Here’s the pitch: “Romeo and Juliet,” but set in modern-day New Orleans, and Romeo can teleport, while Juliet has magic light-based knives at her literal fingertips. It sounds confusing but also intriguing, which is the perfect description for the first two episodes of “Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger,” which premiered Thursday night on Freeform.
Teens with superpowers are hardly a new phenomenon on television — to the point where the same day of “Cloak and Dagger’s” premiere, YouTube Premium also launched its new superpowered-teen drama “Impulse” — so the question becomes, how to stand out?
In “Cloak’s” case, the answer is to commit to character, specifically laying the foundation for the connection between Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy (Olivia Holt). While the two teenagers happen to be from very different worlds, a childhood encounter during one terrible night of tragedy for them both has seemed to create an unbreakable bond with a new mysterious edge.
In the first two episodes, creator Joe Pokaski (one half of the creative team behind WGN’s criminally overlooked “Underground”) doesn’t put much elbow grease into explaining their aforementioned abilities (or curses at this point, given how little control they have). The setup here is clearly for the long game — it’s not hard to anticipate that the full season will focus on Tandy and Tyrone figuring out what exactly their powers mean, and how they can use them fully. This has been a source of frustration when it comes to a lot of other first-season superhero shows, especially in the binge era, when the entirety of Season 1 is asked to serve as an origin story.
However, there’s something genuinely fun about the fact that after two episodes, we still don’t quite understand Tandy and Tyrone’s powers. We certainly don’t understand them any better than Tandy and Tyrone do. And the reason it works well here is that their powers are, well, weird. They’re certainly weirder than the average superhero premise, and it’s quite likely that there’s a massive exposition dump in the show’s future. It’s in fact already been teased in at least one trailer. (Be warned, it contains spoilers for many weeks to come.)
Sure, you could look up on Wikipedia what Cloak and Dagger’s powers are supposed to be in the comics. However, the show has already made a lot of changes to the original backstory, especially when it comes to Tyrone and Tandy’s backgrounds. Choosing to shift things so that Tyrone comes from a relatively affluent background, while Tandy is functionally homeless due to a screwed-up home life is maybe one of the show’s smartest choices. It’s enough to imply that there may be even bigger changes down the line.
Also, by putting off the info-dump, the focus remains on character, and there are strong sharp touches throughout the series that aide and abet our understanding of who Tyrone and Tandy happen to be, with or without their powers. Tandy’s obsession with ballet is not only a reminder of what she lost after the death of her father, it gives her moments of grace that humanize her beyond the tough con artist persona first presented. And Tyrone’s attempts to handle the pressures of family, school, and sports make his iron will, as well as his personal vulnerabilities, all too clear. (Between the two actors, Holt is more personable than Joseph, but both have potential to captivate.)
When it comes to the other characters, The vulnerabilities and flaws of the adults at times plays more to the extreme than necessary — Tandy’s mother Melissa (Andrea Roth) is an especially over-the-top train wreck — but all the best TV shows about teenagers have found room to give the adults involved a sense of purpose and story, a pattern that’s not escaped here.
And these are, ultimately, the sorts of stories that help Marvel straddle the line between the extraordinary and ordinary. The claim has always been that the Marvel Universe, in comparison to DC Comics, is more embedded in the real world. While Batman and Superman live in the fictional Gotham and Metropolis, the Defenders make their home in New York, the Runaways are running around Los Angeles, and Tandy and Tyrone live in very different sections of New Orleans.
Beyond some touches of gothic architecture — such as Tandy and Tyrone’s first major encounter, which takes place in a classic example of a historic New Orleans cemetery — there’s not a lot that makes this location feel like an essential choice (beyond tax breaks). But given the circumstances, it might be a little much for us to expect the depths of “Treme” on top of everything else.
Still, it’s just one of the grounding influences that may prove essential as the series continues, given the more out-there elements in play. It’d be nice to see more overall visual flair — directors Gina Prince-Bythewood and Alex Garcia Lopez, in the first two episodes, manage to play a bit, but Tyrone’s powers especially beg for more visual imagination. But perhaps the tradeoff is the fact that there’s more realism to this show than might otherwise be expected, making its mysteries all the more intriguing.
Lest you think the series is completely stand-alone from the rest of the MCU, there are elements that do technically connect (as one example, the prominent role of the Roxxon Corporation, which has also come up in “Daredevil,” “Iron Fist,” and “Agents of SHIELD”). Like most other Marvel shows these connections are likely to be only surface-level for the foreseeable future, but it still speaks to the tricky balancing act all these shows have to achieve: exist in their own universe, yet walk their own path. “Cloak and Dagger” hasn’t escaped the problems that plague its brethren, but it has introduced some fresh components that make the latter feel like a real possibility.