Funny to think about what Marvel’s TV footprint looked like just five years ago, isn’t it? Superheroes were scarce on the boob tube in the summer of 2013. The CW’s Arrow was a lone, dimly lit beacon in prime time, but that was a property from Marvel’s blood rival, DC Entertainment. There was an assortment of Marvel cartoons for kids, but they didn’t occupy that Adventure Time/Steven Universe sweet spot where woke grown-ups and colorphile stoners could get in on the action. Marvel may be known as the House of Ideas, but back then, it seemed to have very few of them outside the big screen or the printed page. For the folks behind Captain America and Iron Man, television was a wasteland.
Now, we’re drowning in televised Marvel product. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Daredevil. Jessica Jones. Luke Cage. Legion. Iron Fist. The Gifted. The Punisher. Runaways. That’s not even counting the departed The Inhumans and Agent Carter, or the what-could-have-been dream of Donald and Stephen Glover’s defunct Deadpool series. The breadth of style and conceit is astounding: Agents is a day-glo sci-fi procedural deeply committed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Jessica Jones is a PTSD-infused feminist cri de coeur; Legion is a Kubrick-obsessed trip through subjective reality and dance-battling, and so on. Add on the fact that DC has its own armada of seven (!) ongoing superhero joints and you have a microcosm of the present TV-watcher’s dilemma: There’s simply too much stuff to get through.
But dear reader, even if you’re as overwhelmed as I am, I urge you to turn the lights down low and give a shot to the latest Marvel TV enterprise, Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger, which premieres on June 7. Just try the Gina Prince-Bythewood–directed, Joe Pokaski–penned pilot. Trust me. You won’t find a more gently realized, naturalistically performed, and moodily moving meta-human saga anywhere else on the dial. Nary a trace of camp is to be found, nor does it fall into the trap of fanatical self-seriousness. It’s a calm, dreamlike, blissfully tender take on the holes within us — be they caused by systemic injustice, familial collapse, self-medication, or any number of other supervillains — that no amount of radioactive mutation can fill.
This being a non-Legion superhero show, the core conceit is a smooth pill to swallow. Thanks to a freak scientific accident, two grade-schoolers are granted special abilities that only begin to fully manifest when they run into each other as teens. One of them is Ty (Aubrey Joseph), a well-off black kid whose older brother was murdered by police on the night of the accident. He is a lad of great potential, but his sibling’s absence leaves him in a state of near-perpetual depression and obsession. His co-star is Tandy (Olivia Holt), a formerly well-off white girl whose father died in the accident, whose mother drifted into grief-fueled addiction, and who has since become a runaway and thief.
After their initial, anonymous encounter on the night of the accident, Ty and Tandy lead separate lives until chance pulls them together and their bodies become uncanny: Ty discovers that he can teleport; Tandy is shocked at her sudden ability to create deadly sharp, luminescent shards of crystal. Neither has any control whatsoever over these meta-human traits. In the four episodes released to critics, Ty and Tandy don’t fight evil so much as they just try to grapple with the trauma and confusion of their unwanted new lives. Rather than amaze their possessors, these new powers terrify them. In other words, welcome to adolescence.
Fans of Marvel deep cuts will swiftly recognize that, with the exception of the age, powers, and skin colors of the leads, this sounds nothing like the comic books from which Cloak and Dagger came. Hallelujah. I don’t mean to denigrate the thrilling ’80s ideas and visuals of original Cloak and Dagger creators Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan. The mere existence of this show and the continuing appearances of Ty and Tandy in print are testament to their conceptual heft.
