Freeform’s “Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger” makes some significant changes to the superhero story as it was told in the comics, giving the series a much-needed update for 2018.
“When I was a kid and opened up my ‘Spectacular Spider-Man’ and saw these two people that didn’t look like me at all, I loved it,” showrunner Joe Pokaski said in an interview with TheWrap. “But for something that was so progressive in the time, it needed a little bit of an update for the now.”
In the original series, Tandy and Tyrone are a vigilante superhero duo — a young white woman from a fabulously wealthy family who wields daggers made of light, and a black man from the Bronx who literally consumes people with his darkness. In the 1980s, the characters marked a big step forward for representation in the Marvel library, but in hindsight, the series’s tone-deaf take on race and woefully impractical costume design leaves something to be desired.
“So we made some adjustments to Tyrone and Tandy’s stories, in the same way the other MCU movies and television shows do right now, to update them for current times,” Pokaski said.
In it’s first two episodes, which premiered on Freeform on Thursday, “Cloak & Dagger” makes clear it’s out to tell a different story. In this iteration, Tandy is the one with a poor family and troubled home-life, while Tyrone comes from money and attends a posh Catholic private school. In place of the reductive gender and race stereotypes at work in the source material, “Cloak & Dagger” tackles issues like racial profiling, police brutality and the opioid epidemic sweeping across the country.
“Telling this story, particularly of a young man who lost his brother and grew up in a gilded cage surrounded by a world made of fear, felt like the best type of story to tell in 2018,” Pokaski said.
Read the full interview below:
TheWrap: Why did you decide to change up Tandy and Tyrone’s backstories from the comics?
Pokaski: I think when I was a kid and opened up my “Spectacular Spider-Man” and saw these two people that didn’t look like me at all, I loved it. But for something that was so progressive in the time, it needed a little bit of an update for the now. So when [Marvel Television’s] Jeph Loeb and I talked about moving it to New Orleans, it seemed like an opportunity to set it in a world that reflects more of the problems we’re dealing with right now. So we made some adjustments to Tyrone and Tandy’s stories, in the same way the other MCU movies and television shows do right now, to update them for current times.
Their backstories are almost reversed from the comics, with Tandy coming from this struggling household and Tyrone being much more well-off. Why did you approach it that way?
I don’t remember who it was, but during the election somebody was very much conflating race and socio-economics, and it raised an eyebrow for me. If we removed one from another, it allowed us to look at race independent of socio-economics. Telling this story, particularly of a young man who lost his brother and grew up in a gilded cage surrounded by a world made of fear, felt like the best type of story to tell in 2018.
Was it always your intention to make a topical show, dealing with issues like police violence and the drug epidemic, things of that nature?
It’s funny, the first draft of this, I think was maybe five years ago now. And we dealt with the police violence right away. We dealt with the drugs at the moment right at the end of the first hour where Tandy feels a little unsafe. What we wanted to do was tell stories of a young black man and a young woman who are superheroes. And try to tell personal stories that reflect their real experience, not just a generic one.
What made you choose to set it in New Orleans?
For starters, New York has way too many superheroes. It’s kind of insane in the sense that it’s this small island that’s probably pretty well-protected by the hundreds of superheroes that live there. But once I started learning more and more about New Orleans, it felt more and more like the perfect place to tell the “Cloak & Dagger” origin story. There’s obviously a darkness and gothic-ness to the original story, and the more we kind of looked around New Orleans, it felt like it was all there in spades. There’s also an underdog nature to the city. In the show, we call it “the city that refuses to die,” and that’s kind of who Tandy and Tyrone are too.
Does that sense that New York having too many superheroes have anything to do with the all Netflix shows being set there?
No, not really. I remember even reading comics as a kid and thinking about how the Baxter building [from “Fantastic Four”] is in New York, and Spider-Man is in New York, and it looks like Tony Stark [Iron Man] has a building in New York. And all the Defenders are in New York as well. It just feels like a well-protected place. There are so many interesting places in America that the Marvel universe is finally starting to explore. I was a big fan of the West Coast Avengers or the Great Lakes Avengers back in the day, putting people in a different background.
“Runaways” on Hulu kind of has that same element, being set in Los Angeles.
And it feels so endemic to the city, doesn’t it? With that kind of cult-y religion, it feels so LA. Maybe I’m just a little jaded, but I don’t think you can tell that story anywhere else.
