The basic premise of the new Hulu series “Marvel’s Runaways” is a bit over-the-top (but easily sellable on posters): What if you found out that your parents were supervillains? However, the mysteries laid out in the first four episodes presented to critics indicate that the series aims to be far more complex than that basic synopsis might indicate, and that executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage have a long game in mind for the show going forward.
The six teenagers at the heart of the series — brainy Alex (Rhenzy Feliz), good-hearted Karolina (Virginia Gardner), lacrosse star Chase (Gregg Sulkin), “social justice warrior” Gert (Ariela Barer), gothic Nico (Lyrica Okano), and soft-spoken Molly (Allegra Acosta) — aren’t exactly friends when we meet them, despite all attending the same upper-class high school in Los Angeles. But they’ve grown up together due to their parents’ membership in the Pride, a group that the kids have always believed to be a boring charity organization, until one fateful night when they discover that the secrets of the Pride are far darker than they suspected.
“Runaways” is far more ambitious than your standard teen drama fare, not just introducing its six lead characters relatively quickly, but establishing them as more complex than can be described by a simple label. Meanwhile, the show also doesn’t fail to feature their very different sets of parents, who are already clearly flawed individuals, before the show reveals their hidden motivations.
It’s a large, sprawling cast, but Schwartz and Savage prove adept at making it work, creating strong dynamics between the six teens as well as their 10 parents; a multi-generational soap like this is tricky to pull off, though Schwartz and Savage have plenty of experience thanks to “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl.” There are some minor contrivances required to make all this set-up possible, but once the writers manage to get everyone into the same room, the various group dynamics are fascinating.
Marvel’s TV offerings up to this point have fallen into two categories: the somewhat family-friendly (but dense with mythology) ABC series like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or “Agent Carter” and the far more adult, graphic Netflix dramas like “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.” But “Runaways” falls into its own category, unbound by broadcast standards and offering a grounded, character-focused look at its young cast. That distinct approach makes it all the more intriguing when events of a more fantastical nature begin occurring, be it the introduction of superpowers, magic, highly-advanced technology, or maybe even a visit from a prehistoric new friend.
Marvel execs have made it clear that they want shows like “Runaways” to operate independently from other series and films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so far, the world created here stands out as very much its own thing. With the exception of “Jessica Jones,” this might be the most notable example of a show premiering with a fully-realized sense of its unique voice.
And for those familiar with the Brian K. Vaughan comics, it’s hard not to be impressed by some of the series’ more clever changes, such as tweaking the backstory of Karolina’s actor parents to include their high-level involvement with a new entity, the Church of Gibborim (which bears no resemblance whatsoever to Scientology, of course).
The young cast is solid all around, with Feliz as Alex proving to be a clear standout, bringing a unique sensitivity to his role while also sparking with wit in moments not concerned with trying to figure out just how evil his parents are. Among the adults, James Marsters is nearly unrecognizable from his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” days, and brings some surprising nuance to his role as Chase’s overbearing and abusive father. And Kevin Weisman (“Alias”) and Brigid Brannagh (“Angel”) are probably having the most fun of everyone involved, playing up the wackier side of Gertrude’s hippie scientist parents.
Right now, “Runaways” is spinning a lot of plates in the air, both in terms of unanswered questions, uncertain alliances, and seemingly eminent betrayals lurking in the wings. But it’s off to an incredibly compelling start, thanks to Schwartz and Savage’s confident storytelling, and should it keep moving forward at its current pace, it could become a truly addictive hit. As it is, it’s one of Marvel’s most promising series to date.
The first three episodes of “Marvel’s Runaways” are streaming now on Hulu.