How Cloak & Dagger Makes the (Marvel Cinematic) Universe A Better Place
We talked to showrunner Joe Pokaski about addressing real-world issues, who's behind the camera, and fitting into the larger MCU.
Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger doesn’t have time to deal with Thanos. The Freeform show’s superpowered kids have their own pressing, terrestrial concerns.
Described by showrunner Joe Pokaski (Underground, Heroes) as “a Sundance coming-of-age movie in the Marvel universe,” Cloak & Dagger is a superhero drama that doesn’t waste its time coming up with supernatural threats to the universe.
Instead, it has teen protagonists Tandy (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) use their burgeoning superpowers to confront real-world issues like police and corporate corruption, substance use disorder, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and systemic inequalities. The result is a cathartic experience for any superhero fan who finds themself sometimes wishing heroes would stop trying to save the entire universe and stab some local rapists instead.
“We get to dive in a little deeper, we get to have a few more character switches than you would in a traditional movie,” Pokaski told Den of Geek when we chatted about what a long-format TV show like Cloak & Dagger can do that an Marvel Cinematic Universe big-budget tentpole like Avengers: Endgame cannot. (But, don’t worry, guys—we can have both.)
“We get to touch on some real-life issues like human trafficking,” Pokaski said—a sentiment that Head of Marvel TV Jeph Loeb echoed at last week’s WonderCon, pointing out how the real-world relatability of Cloak and Dagger‘s obstacles has always been integral to the comic book characters’ narratives.
“When you’re talking about Cloak and Dagger, the best part is that this is who they are,” said Loeb. “They … never felt like [characters who] should be stopping bank robbers or trying to seal a giant hole in the universe. They really were much more adept at helping people that couldn’t help themselves.”
In Season 1, Tandy and Tyrone took on issues like police and corporate corruption. In Season 2, the teen superheroes are poised to face human trafficking, a modern form of slavery.
Pokaski said the idea to represent human trafficking probably began when he was working on a previous drama, WGN’s runaway slaves-centric period drama Underground. In doing research for the show, Pokaski visited Baton Rouge’s Burden Center, where he talked to one of the museum’s experts.
“I was trying to sound smart and I was like, where’s the real hotspots of slavery right now? Is it in the Sudan? Is it in the Congo?” recounted Pokaski. “And he kind of just pointed yonder and said it’s in the highways of the United States. And it always sat with me that he said there’s hundreds of thousands of people being trafficked for sex or for labor in the United States and nobody cares.”
The Cloak and Dagger writing team took the responsibility of depicting human trafficking seriously, doing research into what real-life incidents of illegal smuggling and trading of people for forced labor or sexual exploitation looks like.
“We realized nobody’s really talking about this,” said Pokaski. “We felt like, if Tandy and Tyrone are going to be the heroes for people who are lost, let’s try to actually find a story where people are lost and maybe we could do some good.”
read more: Cloak and Dagger Showrunner Considering Runaways Crossover
If Cloak and Dagger is like the younger sibling of other, more culturally-powerful stories from the MCU, then it is firmly a Generation Z sib. Tandy and Tyrone are set about fixing a world that the older generations have dropped the ball on in some pretty major ways. (And we’re not just talking about Thanos.)
At the end of Season 1, Tyrone and Tandy subvert a prophecy that one of them must die to save the city, a storytelling decision that Pokaski called a loose “tribute to the Parkland kids” and, more generally, a tribute to a generation of kids coming of age in America right now who aren’t afraid to questions the status quo in some major, vocal ways.
“It was our tribute to the [Generation Z] idea that we need to stop listening to the old folks,” said Pokaski. “We need to stop listening to the old things that say: It has to be this way. There’s no such thing as gun control. No, you can’t give everyone health care. You’ll never get off oil.”
Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse American generation yet, with roughly 48 percent of them coming from communities of color. This is a reality that most TV shows or movies fail to represent either in front of or behind the camera. With shows like Cloak and Dagger, that is hopefully changing.
“If we’re going to talk about sexism, if we’re going to talk about racism, you want people in the [writers’] room who have different opinions and different perspectives,” said Pokaski. “You get into conversations about privilege. You get into conversations about the male gaze, conversations about things that I didn’t even know existed years ago.”
When the question of more inclusive representation both behind and in front of the camera comes up, the discussion can sometimes take the turn of “diversity for diversity’s sake,” completing ignoring the fact that increased diversity creates more, different kinds of stories to love, discuss, and be challenged by.
Cloak and Dagger Season 1 included writers J.Holtham (who also wrote for the excellent and diverse Pitch), Marcus Guillory, Niceole Levy, Christine Ann Boylan, Jenny Klein (Jessica Jones, Supernatural), Peter Calloway (American Gods), and Ariella Blejer & Dawn Kamoche (a writing team who also worked on Sharp Objects).
“[Having a diverse writers’ room] allows us to understand something from an almost cubist perspective,” said Pokaski. “Because you have five or six different people with different socioeconomic, racial, [gender] backgrounds. Understanding something helps you find the universal story behind it.”
Cloak and Dagger‘s commitment to diversity carries over to the show’s directors. The Cloak and Dagger pilot was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the black female filmmaker behind movies like Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Prince-Bythewood set the visual style for the show and was “a hard act to follow,” noted Pokaski.
“We try to do everything handheld where we can, we try to be intimate,” said Pokaski. “The idea is when you grow up, you’re not stable, so not a lot of dolly shots. There’s a lot of uncertainty. One of the movies we always talk about is Like Crazy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it’s about growing up, it’s about being in love. It’s insane, that movie. So I think we just look for somebody who kind of wants do something a little different, wants to do something a little intimate.”
In the first season, four of Cloak and Dagger‘s nine directors were women: Prince-Bythewood, Ami Canaan Mann (back for Season 2), Ry Russo Young (who directed upcoming feature The Sun is Also a Star), and Jennifer Phang (who returned for the Cloak and Dagger Season 2 premiere). Doctor Who‘s Wayne Yip directed the season finale, with Alex Garcia Lopez, Paul Edwards, Jeff Woolnough, and Peter Hoar rounding out the group.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of directors who want to come back,” noted Pokaski, while adding that the show is always looking for “up-and-coming directors” to take a chance on. Cloak and Dagger Season 2 will see Rachel Goldberg (American Horror Story) and Lauren Wolkstein (Queen Sugar, The Strange Ones) join the directorial roster.
“We try to take chances on the new people,” said Pokaski. “Even more so than being a writer, if you’re a director, you have this thing, you’ve got this hour of television you can show, you have this movie that says, ‘I can do this.'”
Cloak & Dagger is not just one of the most relevant superhero shows on TV; it’s one of the most relevant dramas on TV, full stop, and that is in no small part because of the diverse writers room and directors it has behind the scenes, shaping this story and exploring the complex intersection of identities that affect how Tandy and Tyrone move through and are treated by the world.
“I’m proud of my writers,” said Pokaski, “and what we’ve been able to do as far as determining we’re going to be the show that takes on real villains and that turns the light on some darkness that society doesn’t necessarily shine upon. I think that’s something we can do that you might not be able to do when there’s a billion dollars on the line.”
Cloak and Dagger Season 2 has its two-hour season premiere tonight on Freeform at 8pm ET.
Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.