After a decade’s worth of films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally decided to start telling more diverse stories, featuring characters that go beyond its initial stable of white, male leads. Black Panther and Captain Marvel broke new ground in terms of black and female representation in the MCU, and word on the street is that upcoming film Marvel’s Eternals will give us its first LGBT hero. But the thing is… Marvel’s television corner of the universe has been busy telling stories about queer heroes since well before the film one ever even acknowledged LGBT characters exist. (Looking at you, awkward Joe Russo cameo in Avengers: Endgame.)
A lot of people just didn’t notice because they were about a pair of teenage girls, a demographic that whose stories and interests tend to be taken less seriously than almost any other large swatch of the population.
On its surface, Marvel’s Runaways is a show about a diverse group of teens battling their wannabe supervillain parents with a variety of bizarre powers that include everything from witchcraft to a telepathic dinosaur. But, at its heart, Runaways is really a coming-of-age story, one in which its young leads are constantly wrestling with their own identities—who they are and who they want to become—even as they’re busy working to save the world. Using superpowers, magical abilities or other preternatural gifts as a metaphor for growing up or accepting one’s true self isn’t exactly new for a TV series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was showing us the hellish nature of high school back in the 1990s, and plenty of series have followed in her footsteps.
So what is significant about Runaways? It takes the teen stories you thought you knew – the ones where an attractive jock pairs off with the perfect blonde girl in the series’ first episode and instantly becomes endgame – and flips them on their heads. Here, that traditionally heteronormative teen power couple actually turns out to be a vehicle for said blonde girl to realize her romantic feelings for her female best friend, for that relationship to subsequently evolve into the emotional center of the show. These kinds of subversions aren’t just important reflections of the real world that mean a great deal to those who see themselves in Nico and Karolina, but, also, after decades of heteronormative storytelling, a fresh narrative for all of us.
It’s honestly hard to overstate how important the love story between Karolina Dean and Nico Minoru is to Runaways the series, or to the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. They’re not just Marvel’s first legitimate onscreen queer couple, they’re also the MCU’s first LGBT leads. Both Nico and Karolina were essential, as individual characters, to the show that is Runaways long before it ever hinted at anything romantic between them and, though much of Season 1 explores their acceptance of their respective sexualities, it’s not like those stories happen in a vacuum, which is all too common for this kind of representation on screen.
Neither character is defined solely by their sexual orientation. (Karolina’s a lesbian, while Nico is bisexual, for the record.) Nor do they exist to simply tick off a representation box. Both are distinct individuals in their own rights—layered, complicated women whose individual arcs drive story outside their relationship to one another. Karolina, it turns out, is a half-human/half-alien hybrid, and her struggles to better understand her own identity go well beyond her sexuality. Nico is still grieving the death of her sister, and spends most of the series battling her own inner darkness—a story that takes a literal turn in Season 3. But through it all, “Deanoru’s” connection to one another never dims, nor is it played as anything other than the series’ endgame relationship, even when the two inevitably hit rough patches.
Which they frequently do. No matter their sexuality, Nico and Karolina are still a pair of teenagers trying to figure out how to be together under increasingly adult circumstances that involve living together and trying to feed themselves. They’re not perfect, and their relationship isn’t always easy. They lie to one another. They act selfishly and get jealous. They have petty arguments and say hurtful things. But they also apologize and make up and promise to try to do better by one another in the days and weeks ahead. Because that’s what being in a relationship means.
In short: Karolina and Nico are simply two people in love with one another. They’re not Runaways’ designated queer couple who only appear during very special episodes or Pride month tributes. Nor is their relationship put on some kind of pedestal—they’re a gay couple who are treated just the same as any straight one, complete with triumphs and problems. And that matters.
It matters because it’s precisely the kind of thing we hardly ever see on TV, let alone on a Marvel show.
According to GLAAD’s annual report, 10% of regular characters on primetime television in 2019 are LGBT. This represents the highest percentage the group has recorded in the fifteen years they’ve been researching the topic, yet far too many series still use queer characters as sidekicks at best and filler at worst. Superhero shows are doing better than many in terms of representation—particularly The CW’s Arrowverse, which boasts gay, trans, and bisexual characters on its various series. We can’t say the same for Marvel, however, which only recently decided to start making feature films starring people other than white guys named Chris,, and whose TV landscape is so sparsely populated with queer characters that Jeri Hogarth’s wife on Jessica Jones is basically the best it’s got.
What Runaways has realized—and more of Marvel’s properties should emulate—is that telling queer stories only makes its canvas richer and more interesting than it would be otherwise. When traditional heterosexual couples and stories aren’t automatically assumed as the default, anything feels possible. Suddenly, Runaways isn’t just telling the story of a queer couple, it’s also about a nerdy feminist girl with anxiety who lands the hot jock, who turns out to be a secret engineering whiz. Embracing diversity—in all its forms—naturally leads to better stories. On a different series, Karolina and Chase are indeed the series’ on-again, off-again power couple that we’ve seen a dozen times before. And that show wouldn’t be nearly as good as this one.
It’s true that Runaways hasn’t always given the Deanoru relationship the development it deserves. Nico and Karolina rocket from a kiss in a hallway during the Season 1 finale to saying the L- word and sharing a bedroom in the space of maybe two episodes. Should we have gotten the chance to see their relationship develop a bit further once their attraction to one another was acknowledged? Probably. Yet, despite their clunkier-than-most-of-us-would-have-liked origins, Karolina and Nico have grown together as a couple in ways we don’t see elsewhere on the show, even in the adult relationships. The uneven pacing of Deanoru is not specific to this relationship, but a weakness of this show across the board.
The pair remain very firmly together throughout Season 3, even when they’re in obvious conflict over things like Nico’s obsession with Morgan’s coven and her insistence on returning to the Dark Dimension. And with Gert and Chase officially on a break for most of the final season, Deanoru is positioned more clearly than ever as Runaways’ primary romance.No matter the season or setting, these two are presented as utterly necessary to each other. The idea of light balancing dark, and vice versa, isn’t new, of course. But it’s reinforced repeatedly on Runaways’ third season from Nico and Karolina’s abilities working in tandem together, to the appearance of Cloak and Dagger’s Tandy and Tyrone, another dark and light pair who also belong together romantically.
When Karolina is trapped in an alien AI simulation, it’s Nico who is determined to rescue her – so much so that she’ll make a deal with a dark sorceress to do so. They get not one, but two dream sequence weddings, thanks to Jonah’s magical algorithmic prison and Tandy Bowen’s powers, and both are as gorgeous and emotional as any of us could have wanted. Even during the series finale, which takes place in a future that is ultimately erased, Nico and Karolina find their way back together after a multi-year separation, even promising to do so again as their timeline vanishes.
Just a few short years ago, seeing this kind of romantic pairing in any MCU property would have been unthinkable. (In fact, in the original comic, Nico rejects Karolina’s advances and the two never get together at all.) But if Runaways has proven anything, it’s that risky storytelling pays off, and plots with diverse characters can – and should – be just as romantic and thrilling as anything else in this universe. Now, if only the rest of Marvel’s properties could catch up.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Paste Magazine, Collider, IGN, SyFyWire and elsewhere. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or the CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.