Talk to enough people in the superhero industry and you’ll wish you could erase the word grounded from the English lexicon. Movie directors, comic-book writers, TV actors — they’ll all tell you over and over that their goal is to make sure their tales of metahuman derring-do are grounded. Rarely do you get an explanation as to what they mean, but one can infer that they want their characters to feel less like Adam West’s Batman and more like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. More often than not, though, those attempts to ground a story just mean taking the fundamentally implausible setups of superhero-dom and grafting some cheap pathos onto them — a dead girlfriend to avenge, a simplistic trolley-problem quandary, an overwrought love triangle, and the like. Attempts to tie such endeavors down are typically feeble, and they often float away into stupidity despite their shepherds’ best intentions.
Runaways, on the other hand, earns that word. Lord knows it needed to. The latest Marvel Television outing, debuting November 21 on Hulu, could have easily become an exercise in eye-rolling camp. It has more than its share of potentially silly elements: disaffected teens, scheming parents, real-estate pornography, and assorted secrets and lies of the rich and famous. Throw in some uncanny abilities and you’ve got a recipe for cheese. But Runaways creators Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, the brain trust behind Gossip Girl and The O.C., manage to take threads of comic-book grandiosity and prime-time soap drama and weave them into a subtle, clever, and moving work that feels less like Marvel than it does like magical realism. It does so most potently in its pilot, which is an hour-long vision of what the future of superhero TV can look like.
For one thing, it plucks a dynamite conceit from the world of the funnybooks. As Marvel and its competitors burn through their stores of comic-book intellectual property, there are fewer and fewer interesting ideas left to adapt, especially in the minor-league ballpark that is television. Sure, Iron Fist had been punching his way through the Marvel Comics universe for decades, but there’s precious little that’s interesting about his basic gist. Marvel’s lead competitor, DC, has struggled to figure out what to do with Legends of Tomorrow’s vague notion of heroes tripping through time. Fox’s The Gifted has its merits, but it’s yet another outcasts-on-the-run setup like we’ve seen countless times in superhero stories on screens of varying sizes.
Runaways, on the other hand, feels fresh and unique in its narrative foundation. Based on a story launched by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona in 2003, it posits a group of privileged high-schoolers who find out their parents are supervillains and struggle to stop their sinister plotting. Vaughan is a master of the elevator pitch, and his intriguing notion translates perfectly from the page to the screen, albeit with some necessary alterations. (Most notably, the title becomes a bit of a misnomer, since the young’uns don’t actually run away right off the bat in the show.) The pilot brings together the basic ingredients of that novel approach and begins to cook them in a way that makes the mouth water.
There’s no better example of this expertise than in the way superpowers are manifested in that opening hour. Recognizing the budgetary limitations of TV, the show presents the viewer with incredible abilities that are understated in a way that makes their use goose-bump-inducing. In the pilot, only two characters even perform any metahuman feats. First comes the awakening of Molly (Allegra Acosta), the youngest of the core cast. She’s hobbled by a body-crumpling pain believed to be the pangs of a nascent menstrual cycle, but when she goes to her school’s nurse’s office, she grips the metal of the examining table in agony and finds herself strong enough to make indentations with her hands. What she does next is fascinating: Rather than take the typical superhero-origin tack of overwhelmed confusion, the script allows Molly to feel joy. She rushes home and attempts to move a van in her adopted parents’ garage. After some struggle, she accomplishes her goal and collapses in laughter and self-cheering. There is no terror here. If the cramps are a metaphor for pubescence, we see a girl breaking from the superhero trope of fearing adulthood and instead embracing her own strength and growth.
Growth is also at the core of the second instance of superhuman showcasing. Karolina (Virginia Gardner), the sheltered child of the leader of a Scientology pastiche known as The Church of Gibborim, surreptitiously attends a party and is given a pill by a generous druggie. As she attempts to acclimate to her alien surroundings — she’s wholly new to letting herself rebel and relax — she removes a bracelet that her parents have told her to wear at all times. Once it’s removed, her hands and arms start to glow and sparkle. She gazes at them in awe, gently waving the limbs like sticks of ritual incense for a precious moment. Director Brett Morgen puts us in her point of view, then right in front of her wonder-filled eyes. It all only lasts a moment before Karolina abruptly passes out. Only later do we learn that she didn’t even take the pill — something else, something unexplained, was at work. We’re intrigued to learn more in future episodes, as we are with Molly, but just as important is Karolina’s brief, sober window into her own suppressed potential and uniqueness. It’s superpower as unexpected self-actualization, rendered with a remarkable aesthetic grace.
