The premise of Marvel’s Runaways, which follows a group of super-powered teenagers who discover that their parents are diabolical villains, is an offbeat alternative to the archetypical good-and-evil conflicts that populate many comic-book stories. The peculiar and patently tragic plot is told without committing to either dour realism or self-referential snark, both overused tools meant to mitigate implausibility and simplistic morality in comic adaptations. The series toggles between the melodrama of a teen soap opera and the irreverent lightness of The Avengers films, while proposing a uniquely dark hypothetical: What if your parents were irredeemable murderers?
Runaways follows six teenage friends discovering their superpowers and the fact that their parents’ charity group, the Pride, is actually a mysterious crime syndicate that dabbles in ritual human sacrifice. The story amplifies the idea of pubescent rebellion, with telekinesis and super strength supplanting raging hormones, and parents who actually earn the wrath of their children.
The diversity of the cast distinguishes Runaways from Marvel’s otherwise waspy cinematic universe, but while it occasionally approaches the disparate backgrounds of its characters with nuance, the series just as often resorts to stereotypes and shorthand. The fumbling puppy love between Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz) and Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano) is further complicated by their unique perspectives: Alex, a black wunderkind and only child, is encouraged by his doting parents to embrace his maturity, while Nico is suffocated by Japanese-American parents who too closely fit the “model minority” myth.
Although the families in Runaways have superficially unique perspectives, they’re bound together by a breathtaking level of privilege—dynastic wealth, really—that can obstruct the show’s emotional overtures. The kids begin the series estranged from one another, and we learn that, after the death of a mutual friend, wedges have grown between the once-close group. The resonance of their trauma is blunted by the predictability of strained text exchanges and arbitrary arguments. The intended relatability of their quarrelling is similarly dulled by the extravagant game rooms, cavernous Brentwood mansions, and sprawling private schools that act as backdrops.
While the sunny California setting signals that Runaways will reject the dour mood of many comic-book adaptations, it’s the humorous naïveté of Alex and his friends that prevents the story from becoming overly grim. Whatever innocence remains as a vestige of their childhood surfaces when the teens’ interplay devolves into playful ignorance, usually in otherwise tense moments: While plotting how to best prove that the Pride’s members are murderers in one scene, for example, the teens are sidetracked as they wonder whether live-action roleplay is the same thing as a furry fetish. These instances seemingly exist to remind us that the teens—who often speak with improbable wisdom—don’t know everything, even if they sometimes talk like they do.
As with recently popular teen stories like Stranger Things and It, the charms of Runaways relate directly to the accelerated maturity of its innocent, young protagonists. Origin stories in the series are intertwined with adolescent self-discovery, as the teens first sense their super-powered abilities while experiencing the kind of commonplace events (in one case, particularly strong menstrual cramps) that can carry import for young people. And the group first uncovers the truth about the Pride while raiding the liquor cabinet at Alex’s house, a stunt which underscores their overarching normalcy. Generic formative experiences act as common denominators, assuring us that despite abnormal circumstances, these kids are essentially normal.
That normality bakes a narrative flaw into Runaways though: Upon discovering that their parents are effectively serial killers, the teens never seem sufficiently traumatized. The series attempts to transpose ordinary pubescent strife onto an extraordinary framework, using relatable teen struggles to temper the plot’s absurdity. But the resulting incongruity, between the magnitude of the teens’ discovery and the playfulness of their subsequent detective work, leaves us waiting for these young people to realistically process what they’ve witnessed. There’s an elephant in the room, as if the show’s writers view the truth as too dark for the teenagers—or us—to face.