Hulu’s Runaways faced a rare challenge for a superhero show. While fans might have favorite stories and characters they wanted to see in any onscreen story about Daredevil, Flash, or the Teen Titans, there are so many versions of those heroes that there isn’t a clear agreed-upon storyline writers would be expected to follow. That isn’t true for Runaways. While Marvel rebooted the comics series this year, for most readers, it was defined by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s original run, which introduced the characters in 2003. When Hulu began adapting the series, showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage faced the question of how to make the most of the existing material, but their attempts to weave together established content and new plots stripped the focus from the characters who made the comics great.
In season 1, a group of Los Angeles teens learn that their parents have spent years regularly sacrificing runaway kids to their mysterious alien benefactor Jonah (Julian McMahon), in exchange for wealth and power. The teens also discover that most of them have some form of super power. Eventually, after far too many episodes, they finally run away, vowing to take down their parents. The decision to leave home happens much faster in the comics, but in season 1 of the show, it’s delayed by seemingly endless scenes between the parents, some of whom the writers are desperately trying to make sympathetic, in spite of all that murder for profit.
The overall arc hews fairly close to Vaughan and Alphona’s comics run, apart from substituting Jonah in for the Gibborim — a group of ancient giants that would have been pretty hard to make work on television. But the time spent on the parents is still a big problem in season 2, because it undermines the show’s basic premise. Once they discover that Jonah is using the same playbook as the Hand in The Defenders, working toward a plan that will benefit him but cause massive earthquakes, the parents and teens basically share the same goal. Even though the teenagers are living on their own in a sweet abandoned mansion, they’re getting help from their parents as if they were college students texting home asking for money.
The writers’ attempts to make the parents sympathetic costs the characters a lot of their competence. After nearly two decades of working with Jonah and establishing a charitable front dubbed Pride, they’ve garnered massive influence in Los Angeles, but apparently they never bothered to investigate who or what they’ve been serving. The Runaways comics were exciting in part because they forced the young heroes to rise to the challenge of fighting implacable foes.
And while there’s a relatable hook in the familiar story of kids learning that their parents aren’t as strong or smart as they always seemed, the writers seem to have taken such an interest in that dynamic that they shifted most of the villainous heavy lifting to Jonah and other threats. Unfortunately, the revelations about what Jonah was doing before making his deal with Pride, and why he needs human sacrifices to survive, also undermine the character. They feel like slapped-on post-hoc explanations rather than a thought-through arc that strengthens the reasoning behind the show.
That main plot is also padded with side plots that largely go nowhere. Schwartz and Savage are using a twist on the Monster of the Week structure by regularly introducing characters and conflicts that only stick around for about three episodes before being resolved, typically in a lethal fashion. This actually exacerbates the usual problems with episodic television. It’s hard to get invested in characters who won’t be around long, and the longer arcs plots drag on for hours, rather than wrapping up by the end of a given episode, so the writers can move on to something new. An early-season subplot where the Runaways’ genius leader, Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), hangs out with his father’s rival in Compton is especially agonizing, since it stunts the group dynamic that really should be the heart of the show.
Runaways is actually a strong adventure show when the teenagers are all together, learning about their powers and living on their own. Tech-whiz jock Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) particularly shines this season, always ready with a lesson from his coach that’s meant to help his situation. So does Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), who now has the freedom to explore both her sexuality in a relationship with goth witch Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), and the powers she’s inherited from her father, Jonah. After spending too much of season 2 sidelined, Alex finally grows into the pragmatic, morally ambiguous tactician he was meant to be.
Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), the super-strong baby of the group, and Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), a social-justice warrior psychically connected to a dinosaur, don’t fare as well, mostly because their plots are so tied to the show’s clumsy attempts at cultural commentary. In one of those mini-arcs, Molly styles herself as a superhero, which amounts to showing up at the same place two nights in a row and shouting nonsensical slogans like “Who runs the world?” while stopping the same pimp from beating up the same prostitute. It’s as if she’s stumbled across a repetitive quest in a Grand Theft Auto game.
Similarly, in the season’s opening episode, the Runaways are forced to live among Los Angeles’ homeless population, and they’re startled by the immensity of the problem. But they quickly find a mansion to live in, so they drop the issue, and don’t confront it again until another superpowered homeless youth follows Molly home. That forces Gert into a conflict between her liberal morals and her anxiety, which is exacerbated because she left her meds behind when she fled home. Her descriptions of withdrawal and her efforts to get her friends to take her condition seriously feel authentic, but they’re weakened by the way she has so little else going for her in this story, besides being Chase’s girlfriend and struggling with mental health. Having a pet dinosaur isn’t the most practical superpower, especially with the show’s special-effects budget limiting that dino’s range. The characters periodically struggle to find good ways to use Gert in their missions.
About halfway through the season, a major plot event shows that the showrunners are willing to change gears, and take the story to places that significantly deviate from the comics. Moving forward with original plots rather than trying to stretch out the existing ones could make the show feel more focused. But the writers need to keep that focus on the right place, spending more time letting the audience fall in love with the titular Runaways and their relationships with each other. The worst thing their parents can do isn’t sacrificing children to an alien overlord. It’s sucking up all the screen time, and watering down a superhero fantasy into a dreary soap opera.
Season 2 of Runaways premieres on Hulu on Friday, December 21st.