There are few comparisons to be made in superhero TV to those moments of inhuman revelation. Noah Hawley’s Legion is quite good at making its powers cool, but that’s about the end of the list. Even decent shows like The Flash and Jessica Jones struggle to bring any wonder to their superpowers: The former looks cartoonish in its CGI and the latter underplays things to the point where they’re often barely present. Runaways is a case study in how to render the key defining factor in a superhero tale when you’re on a budget.
Wonderment is only one component of the show’s mood-setting aesthetics. It evinces a degree of stylistic ambition that’s sadly lacking in most superhero TV — hell, even in superhero movies, with occasional exceptions like this year’s Logan — and which the genre’s creators need to aspire to if they hope to remain relevant. The term I scribbled down in my notes while watching the pilot was “dreamy dread,” and I stand by it as a description of the look and sound the episode establishes. The music alone is enough to make you feel like you’re having an anxiety attack in Malibu: Languid electronic songs by artists like Pumarosa and Raury undergird montages of teen angst, and the original score by Siddhartha Khosla calls to mind the ominous notes of Twin Peaks’ Angelo Badalamenti played through the sheeny filter of M83. The gauzy color washes and lingering wide shots from cinematographer Ramsey Nickell feel like an Instagram of someone who overdosed while sunbathing. Everything is at once sexy and upsetting.
Just as important to the tone-setting is the humor. Too often, superhero shows either leaven their plots with gags that are aggressively overt (Supergirl) or can’t seem to come up with any jokes at all (The Gifted). The Runaways pilot finds a sweet spot between those two poles, where camp comfortably coexists with earnestness. The episode could have gone the route of Riverdale and become ridiculous — which works great for Riverdale, no hate here — with its wealthy protagonists whining about their ideal lives and its supervillainous grown-ups plotting bad deeds. But when the show indulges in those treats, it never gorges itself. We get a young feminist lead, Gert (Ariela Barer), telling Molly that her desire to make a dance team is “just reinforcing hegemonic masculinity while marginalizing women’s identity,” but Gert herself isn’t a cardboard cutout — her progressivism comes across as bone-deep and lived-in. We get the parents carrying out an evil ceremony while wearing ostentatious red robes, but there’s no winking or lampshading about how silly they look. There are implausible coincidences and stereotypical secondary characters, but the overall thrust of the show is so genuine and passionate that it’s easy to forgive both.
That thrust hits us in the gut because, most important, the pilot is held together by an emotional center of gravity. Even before they discover that their parents are bad guys, the teens are brought together by something entirely plausible and relatable: grief. They all used to hang out in their younger days, but they’re now short one member. One of their cohort, a girl named Amy, died some years before, and the sense of loss they all feel about her passing permeates the episode. Though they all muddle through life, none of them has quite figured out how to cope with her death. One kid plays a video game they both liked and refuses to let anyone else take Amy’s place at the controls. Another gets mad when someone attempts to sit in a chair she used to occupy. The episode’s most affecting scene features Amy’s newly gothed-out sister Nico (Lyrica Okano) attempting to summon her spirit in a solo bonfire séance on the beach. Nico has no superpowers, only a desperate desire to be whole again. Of course, that’s not nearly enough to wake the dead, and when she falls to her knees to weep, our hearts sink with her.
That kind of lived emotional reality, conveyed with a keen eye and ear for style, is what makes this hour of filmmaking beat the low expectations of superhero TV. The Runaways pilot has its flaws, for sure (there’s a clunky attempt to depict an attempted rape, for example, and a couple of cringe-inducing Latino caricatures pop up in the opening scene), but they largely melt away in the overall experience. If superhero TV is going to thrive, it doesn’t just need to blend in other genres the way Runaways does with teen soap (though that blending is important) — it needs to learn how to do so in aesthetically novel ways while finding solid emotional beats and toying with tropes. There’s a place for outright ridiculousness in superhero storytelling, but anyone who wants to convince us that their superpeople have clay feet would do well to study what these kids are up to.