Marvel's 'Cloak and Dagger': An exercise in delayed gratification
Cloak & Dagger, Marvel’s newest title to hit TV screens, has to first deal with giving not just one, but two superheroes – not quite an ensemble, but a dynamic duo – a gripping origin story before going any further.
Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt), the titular superhuman teenagers, are alike in having awesome powers at their disposal, but unlike each other in many ways – not even any obvious ties such as kinship by blood between them. This seems to complicate storytelling, but Cloak & Dagger isn’t sticking to a safe, common formula.
If the first two episodes are an ample indication, the series would deliberately invest in its characters more than plot-driven (often cliffhanger-driven) drama. It’s a slow burn – maybe moving at a glacial pace by some standards – but for now, this is neither tedious nor exasperating.
The duo debuted in a Spider-Man comic book published in 1982, just as US President Ronald Reagan’s administration was waging a War on Drugs, so even their origin was inextricably linked to it. This adaptation doesn’t feel like just a mere update or transplant though, as it doesn’t shy away from building a gritty world not so far removed from the real America – so distant and yet so familiar, thanks to the news media with its reports and think pieces galore.
This is America, as seen through the microcosmic setting of contemporary New Orleans: still struggling with racism, police brutality, class inequality, drug abuse, sexual assault, and more. This New Orleans is also the one, same city that Tyrone and Tandy navigate, but really, there’s two different, parallel worlds.
This is Cloak & Dagger’s bold stroke: the duo, whose names appear on the marquee, rarely run into each other in the early episodes – save for a few key sequences. Most of the time is spent deftly shuttling and shifting between their two perspectives.
The series also tries to address the eyebrow-raising optics and politics of the source material by reimagining it with more nuance and realism. The gray areas are highlighted, as it tackles the tricky interconnection of class, gender, and race.
While it’s barely groundbreaking for a superhero show to take these big issues on, it also avoids the trap of being too pontificating by being grounded in such riveting character studies – even though there is still little (nonetheless brewing!) team chemistry to assess.
Tyrone, a young black man, deals with his academics, the basketball team, and his overprotective parents (Gloria Reuben & Miles Mussenden), and on the surface level, he does have all the necessary comforts of life.
Tandy, a blonde and white former ballerina, knew better days before the death of her father, whose company, the looming Roxxon Corp, had taken everything from her and her now drug-addled mother (Andrea Roth). Together with her boyfriend Liam (Carl Lundstedt), the dropout scrapes by through conning rich kids. During one of these con jobs, Tandy meets Tyrone and pickpockets him – but what is not readily clear to them both: this encounter is really a reunion.
The pilot episode’s cold open-slash-prologue depicts the night of a cataclysm involving a Roxxon Corp offshore facility, as well as Tyrone and Tandy’s shared history with tragedies that have left a crater upon their lives. The former witnesses his unarmed brother shot dead by the police, while the latter, with her father, crashes into the lake as the facility explodes.
As the two plunge into the lake, the first hints of their superpowers also manifest: Tyrone spews dark swirls as Tandy’s hands emanate with a bright, white light. Later on, they exhibit teleportation and bizarre visions, respectively.
The series starts without much on-the-nose explanations to what these powers mean, yet Tyrone and Tandy are still hardly shown grappling with the consequences of suddenly having their strange abilities (being different, “With great power comes great responsibility,” et cetera, et cetera).
It’s as if the show has been sidestepping the tendency to turn the pair into weird outcasts – and this would indeed happen, if this was your run-of-the-mill superhero story. It eschews a familiar mythos, and instead, keeps the superhuman element as the icing on top of the battles Tyrone and Tandy already face.
Take Cloak & Dagger apart as two origin stories, and these can still stand on their own, but where’s the fun in that? The third – that of the dynamic duo – can be a legend. Whether or not this series can skillfully pull it off and be consistent about it in future seasons is an entirely different concern without any answer yet.
This offering from showrunner Joe Pokaski (whose screenwriting credits include Heroes and Netflix’s Daredevil), when compared to the other entries in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, is early on proving to be a contender.
It’s close in spirit to Marvel’s other left field ventures such as those on Netflix (the four individual Defenders series) or FX’s Legion. It even harkens back to HBO greats like The Wire or Treme for its neorealistic sensibilities (and the latter for the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans setting).
But it’s not quite the standout… yet.
When the two protagonists are teasingly kept apart for an unnecessarily long time – and maybe, if there would never be a catastrophic menace of Infinity War proportions, it’s convenient to just give up on it.
There’s this thing called delayed gratification though, and strong, well-executed character introductions do help.
Cloak & Dagger exclusively streams in the Philippines via HOOQ. New episodes drop every Friday, on the same day as the US telecast on Disney-ABC’s Freeform channel. – Rappler.com