“Marvel’s Runaways catapults us into the future, where demographics match those of reality and you can be attracted to whoever the F you want.”
Title: Marvel’s Runaways
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Original comic written by Brian K. Vaughan 👨🏼🇺🇸 and drawn by Adrian Alphona 👨🏽🇨🇦, TV show by Stephanie Savage 👩🏼🇨🇦 and Josh Schwartz 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Mike Vukadinovich 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), Quinton Peeples 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Adrian Alphona 👨🏽🇨🇦 (2 eps), Rodney Barnes 👨🏾🇺🇸 (2 eps), and various (3 ♂ and 2 ♀)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Marvel’s Runaways is a slow burn. Plot points methodically string together, as if following a manual. Combined with a lo-fi soundtrack that can awkwardly bump against peppy pop songs, an overwhelming sense of process mars an otherwise intriguing first season to Hulu’s first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Luckily, that’s the only criticism I can muster for the series. Where Runaways shines is in its handling of teen dramas. Is that any surprise, considering the pedigree of its showrunners who boast Gossip Girl and The O.C. under their belts?
Following six teenagers who could each have come straight from a John Hughes movie, we begin with a smattering of archetypes: the goth, the jock, the beauty queen, the nerd, the social activist, and the younger sibling. Luckily, writers waste no time before dismantling these stereotypes, chipping away at each character of its robust cast, episode after episode, to reveal more complex cores. Meanwhile, a narrative backbone of the mystery that surrounds the villains—who also happen to be the parents of our young protagonists—adequately supports the season.
In short, Runaways knows its value lies in its diverse storytelling, which has been largely well cast and well acted. This simple fact of having fresh faces takes the series a long, long way.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Comic book franchises are, on the whole, abysmal when it comes to women. Without even describing how problematic existing female characters are in DC and Marvel universes, simply look at sheer inequality by numbers:
If only it was as simple as blaming 1950s source material! Unfortunately, gender inequalities exist in this genre to this day. For example, Vanity Fair’s series of cover images, released last month to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of MCU, blatantly tokenizes women and erases of women of color.
So how does this relate to Runaways? I wanted to make the visual contrast between a long history of misogyny in the superhero genre to show just how revolutionary Hulu’s Runaways is.
Not only is the gender balance great, it's also emblematic of deeper feminism. While Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz) is technically the group leader, his storyline sees no more screen time or depth in comparison to the others. The women of Runaways are complex and varied, with different ethnicities and sexualities and income levels. They have relationships with each other and while they do pine over boys at times, it’s done so in a believable way that makes me recall my own high school experiences, obsessive yearnings and all.
Runaways proves that you can play with 1980s-style fixtures without tokenizing female characters. Better yet, they make it look easy.
The entire premise of this story rests on having an inclusive cast, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get it right. (See: SyFy’s Dark Matter or Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit.) Luckily, the showrunners get things breathlessly, fantastically right.
Each and every superhero is complex and free from stereotypes. While this could potentially fall into a simplistic worldview—hey, let’s renounce stereotypes by going in the opposite direction!—the way it’s portrayed is nuanced due to its inclusion of multiple characters within the same ethnic groups.
Characters of color fall into the three largest ethnic minorities in the United States:
- Latinx - Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) is the adopted daughter of two soft-hearted, hippie scientists. Her parents have passed away but between Molly and her older, also-adopted sister Gert Yorkes—whose actress Ariela Barer is mixed-race but who identifies most closely with her Mexican heritage—their wonderful sisterhood is a positive portrayal of two Latina characters. Later in the season, we get to see Molly reunite with her aunt and their fluent conversations in Spanish are a nice touch that add to their characters’ authenticity.
- Black - Alex, his parents, and various gang members of Los Angeles display a cross-section of personalities and income levels. Alex’s father Geoffrey (Ryan Sands) is a warm, loving father, yet Runaways doesn’t shy away from the very real problem of incarceration as his rougher upbringing eventually lands him some jail time. Geoffrey’s storyline shows the strains his absence put on his wife, who is an educated, high-powered lawyer forced to raise a sensitive son on her own. The way Geoffrey navigates between the machismo of street gang politics and the tenderness of familial love is seamless and impressively acted.
- Asian - Instead of having Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano) be the token Asian American in the series, her parents each have unique personalities and storylines. Even her deceased sister gets some flashback scenes, which further renders a multilayered vision of what it means to be Asian in Los Angeles—or Japanese American, in the case of the Minorus. Meanwhile, in a truly above-and-beyond decision, Nico and her parents are each played by actors of Japanese descent. In a media landscape that shuffles Asian talent like a stack of cards—and honestly, I don’t even mind so long as they look within the realm of believability and their storylines don’t center on cultural heritage—choosing actors whose ethnicity matches their roles made me feel seen. It’s a bone-deep sense of validation that can’t be described.
In a final thought, all characters are equally viable as romantic partners. This seems like an easy ask, but plenty of shows continue to miss the mark, either demoting black men into playing wingman to white leads, desexualizing Asian males, or hypersexualizing Latinas, Latinos, and Asian women. We see none of these tropes play out in Runaways.
Fully one-third of the Runaways are LGBTQ. Karolina Dean, played by Virginia Gardner, is lesbian and Nico is bisexual. However, it feels clinical to categorize them as such. Both women simply play teenagers who are still coming to terms with whom they’re attracted. The strictures of gender fall easily to the wayside, as they should.
The budding interest between Karolina and Nico is eminently shippable, as excited parties in the LGBTQ community can attest to. And if the comic books are any indication, we’ll get to see more LGBTQ developments and more characters in upcoming episodes.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.75/5
Hulu’s Runaways lives up to its lofty ideals of diversity and inclusion. In fact, it skyrockets right past and catapults us into the future, where demographics match those of reality and you can be attracted to whoever the F you want. Is there room for more inclusion? Sure. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, the disabled, or those with different body sizes would all lend yet more texture to this universe. But as it stands, this is easily the most intersectional comic book adaptation I’ve seen yet.
Thank goodness Hulu sees its value too, so we can all rest easy for the moment and eagerly await the next installment of this series.