There are heroes and there are superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s all too rare that we find a heroine among them, “super” or not. After half-a-decade jetting around with the likes of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, I’d dare say it’s a welcome change of pace to have something as different as Marvel’s Agent Carter. A smart double-episode of terrific and wits to match, Agent Carter crackles with the energy of a drama all dolled up as a spy-thriller – and frankly, it works.
Years have past since the world lost its First Avenger. It’s 1946 and Peggy Carter’s now working in the New York offices of SHIELD’s precursor, the SSR. Despite her heroic service overseas, Peggy’s now part of a dead-end office job that’s very much of its time – a boy’s club where Peggy’s the odd girl out and and her role as Captain America’s “liaison” the subject of a hilariously oafish radio drama. As little more than a glorified secretary by day, it’s up to Peggy to take matters into her own hands at night, sneaking away to find some action that soon finds her.
When her old war buddy Howard Stark has plans for dangerous new technology stolen from him and has to go on the run, framed as a conspirator, Peggy is on the case – working to track down the tech and clear Howard’s name. Peggy herself and the ability to be a part of the MCU without being heavily tied into the modern day occurrences are all incredibly appealing from my vantage point and, again, just an extension of a comic book world that’s given us plenty of non-superhero stories.
It would be easy to claim that Agent Carter dishes out the standard spy fare – it does, yet it spins its theatrics so effortlessly as to make it plausible. Its attention to detail is marvelous, to say the least. Self-typing typewriters with coded messages and glowing orbs are a delightful cocktail of retro and comic book tributes. There are car chases and there are evil men with tommy guns, but it’s all in good fun, even dramatic at times. There’s a part of Agent Carter that seems to know it’s a spy thriller, and it owns it enough to jest at itself every so often.
A downtown NYC’s nothing new to Marvel’s cinematic universe either, but Agent Carter thrives in that its rooted here. The post-World War II New York we’re given shimmers with the pomp and circumstance of the age, black ties and all, its wardrobe stylish enough to make Mad Men blush. Hayley Atwell is impeccably cast as Peggy and dons the role as easily as she does one of her fabulous hats. Cool, confident, and as capable here as in The First Avenger and the Marvel One-Shot that foresaw the series, the eight-episode arc she’s given is a surprisingly personal one. In a world full of mad scientists and, super spies she’s not a damsel in distress nor a woman on a mission; rather, she’s a survivor trying to find one.
No, this isn’t a show that’ll become the stuff of space adventures or monster movies, nor should it. Every new film and show that exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe should not be beholden to add some huge important element to one of the giant, overarching storylines that so often result in trial-and-error balancing acts. Ultimately, Agent Carter entertains on its own merits as a self-contained story of a soldier finding her way home from war long after Peggy’s taken up residence in an empty apartment. She’s tough, she’s bright, and she’s nevertheless alone, unafraid to stick a fork in loudmouth harassers (quite literally) yet with nowhere to go Friday night. In the same sense as our star-spangled Avenger some seventy years later, Peggy’s’s a woman out of place as much as Captain America’s a man out of time, and it’s that dichotomy that plays to her greatest strengths.
The Agent Carter premiere, penned by Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Louis D’Esposito of the Agent Carter One-Shot does great work quickly immersing us in Peggy’s world. Yes, it all inevitably feels like a TV show compared to the Marvel movie (being a TV show and all), but the period setting and clothing is a lot of fun, whether Peggy is at an automatic high, chatting with her waitress buddy Angie or going undercover at a fancy party, disguised as a blond femme fatale, doing a bang-up American accent. On top of that, the action scenes are strong, particularly a big fight Peggy has with an intruder in her kitchen, in spite of a rather dark turn that feels decidedly more scripted than need be.
Peggy’s fellow SRS agents, including her superior, Roger Dooley (Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham), and the office MVP, Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), are only glimpsed at here and there initially, though Enver Gjokaj is a warm presence as the kind-hearted, injured war vet Daniel Sousa. Except for Gjokaj, most are the dull, masculine stereotypes you find in a black-and-white spy flick who fill out a bland cast of coworkers despite their clearly satirical purpose at times. The premiere, appropriately, is pretty much all about Peggy – or Peggy and Jarvis, really.
Yes, Agent Carter introduces us to the MCU version of Edwin Jarvis himself, the butler to first Tony Stark and then all the Avengers in the comics. He’s a younger Jarvis (James D’Arcy) than we’re used to, and here he’s the butler to Howard Stark, who instructs him to assist Peggy in his absence. The two enjoy a warm dynamic likely to be a quick fan favorite aspect of this series. Atwell and D’Arcy play off one another superbly. Jarvis’ droll demeanor meshes with Peggy’s death-defying endeavors to a T as he chauffeurs her around town on her missions. In the premiere at least, their relationship’s refreshingly free of any “will they or won’t they?” dilemmas – not only due to Jarvis’ marriage, but because they’re simply functioning at an accessible level as partners in crime-fighting.
Throaty cyborg henchmen aside, the actual enemy in the premiere is relatively cloudy, with some mysterious and potentially compelling elements introduced near the end, but without a strong presence to appreciate. With only eight episodes, hopefully that’ll change sooner rather than later. There’s only so pain Peggy can dish out on a bunch of suits before Agent Carter requires a real fight.
Those looking for massive Marvel tie-ins should probably look elsewhere. The connection to Captain America is of course a large one and callbacks abound, but by its nature, this show exists onto itself much more, which is to its benefit, much unlike Agents of SHIELD’s early days – but there are some aspects glimpsed or mentioned in other MCU projects that get more of a spotlight here, including but not limited to Roxxon Oil and Anton Vanko. They’re nods all the same, though, and like Peggy, Agent Carter’s unafraid about moving on.
With a stellar leading lady, a different kind of duo, and a decent amount of intrigue, Agent Carter’s dressed to impress and succeeds on most accounts. The premiere does a diligent job establishing Agent Carter‘s world, though I do hope the show keeps pace with its promises, giving Peggy more of a nemesis than shadows to stand up against. While a fair part of Agent Carter’s merely about going through the motions, its charming star should let it stand tall as a proud new member of the Marvel family. In a world full of superhumans, it’s refreshing to root for someone whose, in fact, only human.