Marvel's Runaways: Parents are the Key to Its Storytelling Success

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Most people will tell you their parents for better or for worse had a deep and definitive impact on their lives. 

Everything from our mannerisms to pop culture interests to ideological and moral values are influenced by the people who raised us. And yet, from Shadowhunters to Riverdale, TV parents are often written like Charlie Brown's teacher: as faceless (and development-less) beings. 

Whether it’s the tough-love mother, the bumbling dad or worse, the notoriously invisible parents, far too often we see television's older characters crafted as caricatures and afterthoughts.

Defined mostly by their roles as gatekeepers — to parties, dating, college, freedom, or even superpowers — parents can be skeletons of their dramatic potential, included only for the illusion of realism.

The Pride - Marvel's Runaways

The select few who do manage to get their own relationship and professional complications still find themselves relegated to B and C plots.

There they help prop their children’s storylines, instead of possessing their own that will, indefinitely and eventually, intersect with the lives of the show’s younger cast. But just because you're not forever young doesn't mean you're not relevant, and Hulu's adaptation of the Marvel comic Runaways understands this. 

Since its launch a decade and a half ago, the comic has been developed by creatives who are rather empathetic to the young adult lens.

Created by Brian K. Vaughan, the comic's original writer has spoken about how much closer to his story's teens he felt when first writing the series in 2003. He’s also discussed how Runaways is as much about superheroes as the explicit experience of being a teen. 

Now new issues are currently in the hands of writer Rainbow Rowell, the author of several critically acclaimed YA novels including "Fangirl" and "Carry On." That torch passing makes clear the teen first, superhero second approach is deeply embedded in Runaways blood. 

Ensuring that lived on clearly mattered to Hulu, who left its small screen adaptation in the hands of Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz. Known best for their work on Gossip Girl and The O.C., the creative duo helped reinvigorate the teen drama genre and ushered in a new wave of soapy primetime. 

While having people who know teens at the story’s helm bodes well for Runaways’ heroes, it could have spelled trouble for its “villains.” Characters often struggle to think outside of themselves or the immediate moment, and because of that, parents — despite their massive influence — can end up being shoved to the background of their teen’s real-life dramas. 

Cleaning Up - Marvel's Runaways

Luckily, Hulu and Marvel chose showrunners with a history of playing up and playing on coming of age intricacies through parent-child relationships. 

Straight out of the gate, you see how seriously Schwartz and Savage understand and value the roles of adults through the show's two-part premiere.

Runaways Season 1 Episode 1 and Runaways Season 1 Episode 2 reveal the events of the life-changing night from both the teens’ and the adults’ perspectives, laying the foundation for the series' entire approach to storytelling. 

In the eight episodes that follow, Runaways works to make sure that approach (though not as literal) continues, offering audiences the chance to view nearly every move and outcome from both sides.

The back and forth between the kids and parents, each reacting to their growing knowledge about the other, delivered a high-stakes game of narrative air hockey that fueled season one’s storylines.

From Karolina’s missing church friends, Gert’s relationship with Old Lace, and Alex’s kidnapping to the group’s first super-powered team-up, the standoff with Jonah, and their eventual run, the entire season can unfold with a believable ending because the parents are given dramatic agency and relevance.

Catherine and Geoffrey - Marvel's Runaways Season 1 Episode 3

Runaways choice to more fully embrace its adult characters as part of its leading ensemble obviously required the narrative to write them more deeply, but it also created room for them to be developed differently.

While the kids can squabble, particularly during the first half of the season, it’s their adult counterparts who consistently engaged in all the sloppy melodramatics we have come to know and love about the YA genre. 

Teen serials are notorious for violent bullies, angsty love triangles, and messy power plays. Alex, Molly, Chase, Gert, Karolina, and Nico spent a decent amount of time working their way through and out of their own high school jungle, but it’s their parents who seemed to live and breathe its dynamics. 

Many more of the hilarious bickerings, calculated omissions, venomous threats, and tearful betrayals were played out among the members of PRIDE, confirming that they too were in way over their heads.

Runaways Season 1 Episode 8 is a perfect example of how teen tropes wormed their way into PRIDES’ storylines, with the convergence of several terrible and emotionally messy decisions. 

It was an enthralling episode for sure, but it also left viewers wondering who the actual adults in all of this are. Sometimes the chemistry of the adult group was funny, and other times it was anxiety-inducing, but it was always refreshing to see the parents treated like complex human beings. 

Fractured - Marvel's Runaways

And through that complexity Runaways writers were able to execute the season finale, mostly by using the parents' deeper development to help justify the decision of each teen to run away.

Their parents aren’t perfect, and PRIDE are unquestionably murderers. But how do you leave the only home you’ve ever known and the people who love you so much they’d kill even each other to protect you?   

It’s very easy, particularly when dealing with superheroes, to develop villains that only exist to serve as foils. In fact, evil or not that’s how most parents in YA TV shows are treated.

But kids have complicated relationships with their parents as Chase, Nico, and Alex perhaps best illustrate, and the decision to leave the people who raised them behind for the unknown isn’t tiny. 

It was never going to be enough that the runaways simply didn’t get along with their parents. Or even that their parents kept secrets or could make terrible decisions. The show had to dig deep and take the time to explore each teen realizing their parents aren’t superheroes, but rather flawed, fallible and even dangerous human beings.

While that approach might initially seem more narratively tedious (as some critics of the show have noted), it’s entirely realistic. Because Runaways gave significant screen time to its adults, it was able to let that relatable emotional push and pull drive the formation of its superhero team. 

Other shows may choose to develop their parents in the background, with the audience learning mostly about them through their children’s eyes. But it’s a move that essentially creates two-dimensional villains who we can root against, yet hardly understand what for. 

Over Their Heads - Marvel's Runaways

Understanding why we bump heads with our parents — or our villains — is one of the biggest ways we move into adulthood and heroism.

Because the writers explored PRIDES’ decisions, viewers could watch the teens question their family loyalties and personal beliefs, as well as their parents own love, strengthening the show's metaphor for our real-life parent-child relationships. 

Runaways is about so many things, but underneath the mystery and magic, it is mostly about what it means to become who we are and the ways that we get there.

Whether we’re struggling with peer pressure, identity, grief, or sexual attraction, we get through most of that with the help — or example of — our parents. 

Most kids might not have to worry about glowing rainbow or making it snow with a stick they found in their mom’s office. But all teens can relate to the struggle of adjusting to the weird in-between of young adulthood.

It's a time when we decide whether to forgive our parents’ abuses or vow never to repeat them; when we decide whether the things our parents believe in are the things we do; when we decide which parts of them we hold onto and from which we run away.

Instead of conveniently clueless stand-ins, Runaways’ parents are deeply entrenched in its life and death situations, ensuring their backstories, relationship complications, professional and parental decision-making drive the story's dramatic and emotional stakes to the same degree as their children. 

As a result, the teens can believably wrestle with the idea of their parents as both their role models and worst nightmares. There’s no doubt that Runaways made the right decision developing its parents as well as it did.

If anything, it allowed the first season to prove this fundamental truth: whether we’re super-powered or not, our parents are always the heart of our origins stories. 

Abbey White is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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Marvel's Runaways Quotes

Geoffrey: Those friends of yours are probably feeling the exact same way you are today.
Alex: Actually, they're doing just fine.
Geoffrey: Or maybe they're better at hiding what's really going on.

Kids that know you when you're young? No one will ever know you like that again. Don't give up on that.

Geoff