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Marvel’s Runaways Premiere Review – ‘Reunion/Rewind/Destiny’

November 21, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Marvel's Runaways - Reunion
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Marvel’s Runaways Premiere Review – ‘Reunion/Rewind/Destiny’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen the three premiere episodes of Marvel’s Runaways.]

It’s fair to say that while the Marvel Cinematic Universe has still been killing it on the big screen in 2017, their small screen slate has hit a few bumps in the road. Sure, Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were great. But Iron First was the MCU’s first true dud of a television series, and Inhumans was worse. While Agents of SHIELD had its best arc yet in the spring, its ratings are no longer superheroic by a longshot. It’s no stretch to say that the Marvel TV slate needed something to freshen things up a bit.

That seems like the perfect opening for Runaways to fill. Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona’s teenage superhero coming-of-age comic was one of the great Marvel books of the oughts. Funny, witty, heartfelt and diverse, the comic is one that many people were literally begging to see brought to life. The concept — a group of teens who learn their parents are supervillains — seemed tailor made for television. And so, it made a ton of sense when Marvel and Hulu announced that a series adaptation was on the way. Series creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage have brought their Gossip Girl cred to play here in a show that, in the first three episodes at least, offers a lot for Runaways fans and neophytes alike to dig into.

Runaways Nico

To put all my cards on the table here: if it wasn’t already clear, I am a hardcore fan of the source material. Thus, going in I had a high level of hope but also lofty expectations. With Marvel’s portioned-out live-action adaptation rights, certain things had to be changed and even if that wasn’t the case, this wasn’t going to be a straight off the page translation. Thus, it’s refreshing to see that Schwartz and Savage have stayed true to the essence of the characters and, when they’ve diverged, done so for the sake of the story and the characters.

When Runaways opens with the first of the three episodes released today, “Reunion,” things aren’t copacetic with our young heroes. Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) and Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) are a group fractured by the death two years prior of Nico’s sister Amy. That death is under vague circumstances that aren’t clearly explained yet. Whatever the reason, it has left the one-time friends as broken people.

This creates a dynamic that is similar to the source, but for different reasons. It’s smart plotting for a series that needs to extend the opening arc for a full ten episodes and likely longer, if the Pride plan to exist beyond season one. Some built-in mysteries off the bat make the characters more intriguing and make the group’s conflict seem more specific than kids who don’t really get along because they only get together once every year.

Runaways Catherine Leslie

The other way that Runaways manages to diverge in a positive way is by bringing more focus on the Pride. In the comic, the parents are fairly one-note characters. Here they have more nuance, as the opening two episodes devoting nearly as much time to them as to the kids. The Wilders are wealthy off real estate and trying to connect with Alex during his difficult time. The Yorkes are hippy biogeneticists who have adopted Molly after the (mysterious) death of her parents years earlier. Victor Stein is an emotionally distant genius, with wife Janet serving as the more sympathetic and supportive parent. Leslie Dean is the leader of a Scientology-like cult, and her husband Frank is an actor with one foot in both words. And the Minorus are a couple in a strained marriage, with Tina obsessive over Amy’s death while Robert worries about Nico.

Of course, they’re also supervillains of a fashion. The Pride is in service to a power that lays debilitated in hiding at the Church of Gibborim headquarters. And there are, of course, hints that their children might be more than they appear. These opening episodes play the long game on that. First, Molly’s powers are unveiled through what she thinks are her first menstrual cramps. Then at a party, Karolina takes off her cult bracelet which lets her glowy body shine free. It isn’t until later that we realize Gert has a psychic connection to the dinosaur her bran bar-loving parents keep in the basement. Nico’s connection to her mother’s staff is only briefly touched on, and Chase seems to be a normal kid (for now).

Runaways Discovery

In centering most of “Reunion” in grounded drama rather than comic book hijinks, Runaways cannily sets all these character traits in play. It’s a smart move, and one given a boost by the performers bringing them to life. Both the young actors and the older ones have a dynamic that feels authentic. In “Reunion” there isn’t a ton of development, but they play off each other well. Therefore, when the reveal of Destiny Gonzalez’s murder happens at the end of the episode, we’ve already bought into these people. Even for those whom the drama might move too slowly for, these are engaging characters given life by talented performers.

