Marvel movies may have the big action scenes, but Marvel TV has always had the jump on telling superhero stories that engage with real-world problems. While The Avengers work to stop an all-powerful alien supervillain from completing his jewelry collection, shows like Luke Cage or Agent Carter tackle real-world issues like racism and sexism. Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, which is currently airing on Freeform, continues this tradition.
“I think we are at another time in our history where we need to see people that look different than Tony Stark or Peter Parker on the screen,” showrunner Joe Pokaski says.
Based on the Marvel comic book characters of the same name, Cloak & Dagger follows Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt), two teens growing up on opposite sides of the tracks in New Orleans. After the two are saved by a mysterious force when they are only children, they are bound together. Years later, this manifests in their respective powers: the ability to teleport through the Darkforce dimension for Tyrone and the ability to create daggers of light for Tandy.
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The superpowers are cool, but, for Pokaski, the success of any good superhero story depends on emotion.
“You don’t need to blow up a car, and you don’t need to lift the boat up telekinetically to save us from something,” he says of the superhero genre. For Pokaski, the reason we keep going back to these stories is because they are metaphors to help us understand ourselves emotionally.
“We are also in a place where we are starting to learn that the kids are going to save us all,” he says. “Look at the Parkland students. In a world where they’re told nobody’s going to push the needle on gun control, nobody’s going to stop the NRA, they stand up and they’re heard. I think we need to watch those stories and we need to be reminded that we can all be heroes. Particularly, the kids who are often told to sit down and be quiet, need to stand up and save the world.”
Cloak & Dagger has its emotional throughlines down, and most of them have little to do with being a superhero. Tandy is a poor, quasi-homeless white girl struggling to maintain a relationship with her addict mother, while Tyrone is a black prep school kid struggling to make his parents proud following the death of this older brother. The show does not shy away from exploring the complexities of these diverse, underrepresented identities.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t just telling white male stories with an actress or telling white male stories with a black man. We wanted to tell stories authentic to who Tandy or Tyrone were,” Pokaski says.
Pokaski understands the limits of his own perspective as a white man in crafting this story, and that self-awareness comes across in the finished product. While the show draws parallels between the oppressions Tandy suffers as a young, poor woman and the ones Tyrone is forced to endure as a young black man in America, it also recognizes the vast differences.
“In the pilot, we deal a lot with the fear you have of the police and the right to fear that you have and the right to skepticism,” says Pokaski. “It felt right to identify that story with Tyrone in an authentic way. With Tandy, the dangers she gets into towards the end of the first episode are representative of the dangers I don’t understand [as a man] every day when I’m walking on the street. I’m not looking over my shoulder the way a young woman might have to.”
Much of Cloak & Dagger’s narrative power comes from the specificity of its New Orleans setting, where the series films. The comic book is set in New York City, and Pokaski said he “breathed a sigh of relief” when Marvel TV’s Jeph Loeb suggested the series be set somewhere else.
“New York has so many superheroes and we have told all these stories,” says Pokaski. “There is something about [New Orleans] that felt right. There was a sense of an underdog… we call it, in the show, the city that refuses to die and that felt very Cloak & Dagger. The more we have learned about the city, the more it felt like the only place to set the story.”
Much of the show’s visual language, which includes a lot of intimate handheld shots, comes from director Gina Prince-Bythewood , who was behind the camera for the first episode. Prince-Bythewood is the writer-director behind films like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. When Pokaski decided he wanted to do what he calls “a Sundance coming-of-age story set in the Marvel Universe” Prince-Bythewood was at the top of his list.
“If you’ve seen any of her movies, particularly Beyond the Lights, which I think is brilliant, visually, it is exactly what we wanted to do,” says Pokaski. “ She responded to the material, she’s a mother of two boys who wanted to see more people like themselves on the screen.”
Another huge part of the Cloak & Dagger puzzle was finding its two young stars. After a long process, they found Olivia Holt, perhaps best known for Disney XD’s Kickin’ It, and Aubrey Joseph, previously seen on HBO’s The Night Of.
“Gina took a scene that I had written and just had them improv it and I’ve never had an experience like that in casting, where those two were on screen talking to each other, kind of riffing like jazz musicians,” Pokaski says. “I got chills. We all knew.”
Early on, Tyrone and Tandy’s relationship is an intentional slow-burn. They only come face-to-face briefly in the first few episodes, not getting a proper chat in until Episode 4. Pokaski says that, while the first half of the season is about Tandy and Tyrone “helping each other find their mission,” the second half is about “two very unprepared heroes trying to save the world and making mistakes along the way.”
What will that look like? Pokaski teases: “The best intentions gone awry and, hopefully, a complex-enough story that, when [Tandy and Tyrone] get what they want, it’s not at all what they need.”