Marvel’s Runaways Season 1 came onto the superhero TV scene with a great deal going for it. Helmed by teen drama experts Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, The O.C.), adapted from a classic comic book run by Brian Vaughan (with his involvement!), and featuring a highly likeable cast of both newcomers and veteran TV actors, this show had narrative energy to burn.
Unfortunately, Season 1 didn’t seem to really know what to do with all of that narrative energy. After a strong first few episodes, the show lingered in a liminal state of will-they-won’t-they when it came to the tenuous relationship between the show’s teen characters and their villainous parents. When the Season 1 finale ends with the show’s teenaged characters finally running away from their parents with a defined mission to stop them from ending the world, it seemed like this story finally had the focus it needed to turn into something truly great.
Unfortunately, while there are moments of that focused greatness in this second season, most especially when we see all of the kids as a character-driven ensemble, the show continues to fail to commit to its premise: That these parents are not worth saving because they use their power to accumulate more power, not caring who they hurt or even kill in the process. That these kids must use their powers and privileges to put right the world their parents have so selfishly broken.
It’s a shame Runaways doesn’t more completely commit to its premise. There is something deeply relatable and therefore incredibly powerful about exploring the theme of generational conflict, especially at this particular historical moment. Yes, every generation comes of age into a world the older generations, most especially the privileged, have shaped, but there feels something particularly urgent about this current generation growing into a world we are literally making uninhabitable for human life, into a country that has immense power, but where that power is becoming increasingly more unequally distributed.
This show is at its very best–to humorous, horrifying, and emotionally-devastating results–when the narrative doesn’t try to sympathize with the motivations behind the parents’ terrible actions. The sporadic attempts to do so not only actively work against the premise of the show, but make the parent characters feel wildly inconsistent. This season, the narrative focus is where it belongs–on the kids–but, rather than simply commit to the greed of the parents and be done with it, the show continues to try to make the audience sympathize with their decisions. Jonah becomes the Big Bad, and the parents somewhat hapless victims in his quest, trying to protect their children and themselves.
The second season is definitely improved by the kids’ official runaway status. Rather than looking for convoluted excuses for these kids to always be together, the show doesn’t need to even address it. They’re all living and training together in a dilapitated mansion a la Harry, Ron, and Hermione stint at 12 Grimmauld Place in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (give me my Harry Potter TV show, please).
The appearance of “The Hostel” on the scene not only gives the kids an opportunity to train, but for their relationships to grow and change as they’re forced to reevaluate what family and sacrifice can mean. We get tons of great scenes of the group, trying to work out their dynamic, as well as opportunities to check in with the many respective relationships between the kids. There’s plenty of time to check in with the romantic relationships between Nico and Karolina, and Gert and Chase, but the non-romantic relationships are prioritized, too, giving this show an edge on many teen dramas.
Tonally, this show continues to shine. It leans into its L.A. setting in endearing, grounding ways. Far too few superhero shows feel like they’re set in the real world, even when they have a well-developed setting. Meanwhile, Runaways never met a scene that it felt couldn’t be improved with a shot of the Hollywood sign and, when the kids run away, we get to explore the world of greater Los Angeles further.
While the show wants to make it seem like the kids are struggling to make ends meet, resources like food and electricity are only brief problems, perhaps because this show doesn’t want to become too depressing. All problems are presented as ones with solutions, which is not only far from the reality for people who are actually homeless, but undermines the integrity of the narrative. The show has a better track record when it comes to the emotional struggles of this group. Though Pride is actively working on developing weapons to neutralize their children, the most effective in their arsenal continues to be the love their kids will alway have, to some degree, for their parents.
Runaways is one of those TV shows that is a fun (the one-liners on this show are some of the best in the business), sometimes moving experience with a killer premise and cast. It’s also hindered by the better TV show you can see inside of it, a TV show it sometimes becomes, but never fully commits to.
With so many shows on television and mainstream streaming services, and so many of them about superheroes, now is not the time to play it safe. If Marvel’s Runaways wants to survive in this media landscape, and I still desperately want it to, then it needs to become bolder and more confident in its narrative decisions.
In the mean time, Runaways Season 2 is a pretty great superhero binge-watch, and, like the show’s uneven first season, ends on one hell of a cliffhanger.