Comparisons between the two shows feel kind of inevitable, with them both being about young people. Do you think of them as companion pieces at all?
Yeah, there’s that page very early on in my “Runaways” trade where Cloak and Dagger show up, and it just feels right. So I’m kind of convinced that [“Runaways” writer] Brian K. Vaughn is either magic or from the future. I see Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage, co-creators on the Hulu series] every once in a while, and we joke around that we’d love to do a crossover. They’ve done a great job with that show, and it feels like we’re together at the kids table in the best possible way.
“Cloak & Dagger” is somewhat reminiscent of the Netflix shows — which you also worked on — in that it’s kind of a slow burn and takes a little while to really get going. Why did you choose to approach this story that way?
To be honest, it’s my favorite part of these stories — understanding them as human beings. When you’re trying to figure out what’s happening to them. I would use the word “deliberate” instead of “slow,” but from the get-go we always talked about this as the kind of Sundance coming of age movie in the Marvel universe. Particularly when we brought Gina [Prince-Bythewood] on to direct the pilot, she really wanted to reflect that in a proper way. God bless Freeform and Marvel for letting us have those long runs where we’re just playing music and the kids aren’t talking, we’re just feeling them. I’m hoping that we’ll get to make a hundred episodes of this. I don’t think we’ll ever look back and think we should’ve moved it along more quickly.
You also separate these two characters for long stretches, and only have them come together for a few pivotal moments in these early episodes.
We all kind of felt that once they’re together, Tandy and Tyrone will become Tandy and Tyrone, but we wanted to understand them more as individuals first.
How do you see their relationship when you’re writing the show?
It’s kind of like the comics, where half of you roots for them to get together and half of you thinks they should never do it. I don’t think there’s anybody else in television or comics where you feel like that. So for Season 1 we really wanted to focus on them finding the one person who understands them. We’re pretty overt in showing that their stories are parallel to each other, and their stories affect each other. I grew up a “Buffy” fan, and I remember that the general notion that “nobody understands me” on that show was so persistent and beautiful. We wanted to take that to the next level and tell the story of finding the exact one person who understands you.
How did you land on Gina Prince-Bythewood to direct the first episode and to help really set the tone of the show?
We started talking about the look and feel of the show, being handheld, a little more intimate, showing the damage of the characters, and one of the first examples I brought up was “Beyond the Lights.” We got a script to Gina, and I don’t think she really directs things she doesn’t write, but we started talking. She started talking about her two young boys, who are awesome and wish they could see more people who look like them as superheroes. She’s such a fantastic collaborator, and it was a match made in heaven. Once we got the ball rolling, we were like “everyone get out of the way, we’re gonna make this.”
How much input did Marvel have? Was there some amount of guidance or were you free to make the show you wanted to make?
A little of both, actually. They care in weird pockets, like the logos and stuff like that, but to be honest, the people at Marvel are very creative. Geoff Loeb is just a great collaborator and a person who’s a brilliant writer in his own right. So they were excited that we were telling a different story, and they were really supportive of what we were trying to do.
What were you looking for when you were casting Tandy and Tyrone? How did you land on Olivia and Aubrey?
Gina and I are both really particular, and kind of perfectionists. So we brought in a lot of people, but we just felt like we weren’t quite there yet. I had remembered seeing Olivia in something and kept pounding my hand on the desk trying to get her in to read for this, and then [Gina] talked to somebody who had suggested Aubrey from his work on HBO. I believe it was less than a week before we started shooting and everybody was freaking out, but we were like, “Nope, we have to get this right.” We had them both come in, and not only did they give incredible performances by themselves, but then Gina took a scene from the script and basically asked them to improv it. They both sat down and just kind of riffed with each other. I swear to God, it’s like the hair rose up on our arms like Spider-Man. We all got chills, and we just knew we had it.
These early episodes are, for the most part, grounded pretty firmly in reality. How do you work in those more fantastical elements of this story without it feeling too discordant?
I think it’s about bleeding it in slowly. Our intention was to start very real, but then at the end of the 10 episodes, we use all the arrows we’ve been putting in our quivers the whole season. By the end they do save the city, and we see the cloak and the daggers in a way that, hopefully, has been building up so gradually, it comes across as real, if that makes sense.
Will we see them in costume?
It depends on what you mean by costume.
“Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger” airs Thursdays at 8/7c on Freeform.