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As the sun sets on a dimly lit lot in downtown Los Angeles, a beat-up old station wagon quietly creeps to a stop. Its passengers, a ragtag sextet of high schoolers, gear up to take a stand against their parents. The scene could be straight out of a John Hughes coming-of-age flick if it weren’t for the genetically engineered velociraptor hiding in the trunk. (More on her here.)
The scene in question is actually from Marvel’s latest superhero series, Runaways, which follows six disparate teens who discover their parents are part of an apparent criminal organization known as The Pride. Based on the 2003 comics by Brian K. Vaughan, the series’ potential for blending high-energy heroics with the pathos of struggling to find one’s place in the world is precisely why executive producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage traded their stylized dramas like Gossip Girl and The O.C. for this surprisingly grounded fare — dinosaur be damned.
“As you watch, there are probably long stretches where you wouldn’t know you’re in a Marvel show,” says Schwartz, who loves the comic so much that he and Savage wrote the pilot on spec. “There’s no masks in this show, there’s no capes, there’s no costumes. But when you’re in high school, you do create an identity for yourself, so it’s about these kids taking off those masks and becoming more in touch with who they really are.”
Those kids, some of whom have superpowers themselves, include self-proclaimed nerd Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz), heartthrob athlete Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin), aspiring wiccan Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), purple-haired activist Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), Gert’s younger adopted sister Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta), and Hollywood royalty Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner), the latter of whom’s famous parents (Annie Wersching, Kip Pardue) run a sinister Scientology-esque religion called Gibborim — a familiar moniker from the comics that should send shivers down fans’ spines. (Read: Bad guys.)
“We’re trying to take this grounded approach to some of these bigger ideas [from the comics],” Schwartz says. “If you look at Gibborim in the book and you’re like, ‘Well, how do you even begin to tell that story in the real world and in Los Angeles? What else feels like a science-fiction story, but that has also amassed a dedicated amount of believers and followers to its idea?’ Scientology naturally likened itself as a way [to tell that story].”
Casual viewers needn’t worry about not having read the source material, though. “It’s really important to all of us that if you don’t already know the book, at no point [will] you feel like the show isn’t for you,” Savage says. “Yes, there are great Easter eggs, but it’s a party that you’re invited to.” If you are a fan, however, Schwartz notes that the show will stay very faithful to the spirit of the comics, while also expanding the story as to stretch out the events of the first volume. “There have been some changes,” Schwartz says. “If you’re a fan of the comic, you’ll feel like we’re true to the stuff hopefully that made you fall in love with the comic, even if some of the details have changed.”
The premiere episode, for instance, almost reads panel for panel — save for the introduction of a new character not from the comics in Nico’s sister — but that familiarity won’t last long. “The [Runaways are] going to see their parents do something terrible in the first episode; that much is true to the comics,” Schwartz notes. “And then how that journey unfolds, and the rate at which it unfolds, will be different than the first 18 issues. But we really tried to honor how Brian tells stories with these amazing cliffhangers that make you want to come back and watch the next one, so even if we’re not moving quite as fast as the book, we’re moving pretty damn fast.”
In order to achieve that, the duo expanded on the first volume’s 18-issue run to go beyond the kids, also leaning into the parents’ struggle, with the 41-year-old Schwartz joking he can now relate to them much more than, say, when he wrote The O.C. in his twenties. “Hulu was a perfect place for it because they allow us to tell the adult stories as well as the kid’s stories, and also allow us to push the envelope beyond some of the stuff we’ve been able to do in broadcast,” Schwartz says, noting that the show, at its core, is a family drama, but one that will still push the envelope. “We say ‘s—balls’ — that’s actually banner moment for us,” he jokes. The 10-episode first season also skews away from the studio’s Netflix fare, trading raw grittiness for blue-sky L.A. with a heavy dose of comedy throughout. “That was a big thing in Brian’s writing, was that balance of tone with these life-and-death stakes, but also great humor and warmth and character, and that’s something we wanted to lead with as well,” Schwartz says.
In addition to Wersching and Pardue portraying Leslie and Frank Dean, the show’s adult actors include Ryan Sands as Geoffrey Wilder, Angel Parker as Catherine Wilder, Brittany Ishibashi as Tina Minoru, James Yaegashi as Robert Minoru, Kevin Weisman as Dale Yorkes, Brigid Brannagh as Stacey Yorkes, James Marsters as Victor Stein, and Ever Carradine as Janet Stein. (Notably absent from the comics are Molly’s parents — there’s a very good reason why she’s been adopted by the Yorkes family that fans will discover in season 1.) If it sounds like there are a lot of characters to service, you’re right: There are a total of 17 series regulars, most of whom aren’t household names save for Buffy alum Marsters, but each make a lasting impression over the course of the first season. “We looked across the country, around the world for some of these parts,” Schwartz says, explaining that, while a challenging feat to honor the comic’s diversity, the casting process came together remarkably quickly over three weeks. “Everybody we cast was our first choice.”
But the parents’ storyline is also where some of differences from the comics come in. “None of the parents in this version [have powers],” Schwartz says, then couching his response considering something like, say, the Minoru family’s magical Staff of One. “You’ll get a grounded approach to a lot of these bigger concepts that are explainable through science and technology, but it’s more of a genre show. It leans more sci-fi than superhero.”
Marvel’s Runaways debuts Tuesday on Hulu.