On the big screen, superheroes are trending lighthearted, exchanging chipper banter, acknowledging their own tropes with victim-in-a-Scream-sequel self-awareness. We just came off the farce Deadpool 2, soon we’ll have more size gags with Ant-Man and the Wasp, and even the cosmic destruction of Avengers: Infinity War found room for Hollywood Chris accent jokes.
A prime time, then, for the downbeat counterprogramming of Cloak & Dagger. The Freeform series (debuting June 7) adapts a comic book idea born of out of a druggy ’80s paranoia. The title characters were a super-duo with complementary powers, and they were a nifty visual concept: she a blonde white woman in a platinum-ivory jumpsuit firing light-ray daggers, like a club kid with a weaponized disco ball, he a sad-eyed black man in a swirling proto-Spawn shroud, with powers radiating fear and cold and shadow.
The Freeform series takes this very rough outline and cleverly modernizes it in unexpected directions. Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) is a straight-edge athlete, an honest-to-God choirboy attending a fancy-looking Catholic school. Tandy (Olivia Holt) is an apparent dropout living hard in an abandoned church, subsiding off conning rich kids out of their money. He’s got basketball practice, she’s snorting prescription meds. Her mom (played by Andrea Roth) is a druggy mess with a history of bad decisions. His mom is Gloria Reuben, lucky.
Tyrone and Tandy meet-uncute at a party: She flirts with him, then steals his wallet. Except that’s not quite the first time they meet. The pilot of Cloak and Dagger begins with a long origin prologue, bestowing both Tandy and Tyrone with dead relatives they can have flashbacks about. It also sets in motion a mystery that runs throughout the season — or rather, walks. The first four episodes of Cloak and Dagger follow the gradualist model of most small-screen Marvel lately, slooooooooowly introducing the pair’s powers, slooooooooowly getting them into the same room, slooooooooowly waiting until they acknowledge that perhaps they are destined to hang out together on this show named after them.
While the comic book duo were the umpteenth gritty-streets-of-New-York heroes, the TV series shoots in New Orleans, and finds unexpected ways to root Tyrone and Tandy in the local culture. Tyrone finds an appropriately cloak-ish costume at an outpost of the Mardi Gras Indians. There’s a tangent in the third episode where a potential love interest takes him on a voodoo tour of old New Orleans. Our two heroes are united in their confusing memories of a stormy, death-soaked evening from years ago — a Katrina-ish ambience that gives Cloak and Dagger an authentic feeling of mournfulness.
The series plays with other provocative material. Young Tyrone watches his brother get shot by a policeman — an unarmed young black man gunned down by law enforcement, a national-sin crime hastily covered up by the local PD. While Tyrone spends early episodes seeking vengeance, Tandy experiences a deep melancholy cusping on suicidal tendencies. And in the pilot, she’s attacked by a young man whose money she stole. He pushes her into a dark alley, unbuckles his belt. And then she stabs him with a dagger made of light — a slasher-movie puncture wound, glowing with angelic righteousness.
Cool stuff, and I dig the Freeform-y instincts powering these characters, rooted in equal parts emo-teen sensitivity and soap operatics. The superpowered stuff works less well. Tyrone and Tandy spend four episodes circling each other, joined together by a long-ago Incident that left them with peculiar powers. These manifest at arbitrary, plot-necessary intervals. They might randomly teleport to important plot points, or suddenly recall a long-buried memory. Tyrone has the ability to see other people’s greatest fears, while Tandy can see their happy memories (or high hopes). But they can also have shared visions, explain-y dreams that largely seem to exist so Tyrone and Tandy can learn everything about each other that us viewers already know. Tandy says one dream “was some kind of, I dunno, metaphor,” which is some kind of, I dunno, lame dialogue.
The series was created by Joe Pokaski, who worked on the solid first seasons of Heroes and Daredevil (and the galactically terrible final season of Heroes.) Some of the larger narrative elements of season 1’s big mystery feel familiar (with a parent-killing Big Evil Company at the center of it all). But Cloak & Dagger finds a new groove when Tyrone and Tandy start talking. Tandy’s a cynical old soul who barely wants to live; Tyrone’s a sweet overachiever struggling through his own pain. Their conversation takes on a larger dimension: “You have a life, and opportunities!” Tyrone tells Tandy. “Let me check your privilege! This whole country’s trying to kill me every day. Excuse me if I can’t sit around and contemplate suicide!”
So there’s real potential here. Joseph and Holt have a nice rhythm, when the show lets them hang out. But then you meet the tough New York cop who seems destined to play by her own rules, and someone just happens to see a shocking assassination through a window, and people keep talking about a Big Evil Company in a way that suggests some exciting plot momentum by episode 9. I’m pessimistic and optimistic about Cloak & Dagger, and hope the show’s openhearted thoughtfulness can energize its rather bargain-bin super-mythology. B