Teens feel oppressed by society. Marvel’s “Runaways” shows why they’re right to be mad

“Runaways” is all about kids discovering their power in a society that treats them as expendable.
“Runaways” is all about kids discovering their power in a society that treats them as expendable.
Image: Hulu
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Adults rule the world—which can be more than a little frightening if you’re a teen. The new Hulu superhero series Runaways takes that kid’s-eye view of society and follows through to its worst implications. In the show’s first episode, its young protagonists discover their parents are literal supervillains.

The series, now finishing up its first season, makes a strong case that its heroes are disempowered, marginalized, and endangered by the fact of their youth. Set in Los Angeles, it features a notably diverse cast of teenagers in Los Angeles who are black, Asian, Latina, queer, and Jewish. Over the course of the series, the teens realize that their parents are involved in a mysterious cult called Pride. For years, Pride has been murdering young runaways in a ritualistic sacrifice to sustain their vampire-like cult leader, Jonah (Julian McMahaon). This premise, as well as the title of the show, points to the ways that adults in the series regard children as vulnerable and expendable. You can kill them without repercussions.

In the US, we tend to justify children’s lack of power; children are seen as irresponsible, and therefore potentially dangerous to others and to themselves. But John Wall, a theoretical ethicist and the author of Children’s Rights: Today’s Global Challenge, suggests that these arguments obscure our own prejudices toward young people. Many children in our society, he points out, don’t get adequate schooling or health care. “We have the highest infant mortality in the developed world,” he told me. “We lock up more kids than possibly any other country.” Children are denied the vote, so they can’t participate directly to address the injustices they face. Their freedom of speech in school is severely curtailed as well.

Obviously, most kids aren’t actually being targeted by supervillains. But many of the oppressions faced by the children in Runaways are disturbingly realistic. Chase (Gregg Sulkin), a popular lacrosse player, and his mother are physically abused by Chase’s father, Victor Stein (James Marsters). Because Victor is a famous scientist and inventor, the adults in Chase’s world ignore his father’s erratic behavior and violence toward his family. The well-being of Chase and his mother can be sacrificed in the service of Victor’s genius.

Another teenage character, Karolina (Virginia Gardner), is almost raped by several jocks at a party. The lacrosse coach doesn’t care about the attempted rape, the safety of Karolina, or the safety of other girls at the school; he’s more worried that the incident is causing tension on his sports team.

Molly (Allegra Acosta), a teenager who lost her parents as a young child, has been living with friends of the family ever since. But when her adoptive family decides she needs to go live with another relative, Molly isn’t told why, nor does she have any say in the change. Her adoptive parents upend her life, and she’s just supposed to do what she’s told. All three characters are disempowered by the fact of their age, and therefore vulnerable to adults’ abuse or neglect.

The cosmic conflicts of superhero stories are often too outsized to take seriously. But in Runaways, the power imbalances between adults and children are believable. Victor uses a giant, machinated glove to knock his son around and almost kill him; that’s barely even a metaphor for the violence of child abuse. Another parent, Tina (Brittany Ishibashi) uses her technical genius and a kind of magic staff to monitor her children and restrict their movements. That’s fantasy—but in reality, parents really do have broad, sometimes terrifying, abilities to control what their children are allowed to do and where they are permitted to go.

If Runaways was just about the oppression of children, it would be unbearably bleak. Luckily, it’s also about children discovering their power. The parents in Runaways lie to their kids, deceive them, abuse them, manipulate them, and even set out to deliberately harm them. But the children, it turns out, aren’t as weak as the adults think they are. Molly discovers that she has super-strength; Gert realizes that she has a rapport with a genetically modified dinosaur that loves her and follows her orders like a pet. Nico (Lyrica Okano), Tina’s daughter, finds out she can use her mother’s magic staff herself. Karolina discovers that she can glow and fly and shoot bursts of light.

The superpowers are fun, obviously—especially the dinosaur. But the kids are really formidable not because they can fly or build super-gloves, but because they have a strong sense of right and wrong, which is rooted in their solidarity with one and other and with everyone who is oppressed. Our heroes’ parents are killing other children, and in part because of their own experiences of violence and injustice, the kids refuse to let that stand. “You’re not a good person,” Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) tells his father in a confrontation. Children in Runaways are often more moral than the adults around them. They aren’t too young to take responsibility; they’re just the right age.

That’s a lesson worth remembering in our everyday lives. “We tend to assume that children are not rational, not able to participate in public debate, not ready to have a voice,” Wall told me. “There are many children who are very interested in politics and public affairs, and they just don’t have much of an avenue for expressing themselves. I think they’re generally capable of a lot more than we tend to assume.”

Today, politicians in Washington are working to cut public school budgets and deport teens, and have failed to provide vital funding for children’s health care. Like other marginalized groups, young people in 2018 are under assault. In this context, Runaways—a show about adults literally sucking power out of the corpses of murdered children—is painfully relevant. But the show also holds out hope that when you empower queer and POC youth to fight for justice, anything is possible.