Following in the tradition of its movies, its ABC TV series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Netflix TV shows, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s next expansion will be into the young-adult/teen market via a pair of new shows set to air on the Freeform network.
For those not in the know, Freeform is a basic cable channel owned by ABC/Disney, one with an audience that skews heavily towards women aged 14-36. That’s a pretty big demographic range, and one superhero comics have traditionally had difficulty reaching. It’s also one that, through its upcoming “Cloak and Dagger” TV series, as well as the already-commissioned Squirrel Girl and the New Warriors project, Marvel’s TV department has its sights squarely set on.
While the Squirrel Girl/New Warriors series is still in pre-production, with no actors cast as of yet, the latter has already filmed its pilot episode. Interestingly, it did so not in LA or New York or the Marvel Cinematic Universe base in Atlanta, GA, but in Louisiana’s city of New Orleans.
This is quite a change from the source material. When Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson, the runaway teenagers who would eventually become Cloak and Dagger, first debuted in 1982’s “Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man” #64, the pair had already made their way to New York City. Although they were from vastly different backgrounds, and different parts of the country, the pair were equally vulnerable to exploitation, and soon came into the clutches of a criminal gang developing a new synthetic form of heroin. The drug killed most of the other runaways it was tested on, but gave Tandy the ability to produce daggers of light, while Tyrone’s teleportation abilities were linked to something called the “dark force dimension.”
Judging from the trailer, while it doesn’t seem that the show’s writers will be slavishly faithful to this origin story, it doesn’t seem like moving the action from NY to NO will detract from the tale’s core. Indeed, the while street-level drug crime was seen as an emblematic New York City problem in the 1980s, nearly 40 years later, the US government has identified a growing problem with opioid abuse across most major cities in the United States.
The location shift gives audiences a glimpse of part of the Marvel Universe, and of America, that is seen on screen far less often than the mythical realms of Asgard or the sci-fi cities of Xander Prime, let alone the over-exposed metropolises of New York and LA. The move also gives “Cloak and Dagger’s” story its own space, far from the clutter and the clamor of the multitudes of superheroes already established across the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Not that connections to this universe will be totally shunned; such links will almost undoubtedly play a major part in the series, a point underlined in the show’s first trailer through the neon billboard for Roxxon, the giant multinational energy corporation that stands as shorthand for the amorality of corporate greed across the Marvel Universe, Cinematic or otherwise.
Interconnectedness has long been a key hallmark of the Marvel Comics Universe. It’s been baked-in since its very beginnings in the 1960s, with heroes regularly often “crossing-over” into each other’s territory. Spider-Man contacting the Fantastic Four in search of a job, Reed and Sue’s wedding, not to mention all the fights and misunderstandings. Crossovers large and small all played an integral role in building a larger coherent shared superhero universe.
This philosophy-cum-promotional tactic has also served as a foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started with a small number of linked superhero “origin” films that eventually moved on to the massive crossover/team-up that was the first “Avengers” movie. Jeph Loeb, Marvel Executive VP, Head of Television probably sums up the approach best in his oft repeated phrase: “It’s all connected.”
But you can have too much of a good thing. The recent MCU flick “Captain America: Civil War” was great fun for the sheer number of superheroes it packed onto the screen (including Spider-Man, who, despite being a Marvel Comics character, isn’t even controlled by Marvel Studios). But it didn’t really feel like a movie about Captain America.
Limiting cross-title character interactions while maintaining a wider sense of connection will give “Cloak and Dagger” room to breathe, to find its own narrative way and balance the emotionally-charged romance elements in as fashion very similar to how “Legion,” FX’s X-Men-ish spinoff series found its own path. While that show retained the key X-Men concept of mutants as a super-powered minority, feared and hated by many, and protagonist David Haller and his adversary Amahl Farouk (AKA the Shadow King), these are about the only elements it shares with the wider X-Men universe that spawned it. Yes, there were super-powered fights, but “Legion” has really forged its own identity through its highly stylized use of music, which on occasion almost broke out into full-on song and dance numbers, and stunning visuals.
Late on in “Legion’s” run the show did allude to links between show’s central character and his comic book father Charles Xavier via some chalk board depictions of a bald mutant telepath and an X-themed wheelchair, but there was no mention of the X-Men themselves, nor of anything that would overtly tie the series into Fox’s film franchise. Given how tortuously complex and nigglingly inconsistent the films are, this probably benefits all concerned.
“Legion” succeeded by focusing on its own story. All the characters, mutant and non-mutant alike, served to further the show’s narrative first and foremost, establishing FX’s own offbeat, slightly eccentric superhero brand, just as Netflix has done before through its collection of earthy “ground level” New York-based heroes.
Building an idiosyncratic variation of the successful Marvel superhero brand could well be an important consideration for Freeform, although it remains to be seen how well “Cloak and Dagger’s” Romeo and Juliet with superpowers will mesh with the more comedic elements of its upcoming Squirrel Girl/New Warriors show for potential Freeform crossover, if the show sufficiently resonates with the channel’s viewers it might not just succeed in widening the breadth of the Marvel universe we see on screen, but the audience for Marvel’s stories as well.
Based on the Marvel Comics characters created by Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan, “Cloak & Dagger” also stars Andrea Roth as Tandy’s mother Melissa Bowen, Gloria Reuben as Tyrone’s mother Adina Johnson, Miles Mussenden as Tyrone’s father Michael Johnson, Carl Lundstedt as Tandy’s partner in crime Liam, James Saito as Dr. Bernard Sanjo and J.D. Evermore as Detective Connors. The series is targeted to premiere in 2018 on the Disney-owned Freeform.