheerleader everyone expects to hook up, yet they both have obvious crushes on someone else in the group. I love how insufferably condescending Gert is while simultaneously having the most obvious crush in the world on chase, and I love her relationship with her sister Molly. Molly is both the strongest force in the group and probably the most vulnerable.

Many layers exist to the characters of Runaways. Those who have read the comics know this and hopefully are satisfied by the show’s interpretation. For those like me with no clue, the teens came as a pleasant surprise. They feel like real people.

Runaways also tries to show off all their dynamics with each other as they work to discover just what nefariousness their parents all take part in.

The discovery and investigation of their parents is the largest plot-focus of these premiere episodes. This involves magic, a secret society, and a murder-mystery, and as a concept it sounds pretty great. And it certainly is, in spurts. Unfortunately, Pride, the secret criminal organization the parents consist of, is also where the roughness shadows the shine. Mainly because it moves slower than it probably should, especially with only ten episodes in this first season.

At the end of the first episode, the teens discover their parents’ secret. By the end of the third they barely learn anything new. The only significant developments are the discovery of a dinosaur in the basement of Gert and Molly’s house (this is every bit as awesome as it sounds) and Nico having magic powers. Hints are dropped to explain why the parents do what they do, but the teens don’t learn them.

I’m much more tolerant of slow pacing than many TV watchers, but hopefully it picks up.

What makes this slow pace worse is the reasoning behind it; a second episode focusing basically exclusively on the parents themselves. The third episode also puts a heavy emphasis on the parents. On one hand, most of what we learn of Pride’s motivations comes through them. On the other hand, they lack the same compelling scenes their children have.

It’s interesting, because they are everything I worried the teen would be. They cling to uninteresting tropes. Oh look, this guy used to be in a gang and acts exactly how that character always does. Yep, and there’s the cold mother and wife pushing her family away. And of course we have the abusive genius father/husband who pushes his wife to have an affair with another Pride member. As much as Gert and Molly’s goofy parents amuse me, I’ve seen their kind a thousand times and see no reason to really care about them so far.

Now maybe they will show themselves to be more in future episodes. So far they only serve as a counterpoint for their kids, both in the plot and regarding the quality of the show. They fulfill every stereotype Runaways tries so hard to avoid with the heroes of the story. Too often they are plain boring.

I understand the intent here. Clearly the show wants to avoid painting the parents as pure evil. Did Runaways really need an entire episode dedicated solely to them? They’ll need to prove to me that they did. I also understand the need to tell us the history that fractured the relationships between the teens as well as their parents, but perhaps these first three episodes went too far.

I was also disappointed at a rather flippant moment thrown in showing the near-rape of one of the teens at a house party. Why was this scene included? What exactly did it add to the story? So far as I can tell it served only as a catalyst to reunite two characters. Even worse, the victim was passed out and had no idea what was happening, meaning any further exploration of the moment will not focus on her at all.

Runaways tries hard to be more “adult” than I expected, but this scene was not needed even for that. There is enough cursing and consensual sexual content to avoid throwing in near-rape unnecessarily.

Despite these flaws, though, there’s so much to like here. The production is outstanding, with clean, good shots and strong visuals. The dialogue is usually strong and so is the acting, which is nice to see from a young cast. It was yet another pleasant surprise for Runaways to be so well made. I never stopped feeling like a talented group of people made this show.

Even better, you can see a focus on diversity in every aspect of the show. The cast is diverse. The showrunners are a man and woman team. Women directed the second and third episodes. One of the main characters has already been confirmed as gay, with the hints of this future revelation placed in the very first episode.

Told you literal rainbow. Right after watching two girls kiss.

It all adds to a blend of a show that feels fresh and different in concept, if not always in execution. Runaways tries and I think mostly succeeds in meshing multiple genres together, which is always one of the best parts of comic book IPs. Scenes of the teens hanging out and going about their life work like a well-made teen drama. When they begin their investigation, you get a slice of murder mystery. The scenes with the parents try for your more high prestige drama. The technology gives Runaways a sci-fi flavor.

There are a lot of good, fun pieces making for what was mostly a good, fun show. Of course, the attempt to be so many different things also creates the largest weaknesses in the show. It will be interesting to see how Runaways approaches this dilemma moving forward. Will they eventually par down on the genres, focusing mostly on the teen drama and mystery? Can they balance all these throughout the rest of the season?

Whatever the case, I’m excited to find out. Runaways is something different from any other Marvel show to hit TV so far. There’s a lot to like here, more than enough for me to overlook the flaws for now. If the rough parts smooth down, we could have a hell of a show here.

Even better, it would be a hell of a show in ways different from what we’re getting anywhere else from Marvel television. A successful Runaways show could hopefully have the same effect the success of Guardians of the Galaxy did for the MCU, where it showed audiences were ready for the creative best of comic books in the live action medium.

Let’s hope the same happens here.

Images courtesy of Hulu

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