The titular superhero characters of CW’s The Flash and Freeform’s new Marvel series Cloak & Dagger came from the comics world and got their powers from exploding science experiments, but that’s where the similarities stop. It would have been easy for Cloak & Dagger to follow The Flash’s highly successful formula and have the initial power-granting incident produce a bounty of supervillains, which the protagonists would have to use their new powers to stop. But in its first four episodes, at least, Cloak & Dagger goes a different route by having them focus on real-world injustices.
The approach aligns with the characters’ comics roots. First introduced in the 1980s, Cloak and Dagger primarily focused on fighting the war on drugs, rather than doing battle with costumed supervillains. Drugs are still a major issue in the show, starting with the two-hour pilot episode, which premieres Thursday, June 7th at 8PM ET. It starts when Tandy Bowen (aka Dagger) is left waiting in the rain when her painkiller-addicted mother (Andrea Roth) fails to pick her up from ballet class. Tandy (Olivia Holt) follows in her mother’s footsteps, stealing drugs and money from rich guys she picks up from clubs. Meanwhile, her mother can’t hold down a job, and she always blames her supervisors for her failings. She steals from Tandy and entertains a regular stream of married, drug-abusing men. Powered by Roth’s ability to act as both aggressor and victim, and Holt’s talent for presenting biting lines that hint at the pain and fear hidden underneath, the scenes between the two characters are vicious and raw.
Cloak & Dagger also makes a key issue of racism, as Tyrone Johnson (aka Cloak) watches his unarmed teenage brother Billy get shot by a white police officer in the pilot. This isn’t new ground for a superhero show — Cloak & Dagger follows plotlines devoted to racism or police brutality on Luke Cage, Krypton, and Supergirl — but the new series is refreshing in the way it makes the story deeply personal. Billy’s death comes to define the Johnson family. Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) is saddled with the burden of living up to all his parents’ hopes, given that he’s their only surviving child. He’s also a constant reminder of their worst fears made manifest. He’s a literal choir boy, trying to be the perfect model of a young black man while suppressing a simmering anger that he knows could too easily get him killed.
Racism and drug abuse are the series’s initial dominant issues, but Cloak & Dagger also brings up sexual assault, corporate malfeasance, and suicidal depression. The willingness to get dark and heavy makes it similar to Marvel’s Netflix shows Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, but showrunner Joe Pokaski, whose writing credits include Heroes and Daredevil, doesn’t feel the need to use the ensemble approach of past MCU shows. There are no sidekicks who can’t hold their own scenes or plots made up so minor characters have something to do when the heroes are out saving the day. Keeping the network around the heroes thin makes them feel isolated and emphasizes the importance of their coming together. The show’s writing is crisp, avoiding clichés and bringing surprises.
With its high school-aged heroes and romance plots, Cloak & Dagger, in theory, should have a lot in common with Hulu’s Runaways. These are similarities that could have been built in to let Cloak and Dagger cross over to other series (Runaways included), the way they do in the comics. But the focus on two teens instead of six lets Cloak & Dagger’s writers take their time and focus on character-building, instead of flitting around from one soap opera-style plot to the next. It also helps that the protagonists’ parents in Cloak & Dagger are flawed but reasonable people, as opposed to mass-murdering supervillains who are still meant to draw audience sympathy. The smaller cast also tones down Runaways’ convoluted relationship configurations, in favor of ones that are easier to follow but still emotionally complicated. In the comics, Tandy and Tyrone are superhero partners as well as romantic partners, but on the show, they still have a long way to go before they reach either outcome. The one-sided relationships they start in are doomed, but their initial partners don’t feel disposable. It’s only easy to root against them because the chemistry between Tyrone and Tandy is electric.
Stylistically, Cloak & Dagger leans closer to Legion than to other current superhero shows. The curling darkness manifesting when Cloak uses his powers, or the blinding light of Dagger’s signature weapons are beautifully done, but the dream sequences are even more striking. They aren’t just visually stunning; they push the plot forward, providing insights into both the main and supporting characters in a way that could feel forced if they weren’t so jarring and emotional. Cloak & Dagger isn’t as surreal as Legion, but they both spend an inordinate amount of time exploring characters’ psyches.
The closest thing the show currently has to a villain is Detective Connors (J.D. Evermore), the corrupt vice cop who killed Tyrone’s brother. But he’s just an ordinary man, up against a teenager who has the power to teleport and control darkness. Ever since Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben said “With great power comes great responsibility,” superheroes have been forced to question how to use their powers for the greatest good, but also how to avoid doing harm to those not in their league. More up to the challenge is Roxxon Energy Corporation, responsible for the explosion that gave Tandy and Tyrone their powers. While the company has been mentioned in passing in multiple MCU television shows and movies, no Marvel show has used Roxxon to the full villainous potential it’s achieved in the comic books.
Cloak & Dagger has the freedom to experiment in part because its characters are relatively obscure. Fans aren’t likely to feel cheated by not seeing signature villains the way they would with Arrow or The Flash. The writers have also shown a willingness to change established character beats, moving the duo from the MCU’s crowded New York to New Orleans. The plot-driving explosion takes place on an offshore rig, a nod to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and the Crescent City’s rich history and deep racial and socioeconomic divides provide plenty of material that the writers have only started to dive into.
Many superhero shows have started out promising, then dragged during their run, brought low by unnecessary padding or terrible plot twists. It’s possible that Cloak & Dagger might fall into the same traps. But the initial episodes are remarkably well-crafted, making a collapse feel less likely. It’s surprisingly mature for a show targeted at young adults, bravely tackling real-world issues while leisurely building the relationship between its characters. In a media market filled with caped crusaders, Cloak & Dagger still manages to stand out by breaking the rules for what it means to be a superhero.
Cloak & Dagger debuts on Freeform on Thursday, June 7th at 8PM ET.