Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger Review (Spoiler-Free)

Freeform's Cloak and Dagger is a mature, socially-engaged teen drama poised to be one of the best TV shows of the year.

This Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger review is based on the first four episodes.

Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger opening pre-titles sequence is one of the best series openers I have seen in a long time. It follows kid versions of the show’s main characters, Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph), on the day that changed their lives forever. The day they both lost the person they loved most in the world. The day some mysterious force saved them from the same fate, and brought them together. If you’re not invested in this world and these characters by the time the “Cloak and Dagger” title comes up on the screen, then there’s nothing I can do for you.

Following the titles, the episode picks up many years later with Tandy and Tyrone as teenagers, their lives forever changed by that day. Tandy, who spent the beginning years of her life in economic privilege, is now living in quasi-homelessness as she struggles to maintain a relationship with her unstable, addict mother. Tyrone, fueled by the guilt surrounding his older brother’s death all those years ago, works doubly as hard to make it up to his parents as the star athlete on his prep school’s basketball team. 

The efficiency and depth with which we get to know these two stoic characters is one the chief strengths of this show. It is an intimacy built into the visual language of the series by pilot director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Since Friday Night Lights, many a TV show has tried to pull off the handheld camera, quasi-documentary style, but few series have also had the clarity of vision, the specificity of setting, and the performances to do it well. Prince-Bythewood, who has written and directed feature film stunners like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, is more than up to the task. Every close-up on Tandy or Tyrone’s face is in the service of understanding where they are emotionally. Every symbolic shot, such as one that sees Tyrone shrouded in a black, cloak-like sheet looking out over the city, is done in the service of story and tone.

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It helps that Cloak and Dagger has some things to say. This is a dark show that doesn’t shy away from the sometimes harsh realities of life in America, from the way our country fails our most vulnerable citizens. Cloak and Dagger wonderfully subverts tropes and racist expectations when it comes to the two main characters, with conventionally pretty white girl Tandy as the con woman criminal and black teen boy Tyrone as a the quiet rule-follower who doesn’t drink and is BFFs with the priest at his school. In the process, the show is able to delve more honestly into some nuanced, underrepresented subjects, especially when it comes to race and class: Tyrone’s fear of the police, and his mother’s concerns that, even if he does everything right, he will still be killed for the “crime” of his blackness. Tandy’s inability to depend on anyone because she has been so failed by the authority figures in her life, as well as how everything from her diet to her clothes to her truancy is shaped by her poverty, by her lack of choice.

Either of these two characters could successfully ground their own TV show, so articulately written, filmed, and acted they are. The fact that we get both of them in Cloak and Dagger makes the story that much stronger, while also eschewing the all-too-common Chosen One trope that makes up a majority of our hero stories, both in the Marvel Universe and beyond. There’s nothing more apsirationally American than a story of individualism; but there’s nothing more honestly American than a story about community, family, and relationships, and the ways they can pull us down and build us up.

In a a sea of superhero stories that prioritize the individual, we need more stories like Cloak and Dagger, which refuses to put its characters in a vacuum when it comes to either their privileges and powers or their oppressions and struggles. As this year’s other great superhero TV debut, Black Lightning, also cleverly reflects: just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you can opt out of systemic oppression. The only “superpower” that can get someone out of that is the genetic and social lottery that grants rich, white, cishet male identity.

Given this exploration of the failures and flaws of modern America, it makes sense that, unlike the Cloak and Dagger comic, the Cloak and Dagger TV show is set (and filmed) in New Orleans. It is a place of stark disparity, and a city characterized by its ability to rebuild itself again and again following death and destruction and the failure of institutions to fulfill their end of the social contract. Past that, Cloak and Dagger uses New Orleans rich culture of Vodun and details like the Mardi Gras Indians in (at least, to this cultural outsider, what seems like) respectful ways to inform the story’s relationship to spirituality and belief. Vodun is treated in the same way as more represented and socially-respected belief systems like Christianity. In this story, they are both manifestations of, or perhaps different ways of interpreting, the same great, otherworldly power.

Cloak and Dagger takes the slow-burn approach when it comes to both Tandy and Tyrone’s relationship, as well as the progression of their burgeoning superpowers. By the end of the fourth episode, neither the viewer nor the characters have any idea what the hell is going on with Tandy’s ability to conjure a dagger of light from thin air or Tyrone’s ability to teleport through space with the use of any cloak-like material. We just know that, amongst all of the injustices these two are forced to endure, maybe the universe is giving these two a break for once—and maybe that greatest break is the gift of someone else who understands their loneliness.

This isn’t to say the first four episodes of Cloak and Dagger are slow—far from it—they are just grounded in a different kind of dramatic urgency, one driven by human emotion and the respective trials these two go through everyday as two people who have been dealt shitty situations at a heartbreakingly young age. Cloak and Dagger understands something that many other superhero TV shows, or other TV shows in general, sometimes never get: the deepest, most urgent drama doesn’t come from external conflict, but from the complex and infinite emotional context of a human life.

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Cloak and Dagger is not just one of the best superhero premieres of the year; it is poised to become one of the best TV dramas of 2018.

Cloak and Dagger premieres on June 7th at 8 p.m. ET on Freeform.

Rating:

5 out of 5