Review: Runaways

“It’s too bad that the writing can’t keep up with the production design.”

Nowadays every subgenre of media is so seemingly segregated, segmented and catered to that a piece of pop culture ephemera that manages to transcend its particular target audience is a truly rare phenomenon. Such was the case of early to mid 2000’s Marvel comics series Runaways. Born of a desire to tap into both the then-booming Manga and Young Adult reading markets (and failing miserably at both, at least initially), visionary writer Brian K. Vaughan elevated the material beyond its purely mercenary origins with a clever concept deftly executed, making what many expected to be a passable “kid’s book” engrossing and heartbreaking no matter how much of a jaded comics reader you were.

Unfortunately Hulu’s 10 episode TV adaptation of the series isn’t quite that masterfully crafted. Runaways, for the uninitiated, centered on a group of LA teenagers who discover that their parents are actually a shadowy cadre of Lovecraftian elder god worshipping, human sacrificing super villain / gangster types who controlled all of the vice in the Marvel Universe’s West Coast with an iron fist (not THAT Iron Fist), keeping guys like the Kingpin, Hammerhead and Silvermane in New York (didn’t ya know). Naturally, the children of super villains have inherited all kinds of cool abilities, being mutants and aliens, gadget laden Tony Stark style techno-geniuses and having pet dinosaurs and such, and the kids used said tools to strike back against their parents, eventually leading to a satisfying and complete victory, though not without some gut wrenching Joss Whedon-style casualties.

Making no effort toward that sort of narrative finality, even eventually, seems to be TV Runaways’ biggest problem. It’s a shame because what many might’ve thought to be the biggest stumbling block towards adaptation, the cast, is surprisingly there. Casting, acting, motivation, believability, these kids do a fantastic job across the board. Even Chase (Gregg Sulkin), the character most altered from the source material (from lovable, goofy stoner type to jock douchebag deluxe) eventually comes around to be as almost painfully likable (if you know where this story is probably going) as everyone else, leaving the series better than we found it with a fully formed cast ready to, well, run away.

Using a clever mix of practical and CG effects, even the team’s resident Deinonychus “Old Lace” looks fantastic. It’s too bad that the writing can’t keep up with the production design.
 
So what do these first 10 episodes of Runaways do, exactly? Well, spend a whole hell of a lot more time with the team’s parents, that’s for sure, with predictably mixed results despite genre ringers like James Marsters and Kevin Weisman amongst their number. They fall clearly into TV/Film villain tropes with little motivation for having formed their “Pride”, especially given the simplified nature of the power behind their influence. Taking a page out of The Strain’s book with it’s brightly lit Kubrickian apartments full of resurrected evil beings who secretly pull all the strings (dropping the Lovecraft angle entirely), The Pride’s human sacrifices now serve to strengthen a being simply known as “Jonah”, the Gibborim reimagined as a Scientology-esque cult and he at their mysterious, gooey center.

The problem with this “Jonah” (played by basic cable lifer Julian McMahon, last seen in a Marvel adaptation stinking up the joint something awful as Doctor Doom in the early aughts Fantastic Four movies) is that, aside from some allusion to he and Karolina sharing in alien origins (complete with the Powerman 5000 video grade special effects to prove it in their penultimate episode confrontation), he doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond being the macguffin of a boring, typical central villain that the comics were always too clever to need, with his mustache twirling one dimensionality possibly, eventually absolving the team’s parents from their involvement, which, again, has yet to be clearly laid out. The series takes The Walking Dead approach and stretches the narrative light first few issues of a comic series into an entire first season of TV that does little but lay out its main premise, one that anyone even marginally interested in checking out the series is probably already at least tangentially familiar with. And doing so. Very. Slowly.

So while there may be a bright future for Hulu’s Runaways (just as The Walking Dead eventually peaked after a shaky start), it’s first 10 episodes shouldn’t be considered appointment viewing for anyone, no matter how deeply they still hold the transcendent source material in their hearts.

Kevin Hawkey is the co-founder, head writer and editor of Riot-Nerd. He enjoys Fighting Games, Metal, Marvel, Horror and all the weird shit in between. A lifelong Philadelphian just as comfortable in a circle pit at Underground Arts as he is drooling over the new Hot Toys figures at Brave New Worlds, Kevin’s idiosyncratic sensibility gives this site it’s unique dichotomy between “riot” and “nerd”.
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