Like every kid sibling stepping through the doors the high school their older brothers and sisters have spent years ruling over, Freeform’s newest offering, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, has a lot to prove, and a thousand standards against which it will inevitably be judged.
I mean, you can start right there, just with my dumbly convoluted phrasing: Freeform’s newest offering, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger. That awkwardness is the result of preciously long minutes of agonizing over how to arrange nouns and modifiers in such a way that both Marvel and Freeform could retain equal ownership over their stakes in showrunner Joe Pokaski’s Cloak & Dagger project without me having to write “Freeform’s Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger” and then immediately wash my eyes out with suspiciously irradiated water from Lake Borgne.
But awkward phrasing or not, that dual ownership is exactly Cloak & Dagger’s cross to bear. It has to face expectations in both the Marvel space, where it is neither Marvel’s first live-action TV series, nor its first live-action MCU series, nor its first grimly gritty live-action MCU series, nor its first live-action MCU teen series, nor even its first live-action adaptation of the Cloak & Dagger comics, and in the gritty teen programming space Freeform’s glacial self-rebranding intends to dominate, where Cloak & Dagger will be neither the network’s first violently grayscale offering, nor the teen space’s first grittily realistic supernatural offering, nor the teen space’s first supernatural offering set in New Orleans, nor the teen space’s first supernatural offering set in New Orleans starring a telegenic young white girl and an equally telegenic young black man who are both haunted by their pasts but also actually haunted by ghastly visions of deeply local, deeply human violence.
No, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Jessica Jones and Runaways and the Gen Xers’ 1984 film version of Cloak & Dagger well established in the Marvel space, and Freeform’s unsettlingly excellent Siren standing alongside Teen Wolf, The Originals and half of The CW’s programming over the last two decades in the rest of the teen television space at large, Cloak & Dagger is left with very little ground to claim for itself.
And yet, something about it feels wholly original—something about it completely (if bleakly) fresh.
Before I say anything else about the newest entry to the MCU, let me answer the question even those who don’t plan to watch are likely to have: Cloak & Dagger provides zero insight into—and in fact, makes zero reference to—the end of Infinity War. Whatever impact that arm of the MCU will have on the cultural behemoth’s various television series, it is unlikely to be a part of Cloak & Dagger’s first season, and thus needs have no bearing on the audience’s experience. It certainly has no bearing on my review.
Okay, back to Cloak & Dagger’s bleak freshness.
So, when I say bleak, I mean bleak. Within the first five minutes of the pilot (directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood), both kid-versions of Tandy (Dagger) and Tyrone (Cloak) have watched a loved one die in front of them—Tandy’s dad in a car crash/drowning, Tyrone’s brother shot by a cop—and have themselves both nearly drowned (they are only saved by the underwater explosion that gives them their Cloak & Dagger powers). By the time you’ve flashed forward to their teenaged present, poverty-stricken Tandy (Olivia Holt) has become an opiate-dependent scam artist flirting with violently entitled rich kids to steal from their medicine cabinets and voluntarily squatting in a dilapidated church to avoid her brokedown mom, while middle-class Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) is sleepwalking through his parents’ desperately terrified expectations and the physical animosity of the violently entitled rich white kids on his private school’s basketball team. Both have enormous, death-wish courting chips on their shoulder that will inform the arc of the first ten episodes—Tandy’s in the form of the corrupt Roxxon Corporation, Tyrone’s in the form of the corrupt white detective who murdered his brother—and both have no idea how to deal with anyone who might love them.
When they finally do re-meet each other after the first two long episodes, they do so through each other’s dreams, and if you thought their waking lives were nightmares, these dreams… well, let me avoid both spoilers and being a graphic downer and just say that, on the scale of Starlord to Jessica Jones, Cloak & Dagger rates a solid “Thank God These Kids’ Hard Lives in a Historically Racist, Classist City Are Limited by the Standards & Practices Rules of Broadcast Television.”
That said, none of this is just bleakness for bleakness’ sake. The city of New Orleans and all its cultural richness and duality is as much a character as Tandy or Tyrone, and was chosen by creator Joe Pokaski (of Paste favorite Underground) with both care and a gimlet eye for compelling storytelling. The bleak visual styling of the series, too, is just as effectively intentional: Superheroes Cloak and Dagger wield the powers of shadow and light, but in this adaptation especially, that’s not just about aesthetics. It’s about the tension of opposing ideologies, of agendas pulling souls in opposite directions, of the impossibility of trying to see the world as all good or all evil, all black or all white—and everything about the visual world of Cloak & Dagger reflects this. When Tandy is at her ballet class, everyone is in all white; when Tyrone is catching up with his brother, he is in all black. When the future opens on teen Tandy rolling up to the back door of a club, she and everyone around her is in all black; when it opens on future Tyrone playing the last brutal minutes of a basketball game, his team, dressed in all black, is playing a team dressed in all white. And, obviously, Tyrone himself is black, while Tandy herself is white. But none of this is superficial: The color-blocked imagery surrounding them tells one figurative part of the Cloak & Dagger story; their lived-in race and gender, and all the corresponding privileges and oppressions and assumptions and dangers those identities drag along behind them, those things tell another, more visceral part of the story, one that Pokaski and his carefully chosen writers and directors (the directing task split equally between four women and four men, and equally again between four white directors and four directors of color) treat with the utmost care.
This is a level of challenging complexity Marvel has some history in, but not outside the wilds of Netflix series produced for adult audiences. Freeform, too, has some history with such thematically challenging storytelling, especially with The Fosters, Pretty Little Liars and Siren, but not to this unapologetic extent. That it is all wrapped up in two teens grappling (if a little too slowly in the four episodes provided for review) with newfound superpowers—that’s a lot! And the fact that Cloak & Dagger seems to be pulling it off, well, that’s promising for the future of both Marvel and teen television.
Cloak & Dagger isn’t perfect, of course—the first several episodes can feel ponderously slow, and are frustrating in how long they keep Tyrone and Tandy apart and how much longer still they manage to not answer a single question about what is going on, but all that ponderousness is executed with a confidence and skill that promises a satisfying first season, and one I think you should give a shot. Let Marvel’s and Freeform’s kid sibling shine its own light (and shadow).
Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Freeform.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.