Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger series on Freeform begins with an unforced error that’s all too common in the world of superhero adaptations, especially those that fall under the Marvel Television banner. The premiere mistakes the details of its characters’ backstory for propulsive storytelling, and in doing so begins long before the story actually starts. The result is yet another superhero series that’s seemingly in no hurry to get wherever it’s going.
The series’ begins by taking the audience back to when its lead characters, Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy were children, crisscrossing two tragic experiences on the day their lives would be inextricably linked and forever changed. The sequence puts young Tyrone (Maceo Smedley) and young Tandy (Rachel Ryals) in mortal danger following a police shooting and a car accident that takes someone important from both characters. The moment builds to an impassioned crescendo that, in addition to being visually incoherent, never quite conveys what the connection between the two characters is meant to be. It just is, and that should be good enough for the audience, apparently.
The choice to begin so far removed from the actual plot of the series is a choice the premiere never quite recovers from. Taking the time to labor over details from the past rather than weave them into the story as it unfolds, leaves the hour struggling to find any sense of forward momentum. It also wastes what would have been a much more powerful reveal had we gotten to know Tyrone and Tandy, and been given a chance to understand their relationship or their powers beforehand. Instead, the narrative essentially becomes a guessing game where the story’s trajectory is distorted from being given too many details too early. This is one of the ways the series undermines itself: Instead of using what the viewer doesn’t know as a method of building intrigue, Cloak & Dagger essentially puts the story on hold to provide information that should have been a part of the larger narrative.
But therein lies a larger problem with Cloak & Dagger: The first few episodes struggle to convey what the story actually is. Like other Marvel Television productions, especially those centered on teen characters, Cloak & Dagger is more taken with the minutia of its characters’ domestic situations than anything else — essentially all the details that have nothing to do with being either Cloak or Dagger. The show resembles Hulu’s adaptation of Runaways in this regard, as despite its title there was a lot of staying at home by the main characters.
Showrunner Joe Pokaski and director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights) are intent to ground the story in the natural world as much as possible, primarily by spending as much time as possible in the day-to-day lives of two teens. Part of that “choice” likely stems from the constraints of the show’s budget, though the show’s writing team makes a concerted effort to make it appear otherwise. And, to the show’s credit, both Joseph and Holt deliver engaging enough performances to make their characters’ circumstances feel more compelling than perhaps they really are. The dichotomy of Tyrone and Tandy’s personal lives in relation to their soon-to-be (actually, don’t hold your breath on that) alter egos is a tad facile but nevertheless underscores the series’ thematic intentions. Tyrone attends a Catholic high school where he plays on the basketball team, while Tandy is a petty thief who spends her nights in an abandoned church and occasionally visits her deadbeat, drug-addled mother.
Tandy’s criminal motivations are easily understood, though what they ultimately mean for the larger story is left unsaid for the better part of four hours. Tyrone, on the other hand, requires the addition of a subplot involving a crooked cop who occasionally pops up — or, rather, Tyrone pops up, thanks to his unique power set that includes teleportation — to create dramatic tension and suggest revenge or retribution as a means of progressing Tyrone’s plot.
The series pays fleeting attention to the idea that its characters have powers. Sketching every demonstration of their extraordinary abilities so that the audience has no more idea what they mean than Tyrone and Tandy do. But whether they’re teleporting, creating a mass of dark tendrils, generating a light dagger, or turning their hand into an inconvenient flashlight, neither character seems too concerned with the surreal things happening to them. They are too often preoccupied with some other concern, like being late for basketball practice or running a scam on some contemptible rich twenty-something for a few hundred bucks and tickets to the ballet. Just as offering too much information too soon got the show off to a slow start, withholding the super-powered aspect of the series becomes another way of halting narrative progression.
While the first four hours are spent creating a believable setting in New Orleans, and giving the audience a glimpse at Tyrone and Tandy’s day-to-day lives, it all feels like preamble to the actual story — whatever that might be. The lack of a distinct narrative is compounded by how infrequently the show’s eponymous characters cross paths with one another. An early encounter provides plenty of reasons for them to seek one another out again and ask some necessary questions about who they are and what’s happening to them, but Tyrone and Tandy’s interest in one another is as momentary as the series’ is in providing answers
Like too many Marvel TV series, Cloak & Dagger is mired in the past yet fixated on a future that seems perpetually stuck in the middle distance. That leaves precious little opportunity for the compelling parts of the story to exist in the “now.” The details the show focuses on in the first four episodes seem important but they’re just that — details. They’re not really storytelling; they don’t actually propel the narrative forward in any meaningful way on their own. Nevertheless, the series boasts a talented cast and a setting that brings a real sense of place. The series has the potential to be something unique in the growing landscape of superhero television, but it’s not there yet. With any luck it will live up to that potential in the second half of the season.
Cloak & Dagger premieres Thursday, June 7 on Freeform.