I’ve got writers block.
Well, scratch that. I’ve got a variety of different topics I could write about, it’s just none of them are really appealing right now. And if I’m not super pumped to write about it, chances are you are going to be even less pumped to read about it. And since I’m all about delivering the goods to my loyal compact car full of readers, I decided today I’d finally just write my review of the first season of Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, the MCU related TV show that had been airing on the Freeform network this past summer. Sure I might be a Johnny come lately on this review, but hey better late that never, right?
I mean as I mentioned earlier this week during our podcast, I had been watching this show about two troubled teens who gained super powers through an oil refinery explosion off the coast of New Orleans and then decides to take on one of the big nebulous evil corporations of the Marvel Universe in Roxxon Oil. Roxxon by the way has had a better job in tying a lot of these MCU projects together than any superhero ever could as the evil robber barons have appeared or mentioned in the Iron Man movies, the Agents of SHIELD show, Daredevil, Iron Fist etc. However, they really take center stage as the baddies in C&D for the first time since they were mentioned heavily in ABC’s Agent Carter series, and in C&D they are even more nefarious.
But I’m getting sidetracked. This is not a review of the impact of this imaginary energy congolerate, but one of MCU’s first stabs at creating a superhero specifically targeted at teens, with Runaways on Hulu being the other. The choice of using the legendary Bill Mantlo’s 80s duo of drug mules turned avenging duo, was a strange one for me for a few reasons.
First, I actually didn’t think the MCU owned the rights to Cloak & Dagger as characters as I thought they were wrapped up in the Spider-man rights that Sony owned, but I guess I was wrong. Maybe that’s because all of earliest memories about these characters come from my childhood as their appearances as guest stars several of Spider-man books at the time. Their first appearance was in Spectacular Spider-man #64 so I guess I was justified in thinking that.
In fact, one of favorite stories as a kid was a three parter called “Crime and Punishment” from Spectacular Spider-man in which Spidey teams with C&D to try to stop the escalation of violence between the Punisher and Kingpin. Had to look that issue up again now just to be reminded of how sick that cover is. That’s Al Milgrom, folks. All that trippy hypnotic styling of Dagger’s powers and how menacing Cloak looks, great stuff!
Second, I was surprised about these two being chosen for the show, simply because they aren’t super well known outside comic circles. I mean they definitely have an iconic look, and the phrase “Cloak & Dagger” is easy enough to remember, but there were many years were the two were regulated to the back burners at Marvel, not being used for much other than the occasional guest appearance. I’m not going to say they were completely obscure, but it’s not like they were super popular in terms of being teenage heroes. I could have more easier seen a series with some of the Young Avengers or some member of the Champions or something, y’know something just a little more out in the forefront of the public consciousness.
Point taken. I will admit that since James Gunn’s GotG franchise, it’s proved that you can take somewhat unexplored character properties and turn that to your advantage in terms of storytelling, as the less likely people already known a character’s history or origin, the more malleable they become in terms of how you can use them without fan boys calling foul. Besides, really, besides the X-men and Spider-man, are there really any super well known teenage superheroes in Marvel’s stable. Not really…
In any case, the malleability of these characters backstories is key to the whole reason the story show creator, Joe Pokaski (of “Heroes” fame), vision actually works. Tyrone “Cloak” Johnson and Tandy “Dagger” Bowen are drastically different from their comic book roots as two runaways that were experimented on in a street level drug lab which awoken latent mutant powers. On the show, they have been re-imagined as two teenagers from the City of Saints who got their powers from a chance meeting as kids deep below the waves which forever connected them together in a sort of symbiotic yet diametric relationship.
Ok, I’m sure there are when I say deep below the waves, it’s not like they were on a submarine or something. Tandy actually ends up in the drink because her father, a Roxxon chief scientist, has an accident and drives her and himself off a bridge. Tyrone ends up in the water after escaping from a crooked cop who just shot his brother. Regardless, neither one is aware they have super powers until at least a decade later when fate brings them back together and their powers reactivate after touching. After that reactivation, obviously, their powers keep bringing the two back together again like two halves of a magnet, and as a result, they start getting wrapped up in each others personal struggles while at the same time trying to harness those special abilities to help resolve them. It’s very “coming of age” actually, and a major reason why the show works as a teen drama with some cross appeal.
