Freeform’s target audience is young adults, so it was a given that Marvel’s first television show on the network, Cloak & Dagger, would be heavy on teen drama. But beyond that, it’s trying to tell a welcome story about other sorts of powers besides superpowers – assuming you can stick with it.
Set in Louisiana, Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger tells the story of Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen, two kids from opposite sides of the tracks who find themselves drawn to one another because of a mysterious accident they both survived as children that imbued them with superpowers. Tandy receives the ability to create daggers out of pure light, which she can throw, while Tyrone can teleport, although he generates a dark smoke-like effect around him when doing so.
While their powers are basically the same as in the 1980s Marvel comics, the details of Tyrone and Tandy’s lives have been swapped: Here, it’s Tyrone that comes from a rather well-off family and enjoys the social status of being upper middle class. Tandy, on the other hand, struggles to make ends meet; her father has died, and her mother deals with the trauma as a functioning alcoholic. As the season opens, we see that Tyrone’s a college-bound star athlete with almost every opportunity in the world ahead of him, while Tandy uses her street smarts to swindle and scam unsuspecting marks around her who have more money than they know what to do with.
For its first four episodes, at least, Cloak & Dagger cannily infuses Tyrone and Tandy’s interactions with a pointed tension surrounding the fact that there are other types of power and discrimination that each of them have to deal with on a daily basis. Even with all of Tyrone’s economic advantages, he’s still a black boy living in the American South at a time when to be black in public spaces is often to put one’s self in social danger. Tandy’s beauty is inexorably tied to her whiteness – something Cloak & Dagger emphasises with the general whiteness of her costumes – and it’s what allows her to get close enough to people in exclusive spaces so that she can rob them blind.
In a lot of ways, Tyrone and Tandy’s powers (which are used sparingly in the first few episodes) are a kind of commentary about the way that the public typically perceives black men and white women. There’s a light that radiates from within Tandy through all of her layers of pain and anguish, and when pushed, the light forms into her signature daggers. Tyrone’s teleportation powers are tricky and inconsistent, but they’re always prefaced by the presence of a looming, smoky shadow that rises up out of the darkness on screen to envelop and transport him to safety in times of stress.
Unlike a lot of Marvel’s other television shows, Cloak & Dagger is relatively light on the traditional comic book-y action, and because of that, the show instead focuses on a more conceptual aspect of their superpowers. When Tyrone and Tandy make physical contact with other people, they’re able to glimpse into their souls and see either their darkest fears or brightest hopes. Though the kids don’t initially understand what they’re doing, in time they come to use that particular aspect of their abilities to move through the world as more understanding, empathic people.
Though it could have easily gone in the opposite direction, Cloak & Dagger doesn’t at all try to suggest that Tyrone and Tandy are destined to fall in love with one another. Unlike the comics, the two don’t need each other’s power to survive — in fact, when they touch, they’re forcefully repelled from each other. They are, however, kids on their way to becoming friends who are learning to meaningfully see things from different perspectives – a kind of superpower that isn’t often centered in these kinds of shows.
But, this is a Marvel television show and it does fall into some of the issues that have plagued its sibling programs in the past. Much like a lot of the Netflix Marvel shows, Cloak & Dagger is slow in a way that can’t be understated.
The build-up to the show’s plot about the kids investigating an oncoming disaster related to the Roxxon corporation that will destroy their town is… well, it’s in there, but it doesn’t effectively make you want to stick with the show. The forward momentum from scene to scene is lacking, but to be fair, all of the performances are stellar. Olivia Holt’s Tandy is equal parts tough, wily, and vulnerable, while Aubrey Joseph brings a kind of sweet sensitivity to Tyrone that rings true to the comics. If anything, the biggest issues with the show all lie in its sometimes frenetic editing, especially in scenes where Tyrone and Tandy are using the more psychic parts of their powers.
When the kids are in a person’s dreamscape, they’re in a place that isn’t defined by logic, and the show depicts that with a number of visual cues like odd costumes, inconsistent camera angles, and frenzied jump cuts. As a whole, the effect is hit or miss because of how difficult it makes discerning what’s actually happening in the moment. It always takes a second for you to reacclimatize yourself with the show’s more traditionally-shot moments.
Cloak & Dagger isn’t exactly a show for die-hard comic book purists looking for a live-action translation of the superheroes they love, but that ultimately works out in its favour because that’s not what it’s trying to be. Cloak & Dagger wants you to see the power in and importance of being able to see across differences — a bit of a cheesy message, perhaps, but one that we could all stand to remind ourselves of more often.
Cloak & Dagger premieres June 7 on Freeform.