I’m not sure which surprises me more, that Marvel’s latest television venture would take the form of a teen romance on the Freeform network (formerly ABC Family, before dropping any pretense of being family-friendly), or that it would actually be kind of good.
Based on a comic I’d never heard of (and not on a silly kids’ spy comedy starring Dabney Coleman), ‘Cloak & Dagger’ is officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, along with all the various Avengers movies, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, and several Netflix shows. However, beyond references to the evil Roxxon Corporation first established in ‘Agent Carter’, the series doesn’t mention any of those connections in the two-hour premiere.
Part 1, ‘First Light’
The story follows two kids from different backgrounds who are brought together by a shared tragedy. We’ve introduced to Tandy, a privileged white girl attending ballet class, and Tyrone, a poor black boy from the ‘hood, at a very young age. One rainy night, the explosion of an off-shore oil rig causes Tandy’s distracted father to crash their car off a bridge into the water below. At that same moment, Tyrone’s older brother is gunned down by a corrupt cop and Tyrone jumps into the water after him. Both Tandy’s father and Tyrone’s brother die that night. While they’re in the water, a mysterious shockwave of light emanating from the oil rig washes over both Tandy and Tyrone. Just as Tandy is on the verge of drowning, a hand reaches out and grabs her. The kids wash up on shore together, but Tandy takes off as soon as she wakes up. They don’t see each other again for years.
Jumping forward to their late teens, Tandy (now played by Olivia Holt) and Tyrone (Aubrey Johnson) have taken very different paths in life. Defying cliché, Tyrone’s family persevered and even thrived despite their grief. Tyrone attends a private Catholic school and stays on the straight-and-narrow as a hard-working student and rising basketball star. Tandy, meanwhile, has fallen on hard times. Her mother (Andrea Roth from ‘Rescue Me’) is a drunk and a junkie. We find Tandy at a nightclub, where she flirts with a rich douchebag and goes back to his house. Just when it looks like he’s going to pressure her for sex, Tandy reveals that she roofied him, and her boyfriend Liam (Carl Lundstedt) is waiting outside so the two of them can loot the place as soon as the douche passes out. Among other things, they take some ballet tickets that they’re unable to unload. Tandy holds onto them.
Tandy is quite a bad girl. She lives in an abandoned church, does drugs, and supports herself by pulling off similar, often dangerous scams.
Tyrone and Tandy both converge at a party in the woods, where Tandy lifts Tyrone’s wallet. When he discovers what she did, he chases after her. As soon as he touches her, they’re both knocked back by a blast of light. Tandy is shocked by an uncontrolled blinding light emanating from her hand, and Tyrone has a cloud of inky darkness hovering over his. Neither knows what’s going on. Tandy finally recognizes Tyrone as the boy from the beach, but runs away, as is her first instinct whenever anything either good or bad happens to her.
Tyrone returns home and, exhausted, falls into bed, pulling the sheet over his head. Inexplicably, he wakes up on the roof of a Roxxon building with nothing but the sheet wrapped around him.
In flashbacks, we learn that Roxxon blamed the oil rig explosion on an experiment that Tandy’s scientist father had worked on, leaving the family with nothing. The police also covered up the shooting of Tyrone’s brother, blaming his death on drugs and claiming that the cop Tyrone saw (a red-haired officer with a scar on his face) doesn’t exist.
As Tyrone exits the Roxxon building through a back alley, he spots that officer, named Connors, who’s now a Vice detective. Tyrone makes his way home across town (hard for a black kid to do with no clothes and no money) and once again crashes into bed, this time immediately waking up in the trunk of Connors’ car.
Tandy cleans herself up and puts on a nice dress to go to the ballet with her stolen tickets, watching the show from the rafters so she won’t be questioned. This was a tactical mistake. Afterwards, she’s cornered and dragged into an alley by the rich douche, who staked out the ballet expecting to find her there and tries to rape her. Struggling to free herself, Tandy somehow manifests a dagger made out of light in her hand and stabs the douche in the stomach, then runs off.
Tyrone’s night isn’t much better. He escapes from the dirty cop’s trunk and runs away, but Connors chases him to an abandoned building. Just as Connors shoots at him, Tyrone ducks behind a tarp on the ground and vanishes. He then reappears back in his bedroom, and the bullet from Connors’ gun comes with him, striking a metal garbage pail.
Part 2, ‘Suicide Sprints’
The second episode introduces a young police detective (Emma Lahana) investigating the stabbing case. Her name isn’t mentioned and she barely has a line of dialogue, but she’s credited as Brigid O’Reilly. Throughout the episode, we see her slowly closing in on Tandy.
Tandy doesn’t know whether she killed the douchebag or not, and isn’t even sure which outcome to hope for. Feeling desperate to get out of town and lie low for a while, she convinces Liam to help her raise enough money to buy a decent fake ID and other forged documents from a crime front operating out of a dry cleaners. Although Tandy had a bunch of money stashed away, she discovers that her mother found it and blew it all on drugs and her own foolish get-rich-quick scheme.
To pull together the funds they need, Tandy and Liam borrow a nice dress and suit respectively from the dry cleaner and crash an upper-class society wedding. They case the scene and steal a great deal of cash from the wedding planner, the bartenders, and the newlywed couple’s gift envelopes. Then, fearing they’re about to be found out, they boost the Just Married car and hightail it out of there. Although Tandy gets the ID she needs, she also breaks up with Liam and takes the car.
Meanwhile, Tyrone becomes obsessed with tracking down Connors, the corrupt cop. The time he wastes on this, plus his inability to control his teleportation power, causes him to miss basketball practice, getting him in hot water with the coach, who punishes the entire team for his actions. A group of his teammates take this out on Tyrone by ganging up on him in the locker room and giving him a beating.
Tyrone stalks Connors and, wanting revenge for his brother, attempts to shoot him with a gun he’d found in the cop’s trunk. However, he teleports at the moment of firing and winds up standing in the middle of a road, with Tandy in the stolen car heading right for him. The bullet hits her windshield and the cars swerves, crashing on the side of the road.
Premiere Verdict / Grade: B+
I went into this series expecting that I’d be too far outside the target demographic to get much out of it. To the contrary, I enjoyed the premiere quite a bit. I found both lead characters compelling and like the performers playing them. The first episode, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (‘Love & Basketball’, ‘Beyond the Lights’), strikes a very skillful balance of tone between teen soap opera and superhero origin story, and hits some very powerful emotional notes – especially during the initial tragedy set-up, which is extremely well conceived and staged.
The second episode isn’t quite as good. Its pacing is too slow and it keeps the lead characters separated far too long. The police detective who looks like she just graduated high school also made me roll my eyes.
A couple lines of dialogue mention that the show takes place in New Orleans, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell that from anything on screen. The setting seems very generic and basically no attempt is made to showcase any local color. Also problematic is the fact that the kids’ super-powers are still very ill-defined. In addition to the teleporting and the dagger-making, they also both have unexplained psychic visions or hallucinations when they touch key people. Even after two hours, no clear rules have been established for what they can or cannot do.
These issues are mostly quibbles. The show has a lot more promise than I predicted going in.