After my somewhat controversial post on BLACK PANTHER last week I started, coincidentally or not, to watch ABC and Marvel’s CLOAK & DAGGER TV series. Now let me first say that some of Marvel’s TV series I’ve watched in recent years have been the best rendition of super-hero stories I’ve ever seen – reminding me of the joy I had as a teenager reading comic books and absolutely kicking the ass of most of the movies out there. So let me speak a little bit about that.
Over the last couple of decades, TV has come to the forefront of fiction writing everywhere. Many years ago there were TV stars and movie stars and TV stars were the actors who couldn’t cut it in the big leagues of the Hollywood film sets. Even stars like Paul Newman who showed up in the small screen a few times, would completely disappear into the mythical world of theaters as soon as they became big stars. If you wanted to see quality acting and quality writing and quality directing, you would be crazy to turn on the TV, unless to watch some twenty-year-old classic or sing along with Julie Andrews’ SOUND OF MUSIC at Christmas. This state of affairs however was completely turned upside down. Nowadays, good acting and good writing is on TV, period (well… with some exceptions).
The first super-hero show that blew my mind and actually made me feel a youngster again was Netflix’s DAREDEVIL, in particular the first season. I had watched J.J. Abrams’ HEROES and mostly liked it, but DAREDEVIL was in a whole different level. Full disclosure: Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL was always one of my favorite comic heroes – I absolutely loved it. And they did change a couple of things in the series: Matt Murdock was more naïve and gentle on TV – I always liked the tougher darker Miller’s characters. Still, Vicent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of the Kingpin was brilliant, to say the least.
Then Netflix did it again with the wonderful JESSICA JONES and LUKE CAGE, and the powerful PUNISHER. Super-heroes quickly became adults and serious characters, less concerned with dressing up and more consumed by human dramas. I was very disappointed with IRON FIST, again one of my favorite characters that was portrayed as a spoiled brat, which was completely contradictory to a tough hard training life in a monastery. THE DEFENDERS was a little better but not much better. The powerful characters were there and I do like what Elodie Yung did to Elektra – but the human drama, the story and the writing wasn’t as good as the other series. Yet the trend had caught on and serious super-hero TV series became a thing. FX blew my mind again with LEGION – I didn’t know this comic series and I found it featured one of the most interesting and surprising villains around. If you haven’t watched, go watch it. There are other super-hero TV series, of course (please don’t speak to me about DC), and I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are the ones that for me, opened the comic book world again.
And now, CLOAK & DAGGER. Again, it’s been done right. It’s not about the battles, or the special effects, or the super-powers. It’s about the Human Drama. I go back to what I usually say about storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest ways of teaching and learning. The ancient races would gather around the fires and tell tales to their youngsters. Shamans and sorcerers would amaze the tribes with their stories. Greek and Roman theaters would fill with people eager to see the drama. We even developed inner genetic techniques to absorb these stories. Every writer knows about ‘The Suspension of Disbelief’ – that exercise happening inside the minds of readers and audiences. We all know that Harry Potter never existed nor could he fly on a broom. We all know that Daenerys has never ridden a dragon. But we fool ourselves into believing in it. We suspend our disbelief so that we can join the characters going through the stories. They tell me that the parts of our brain that ‘light up’ when we are ‘feeling’ a story are the same parts of the brain that turn on when we go through the same experiences in reality. That’s why we rejoice and laugh and cry with all that’s happening with the characters in the stories. This is a mechanism Humanity developed to learn. And to learn what, you ask me?
What are we learning with the stories we engage in? We learn things that would be very difficult to learn in other ways: we learn our values, about Good and Evil, about the obstacles life puts in our way, about how to make decisions. And the more difficult and thought-provoking these decisions will be, the more interesting and special the story is. In my view, fiction is the realm of complexity. It’s the realm of ambiguity. It’s the realm of discomfort. At the very core of the Human Drama, I believe, is the difficulty of making the right decisions in a world that is all but simple. I once heard it on the radio, going home, very eloquently, the host referring: «This thing of being a person is very complicated.» Also, that line from the Chico Buarque, the Brazilian singer: «Up close, no-one is normal». And that’s what stories are for: for us to learn what is complex and complicated. To learn the values and principles and solutions that will get us through our difficult journey in life.
Well, maybe that’s what makes a show like CLOAK & DAGGER, in my view, far superior than movies like BLACK PANTHER: the former is more complex and grounded than the latter.
CLOAK & DAGGER is the story of two six-year-olds, a white girl and a black boy, who meet in an event that takes both her father and his brother’s lives. Eight years later they are still looking for justice for those deaths and when they meet again they find that they activate each other’s super-powers. I’m sure that Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph, who portray Tandy and Tyrone, will be household names in a few years, but it’s not just their performances that hold this underrated TV show together: it’s the intelligence and the seriousness with which the Human Drama is treated in this story. You don’t follow it because it’s about two teenagers with super-powers, you follow it because it’s about two complex characters dealing with both the deaths of their loved ones and the injustice in the world. And, of course, the love that can emerge from their struggles.
I’ve only watched 9 episodes of the series. In the ninth, ‘Back Breaker’, there’s a ‘pseudo-fourth-wall-breaking’, where a character is teaching creative writing and explaining how at this point in the story the characters will lose their ground and fall. Here is shown the formulae that writers use in their structures. Some people dislike these formulae and find them too crude. But it’s not the formulae that are crude, it’s the writer. It’s not the tool that is broken; it’s how you use it that makes a difference. If you analyze the structure of both BLACK PANTHER and CLOAK & DAGGER you would find that there is not a lot of difference between the two. Still, the result is radically different. Again, I liked BLACK PANTHER, it worked well enough. But it lacked sophistication, I believe.
One day we will discuss why then in BLACK PANTHER more successful and well reviewed than C&D – and why many of us prefer simpler stories. But this is not the day.