Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) is 14 years old, and her body is changing. Everyone assumes she’s simply going through the turbulence of puberty, only she’s not suffering your typical preadolescent pains. Molly can crush steel with her bare hands. She can deadlift an SUV. She can fist-fight a dinosaur and win. Yes, an actual dinosaur: It’s her family’s pet, and Molly’s older sister (Ariela Barer), Gert, controls it with her mind. Her sibling’s romantic rival, Karolina (Virginia Gardner), is an alien so pretty she literally sparkles; the Hernandez’s friend, Nico (Lyrica Okano), is a teenage witch who puts Sabrina to shame. These childhood friends are extraordinary, which doesn’t spare them from the problems that plague teenagers everywhere. They’re trying to fit in at school. They want to be seen by their crushes. And above all else: They need to break free from Mom and Dad, or at least stop them from killing their peers.
These are the heroes of Runaways, Hulu’s bid to join the ranks of Marvel’s constantly expanding TV line-up. It’s a story peppered with the usual comic-book-to-screen elements – inhuman abilities, extraterrestrial visitors, fantastic technology, a cabal of supervillains. Unlike the vast majority of the company’s live-action projects, however, the members of this supergroup is all under the age of 18. Your average Avenger is combating evil robots and power-hungry death gods. These kids are battling acne, hormones and parents that just don’t understand them (and who, to be fair, may be trying to kill them). Surprisingly, that makes all the difference.
The intense, complicated emotions of adolescence have always been at the core of Stan Lee & Co.’s characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men, but they are rarely the focus when these heroes jump from multicolored pages to your local multiplex. The first two big-screen iterations of Spider-Man rushed through his high school experience so it get to the action; while the ever-expanding X-franchise has a large cast of teenage mutants, they’re usually stuck in supporting roles. The emotional depths of the metaphor – with growing pains come great responsibility – tends to get short shrift.
But something changed this year. After spending the past 20 years making these fanciful franchises palatable to adults, the company is starting to experiment with seeing the value of younger perspectives and giving teen do-gooders their due. And though Hulu’s toe-dip into the genre isn’t the only game in town, the more you watch the episodes the streaming service is releasing in weekly dribs and drabs, the more it seems to be the most seamless blend of superhero and YA storytelling to date.
Forget Joss Whedon; Runaways chooses John Hughes as its patron saint, merging the social commentary of The Breakfast Club with a plot driven by the tension between being stuck between youth and the adult world. While something like Spider-Man: Homecoming – the closest thing we’ve seen to a big-screen friendly neighborhood webslinger that matches the character’s original conception – gave us one young hero’s perspective, this show gives us six. Each of the series’ main characters fits a different teen archetype – the jock, the nerd, the goth, etc.—but the lines drawn by their high school hierarchy are blurred when the kids discover a terrifying shared secret about their respective moms and dads. In a secret temple underneath a Brentwood mansion, the parents don creepy blood-red robes and sacrifice despondent young people pulled off the street. Their children rightfully freak out when they witness the disturbing ritual. This is adulthood?
If anything had a chance of fusing teen angst and high-stakes superhero battles, it was this property. The original comic by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona set a new standard for tales of younger, “gifted” protagonists by focusing personal relationships rather than forcing the characters into a more traditional, spectacular mold. It also had a strong hook and an inclusive cast: The core group is primarily female, with multiple people of color and LGBTQ characters. When it was first published from 2003 to 2007, Vaughan and Alphona’s series didn’t sell very well in single issues; it was on the verge of cancellation until trade-paperback collections of its runs – ones that had the smaller dimensions of manga and paperback novels – led to the comic being stocked at libraries and bookstores. More importantly, these anthologies were also shelved alongside popular Young-Adult titles – an early example of a superhero publisher tapping into the YA market that was rapidly growing in the 2000s.
The fact that the books had suddenly become so accessible helped a passionate following, and no less than Marvel TV’s head honcho Jeph Loeb noted than when they reached out to fans to learn what they wanted to see on screen, Runaways “was always in the top five [choices], if not top three.” Given the ongoing cries for more diversity from the company’s live-action projects, it’s easy to see why people were hungry for this adaptation. It introduces the MCU’s first explicitly queer lead in Karolina Dean, and improves on the racial representation of the comic by having Molly be Latina rather than white.
Diversity doesn’t mean much if characters lack definition, however, which is why showrunners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage wisely make changes that strengthen the concept’s emotional foundation. A newly added past tragedy fractures the group of childhood friends, and having the characters attend the same school widens those cracks thanks to their conflicting cliques. Schwartz and Savage tackled similar themes in their work on The O.C. and Gossip Girl, and their commitment to the personal side of this superhero story grounds the narrative as it heads into more fantastic territory. Molly’s super strength, presumably inherited, becomes a way to examine an adopted child’s growing interest in her birth parents. Karolina’s concerns about her powers are tied to her struggle with her sexual orientation.Teen friendships, and the way domestic situations affect them, drive the action as much as world-domination-thwarting battles. Pet dinosaurs, evil parents and superpowers become relatable.
Runaways wasn’t the only youth-centric superhero show to debut this season, mind you. Fox dropped The Gifted in October, an X-Men spinoff centered on two mutant teen siblings fleeing intolerance and persecution by going on the lam with their parents. The fact the kids become less essential as the series prioritizes the mutant underground’s fight against a hostile, oppressive government, however, keeps undercutting the YA elements and returning it to overly familiar, well-trod ground. (Still, the show has a compelling sense of urgency, something Runaways could admittedly use more of.) There’s also a Cloak and Dagger series, based on the popular teen duo, headed to Freeform next year and in terms of superhero movies, 2018 promises a take on another X-franchise favorite, The New Mutants, that looks to blend teen drama and supernatural horror a la Stranger Things. The fact that the studio hired The Fault in Our Stars’ director Josh Boone and not a typical horror filmmaker to spearhead this mash-up speaks volumes.
But to date, Schwartz and Savage’s teen soap with super powers show to provide a template for how to do YA superheroes right. By engaging directly with the ecstatic highs and devastating lows of being young, it’s breathing fresh life into a genre that risks becoming little more than an intellectual-property overload of costume, conflict, CGI destruction, rinse, repeat. It’s using what’s currently the single most popular, go-to storytelling mode to explore how young people try on different masks to find their true identities. That’s not just groundbreaking; it’s borderline subversive. And whether or not Runaways is the future of superhero TV, as some have claimed, it’s use of the teenage perspective proves you can change the formula and not kill the host. These kids may not save the world. Their show, however, could save the genre.