When the cast and crew of the upcoming Hulu and Marvel Television collaboration, Runaways, appeared on the NYCC stage last night, it seemed like a regular panel. Producers Josh Schwartz (The O.C., Chuck) and Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, the upcoming Dynasty reboot) played it coy on and cast members Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Gregg Sulkin, Virginia Gardner, Ariela Barer and Allegra Acosta were just excited to be at their first Con.
However, when it came time to watch clips of the series, moderator and Marvel Television Head, Jeph Loeb revealed they would screen the full pilot instead.
For those unfamiliar with the comic created by Brian K. Vaughan (who did a video introduction before the screening) and Adrian Alphona, the titular Runaways are a group young superheroes who team up to defeat their parents after learning they’re part of an evil organization called “Pride.”
However, the pilot begins well before that revelation and well before the kids understand their powers. We find them in high school, their friendship fractured after the recent death of one of their group. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Schwartz and Savage’s involvement, teen angst drives the story and much of it is well done.
While we get a few glimpses of the superhero shenanigans to come, it all quite cleverly dovetails with the normal growing pains of being a teenager. For instance, Molly Hernandez (Acosta) thinks her cramps are related to her period until she accidentally crushes metal with her bare hands. Good girl, Karolina Dean (Gardner), discovers more than just the taste of freedom after rebelling against her cult-leader mother. And rich douchebag Chase Stein (Sulkin, who drew gasps from the audience when he spoke in his real British accent post-screening) is learning to not be like his father (Buffy‘s James Marsters, who drew cheers).
Indeed, much of the kids’ moodiness is in response to their parents and while some if it is groundwork for the eventual reveal, it also just feels like an accurate depiction of the way teenagers often feel: everything they do is a reaction to their parents’ love. Karolina rebels against too much love while Chase is desperate to earn it.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much from the adults in the first episode, though Schwartz teased that the second episode will be told from their perspective. However, while the focus is on the kids, the tone is actually pretty adult.
Pilot director Brett Morgen (who filmed the panel from the audience) gives the series an almost indie feel by using lots of handheld cameras and natural lighting. There’s a grit there, but there’s also gloss and the balance between the two isn’t always right. Though the cast and crew talked about how happy they were that the Los Angeles-based story is actually filmed there, so far, the series doesn’t really deliver a coherent sense of place. Sure, these kids have rich parents and live in Brentwood, but there’s something about the sleek blandness of the settings that makes it feel like the story could take place in any rich American suburb.
Admittedly, the differences might only be noticeable to Angelenos and for most, the characters and actors are strong enough to distract. While the whole “teenaged” cast is solid, there are a few standouts. The NYCC crowd was particularly enamored with Okano as Nico and they had it right. While the rest of the young cast is good, their performances often feel like performances. Nico’s moodiness easily could have seemed overwrought, but Okano gives her pain and sarcasm real pathos. You believe it when she says she hides her pain behind make-up while Karolina uses a perma-smile and you believe it when she cries after a heartfelt encounter with Alex (Feliz).
Speaking of, Feliz is a real surprise. This is his first big acting role (something he bashfully shared before the pilot screening), but his hurt over the way Amy’s death damages the group’s friendship hints at bruised sensitivity buried beneath the character’s sarcasm. That said, Feliz does tend to overplay his character’s smart-mouthed back-talking with his parents. Unfortunately, he’s not the only actor to overdo the stereotypes and depending on your feelings about teenagers’ problems, their angst can read a little obnoxious. For instance, Chase and Gert’s (Barer) relationship already feels a little forced and there’s a lack of chemistry there that will become a big problem when the pair inevitably starts to date.
Regardless, the show itself takes the kids seriously, so much so that the final scenes –which finally leans into the comic book feel the viewers all know is coming – feel a bit jarring. Runaways works best when it focuses on the teen drama, but not everyone (like the audience member who spitefully stage-whispered in Morgen’s direction that the show felt too much like Degrassi) is going to be open to character over comic book action. But for those who can stand or even enjoy teen drama with only a dose of comic book fantasy, the show is a must-see.
Runaways premieres on Hulu on November 21.