Season one of Runaways, Marvel’s series on Hulu about teens with superpowers and their villainous parents, was one long trip to the fireworks factory, waiting until the final episode to live up to its title and send the kids on the lam. With season two, our heroes are in the wind, evading capture in Los Angeles, and the story is all the better for it.
Quality has generally improved on this series. The freshman season fell victim to the Marvel Netflix curse, spending much too long stretching out its tale of a group of former high school friends banding together after discovering their parents were the heads of an evil society that murdered children in order to acquire wealth and power. This tap-dancing gets largely rectified in these new episodes, with the major plotline carried over from season one resolved just beyond the halfway point. There’s some wheel spinning in the latter part of it, but it’s made up for with more exciting set pieces, knottier moral complexity in the issues addressed, and a freer sense of storytelling that isn’t restrained by the need to keep everyone in a kind of stasis until the end of the season. Big things are happening, and even if they’re not all of equal interest, it’s enough to keep Runaways engaging while its young protagonists (and older antagonists) try to attain a measure of stability in their chaotic lives.
Unfortunately, the lack of stability in their lives is mirrored by a lack of consistency in characterization. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that teenagers themselves are fickle creatures, true; they often try on different identities and moods in the process of growing up and discovering themselves. And life-changing drama is standard operating procedure for adolescents, where even the smallest issue of grooming or gossip potentially triggers a new emotional crisis. But there’s a difference between honest turbulence and manufactured drama, and Runaways doesn’t always succeed in capturing the former.
The narrative too often forces its characters into abrupt shifts of personality for the sake of generating tension. Call it the Glee problem: rather than having complicated but essentially stable characters react to the ever-changing heightened reality of the show, the teenagers in Runaways appear to change their minds as story demands. They shift personalities and opinions to fit the narrative, instead of the other way around. Things are often moving too fast for these forced changes to register in the moment, which is a testament to the show’s improved ability to juggle its various subplots while retaining forward momentum. But from one episode to the next, the inconsistencies become unavoidable, and eventually bleed into the narrative in awkward ways. A character will seek advice about reaching out to their significant other, only to completely cast off their convictions two scenes later and do the opposite. One teen makes a huge deal of setting aside the use of their powers, only to take them up again the very next episode with little having changed to justify it.
Part of the problem is simply the result of the multi-pronged story being told. The sinister Jonah is still trying to get at whatever’s down in that giant hole in the ground, and despite the parents of Pride being virtually unanimous in their plans to kill their former benefactor, his powers mean they’re still in theoretical alignment with him, lest he take his anger out on their kids. The children of the Pride—Nico, Alex, Karolina, Chase, Gert, and Molly—begin the season literally on the street, trying to figure out basic needs like food and shelter. (“Man, we suck at being runaways,” Nico observes, and she’s not wrong.) By episode’s end, they’ll have the shelter thing covered, with a dark but appealing new location to serve as home base while they try to hide, the very-public murder charges against them translating into a citywide manhunt. Chase’s dad, Victor Stein, is in a kind of stasis while he recovers from being shot by his wife, though Jonah’s powers allow Victor’s mind to continue working to help the man we now know is Karolina’s real father. Tangled subplots continue with the Church of Gibborim, Geoff Wilder’s past (and former best friend Darius) continuing to plague him, and the ongoing delight that is Old Lace, Gert’s psychically linked dinosaur.
The show is often at its best when barreling forward, and leaving aside the moody relationship theatrics. The relationships between Gert and Chase, as well as Nico and Karolina, often have a ginned-up, soap opera vibe to them, and while it sometimes results in strong and affecting moments, they’re just as likely to feel like shoehorned-in filler. The parents often have better dialogue, actually, which only serves to highlight when weaker material comes out of the kids’ mouths. The show’s humor is still strong but too infrequent (Jake Fogelnest, who penned the fifth episode, delivers one of the strongest installments outside of the midseason showdown), as the series toggles between feeling like it needs to be “serious” and just letting itself be a fun and enjoyable teen-superhero show. Comic relief like the Yorkes and Molly are the clear highlights of the season, by dint of being reliably entertaining to watch.
Action-wise, Runaways has the common affliction of injudicious use of slow-motion, with a concurrent tendency to sabotage some of the most intense moments with clunky editing. One of the season’s big set pieces ends up being undercut by a tension-sapping use of cross-cutting between past and present to accompany slo-mo that just starts to feel tiresome rather than pushing the grandiosity of the sequence. Which is too bad, because the show has a self-aware sense of joy when it just leans into the larger-than-life specifics of all the individual powers, such as Chase’s uneven mastery of his fistigons, or Karolina playing around with her light-show abilities.
Marvel’s Runaways finds a stronger through-line in its sophomore year, but it needs to better balance the endless brooding with levity. There’s a later scene with Allegra Acosta’s Molly (often a scene-stealer thanks to the impulsive enthusiasm her character brings to the proceedings) being interrogated by a thug who doesn’t realize the powers imbued in this sassy girl, and it’s so unreservedly fun to watch that you wonder why the series doesn’t take better advantage of the juxtaposition of its seemingly typical kids with their extraordinary abilities to generate more scenes like it. Juggling the lightness and the dark is tough to do, and here it tips too far toward the latter thanks to the clumsy characterizations, to the point that a late season shopping montage feels like a jarring intrusion by a different show altogether. The kids have already escaped their families—give them a little more rambunctious energy and wit with which to celebrate it.