Cloak & Dagger: First Light

"First positions..."

Marvel's Cloak & Dagger hits all the right beats in an elegantly structured and visually gorgeous first episode.

First things first, let me take a paragraph or two to give you a little perspective on where I'm coming from as a viewer of Marvel's Cloak & Dagger. I promise not to be this self indulgent every time.

I love Cloak & Dagger. I have since I first discovered them in 1986, at the tender age of about 14. I tracked down, and still have neatly stored in my basement, every single appearance they made from their very first in Spectacular Spider Man #64 through the Summer of 1990, when I went away to college and became poor. I used to draw Cloak incessantly, because I really, really grooved on the way the folds of his fabric worked. So, returning to Cloak & Dagger leaves me in the odd position of being both deeply invested in both of the characters and completely oblivious of every single they've done for the last 28 years.

That established, this episode absolutely, 100% sold me on where Cloak and Dagger are are in 2018. In an astonishingly rare occurrence for any kind of adaptation, every single change except one that they made from the source material was an improvement. They almost universally made the material deeper, more interesting, and just flat out better.

The one exception, in case you're wondering, was losing Ty's stutter. It's a huge part of his back story in the comics, and I always enjoyed that detail about him because it was unusual and humanizing. That said, the changes they made to his back story here made it unnecessary and were vastly more complicated and interesting than the back story that required the stutter. Also, it's logistically difficult to have a main character affecting a stutter for the entire run of a television show, so I get why that detail was dropped.

So, let's talk about the changes, and why they worked. One of the two most obvious ones was moving the story from New York to New Orleans. It can't be overstated how good a decision this was. For one thing, Cloak and Dagger were really only ever associated with NYC by virtue of having been introduced in Spider-man. That, and because C&D were kind of the personification of 'drugs in the big city are bad,' and NYC was sort of the official face of that in 1982. Moving them to New Orleans not only differentiates them from having to address any of the crap surrounding Jessica Jones/Luke Cage/The Defenders/The Avengers/That one restaurant that served Shawarma, it also gives the show a desperately needed change of feel from all the NYC ephemera. Additionally, New Orleans is an intrinsically beautiful city, and setting the show there reaps enormous dividends when it comes to how absolutely, stunningly gorgeous so much of this show is.

But if you were trying to narrow down the show's success to just one decision, it would definitely be the decision to flip Ty and Tandy's backgrounds. In the comics, Tandy was the clich├ęd spoiled rich white girl, while Tyrone was a poor black kid whose best friend was killed by the police because his stutter had prevented him from shouting out in time to stop him being shot. They had individually run away to NYC, where they were both kidnapped by evil drug dealers who experimented on them by injecting them with a new synthetic drug which gave them their powers. This was, of course, the most 80s thing ever. Truth be told, their backgrounds didn't come up a whole lot in the comics, outside of the part about drugs. Their powers were mainly used to clean drugs out of people's systems and scare people into not using drugs. And to feed mean drug dealers to the evil demons that lived inside Cloak's cloak, because, again – 80s. The decision to make Ty's family the prosperous one and Tandy's the one with financial difficulties instantly makes both of them a hundred times more interesting.

Added to that, they resisted the urge to make things as clear cut as in the source material. Ty's family is well off, but the house they live in isn't a castle. It's fairly reasonable in size. Ty goes to a private school in New Orleans, which can't be cheap, but he clearly isn't living the life of luxury that Tandy's extra rapey date/robbery victim is. Tandy's family, meanwhile, is clearly having some hard times financially, but her mom's house is by no means a tumble-down shack or cardboard box. The whole thing is handled with a degree of subtlety that you just don't see in pilot episodes terribly often, and was much the better for it. Even little details like the way Officer Conners' trunk is held shut with a bungee cord tell you a world of things about how his life is going, but don't get over-stressed. That level of restraint is not common, particularly in shows about light-knives and teleporting outerwear.

And it can't be overstated, visually the show is absolutely gorgeous. The shot of young Tandy and young Ty's hands reaching toward each other underwater from pure light and pure darkness was stunning.



But the bravest thing the show runners have done here is the way the show addresses race. From the very beginning the show seems absolutely committed to having a really uncomfortable conversation about the way race affects us all. I don't want to say a lot about it yet because I genuinely want to watch the discussion as it develops through the plot, but I will say that Ty's mother's line about being afraid that even if he does everything perfectly in his life she'll still lose him must have landed like a ton of bricks on every single viewer that had a child of color. Harsh, and simply stated, and very, very true. That's admirable scripting.

Bits and Pieces

— Despite switching Ty and Tandy's financial status, they found a way to retain her ballet classes and his having lost a friend to police violence. Really well handled. Her ballet classes are important because that's where her outfit comes from.

— Ty is a million times more complete and interesting than he ever was in the comics, if we're being honest.

— Andrea Roth is just good in everything. I vaguely remember Tandy's mother being much more 'clich├ęd bitch' in the comics, but here she's actually really likeable despite her obvious flaws.

— Is it wrong that I find Tandy's loser boyfriend Liam kind of endearing? He's clearly devoted to her and willing to do whatever she tells him to do.

— Lots of fluidity regarding cloak and dagger imagery. Tandy wore his hoodie and he carried his cell in a way that clearly evoked her dagger.

— Speaking of, how nicely structured was it that we saw her wearing his hoodie early on, and then saw her steal it from him in flashback toward the end. So nicely done and not overstated. Most shows would have bludgeoned us with that one.

— It was interesting that the basketball player who kept openly fouling Ty was white, but the ref that was deliberately ignoring it was black. There's a lot to unpack in that situation.

— What was going on with the Roxxon not-oil rig that exploded? The clear implication was that the explosion gave Ty and Tandy their powers, but that those powers didn't activate until the two of them reconnected years later. I'm intrigued to see where that's going. So much more interesting than evil drug dealers.

— I really like how vague the show is being about how their powers work. Specifically Ty's teleporting. They took the main weakness of the source material – the fuzzy nature of what their powers are exactly, and made it a strength.

— Young Dagger dancing in the rain while waiting for her father who clearly had forgotten to pick her up might be my favorite image from a television show ever, because of how complicated and layered it is. She'd been forgotten, and clearly was sad about that, but she smiled as she danced. In that moment, she was happy, despite rain and abandonment. That's a powerful image.


Quotes:

Tandy: "Hey, I think my Dad used to drink this."
Date-Rapey Guy: "Used to? What, is he in AA or something?"
Tandy: "No, he's at the bottom of Lake Borgne."

Ty's Mom: "I'm afraid that even if you do everything perfectly I'm going to lose you."


A fantastic pilot and a riveting episode of television. We possibly don't deserve TV this good.

Three and a half out of four exploding oil rigs. Marked down from four because I'm afraid it will get better and I won't have anywhere to go.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

What a lovely review, Mikey.

Something like Cloak & Dagger must seem different when you know and love the source material, and I wonder if that might be a problem. As someone who really knows nothing about the Marvel universe except for what I see in the movies and TV, I thought this pilot was nice and the two leads were good, but the way their powers were established was so fuzzy and strange that I found it frustrating. I haven't seen the second episode yet. Maybe it will click for me then.