Never before has a character so obscure felt so in demand. Yet, here we are, with Marvel’s Agent Carter putting one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s few, prominent women characters front and center. And while there are many Marvel character equally deserving of their own show – and perhaps a few even more so – once you’ve seen Agent Carter there’s no doubt Marvel has struck gold with the stylish spy series.
Agent Peggy Carter first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger, where she worked with and fell hard for Steve Rogers. It’s now 1946, the war is over and Captain America is dead, and Peggy and the Strategic Scientific Reserve must find a way to carry on. It’s at this time that Howard Stark is accused of selling weapon grade technology on the black market, and he turns to Peggy – one of the few he trusts – to clear his name. Now, with the SSR hunting down a wanted Stark, Peggy partners with Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, to track down the stolen weapons.
Its post-war setting is far removed from the current MCU as well as our own modern world, but Agent Carter aims to make itself relevant to both. Firstly, the foundations of what will later become The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. are littered throughout, with significant name drops like Vita-Rays and Vanko. Then there are the many clues to remind audiences the 1940s weren’t like today, and equality between the sexes wasn’t even an afterthought.
This rather unsavory, misogynistic element of 1940s society is weaved with glamorous parties, radio plays, classic cars and chrome-covered diners to convey a believable fantasy of 1940s New York. Not that realism with heavy doses of grit and grime is what Agent Carter needs, but the series has far more in common with a 1940s back lot than actual 1940s New York. This sure makes Agent Carter one good-looking series, but doesn’t help with grounding it.
Enter Peggy Carter, highly trained field agent for the Strategic Scientific Reserve. She stood shoulder to shoulder with Cap and the Howling Commandos, and she is exceedingly capable of taking care of the bad guys, let alone herself. Peggy chooses to stay on with the SSR after the war, and because of this must constantly fight against being marginalized by her male coworkers who see her as little more than a secretary.
Hayley Atwell reprises her role as Peggy – as she has whenever Marvel comes calling – and Agent Carter benefits immensely from having an actress already so comfortable in the role. Atwell’s Peggy is clever and sassy, extremely efficient, but not so much that she’s without compassion. She’s also, as it turns out, incredibly good at disguises and role-playing – an obviously useful skill set for any secret agent we haven’t had the opportunity to see from her until now.
Atwell is, as ever, magnetic on screen, but it isn’t only her performance that’s responsible for how strongly Peggy is portrayed onscreen. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America 1, 2, & 3) have written her as assertive and confident. Rather than simply having Peggy or other characters tell us how tough and capable she is, we’re shown it; whether it be Peggy explaining to her one friendly coworker, Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) that she doesn’t need him to defend her because she can speak for herself, or Peggy outsmarting a fleeing perp by heading him off, instead of just chasing after him like fellow agent, Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray).
While Atwell is undoubtedly the star of Agent Carter, it’s her rapport with James D’Arcy’s Edwin Jarvis that makes the series shine. The name Jarvis should be a familiar one as it’s also the name of Tony Stark’s A.I., but this is the O.G. Jarvis, and he’s as British as tea and crumpets. Peggy, too, is a Brit, and their pairing plays that shared culture against the differences in their lifestyles. The two have a quick-witted banter that is both innately English as well as reminiscent of Hollywood screwball comedies, and it only leaves you wanting more.
Jarvis himself is unflappable in the face of danger, and though he may be scared out of his mind while driving away from a massive explosion at top speeds or struggling to keep control of runaway milk truck with Peggy fighting atop it, he keeps his cool and gets the job done. He’s going to prove essential to Peggy’s mission, and in fact, may know far more about what happened with Stark’s stolen technology than he’s letting on.
Rounding out the cast are Shea Whigham as SSR Chief Roger Dooley, a real hard ass who barely considers Peggy competent, and Lyndsey Fonesca as a waitress who befriends Peggy and convinces her to move into a women-only apartment building (another sign of the era, with strict rules of conduct for the ladies residing there). While Agent Carter is not an ensemble show, the casting is very strong throughout. Even smaller roles are cast well with familiar faces – Dr. Venture? Farva!? – that delight more than distract.
Still, even with an excellent cast and a smart use of the time period, Agent Carter isn’t flawless. The choice to go with a two-hour premiere may have sounded great initially, but even for an entertaining a show as Agent Carter two hours was a long time to hold an audience’s attention, and the pacing suffered. This short miniseries may be more cinematic than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but its episodes are still structured for television, and one episode would have hooked viewers just as likely as two.
However, had we only had one episode airing last night we would have missed out on the second episode’s thrilling action, wonderfully directed by Joe Russo (Captain America 2 & 3 – noticing a pattern?). Agent Carter is the least fantastical of all the current comic book properties, but it could easily be the most action-packed. Peggy is not a gal who pulls her punches, but rather lands them with power and effectiveness. She’s no super soldier so she has to be clever, and they’ve choreographed that into every fight with Peggy wielding whatever is on hand: briefcase, stove burner, stapler, etc.
Marvel’s Agent Carter has found its footing quicker than any of the recent string of comic book TV shows, which is especially good given its limited run of only eight episodes. There are flaws to be found, sure, but overall Agent Carter is a stylish, focused series with a clear agenda: Peggy Carter is awesome, but let’s show everyone why.