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The cast and creators of 'Marvel's Runaways' work to balance high school drama with superhero stakes

A teenage witch, an alien, a jock, a child genius and a girl who can telepathically talk to a dinosaur are all about to be late for class. On a sun-soaked fall day in Pasadena, the cast of “Marvel’s Runaways” looks more like a revamped version of “The Breakfast Club” than the latest superhero squad.

Just off camera, the brain trust behind “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl” — Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz — watch as their new series nears the end of filming its first season, which finished up on Hulu this week. The duo closely monitors its young cast silently. The superheroes are struggling with a betrayal and debating dissolving the gang.

“We can’t disband the group! We never even gave ourselves a cool nickname!” pleads purple-haired, dinosaur-whisperer Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer).

“How about ‘The Runaways?’” suggests brainiac Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz). “For all the kids we couldn’t save or avenge?”

“Too dark,” replies extraterrestrial Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner).

Cheekily dismissing their own title demonstrates exactly how “Runaways” managed to carve out something new, balancing teen melodrama with sunny irreverence and offering a young, colorful alternative in an over-saturated comic book world.

Taking a break from the shadowy streets of New York that Netflix fashioned for its Marvel series “Daredevil” and “The Punisher,” Savage says that shooting outside was a priority. "This is a ‘blue sky’ show," she explains. “That was a part of our pitch. It's like the Marvel L.A. Universe.”

“Even their school, you step out here and it's quintessentially California, it's beautiful” says Schwartz, gesturing to the walls of the fancy, fictional Atlas Academy (a sly nod to the previous Marvel Comics moniker before it was rebranded). “It has that thing that L.A. has, which is, everything looks beautiful, the blue sky and the sun, but what's the darkness that's lurking underneath?”

The series, which was recently renewed for a second season, chronicles the adventures of a group of affluent teens: the aforementioned Gert, Alex and Karolina plus witch Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano), jock Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) and super-strong tween Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta). The sextet discovers that their parents are members of a super-villain team called the Pride.

Even with that premise, the showrunners are hesitant to call it a genre show outright. “We really view it as a coming-of-age drama, as a family drama,” says Schwartz, “and we’re telling that story inside of a Marvel show.”

The closest thing the audience got to a Captain America-like insignia are the enamel pins on Gert’s jean jacket. That said, the finale didn’t stint on sci-fi antics. The cosmic showdown between Karolina and Jonah (Julian McMahon)— the mysterious leader of the Pride who is slowly making the parents regret their pact — felt ripped straight from a comic panel. And the cliffhanger, with the kids officially running away from their parents, was typically Marvel-esque.

So how do you balance the drama of a high school dance hookup with a doomsday discovery? Taking cues from the comic co-creator, Brian K. Vaughan, also known for his work on the comic “Saga,” and TV’s “Lost,” certainly helped.

The showrunners sought Vaughan’s OK before proceeding, but they got much more after inviting him to meet the writers. “The first day he came for lunch, then he came back the next day, on the third day, he put his stuff in an office,” says Savage.

“We're like, ‘We got him!’ Which was important to us,” says Schwartz. “Not only to have his blessing as we were making changes, but also to have his incredible brain pitching ideas.”

The first big change was to flesh out the parents’ back story: almost every diabolical act committed by the Pride was (loosely) rooted in good intentions. Schwartz admits that examining the older generation came from his personal experience. When he read the comic back in 2003, he was closer to the kids’ age but, reflecting on the work 15 years later as a parent, things looked a bit different.

Vaughan liked the idea of stretching things out narratively. “[Vaughan] talked a lot about how, on every issue, they thought they were going to get canceled, so that's why they moved so quickly through their stories,” says Schwartz. “I think he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to slow down. Moving too quickly is something we've also been accused of. It felt like we could join hands together and not move too quickly through story.”

The collaboration didn’t stop in the writer’s room: Vaughan visited the set, bringing his kids from time to time. “He was here on our first episode saying, ‘Wow, it's like watching everyone come to life,’” says Barer with a laugh. “We were like, ‘Hi, thanks for, uh, making our whole careers here!’”

Another added bonus was Hulu. Both Savage and Schwartz feel strongly about shifting away from the time constraints of broadcast TV, from story structure to the number of episodes.

“There's no pressure of, ‘Well, could Pride actually be an acronym for a legal firm, and they do cases every week?’” says Savage.

A shorter order and bigger playground allowed the pair to dig into the characters. (Schwartz excitedly shares a collection of playlists he made for each character.) “The great thing about working in this coming-of-age story is that, when you’re a teenager, everything feels like it’s life and death stakes. In this story it actually is, that felt like a really nice evolution for us in terms of storytelling.”

Grounding a fantasy tale worked out well, but there was one make-believe element fans were most excited to see: Old Lace, Gert’s raptor best friend. The showrunners delivered in the form of a massive puppet.

“This thing they made is incredible,” says Barer. “It takes six puppeteers. There's people moving her eyebrows so you see her emotions.” Perhaps the creators of Gert’s “support dinosaur” were too successful, because Barer found herself forgetting that she wasn’t real. “It’s really freaky,” she says. “In between takes they'll be moving her and I'll wave hi as I walk by.”

It will be some time before Old Lace and the “Runaways” — last seen dashing off to a new, unknown danger — return, but the cast is hopeful viewers will be satisfied. “I’m a fan of the show and when I read the finale I couldn’t stop reading,” says Sulkin between takes. “That’s exactly what I pictured happening.”

Feliz agrees, “It answers a lot of questions that we have from Season 1. But there’s so much more to come in the story.”

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‘Marvel’s Runaways’

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meredith.woerner@latimes.com

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