If Marvel wasn’t in the actual title, it would be easy to assume that Marvel’s Runaways isn’t a superhero show. The series has avoided references to other Marvel properties so far, and the superhero elements overlap with sci-fi and fantasy so heavily that the story is essentially a genre mash-up. Through its first four episodes, Runaways has been a teen drama where extraordinary things happen, but “Kingdom” reveals what the show looks like when it channels a superhero spirit.
Halfway through the episode, the six teens use their new abilities and tools to save Alex from his kidnapper. But it’s an underwhelming breakthrough for the nascent team: With the exception of one cool moment where Nico creates a shield that stops bullets, the direction for this fight is very bland. The staging is static, with characters standing in one place and doing their special thing, whether it’s Molly lifting an SUV, Karolina unleashing her rainbow self, or Nico casting a spell. Chase runs in toward the end, stands in place, and shoots energy blasts from his Fistigons. The short brawl between Molly and Old Lace last week was much more exciting, and unfortunately, this moment of triumph in “Kingdom” is diminished because of its lackluster action.
The scenes before and after the showdown are much stronger, spotlighting how heightened circumstances affect the group. Nico, Karolina, Gert, and Molly don’t know what to do when Alex is kidnapped, but they know that they can’t turn to the police or their parents, so they have to take matters into their own hands. They’re in over their heads, obviously, and the script mines a lot of humor from their different reactions to the situation, particularly from the contrast of Gert’s anxiety with Molly’s glee. A little moment like Gert yelling for Karolina to check her blind spot grounds the story in a recognizable teenage experience, and that carries over to the scene where the group is talking about how awesome it was to save the day. There’s a genuine sense of exhilaration as they process the event, but they don’t have much time to catch their breath because they need to stop their parents from killing another young person.
The second episode was a repeat of the pilot from the parents’ perspective, and at times, “Kingdom” feels like those two episodes combined to create a super-rehash. The first half gives us something different as it builds to the team’s first battle, but the second half finds the Pride yet again preparing another sacrifice — but this time, the kids rush to prevent it. These aren’t the same exact story beats, but they’re close enough that it feels like we’ve already been here before, especially when the kids continue to ask questions about their parents’ motivations rather than getting the hell out of there. They’re parents have killed two people in a few days! It’s time to just run away.
“Kingdom” focuses heavily on the father-son dynamics, too: Victor actually has some positive interactions with his son when they work on the handheld weapons that Chase designed, and the sins of Geoffrey’s past continue to haunt him when his old friend Darius kidnaps Alex. The conflict between Geoffrey and Darius felt artificial when it was introduced in “Rewind,” and that doesn’t change in this episode. A flashback to the two of them in prison attempts to bring some extra weight to their relationship, but the script doesn’t sufficiently unpack all of the big developments that go down in those six minutes. We get the introduction of a new character in Jonah (Julian McMahon), a mysterious developer who wants to buy property that Geoffrey inherited from his late uncle, and a very quick conversation where Geoffrey convinces Darius to stay in prison longer by confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. Darius’s Nana B. is constantly brought up as a shared link between the two of them, but because she’s never shown on screen, she comes across as a shortcut to strengthen an otherwise flimsy bond.
It’s still nice to see Runaways bring in social commentary by looking at how class plays into Darius and Geoffrey’s conflict, while the interactions between Alex and Andre show how Alex’s opinions of other people are clouded by his privilege. Andre is someone shaped by his environment, much like Alex; just because he’s had to turn to gang life to survive doesn’t mean that he’s stupid. He can be just as good with tech as a rich kid from Brentwood, and Alex immediately connects with him because they have a shared passion and flawed father figures. That doesn’t stop Alex from shooting Andre to save Geoffrey, but that does make him feel really guilty when his actions lead to Andre becoming Pride’s newest sacrifice. This takes a major toll on Alex’s relationship with his father, and he’s now completely disenchanted with the man he used to consider his best friend.
Meanwhile, Runaways is taking advantage of James Marsters’s ability to bring out the affectionate side of asshole characters, and the scenes of Victor working with Chase put that dynamic in a whole new light. Now that he sees Chase’s intellect, Victor is eager to work with him and be a supportive parent. Being in the lab with his son reminds Victor of the thrill of creation he felt before all of his fame, and having these moments of joy makes him regret the way he’s treated Chase in the past. The end of the episode reveals why Victor has had such a change of heart: He has a brain tumor, and he doesn’t have much more time to spend with his son.
Victor won’t be around for the future, but maybe he can get a glimpse of it. He tinkers with a TV that can pick up radio broadcasts from the future, and while it doesn’t initially work, it eventually catches a signal showing a city — presumably Los Angeles — in a state of total collapse. The design for Stein’s future TV has a retro charm, and it looks like something that might have shown up in an episode of The Twilight Zone. On the down side, it’s pretty hard to take this plot line seriously.
One of the best changes that series co-creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage made is Karolina’s connection to the church, which intensifies her reaction to Pride while deepening the internal conflict regarding her sexual orientation. The show hasn’t been too aggressive in showing her attraction to women, merely through moments — like Karolina watching two girls kiss at a party — that could be interpreted as a church girl thunderstruck by life outside of her religion. But that attraction becomes clear in Karolina’s interactions with Nico in “Kingdom,” starting with a hug that has Karolina grabbing a little more passionately than a purely platonic friend. She can’t hide her sadness when she later walks in on Nico and Alex making out, and it’s the final push that sends Karolina over the edge.
Of the kids, Karolina is having the most extreme response to the revelation about her parents because it shatters her faith in the institution that has always been part of her life. She believed her parents were good, she believed her religion was good, and now she’s finding out that was all a lie. We don’t know how the Church of Gibborim views homosexuality, but we can assume that it’s not celebrated, given that Karolina isn’t open about her sexual orientation. She’s been keeping so much bottled up to prove that she’s the perfect daughter and believer, and it all breaks free in a moment of explosive rage that has Karolina taking out her frustrations on her room. She’s physically destroying the remnants of her old life, and while it hurts now, she’s giving herself the opportunity to build something new from the wreckage.
Of course, there’s one key character missing from the episode’s big fight, and those shots of the teens standing together would be even better if there were a dinosaur with them. Old Lace does appear for the episode’s best scene, one that concisely sums up the complicated family dynamics at the core of this series. Sitting in Old Lace’s habitat, Molly asks, “Why would our parents do all these horrible things?” Gert is stroking the pet that she only has because of her parents, but she still responds, “I guess ‘cause they’re horrible people.” There’s a sad acknowledgment that their parents must be rotten at their cores if they’re willing to go along with Pride’s murder ritual, but it’s softened by the presence of Old Lace, indicating that rotten people can still be responsible for good things. That doesn’t absolve them, but it does take away a bit of the sting of losing respect for someone after seeing their true colors.