“Protect us!” Nico yells, holding the staff out in front of hers. It’s less an incantation than a last-ditch effort; the staff is her mother’s, so she knows that it’s magic, she just doesn’t know how it’s magic. Five other teenagers stand behind her as a would-be kidnapper fires at them, a pistol in each hand. Yet, none of them duck. Some of that is standard-issue teenage invincibility, but the rest is blind faith that Nico can protect them. They’re a unit now, fearlessly plunging headfirst into the unknown, their only protection the powers they’ve only recently discovered.
There’s never been a better time for comic-book shows on TV—but in an age where “quality TV” increasingly means “conflicted antihero,” most of those shows are an exercise in bleakness. Dark skies; dirty concrete; poorly lit rooms; and perhaps most importantly, protagonists that digress from traditionally hopeful superhero narratives to deal with some heavy issues. Whether Jessica Jones excavating past traumas or Luke Cage internalizing a responsibility to protect Harlem superpowers become less a source of empowerment than a burden, a cross to bear. In this deluge of darkness, Marvel’s Runaways is a breath of fresh air.
The Hulu show, based on Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s Marvel comic about a group of high-school students who discover that their millionaire parents are either a) bad, b) superpowered, or c) both, manages to make “youthful glee” something you don’t even cringe at when you write it. It should be too cheesy, but somehow it’s not. You know that scene in X-Men: First Class where all the students are just showing off for each other? Imagine that, with a heavy dose of Riverdale: “gifted” teens, evil parents, and enough high-school drama to qualify for even a non-superhero teen soap. (Just to further complicate things, each member of the group begins to discover their own supernatural power or extraordinary ability. Gert, a purple-haired activist, has a telepathic connection with a dinosaur; Karolina, a faux-sunny cultist, can turn into a glowing beam of multicolored light; goth Nico … well, goth Nico has her moms’ staff.)
Halfway through its 10-episode first season, Runaways has shed its exposition and gotten to the good stuff: exulting in the powers of its delightful teen heroes. When Gert discovers her telepathic link with the genetically engineered dinosaur her parents have been hiding in their basement (you read that right), her realization is equal parts awe and fear. “Sit,” she tells it, reaches out to rub its nose, her wonder turning to exhilaration. This power isn’t a thing of “great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben would told Peter Parker; it’s a means of asserting agency in a world that seems to be shifting around her. Teen powers are too often a facile metaphor for adolescent angst and rebellion. Instead, Runaways, by finding the joy in the exceptional, uses its characters’ origins to catalyze their growth. When Molly discovers that the culprit behind her mysterious malaise isn’t menstrual cramps, but superstrength, it feels like victory—proof that her body is hers, not a problem to be solved by presumptuous adults.
Runaways is far from the only teen superhero show on TV—The CW shows has adapted a handful characters into its popular “Arrowverse”—but it packs an authenticity those other shows lack. Some of that is due to its creative pedigree; not only is Vaughan the mind behind critically acclaimed titles like Y: The Last Man and Saga, but the show is helmed by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, creators of wildly successful teen dramas Gossip Girl and The O.C.. Despite being set in a similarly rarefied world of wealth and privilege, Runaways diverges from those two shows in that its teenage characters actually seem like teenagers, dealing with age-appropriate insecurities like crushes on the in-crowd and peer pressure. Also, mutant abilities. And telepathic connection with dinosaurs.
Even while embracing some feel-good cliches—after Nico breaks out the staff, they actually high-five to celebrate defeating the kidnapper—the show never loses track of its central tension between the kids and their parents. Although the self-conscious diversity of the cast occasionally seems like a shameless corporate ploy to appeal to millennials, the characters aren’t tokenized, or reduced to stereotypes (a choice that’s particularly refreshing when it comes to the characters of color). Sure, Gert is a budding feminist activist, but she has a crush on Chase, who at first glance appears to be a classic jock, but turns out to be an engineering whiz.
Yes, Runaways is occasionally cheesy, but right now, there’s room for a little cheese. When social-media feeds are a timeline of bad news and worse behavior, it’s not hard to find something disheartening, which makes Runaways’ relatable escapism all the more necessary. Even as these teenagers are dealing with the reality that their parents are potentially supervillains, their abilities remain a source of autonomy—while still reminding us that magic staffs, gloves that shoot lasers, and dino-bodyguards can also just be, as Nico might say, kick-ass.