It's not ... not problematic.
I mean: Experimental heroin transforms two teenage runaways into super-beings. One's a black kid who contains a hungry darkness linked to an evil dimension that devours light. The other's a white blonde girl who gives off light that can purify the souls of those it touches — and cure their drug dependency, to boot. (As superpowers go, "Being a 100-megawatt Betty Ford Center" is not exactly thick on the ground.) The two crazy mixed-up kids depend on each other — he on her for light that feeds his insatiable hunger, she on him to be a receptacle for that light-energy, lest it consume her.
That was the premise of the Marvel Comics characters Cloak and Dagger, who debuted in 1982. In their comics adventures, they were street-level heroes who dedicated themselves to fighting drug pushers and defending homeless kids.
Which is all well and good, but ... you see it, right? The black kid as a tortured, demonic (or at least, demon-adjacent) presence, the white girl as pure and divine beacon of goodness?
Now, sure, yes: Superheroes are based on simple, iconic principles, and yes, you can certainly read Cloak & Dagger comics as an extended comment on racial stereotypes (as long as you're willing to acknowledge that the comment in question is one that's firmly rooted in those stereotypes — that depends on them). But even if you're willing to set the race stuff and the super-codependency stuff aside, there's still the fact that Cloak was fiercely jealous and protective of Dagger, while she longed to abandon her lonely crime-fighting existence at his side, and rejoin humanity.
I'm saying: Ick.
The new Freeform series Marvel's Cloak & Dagger keeps the broad-strokes iconography of these characters, but spends a good deal of narrative energy attempting to introduce shades of gray to their (literally!) black-and-white reality.
Out with the super-heroin-as-origin-story, and the creepy codependence angle, and the evil-dimension stuff (probably), and the comics' default setting of drug-infested alleyways. In their place, we get a more grounded and fully contemporary New Orleans setting, where the villains include things like police violence and corporate greed.
It's clear that the producers envision the show as a character-based drama in which the superheroic stuff is kept hovering at the edges, which is certainly a valid approach. But it means that tonight's two-hour-long premiere consists chiefly of wool-gathering: The audience learns the source of the mysterious powers that connect young Tandy (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone (Aubrey Joseph) early on, but the show's so determined to sidestep the usual origin-story conventions that it keeps our heroes in the dark throughout its entire running time. This persistent sense that we're way ahead of the game, and stay there, even as we watch both teens tentatively grapple with their new reality, grows swiftly frustrating.
In place of now-boilerplate training montages and "I just want to be normal!" whinging typical of superhero adaptations, we instead just sort of ... hang out with Tandy and Tyrone separately. In a welcome, off-hand twist on the comics' characters origins, she's a semi-homeless grifter with a tendency to run from conflict; he's an over-achieving prep school student tortured by guilt over his older brother's death at the hands of a corrupt cop.
There's a dispiriting sameness to these early scenes, however, as their respective interactions with those around them get simply asserted, and re-asserted, and asserted again. Characterization depends on our sense of someone steadily developing, deepening, growing — but we keep waiting to learn something new about either Tandy or Tyrone that wasn't established in the first fifteen minutes or so, and we keep not getting it.
... Until next week's episode, that is, which finally brings Tandy and Tyrone into more-than-glancing contact, and reveals something significant about the nature of their connection.
It's the episode after that, however — airing June 21st — that Cloak & Dagger seems to settle into its groove at last. Actors Holt and Joseph, we learn (finally!), share an interesting chemistry — she's smart and wary, he's gentle and soulful. Importantly, crucially, we get believable and well-earned reasons — rooted in information revealed in those early, talkier episodes — for them to adopt the superheroic lifestyle, and devote themselves to justice, instead of revenge.
That's a distinction — an important one — that other shows in the superhero genre blithely ignore, or awkwardly sidestep, or attempt to couch in stale, hokey platitudes ("That's not who we are!"). The fact that Cloak & Dagger doesn't shirk from it — and is willing to show its work — suggests it might continue to breathe life into familiar superhero tropes that are, in 2018, gasping for air.
You'll likely grow restless for the more dramatic, flashier superhero stuff to make its way off the back burner the show seems perfectly content to keep it simmering on, but given Cloak & Dagger's unhurried and un-showy confidence, there are reasons to expect that it's on its way.
Sometime this season.
Marvel's Cloak & Dagger debuts on Freeform with a two-hour premiere on Thursday, June 7th.