No, I’m merely praising Marvel Television’s willingness to boil a superhero concept down to the elements that work best and, beyond that, be purely inventive. All too often, these shows end up with missteps or pablum because of excessive fidelity to the source material (did Iron Fist really need to be white, and couldn’t his pals hang out somewhere more interesting than Hell’s Kitchen?). Here, showrunner Pokaski and his team free themselves up to build a world, not simply translate one from one medium to another. It’s a world into which the viewer slides comfortably and doesn’t want to leave. The original Cloak and Dagger comics were, like most Marvel tales, set in New York City. Pokaski & Co. make the wise, surprising decision to put their supernatural action squarely in the un-touristy parts of New Orleans. In their hands, it becomes the Big Uneasy, a burg that feels distinctly on edge and compellingly specific.
Meanwhile, Catholicism abounds: Ty attends a parochial school and verbally tussles with a hip priest who wants to save him; Tandy resides in an empty church, abandoned perhaps due to institutional neglect and/or the lasting effects of Katrina (an event occasionally alluded to, but never addressed directly, making it all the more ominous). A character — and a surprising one, at that — is revealed to be part of a group of Mardi Gras Indians, and the camera and script linger hungrily on the details of that rich subculture. Racial tension bubbles just below the surface at all times: “This whole country’s trying to kill me every day,” Ty tells Tandy in a moment of privilege-checking, “so excuse me if I can’t afford to sit around and contemplate suicide.”
Joseph delivers the line with a potent mixture of outrage and despair, confidence and resignation. Holt receives it with a facial expression that’ll break your heart: Tandy has been berating him and continues to do so afterward, but just for a moment, she bites her lip and looks as though she’s going to cry — perhaps out of white guilt, but more likely out of empathy for a fellow broken human. It’s just one of the many instances in which you’ll sit in admiration of the two young performers, both of them capable of dredging up the opaque muck of youthful self-loathing with a deftness that is as agonizing as it is gripping. Add in top-notch turns from Gloria Reuben and Andrea Roth as Ty and Tandy’s respective mothers, Adina and Melissa, and there’s a hearty helping of understated acting to feast on.
Even if the performances were lackluster, one could still find enjoyment in the show’s most important feature: its unparalleled blend of the naturalistic and the surreal. Most superhero shows pick one or the other of those two elements — the Marvel Netflix series go for the former; Legion and the DC CW shows, the latter — but Cloak and Dagger succeeds in playing with both. There’s no better example than the conclusion of the series’ cold open, in which we see the accident and its initial consequences for the wee versions of Ty and Tandy. It’s a rainy night and Ty, having just seen his brother shot by the cops on a waterfront, dives into the Gulf after him. Tandy, meanwhile, is nearby in a car with her father when a distraction and an oncoming truck thrust them off the road and into the drink.
What comes next is a few minutes of footage that establish what fans of Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights already know, which is that Prince-Bythewood is a master of mood. As Ellie Goulding’s elegiac “Dead in the Water” plays, Tandy attempts to wake up her dead father in their fast-filling car and Ty touches his similarly deceased brother underwater. The shots are claustrophobic and the child actors trigger a paternal panic in the viewer. (I’ll be the first to admit that I cried a little; I knew the kids would survive, but I also knew they’d never truly recover.) There’s a mysterious explosion and, soon afterward, Ty sees a light emanating from Tandy’s car. He swims to it while a black, oily fog creeps through the water. No words are exchanged, but somehow, in defiance of the presence of a car roof, the youths’ hands reach one another. Our final image before the title card is these two tiny limbs in a desperate vertical grip. It’s a nightmare cross-faded into a fairy tale, and it’s not soon forgotten.
Cloak and Dagger doesn’t overly rely on such moments. The powers appear rarely, and thus retain their shock and impact when they do. Plus, we gradually learn that there’s more to these abilities than teleportation and light daggers, and though I won’t spoil what that consists of, suffice it to say that it provides for a set of inventive fantasy sequences that, unlike the bizarro visions of Legion, never eschew emotional oomph for the sake of being weird. Yet the show is weird, in its unique way, which keeps it from descending into mere teen-angst drama. In short, there’s a lot going on in Cloak and Dagger, and if it can keep up its pace of invention and revelation, it promises to be your essential superhero watch of the summer.