‘Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger’: The Gritty, Experimental And Topical Reimagining Of This Teen Superhero Drama Is Excellent (Review)

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May 31st 2018

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers from the first four episodes of Marvel's Cloak & Dagger. 

Freeform gets a lot of flack, and most of it is for no reason. But let the track record show that the network, formerly known as ABC Family, is on a winning streak. Many said there was no way the channel that brought you Pretty Little Liars could deliver a quality superhero drama. Critics expressed similar sentiments about a college-set black-ish spinoff  and a mermaid thriller. Freeform defied expectations in those instances and has challenged them two-fold for Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger.

Changing its comic book setting from New York to New Orleans, Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger is about the girl from the wrong side of the tracks and a boy from the other side who both happen to have superpowers. In a smart move that practically switches their origin stories, Tandy Bowen is a headstrong, rough-around-the-edges girl criminal who lives on the streets to get away from her alcoholic mother, and Tyrone Johnson is a quiet, smart, alcohol-abstaining, prep school basketball player from a suburban family.

Photo: Marvel Photo: Marvel

We see their childhood and origin stories play out in the first episode, and those ramifications set the stage for our superheroes’ plot. Years ago, a chance encounter sent both of them plunging into the ocean (Tandy in her father’s car and Tyrone diving in to save his brother after being fatally shot) where a Roxxon chemical explosion gives them powers that don’t arrive again until their second chance encounter years later. Tandy is still grieving over her father’s death at the hands of his employer, Roxxon, which resulted in her mother drinking and the collapse of her life and family. She takes to the streets in search of what the world has taken from her. She often lives in a church, taking and snorting prescription pills as opposed to staying at home. On the flip side, Tyrone is still dealing with seeing his older brother being gunned down by police and the officer getting away with it. He’s a good student and an introvert that still maintains an amount of prestige in his Catholic school’s social scene. But that doesn’t matter to him. His confidant is one of the school’s priests to whom he confides the struggles of what seems to be an unabating depression and sadness that he can’t shake from his brother’s death. The religious imagery and symbolism here with a backdrop of New Orleans is incredible.

You might notice that the series bears tons of resemblances to Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways. The similarity isn’t surprising, as they have crossovers in the Marvel comics. Along with Runaways, Cloak & Dagger had a considerable task ahead of it as probably one of the hardest properties to adapt for film or television. Not that the source material isn’t television friendly, but the fact that its YA characters don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with their adult subject matter.

The comic's creators conceived the characters and series during the height of the war on drugs, and the characters are symbolic of drug addiction in themselves. They have a somewhat symbiotic relationship and feed off of each other, literally. Although we still aren’t sure of the depth and details of their abilities, they are at least in the same realm as their comic powers. Dagger emits sharp, fatal “daggers” of light from her hands to heal people, and Cloak can teleport and send people into a Marvel concept called the “Darkforce.” Part of why we don’t know much about their powers by the fourth episode is because the teens themselves don’t know much about them or even how to use them. Right now, while Tandy can see into people’s hopes and dreams, Tyrone can look into their fears — what’s unknown is whether they will weaponize their abilities or if they can do this at free will. Also, in the first several episodes we don’t know how their powers work when together as it may not be straightforwardly symbiotic. Their hands are immediately forced apart when they touch. For the show, it works in their favor that they don't heavily use their powers during the first few episodes, which makes moments more impactful when they are.

The result of creator Joe Pokaski’s (who also co-created WGN’s critically-acclaimed Underground) work is something dark, moody and fantastic with massive potential. It has a worldliness that might not always appear in a Marvel series. Cloak and Dagger is much more grounded than most of the superhero shows we’ve seen, and changing the setting from NYC to post-Katrina New Orleans adds a critical cultural element and a seemingly unspoken supernatural one, as well. 

Photo: Freeform Photo: Freeform

Just as a lot of Cloak & Dagger’s canon on the comics, the show is dark and gritty, capturing the struggles in America today. The best thing the brass behind the show could have done was to reserve Tandy and Tyrone’s backgrounds, which could have treaded on harmful stereotypes if left intact from their ‘80s origins. Because of this, we get to see the series tackle the Black Lives Matter movement and the plight of black people in this country right now. Despite Tyrone’s status in society and the fact he comes from a well-off family, that doesn’t mean he’s not subject to the ills and injustices that black people in America face. On the flip side, Tandy operates as a walking embodiment of whiteness, and the show isn’t afraid to go there, as she can operate as a con-woman on the street with little-to-no consequence. Powerful, dueling monologues in the fourth episode (which sees Tyrone literally and figuratively check Tandy’s privilege) continue to solidify this dichotomy, the push and pull of their relationship and the fact the show is willing and ready to go the distance with incredible social commentary. The issue of race and how this adds to the tension in the show is an underlying theme.

Prolific director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights, Shots Fired) masterfully shot the pilot episode, illuminating each shot with the chance for our heroes to take center stage and for us to connect with them. The story method employed, beginning with Prince-Bythewood in the pilot, is so far very experimental. We go in and out of time periods, in and out of Tyrone and Tandy’s visions of people’s hopes and fears. If you’re not paying attention, you might get lost if you’re watching what’s happening in present-day, inside their heads or both. Among other things, this storytelling method sets the show apart from the rest of the pack of Marvel television and even television in general. It’s weird. It’s trippy. And it’s great. You probably haven’t seen TV like this before.

One of the most beautiful parts of Cloak & Dagger is that there is not a sole, clear villain. And sometimes these villains have manifested themselves in other ways — the American justice system, oppression, drugs, one’s mental well-being and so much more.  

Photo: Freeform Photo: Freeform

A common critique of shows within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), for better or worse, is that they are incredibly slow-paced and elongate the period of their superheroes coming into (or even discovering) their powers. Runaways is the MCU show that faces the brunt of this criticism the most and is also similar to Cloak & Dagger. But in an area where these shows rarely rise to the task, Cloak & Dagger excels, focusing on Tyrone and Tandy as people before superheroes. And as the Runaways slow-paced narrative focuses on a bloated cast of 18, Cloak & Dagger has the advantage of profiling our young heroes. That’s not to say that the show doesn’t move incredibly slow which will grind folks’ gears, but at least it seems to improve upon the slowness of its Marvel family of shows.

The casting directors did a superb job with Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph in the titular roles. Holt, a former Disney Channel star, and relative newcomer Joseph have outstanding chemistry together onscreen and hold their own in solo scenes. In this breakout role, Joseph brings a multi-layered portrayal to our soon-to-be hero who is sure to resonate with viewers. They aren’t the only two who deliver. The entire cast is impressive, especially Gloria Reuben as Tyrone’s mother who elevates each scene like the seasoned pro she is.

For the latest Marvel series, don’t judge a book by its cover. If you’re not familiar with the source material, don’t look at the promotional images which seem to have a young white girl embodying “light” and a young black boy embodying “dark,” because under this is a superhero story that is incredibly relevant in our society right now.

Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger debuts in a special two-hour premiere on June 7 and will air on Thursdays nights.

 

Trey Mangum is the lead editor of Shadow & Act. You can email him at trey@blavity.com & follow him on Twitter @TreyMangum

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