You got Tyrone, the innocent studious high school basketball star working through his demons surrounding the lost of his brother to the type of shooting that is all to real to black culture and its relationship to law enforcement. After receiving the Cloak powers, you see him take more and more responsibility as a young man: getting a girlfriend (who is not Dagger btw), involving himself in his father’s social group, the Red Hawks, working with a new Detective from Harlem (who is actually a throwback to the Luke Cage series) to convict the crooked cop responsible for his brother’s death. All the time, the darkness of his powers seems to be hardening him, changing his viewpoint from naivety to one of harsh reality.
I will say I found Aubrey Joseph’s portrayal of Tyrone to be forced at times, lacking a lot of subtlety especially in those more quiet introspective moments. He definitely could display the raw emotion at times, but in scenes requiring more exposition or conversation, he could seem very wooden.
Then there’s Tandy, who is actually more like the character from the comic at least in the fact that she’s a runaway. A child of privilege who lost everything after her father’s death and Roxxon falsely blaming him for the oil rig explosion, Tandy lives by street smarts using her pretty face and unassuming demeanor to con others into whatever she needs to get by. Of course, her light powers give her not only confidence to stop living day by day and take full advantage of her potential but also reignite a long buried sense of justice and compassion that she thought was lost in her quest to survive such a cruel and harsh world.
Played by Olivia Holt, I thought her portrayal was much more polished than Aubrey’s. I mean sure she seemed bratty and whiny on occasion but within the scope of the character it worked, and she definitely was able to emote better in some of those scenes of quiet desperation such as when she was wrestling with her drug addictions. Plus, she could pull off the whole “bad ass” routine much better than Aubrey Joseph’s Cloak could, meaning when it was time to go toe to toe with the bad guys, she seemed more able to talk some smack and lay down some pain.
From a show perspective, I thought it was pretty cohesive in terms of the plot, although overly talky at times, but I guess what to do want from a cable access show where it’s cheaper to have characters chat for long periods than show special effects laden action sequences. Plus it was an origin story, and those can be heavy into the exposition right from the get go (a major reason I hate origin stories).
I will say that I was much more interested in Tandy’s story about getting vengeance for her father’s death at the hands of Roxxon as it was directly tied to the actual accident that gave the two their powers to begin with. Plus eventually, a new subplot develops in that the accident also can transform people into “rage zombies” which although more than a bit hokey does provide an opportunity for the heroes to fight a real threat to the city.
The story line with Tyrone and the crooked cop honestly didn’t have anything to do with Roxxon and was largely forgettable sans the ending which saw Cloak actually absorb someone related with that story into the Dark Dimension, one of his trademark powers from the comic, which by far was his greatest moment.
Yeah, I know the show had 10 episodes to fill and they needed to spend equal amounts of time developing both Cloak and Daggger’s individual backstories, but really everything that didn’t involve the war against Roxxon I could have cared less about. Roxxon was the big bad and I wish they would have tied more of Cloak’s story into Roxxon as well so that the story wouldn’t have seemed so fragmented at times.
In fact, I can honestly say the best single episode of the season was Episode 7 “Lotus Eaters” which had the teenage twosome traveling into the catatonic mind of one of the Roxxon scientists who was on the oil rig at the time of the explosion to discover just what exactly happened on that fateful day. I liked the episode so much because for the first time all season, the two heroes were on the same page fighting a common enemy trying to reach a common goal, instead of just ships passing in the night. It felt more interconnected to an overarching narrative thread like real comic books are, and I felt myself struggling with the notion that it took them more than half a season to get there. Especially since once they do finally start arriving at that point with Roxxon as the common threat, the rest of the season is relatively short so they have to hurry up and cram as much of that Roxxon rage zombie stuff, leveraging super powers, yadda yadda into the remaining 3 shows instead of doing this from the beginning.
Still overall, as someone that has watched several MCU related TV shows on Netflix over the course of the past couple of years, this one wasn’t that bad. It suffers from the same thing all these shows do: Limited budgets requiring cheaper narrative filler (aka lots of dramatic talky bits instead of special effects laden action sequences), too many episodes with too little plot, story lines being dragged out longer than they should.
This one again suffered a little bit more because of the Cloak story line being disconnected from the bigger Roxxon picture and thus making that story feel disjointed and almost shoehorned in. And that’s sad because at it’s heart the story of losing a brother tragically like that is a powerful one, if it had only been told in some better way that would have made more sense from that Roxxon/Accident perspective. But in the end it was no Jessica Jones Season 2 or Iron Fist Season 1, so it can at least hang its hat on being better than all that.
Andy’s Review Grade: C