While their cinematic universe continues to be a game changer, Marvel’s television-based efforts have been quietly revolutionary in their own way. Although Agents of SHIELD is often shoved to the side as a minor player in the franchise, the studio’s Netflix offerings have played around with a variety of genres to showcase some of their lesser known characters, all while taking full advantage of the freedoms offered by a streaming service platform that aren’t available through the traditional TV network format. Shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were able to be darker, with more exploration of themes of violence and sexuality that would have struggled to get past, say, the executives at ABC. That’s not to say the network TV format is lacking for creative output, nor that Marvel cannot work well within those boundaries: It just works better with a different audience.
While it was the announcement of The Inhumans on ABC that garnered the lion’s share of headlines, the adaptations of Cloak and Dagger (coming to Freeform in 2018) and The Runaways (which will be available on Hulu) may signal the most interesting shift for Marvel’s TV work, as this hints at a major effort to appeal a younger demographic. This is an audience that already devours their movies and TV shows with zeal, but it’s one not as highly represented on-screen in the MCU.
Outside of Peter Parker, the heroes of the Marvel universe are generally aged between mid-twenties to early forties. The teen/young-adult demographic is one the studio has done little to cater to in the past, although outside of film and TV, they have been making some interesting changes.
Works like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel and Brandon Montclare and Amy Reed’s Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur have been hugely popular with younger audiences, who have clung onto stories about kids and teenagers playing their part in the sprawling comics universe of Marvel. Then in 2015, Marvel CEO Joe Quesada announced a series of YA novels set within the Marvel universe, following fan favorites like Captain Marvel and Black Widow during their early years.
These non-canon books, like the many Star Wars stories written outside of that universe’s canon, offer much to the burgeoning readership of comics, wherein women readers aged between 17 and 33 saw the highest level of growth. Marvel are clearly aware of this new, enthusiastic and highly profitable demographic, and are doing much to create works for them in a medium that still dominates publishing, and possibly creating loyal fans for life, but there’s been little change for their film and television model.
Cloak and Dagger, which will be airing on a network explicitly designed to cater to teens, may offer not only a strategy of storytelling for Marvel that is financially sound, but also creatively satisfying. Marvel is aware of the upcoming show’s appeal to the teen audience and its ties to Young Adult tropes. During the Marvel event at the Television Critics Association press tour last summer, Marvel TV’s Jeff Loeb described the appeal of Cloak and Dagger as “a love story that happens to have characters that have always traditionally been in that age group,” adding that “it speaks to a YA audience and is a YA property.”
Loeb is right that the romance element will speak loudly to the YA demographic, who remain largely female (with over half of YA novels, according to the National Endowment of Arts, being bought by adult women). Freeform has also previously found great success with two YA adaptations, Pretty Little Liars and Shadowhunters.
Much of the superhero genre fits within the mold of young adult fiction: The coming-of-age narrative is frequently paralleled with stories of discovering incredible powers, interactions with the supernatural, or battles against tyrannical systems. While most commonly defined as a genre-focused category, young adult, literary or otherwise, has always dealt with darker and more raw topics of adolescence and the world around us. Similarly to superhero stories, the fantastical elements are vessels to tell more grounded stories and morals: The Hunger Games satirizes reality television while condemning a dictatorial government that plies its citizens with cheap entertainment to oppress them; A Monster Calls uses folk tales and imagery to explore grief and its accompanying anger; even Twilight uses its melodramatic love story to dramatize the fear of ageing and allure of perceived perfection.
This is a tradition Marvel and other superhero stories have long participated in. Spider-Man and the X-Men are arguably the most famous takes on it, with the latter’s story of mutants versus humans being used as a metaphor for everything from civil rights to the LGBTQ rights movement. Cloak and Dagger is also an especially potent example of combining teen focused tropes with current affairs and concerns, using metaphor to tackle the realities of its readership. The origin story of Tyrone and Tandy is one of the darkest in Marvel, with its roots in the ongoing War on Drugs of the 1980s and touching on gang violence, police brutality and racism, all of which is explored through a superhero lens. It’s a glory of untapped storytelling potential for a universe that has already used superpowers and their world to explore rape culture, colonialism, the over-reach of government, war and fascism. Combine that with a romantic drama and it’s perfectly suited to the YA genre and its audience.
Of course, this isn’t a story exclusively for young adults, but its appeal as a young adult story will carry over to its already dedicated older fan-base while creating content for newer viewers who hunger for stories featuring kids their own age. Cloak and Dagger, like its predecessors on Netflix, offers Marvel the chance to use an unexplored genre to tell difficult stories through a superhero lens, but now with better representation for a younger age group. Their comics and novels have already shown the immense potential available, so now it’s time for TV to pick up the teen mantle.