As is occasional tradition on Multiversity, we’re kicking off our set of Agent Carter reviews with a bigger spoiler-free review. For more succinct and spoiler-filled reviews comprised of five thoughts, join us next week.
Debuting last night on ABC as a midseason replacement for Agents of SHIELD, Marvel’s latest TV endeavor Agent Carter kicked off with two episodes of Hayley Atwell becoming everyone’s new favorite superhero.
Starting off with the finale of Captain America: The First Avenger and mixing in some light aspects of the Agent Carter One-Shot from the Iron Man 3 Blu-ray (which apparently is not canon, but is still worth re-using clips from), we find war veteran Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) now working for the pre-SHIELD organization Strategic Scientific Reserve amidst rampant workplace sexism and the ongoing trial of her former friend and compatriot, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). All of this sets up the ongoing plot of the show in which Carter has to be the world’s greatest secret agent and track down some black market weapons while hiding her identity as the greatest Marvel character from those around her.
As far as plots go, the show finds itself kicking off out of some rather rudimentary spy tropes. John le Carre this certainly isn’t, though that doesn’t stop the show from being rather fun. The easiest way to describe it would be “very Marvel-esque,” a show that clearly toes the line of storytelling established by Kevin Feige’s cinematic franchise empire and doesn’t go too far to break the mold — which is fine, and fair, and probably to be expected in all honesty. And whether we’re seeing inspiration from spy shows like Alias or sci-fi shows like Fringe (a certain literal plot device seems taken straight out of Fringe’s Typset Antiques), Agent Carter is another genre-mashed entry into a long line of female-led spy stories, now set square in one of the most important eras of the MCU’s history.
Despite the familiar territory, though, Agent Carter is a fairly welcome addition to television in this new year. Truthfully, Agent Carter kicks off its run with an opening far greater than Agents of SHIELD did, showing that Marvel is now much more aware of how to actually make entertaining television that matches the scope of their cinematic pieces. The show is huge with wonderfully realized sets, high-stakes situations, and its sense of campy fun is infectious; Agent Carter is more like an eight-hour film than it is “just another” TV mini-series, and the storytelling it employs is rather indicative of the age we live in in terms of serialized entertainment.
And it’s a lot of fun, which is a pretty darn great aspect all on its own. The first two episodes of Agent Carter feature quite a few laugh out loud and applause-worthy moments as Agent Carter takes ownership of this stereotypical post-war 1940s landscape, and she’s a very easy to root for heroine even without any prior knowledge of the character. Add to that a rather stirring cast (James D’Arcy as The Real Edwin Jarvis is as charming as you’d hope and Shea Wingham embodies the stereotypical gruff Chief Roger Dooley well) and some surprising guest stars (Ray Wise and James Urbaniak, anyone?) and Agent Carter sets a familiar stage with enough captivating players and elements to succeed well as entertainment.
As an entry into the MCU, the show also stands rather strong. The show mixes in more notable references that help build Marvel’s world (the presence of Roxxon is certainly felt as well as a certain Iron Man 2-related cameo) while also seamlessly sneaking in the kind of modern comic hits (the Big Bad organization behind it all) and deep cuts that make watching Marvel programs fun for the more comic-versed amongst us (Leet Brannis and Hugh Jones, for example). With a few mystery roles yet to arrive and a lot of rich comic mythology to pull from for the era, this could stand to be one of the biggest Marvel productions yet.
What makes Agent Carter valuable in any way, however, is Agent Carter herself. Many may tout the show as Marvel’s first feminist program and that’s not entirely true; while Carter is the star and the most powerful figure in a group of buffoons, it’s still a largely male show — the main plot, the main villains and almost all side-characters are male. And I relent that sure, there are some “era appropriate” stereotypes to revel in, but this isn’t exactly Mad Men or some kind of pastiche; it’s a Marvel spy show. But despite that, when we tune in to watch, we only tune in to see what Carter does, and what Carter does is incredible: she kicks an incredible amount of ass assuredly, utilizing all the skills she was trained with, but then she also messes up. She fails. She loses. She cries. Atwell gives us a wide range of emotion in a hero that is both bound for success and still saddled with human flaws, and she does it in high heels kicked up on a desk while eating snacks. That’s something we don’t get to see very often in female leads.Continued below
In fact, what is best about both Agent Carter and Agent Carter herself is made rather abundant in a particular sequence in the second episode. In it, Carter finds herself involved in a bit of fisticuffs (as you do), and the duration of the fight is presented in parallel with a radio show playing in the background that mythologizes Captain America’s actions during the war while also trivializing the endeavors of his faux-fictional female companion. It’s perhaps the most on the nose portion of the show, but it’s a wonderful moment regardless in which what the show’s potential is made transparent. If the following episodes can bring that about more, then we’re pretty well off all things considered.
And make no mistake: Hayley Atwell is absolutely electric in the latest iteration of her recurring Marvel heroine. Having played Agent Carter in four different features already, allowing Atwell to take center stage as Marvel’s first headlining female hero proves to be quite a boon. Atwell has always brought a great amount of presence to her role as Peggy Carter, but the way in which the character’s former stature is undermined in post-war New York offers Atwell an interesting challenge. Carter is still certainly the tactical and intelligent character we were familiar with, but the inherent sexist aspects of her environment allow Atwell to explore different facets of Carter’s identity both as a person and a spy. She may be surrounded by idiots, but Atwell shows us a smart and vulnerable heroine that exhibits a more wide range of personality than we typically get to see.
I’m reminded of a quote I’ve seen floated around the internet a lot in regards to the “strong” woman trope, intimating the way in which it is actually best to feature positive female characters in fiction: as people. A shocking thought, I know, but the quote always remains relevant when I see it crop up; so many female characters get bogged down being just one thing that writers seem afraid to let them be people. Agent Peggy Carter doesn’t have this same stigma to her, though, appropriately providing us a character with both a great amount of agency and a lot of room to grow and develop in her own way over the course of this show. While other aspects of the show find itself tangled up in too many common story tropes to make the show too revolutionary, Carter and Atwell are more than enough to bring viewers back for more.
Surprisingly cinematic and a joy to watch, Agent Carter is a strong and welcome addition to Marvel’s overall line of shows and films. Hayley Atwell makes for an amazing lead and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a character like Peggy Carter — someone who is both larger than life and still incredibly human — take the lead after a string of male blockbuster action heroes. While there are still seven more weeks for spy twists and comic action, I can only hope that the rest of the season continues to build from what these two initial jaunts have offered up.
Oh! And the Ant-Man film looks okay, I guess.