'Kids with super-powers' isn't a genre-- on TV, three shows prove it's a medium

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Marvel Films and Television has two sets of super-powered teenagers on TV, with a third coming next year on the big screen. Given how popular stories about teen-age angst are, the seeming redundancy should be no surprise. What is surprising is how different they are.

 The properties, despite all three being about super-teens, could never be mistaken for each other. The super-powers provide sizzle and amp up the consequences, but the stories are rooted in familiar, time-honored genres.

Copyright Twentieth Century Fox

Fox’s New Mutants has been postponed until February, 2019.

Take, for example, New Mutants, an upcoming movie about which non-comics readers know little. And they’ll have to wait to find out more – Disney, which picked up the film as part of its purchase of Fox entertainment, has postponed the movie from an April 13 premiere to Feb. 22, 2019.

I think we can assume, given the success of the X-Men movies at Fox, that the delay isn’t because Disney doesn’t have faith in the property. More likely, they intend to alter it a bit to fit in with however they plan to merge the X-movies with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But that’s speculation. What isn’t guesswork is that, while “New Mutants” may involve wannabe teen superheroes, it’s being marketed as a horror movie.

Which is great! And here’s why:

The New Mutants were introduced in 1982 as Prof. X’s second formal class of mutant super-kids at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The first, obviously, was the original one introduced in 1963, consisting of Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman and Marvel Girl (now usually just called “Jean Grey”). The second group was interesting, but it couldn’t possibly top the first – the new kids didn’t have the advantage of novelty, nor could they out-do the first in derring-do.

So writer Chris Claremont changed the script. The early New Mutants stories rarely fell into the superheroes-vs.-supervillains paradigm. Nothing demonstrated that better than the “Demon Bear Saga,” a terrifying supernatural tale that is the basis for the new movie.

So, yes – New Mutants features super-powered teenagers. But it’s really a horror story.

 

Copyright Hulu

Hulu’s Runaways stars Ariela Barer (Gert), Allegra Acosta (Molly), Rhenzy Feliz (Alex Wilder), Lyrica Okano (Nico Minoru), Gregg Sulkin (Chase) and Virginia Gardner (Karolina Dean).

Next up is Runaways, which finished its first season (of 10 episodes) Jan. 9 as an original show on Hulu. It lived up to its tagline so well (“Every teenager thinks their parents are evil. What if you found out they actually were?”) that it’s already been renewed for a second season.

The TV show adapts the comics series, created by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Adrian Alphona in 2002. Runaways featured six pampered Los Angeles high school kids who find out their super-wealthy and accomplished parents are “The Pride,” a group that runs the local underworld – and commit human sacrifice annually for Lovecraftian Elder Gods called The Gibborim.

Fortunately, The Pride consists of six sets of comic-book staples: Mad scientists, aliens, mobsters, time travelers, mutants and dark wizards. Two of the kids have inherited super-powers, while the others are able to steal what they need from their parents – items like a magic wand (“The Staff of One”) and a dinosaur.

The TV show eschews some of the more esoteric bits, essentially presenting all the parents as more or less ordinary, if greedy, human beings. But virtually all of the elements, from time travel to dinosaurs, make an appearance in one form or another. And the kids … ?

Well, they’re kids. Strident feminist Gert semi-secretly likes goofball jock Chase, while Chase likes closeted lesbian Karolina, who likes Goth girl Nico, who is the object of nerdy Alex’s desire. (Tweenage Molly, whose ongoing puberty is a plot point, is not yet riding the romance roller coaster.) They are as hormone-addled as any teen on Gossip Girls or Dawson’s Creek, and the show presents these torturous rites of passage in the midst of agonizingly dangerous drama.

That’s true of the comics as well, but Runaways the TV show went somewhere the comics didn’t. Or rather, they went backward.

Spoiler alert: The first season of Runaways ends where the comics begin. The kids don’t physically run away until the end of episode 10, and presumably won’t launch into the adventures recounted in the comic book until Season Two.

Which turns out to be a terrific decision. In the comics, the parents were all one-note bad guys with no more motivation or development than “Mwah-ha-ha! We are EEEEEEE-vil!” Vaughn spent all of his time developing the teens, and their unconventional adolescence. That focus made for a very popular comic book, which is currently on its fifth incarnation.

But the TV show goes earlier into the Runaways’ lives, showing us parents who are conflicted about the bad things they do. They are all involved in The Pride for different reasons, some of them (at least originally) altruistic. They don’t trust each other; betrayals and power struggles are commonplace. They are thoroughly trapped in their dangerous (and doubtless doomed) lives, but all of them have a single ray of hope: their children. They truly, deeply love their kids, whom they have protected from the evil that they do. (Although, it should be noted, that love doesn’t extend to each others’ kids.)

Now, those are some interesting folks! And it makes for good TV. “Runaways” is still mainly about the teens, but the deep dive into the parents gives us a better idea what they’re running away from – and asks if they should. It adds one more layer of adolescent angst to explore.

So, yes – Runaways features super-powered teenagers. But it’s really a coming-of-age story.

 

Eliza Morse/FOX

Fox’s The Gifted stars Natalie Alyn Lind (left) and Percy Hynes White as Lauren and Andy Strucker, two powerful mutants who are even more powerful together.

Lastly we have The Gifted, a Fox show which isn’t based on anything specific in Marvel Comics, but does utilize the X-Men universe X-tensively. The Season One finale aired Jan. 15, and is has been renewed for a second season.

In the show’s scenario, the X-Men have been long missing, which sounds an awful lot like the set-up for the movie Logan. Mutants who can’t “pass” for human or have been outed are on the run from the government – specifically a contractor called “Sentinel Services.” That name should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who has seen the giant, mutant-hunting Sentinel robots in action, either in comics or the movies.

Chief among our protagonists are the Struckers, consisting of a prosecutor of mutants, his wife and two kids. Those children, ironically, turn out to be mutants – forcing all four to go on the lam. The name “Strucker” is a familiar one for fans of Uncanny X-Men, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America, where nefarious Struckers tend to show up. Spoiler, the show makes use of this connection.

Further, the Strucker family hooks up with the Mutant Underground, which includes Lorna “Polaris” Dane (daughter of Magneto), Clarice “Blink” Fong (“Exiles” comics) and John “Thunderbird” Proudstar (KIA in 1975 “X-Men,” succeeded by his brother James).

So, while The Gifted uses the X-Men environment, it doesn’t use any major X-Men. Nor does it follow the traditional pattern forged by a jillion superhero comics or movies. Instead, the focus of The Gifted is on the Strucker family as it navigates life on the run from a lethal regime – for all intents and purposes, an allegory of Jews in World War II Europe, or any other ethnic cleansing.

So, yes – The Gifted features super-powered teenagers. But it’s really a family drama during wartime.

There’s a reason comics these days are called a modern mythology. That New Mutants, Runaways and The Gifted can all tell entirely different stories, using the same toolbox, is proof enough.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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