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‘Marvel’s Runaways’ Review: Season 2 Compromises Strong Characters With Poor Plot Choices

The Hulu comic book adaptation tragically overcomplicates its strong premise.

Runaways -- "Gimmie Shelter" -- Episode 201 -- The kids struggle with their new lives as Runaways, but find a hideout. Alex goes to work for Darius while PRIDE plots to kill Jonah. Jonah initiates a plan to build a new box. Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano),  Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Felix) shown. (Photo by: Paul Sarkis / Hulu)

“Marvel’s Runaways.”

Paul Sarkis / Hulu

“Marvel’s Runaways,” in its return to Hulu for a second season, launched with the advantage of a great premise: What if a group of teenagers found out that their parents were supervillains? It’s an idea loaded with both emotional weight as well as huge narrative potential, but creators Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, facing 13 episodes instead of 10, unfortunately chose to err on the side of plot.

This wasn’t the case last time. The first season of “Runaways” was by and large set-up for the larger story — which is another way of saying that the eponymous characters didn’t actually get around to running away until the final moments of the season finale. But that time was spent on thoroughly developing their dynamics, creating a show that was far more teen soap than superhero drama, in all the best ways.

Season 2 starts off strong, with a commitment to the realities of the kids’ lives now that they’ve been thrust into a world that their previous experiences as pampered Los Angeles teens left them ill-prepared for. While the discovery of a buried, disintegrating mansion that becomes their personal hideout helps greatly with their daily survival, basic scavenging becomes a fact of life, and it leads to some solid, grounding moments.

Runaways -- "Gimmie Shelter" -- Episode 201 -- The kids struggle with their new lives as Runaways, but find a hideout. Alex goes to work for Darius while PRIDE plots to kill Jonah. Jonah initiates a plan to build a new box. Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), Chase Stein (Greg Sulkin), Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner) shown. (Photo by: Greg Lewis / Hulu)

“Runaways.”

Greg Lewis / Hulu

The production values on the show’s two new standing sets, which Marvel and Hulu brought television critics to tour last summer, are pretty stunning, but the downside is that there’s a lot of standing around and talking as a result.

But most of those conversations don’t really lead anywhere. “Runaways” has always operated under the massive burden of its sprawling cast: Serving the stories of six main characters plus five sets of parents isn’t a question of multiplication — it’s calculus. And one of Season 2’s biggest strengths is finding ways to bring both the parents and children together in unexpected combinations, as alliances are born and then disintegrated across enemy lines.

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of “Runaways.”]

There’s a premium put on group loyalty that doesn’t feel as earned as it could be, especially as that loyalty is tested by a number of major twists. Halfway through the season, the most consequential of these twists evolves out of one of the show’s major plot threads — the fact that Karolina’s (Virginia Gardner) real father is Jonah (Julian McMahon), an alien from another world.

Turns out that he wasn’t the only alien who crashed to Earth, though, and after groundwork laid in several episodes, it’s revealed that his fellow travelers have the ability to possess bodies, suppressing the existing personalities. The result is a devolution into what seems likely to be a series heavy on body-swapping and mistaken identity stories, which feels like a misstep.

Runaways -- "Radio On" -- Episode 202 -- Karolina, Nico, and Molly try to retrieve the Staff of One, but Tina puts up a fight. Karolina grows closer to Jonah while Alex and Livvie share a kiss. Robert Minoru (James Yaegashi), Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), Tina Minoru (Brittany Ishibashi), Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner) shown. (Photo by: Paul Sarkis / Hulu)

“Runaways.”

Paul Sarkis / Hulu

The most interesting aspect of “Runaways” as a series is the way in which it breaks down the barrier between parent and child, these unequal relationships coming to an equal footing. The adults make mistakes, reveal their flaws. The kids find new strength, explore their capabilities. It’s a lot like the whole process of growing up: discovering that you’re capable of adulthood, while also realizing that the adults in charge aren’t paragons of all-knowing perfection.

By turning three (maybe four) of the show’s main characters into possessed straight-up villains, that central conflict is compromised. The one advantage to the body-swapping narrative, though, is that Brittany Ishibashi gets an opportunity to play layers beyond Tina’s pre-established coldness. Ishibashi has an undeniable spark proves her capable of a lot more than continual supporting actor parts. (She’s also appeared recently in “The Affair,” “Grace and Frankie,” and “This is Us.”)

She, as well as Annie Wersching (also just seen playing a morally compromised villain caught up with an evil cult on the “Timeless” series finale) and Kevin Weisman (whose quippy wit pairs nicely with his more devious moments) prove to be the standouts of the adult cast this year. As for the kids, Alex’s (Rhenzy Feliz) storyline, which tangles him up with old friends of his father’s in Compton, pushes him to acknowledge his privilege on a whole new level.

Gert (Ariela Barer) gets some great material as well, with the show acknowledging another important fact about life on the run: it’s not good news for a girl taking anti-depressants. And Molly’s (Allegra Acosta) desire to grow up faster gives her plenty of showcase moments, including one of the show’s standout sequences: a quinceanera celebration that brings all the kids together. It’s these sorts of details, not the too-deep alien mythology, which makes the show compelling — and if the show returns for a third season (one it clearly expects, based on the cliffhanger ending), hopefully it’ll remember that.

Grade: B-

“Marvel’s Runaways” Season 2 is streaming now on Hulu. 

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