Of course, that episode-ending shocker sets everything else in motion. It’s an interesting choice for Schwartz and Savage to then go back and relive the day from the parents’ perspective. This is something that you wouldn’t be able to do as well on a network show. The week-to-week status of these opening episodes would make the slow burn feel agonizingly worse. Watching the first three in a row, however, makes it fly by pretty quickly. The writers could stand to pick things up a little here and there, to be sure. For a show called Runaways, there doesn’t seem to be much running away yet. But we’ll get there, I’m sure. And in the meantime, there’s a lot to enjoy thus far.

Runaways Gertie

Not everything works thus far. Frank Dean’s side arc seems like an unnecessary distraction right now, for example. I’m sure it will pay off somewhere, but for now Leslie is the Dean I’m more interested in. The show still seems like it’s trying to find itself at times as well. A good example of this lies in Robert’s affair with Janet, which feels like an unnecessary plot point. We get it; there’s conflict between everyone. Throwing affairs into the mix doesn’t enhance that; it just muddies the waters of character motivations. These plot points aren’t that bad yet. However, they’re something to keep an eye on, in case they go too far off the rails.

Runaways is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However — refreshingly — there is no apparent urgency to point that out. Don’t get me wrong here. I love the interconnected nature of the MCU. But it gets a bit tiresome sometimes to have all the shows continually reference “New York” or “Sokovia,” especially since we know Robert Downey Jr. probably isn’t stopping by. Runaways takes place across the country from that stuff, in Los Angeles. It allows the show to maintain distance from the Defenders and Avengers. It also allows the directors to make great use of the different setting. Instead of the claustrophobia of New York skyscrapers, we get the lonely distance of Los Angeles. That’s fitting for a show centered around younger characters, and gives the show its own unique feel.

Runaways Frank

There’s still a lot to go in this story, obviously. But what Schwartz and Savage have started here is impressive. The visual effects are well above those of the likes of Inhumans, and even Agents of SHIELD. While we only see the dinosaur in smaller doses, he looks fantastic. Karolina’s visual effects are not only well-done, they’re authentic to the source. And more than the effects work, this just looks better all-around. I’d be curious to know whether the show has a higher budget, or just makes better use of what they have. I’m betting the latter.

“Destiny” ends with Destiny’s body being found by authorities and Leslie realizing there needs to be another sacrifice. The moral quandary between the Pride is sure to get worse, and that will surely be reflected in the kids too. That’s a strong foundation to keep a show going on. With seven episodes to go (and thus seven weeks, with one episode a week going forward), I’m very interested to see how it gets from here to where I expect it will go. That I’m not sure it will go the same way is equally exciting to me. At this point, Runaways has earned some faith from me to go its own way.

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome to our Marvel’s Runaways coverage! I’ll be getting these reviews up by noon ET each week on Tuesday. Hope you enjoy the ride.

• For the comic book fans out there, there were a ton of shots lifted straight from the source. Notably, that Twister game. And even if you didn’t know it, that was kind of great.

• “Finding out my mom was evil would be the least surprising explanation.” Nico is delightful.

• Alex’s uncertainty about where to put his hands while fake making-out with Nico was the kind of authenticity I hope to see more of.

• Shout out to Chase for being 100% less infuriating here than he is in the source. Saving Karolina from date rape earned him instant hero points, which he’ll surely squander soon.

• I’ll admit, the fate of the Hernandezes has me intensely curious. Did Tina Minoru really kill them? I kinda think that’s too much of a tell to be real.

• If you ever have to have evil super-villain parents, just hope they’re as adorably quirky as the Yorkes. Except, you know, without the homemade brie.

8
The final score: review Very Good
The 411
The first three episodes of Marvel's Runaways get things off to a great start, establishing characters and laying groundwork for what's to come first before finally kicking into the plot. While the showrunners have given themselves a lot of storyline to juggle here, all the balls are still in the air and I'm looking forward to seeing where they come down.
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