In its third and final season, Runaways brought both magic and super-science to the centre of its story in order to up the overall stakes for the series. It also allowed time to explore the complicated inner lives of characters like Nico Minoru and Karolina Dean.
While it took the Runaways comic a significant chunk of time before it really began to delve into the nuances of Nico and Karolina’s relationship, the live-action series thankfully wasted no time in getting the pair in a position to admit their feelings for one another and begin dating. Simply by having two of its lead characters even be queer (as they canonically are the comics), Runaways was already head and shoulders above basically everything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of meaningful queer representation.
But over its three seasons, Runaways consistently did something that Marvel’s films have been too cowardly to even attempt: It put queer characters front and centre, and then committed to making them three-dimensional people with hopes, dreams, and even disappointments that were reflective of their identities. The show’s third season establishes early on that the feelings both young women have for one another go deeper than a mere teenage crush.
While trapped in a stasis pod that creates pleasant scenarios for the person within it, Karolina repeatedly dreams of the day she’ll be able to walk down the aisle in front of her friends and family before making Nico her wife. Karolina isn’t there all that long, and eventually, she realises that the dream wedding she’s been experiencing over and over again is actually a nightmare. But when Nico frees her from the pod, the girls know that even if they can’t quite express it to one another just yet, the idea of committing to one another for the long term is something they’re both somewhat interested in.
While season three spent a bit of time wrapping up its subplot about female-presenting shapeshifter Xavin (Clarissa Thibeaux) attempting to take Karolina’s hand in marriage in accordance with an ancient prophecy, Runaways quickly shifted gears with the introduction of Elizabeth Hurley’s Morgan le Fay, a seemingly immortal witch with her eyes set on Nico’s Staff of One. Morgan needs to get closer to Nico in order to trick her into giving up the staff and, like any evil witch worth her salt, she does so with a number of mind games and illusions designed to alienate Nico from her friends.
Though Nico’s control over her magical abilities grows naturally on its own over the course of the series, season three sees her demonstrating a new level of power that’s at least partially the result of Morgan’s meddling. Useful as her magic can be when the Runaways are in danger, the severity of Nico’s spells alarms her because every time she casts one of them, she feels herself giving in to a darkness that exists within her.
The changes Nico’s going through are deeply personal and they force her to reexamine her relationship with her dead sister Amy (who’s trapped in the Dark Dimension) and her mother Tina, who spent her life hiding her past as a witch from her entire family. But Runaways understands that because Karolina’s an important part of Nico’s life, the dark magic impacts her as well, and the series does an excellent job of delving into what it means to love someone who’s in the midst of a deep, existential crisis.
At first, when it appears as if Nico’s troubles are only the result of her own powers, Karolina does what she can to support her girlfriend and remind her that her inherent darkness is something she loves about her. But the more Morgan reveals her hand to Nico, the more Nico begins to be seduced by her promises of unimaginable strength that can only be had by joining Morgan’s coven.
Like the other Runaways, Nico has little trouble recognising Morgan as being the apocalyptic threat that she is, but she can’t help but want to know more about the nature of magic, something that’s a core part of who she is. While Karolina understands that about Nico, between Morgan’s obvious desire to unleash chaos unto the world and the fact that the coven parties Nico keeps running off to are all essentially witch orgies, she can’t help but feel a distance growing between them.
As important as it is for films and series to include queer characters, it’s the arcs those characters are given that end up determining whether the queer representation in any project is actually on point.
By setting up Nico and Karolina’s relationship in its first season, Runaways gave itself the space and time to let their dynamic mature organically, which in turn made things like Karolina’s dreams of marriage and the couple’s conflict feel significant. When they end up crossing paths with Cloak and Dagger, Tandy’s able to get a brief glimpse into Nico’s mind, and she sees that she also believes on some level that the couple will end up married eventually. It seemed as if the show was content having viewers believe that after everything the two go through during the season, it’s all going to work out for them, which is incredibly refreshing.
However, Runaways’ series finale very abruptly pivots to something that’s simultaneously more realistic and wildly fantastical. The final episode leaps three years into the future after the team’s vanquished Morgan and everyone’s moved on with their lives. Though they were once certain that they were meant for each another, Nico and Karolina have long since broken up and found new passions to focus on.
Nico leaves the country in order to gain a better understanding of magic, and Karolina becomes a college student living off-campus with her new girlfriend Julie (a nod to the fact that Karolina and Julie Power of the Power Pack briefly dated in Marvel’s comics). Runaways doesn’t exactly frame Nico and Karolina’s breakup as an overly negative thing, because relationships ending is a perfectly normal part of life. It’s awkward for them both when the episode brings the team back together in order to fight the good fight one last time, but the young women are able to work past the complications of their emotions because they’ve become different people with age.
By comparison, Marvel’s movies have still only managed to put exactly one (unnamed) queer character on the big screen, and all we know about him is that he survived Thanos’ snap and went on a date with a guy once. Being a series, Runaways has more room to expand upon characters’ interiority, but that doesn’t mean that Marvel’s movies can’t make the effort to bring a similar attention to detail to the queer characters coming to the MCU.
For years now, Marvel’s top brass has been saying “the gays are on their way,” and audiences have been patiently waiting. At this point though, given the way that in-universe queer characters have been presented so thoughtfully, when we meet these new folks Marvel better be ready to knock it out of the park.