One of the great challenges for any comic book adaptation is walking the balance between respecting the source material and making the new film/show its own adaptation. Go too far one way and the fan base will go rabid over how much their favorite characters have been rewritten and distorted. Go the other way and one struggles to understand why they shouldn’t just read the comic that was retread on the screen. The key for filmmakers is to provide something that rings true with the spirit of the source material while updating in ways that work better visually. Runaways Episode One, “Reunion,” may be the greatest example of that perfect balance to every come from Marvel television.
First of all, Runaways is pitch perfect on its casting. From the earliest promotional images, it was clear that fidelity to the look of the original comic was important for the producers, even down to the blocking of the photos. Each of the kids looks the part and the acting in general matches expectations. Of particular note are Virginia Gardner and Greg Sulkin who inherit characters who present as a vapid popular girl and a dumb jock. Both actors manage to humanize those stock characters and the audience sympathizes with them because of it. It probably helps that everyone involved know the arcs coming for the characters, based on the source material. The kids’ dialogue is witty and well-timed. In the era of Stranger Things, it’s easy to forget what a gamble adolescent actors can be. None of these kids appears to be a stinker.
At this point, it is probably best to talk about the shifts the show made to the plot. One major change is to move Karolina’s family from being actors to leading a church/cult that bears a striking similarity to Scientology. The change works on Runaways for so many reasons. One, it seems it will directly connect into later larger points in a brilliant way. Two, the family now is a little more menacing and serious than if they were merely another Kardashians or Bradgelina tabloid fodder family. There is just more menace in those leading a cult than folks whose biggest problem is the paparazzi. Three, the shift shows the willingness of this show to go beyond safe, cliche teenage stories. When Brian K. Vaughn first wrote Runaways for Marvel, he offered characters who dealt with real problems. In particular, his willingness to tackle sexual identity issues in teens was a bold move fifteen years ago. (The sudden shift in public opinion on matters like marriage equality can obscure to modern minds how big a deal that would have been at the turn of the century.) This show continues in this vein, tackling things like date rape, cults, and domestic abuse in this first episode. Such topics are a far cry from “will she go to the prom with me?” kind of antics the show could fall into, though there are still plenty of romantic subplots to unfurl.
Other major shifts happen around the character of Molly Hernandez. The shift from a Caucasian character to a Hispanic one seems to be a simple attempt to add diversity, as well as more accurately depict the world of Los Angeles. She’s also older, probably due to the difficulty working with child actors and their attendant filming rules. (Also, through the comics Molly’s age seems to fluctuate with the needs of the situation.) More significant in the pilot is the removal of her parent and the hints toward tying her powers to the Yorkes’ experiments. This handily skips past a problem for Marvel (they can’t use “mutant” legally), but also does something to fix a comic issue. A cast of six main characters plus twelve parents was just unruly. Eventually, some of the parents started to blur together as the comics unfolded. Juggling so many cast members on TV would have been a major challenge. So streamlining things is a brilliant move. Walking away most all of the parents had a strong characterization beat in my mind, with the exception of maybe Karolina’s dad or Chase’s mom.
Finally, a second Minoru daughter is in the mix, which adds a strong emotional punch to Runaways. One of the challenges to the narrative is how to create a situation in which these characters have some chemistry but also have some tension. They need to not like each other initially but also desire to be together as a group. This tension was a little forced in the comics (“mom and dad made me hang out with you”) but is a little more natural when a tragic history plays out. One would assume that this will also play into the larger story of the plot as well.
Speaking of the larger plot, this episode of Runaways hints at so many things that make a second episode desireable. The weird white room with the frozen person on the table is obviously intriguing. How does this connect with the ceremony in the basement? Is there more to Molly’s parents’ disappearance? The willingness to play with the source material makes these questions open questions for the long-time fan. When will we see Karolina show off her full powerset? Can we get another view of Old Lace? What experiments are the Yorkes doing and how do they play into Molly’s powers? So many threads are laid down to follow, but they seem all placed intentionally. One can see how the pieces working together, albeit in a hazy manner.
Altogether, these various elements come together to create an intriguing pilot. The characters are undoubtedly the characters fans know and love. The overall trajectory is familiar. At various points, however, the writers offer little divergences that keep the audience on their toes. The end result is a show that is both the same fun of the comics while also feeling like a new adventure. Runaways premiere episode holds as much potential as any Marvel pilot.
Final Verdict: 5 out of 5 Basement Ritual Murders
- James Marsters is already headed toward legendary MCU villain status. He just oozes evil in the most domestic way. Whenever he speaks with Chase your blood boils with anger and skin crawls with disgust. Much more of him is necessary!
- VFX work seems to be pretty good. The first episode provides just enough Old Lace but time will tell how the puppet looks over time. Also, Karolina’s look seems very comic accurate. Will it hold up?
- The overall California vibe is strong with the show. No MCU property since the Netflix shows has been so clearly tied to the aesthetic of a setting.
- There is so much music in this episode and it is all great. Instead of going for big time (expensive) songs, there is a great mix of lesser-known music that provides a great prevailing vibe over the whole show.