The new 8-episode Agent Carter – which fills in during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s hiatus – premiered in two action-packed parts on Tuesday night and immediately solved two of the cinematic super hero house’s biggest flaws: the lack of any strong central females headlining their own Marvel properties and the utter waste of the thoroughly engaging WWII-era milieu begun with Captain America: The First Avenger but then negated with that film’s jump to the 21st century just when things were getting interesting.
Carter takes place in 1946 with Peggy (Haley Atwell from both Captain America films) in the year immediately following her timeline’s end in Captain America. She’s still mourning the love of her life, Steve Rogers, presumed dead after flying his plane into a mountain to save civilization in the film. As we learned in the film, Peggy, a highly trained British soldier, worked alongside inventor/businessman Howard Stark (Iron Man’s dad for those of you Marvel non-nerds keeping score at home… but don’t worry, you don’t have to have seen/remembered all the Marvel flicks to understand and enjoy what’s going on here) on the Strategic Science Reserve’s super soldier program which turned Rogers into super hero Captain America. With WWII now over, men are returning to the work place and Peggy, despite being a proven, exceptionally capable agent, has been relegated to secretarial duties at the SSR. Stark, meanwhile, has disappeared amid suspicion that he’s been selling his weapons secrets to the enemy. Peggy knows better of course because she worked alongside the man all through the war.
In the first scene right after the credits, we see Peggy emerging confidently (in what has to be kind of a metaphor for the entire show) from a sea of gray-suited post-war men wearing a simple but dashing red hat, white blouse and blue skirt and jacket. From there she enters the SSR office (disguised as the Bell Company) where she’s immediately underestimated and pushed aside by her boss, Agent Dooley (Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Whigham), and all of her male colleagues who have a “we appreciate you filling in for us while we were off saving the world from the Nazis, girly, but we’re home now and you can go back to typing and making coffee” attitude. The office’s one decent guy, wounded war veteran Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) stands up for Peggy, but she politely backs him off, explaining she’s “more than capable of handling whatever these adolescents throw at me.” And she proves it a moment later when a fellow agent suggests she do some filing:
Thompson: If you don’t mind, these surveillance reports need to be filed and you’re really so much better at that kind of thing.
Carter: And what kind of thing is that, Agent Thompson? The alphabet? I can teach you. Let’s start with words beginning with ‘A.’
Before long, Howard (Dominic Cooper in a guest spot from the film) turns up on the sly to recruit Peggy to work within the SSR (while the SSR investigates him) to figure out who is selling his secrets and to clear his name. He’s particularly concerned about the weaponization of nitramene, an extremely powerful explosive he invented and Peggy’s the only one he trusts to do the job. To assist her, he offers up his unassuming but (as Peggy learns) useful butler, Jarvis played by James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas, Secret Diary of a Call Girl).
Overhearing some talk among the boys at the office, Peggy is led to a club operated by Spider Raymond, a tuxedoed man who looks like a cleaned up version of Bubbles from The Wire… because they’re both played by Andre Royo! It turns out Spider’s been buying a lot of Stark’s secrets from a thin man named Leet Brannis (James Frain, Grimm, Intruders). Peggy, disguised as a blonde bombshell and one step ahead of her male SSR counterparts, pretends to seduce Spider, drugs him, cracks his safe and discovers a batch of nitramene that has been turned into a small bomb. She takes it home and defuses it, but she’s been followed by a mysterious mustached man in a green suit (James Landry Hébert, Mob City) who murders her roommate. They fight and she tosses him out the window, but he survives and disappears.
The next day, with the help of one of Stark’s scientists, Peggy traces the manufacture of the bomb’s components to a nearby factory. When she investigates, she encounters Brannis who is about to drive off with a truckload of nitramene. When she pulls her gun on him, he threatens to blow them both up. With the mysterious words “Leviathan is coming,” he drops one of the nitramene bombs and escapes, leaving Peggy 30 seconds before it explodes. She narrowly escapes (with Jarvis driving) before the factory first explodes and then implodes, pulling its entire bulk and that of everything within 500 yards (including the license plate of Stark’s car) into a large ball of smoldering debris. Apparently this nitramene is very serious business.
In Episode Two, Peggy tracks the truck used to haul the nitramene to a dairy and, through the truck’s driver, locates Brannis. Always a few steps behind, the SSR boys eventually get onto the same trail while investigating the mysterious factory explosion, but so does mysterious Green Suit though Spider’s known accomplices.
In one of the episode’s best bits, an installment of a faux Captain America radio serial (sponsored by Roxxon Oil, owner of the detonated factory and a bitter competitor of Stark’s) featuring a Peggy Carter character who is relegated to nothing but a damsel in distress plays counterpoint to a scene where the real Peggy is kicking the hell out of the dairy truck driver working with Brannis.
Peggy: It’s so hard getting straight answers out of people nowadays. Whatever happened to a nice cup of tea and a civilized interrogation?
When Brannis turns up, Peggy gets the drop on him and he agrees to cooperate in exchange for protection from Leviathan. As Peggy, Jarvis and Brannis drive away in the truck full of nitramene, they’re hijacked by Green Suit. Peggy fights him on top of the truck but jumps free (along with Jarvis and Brannis) just before the truck goes off the road and into a lake where it explodes. Brannis is fatally injured in the jump from the truck, but scrawls a heart-like squiggle in the dirt before he dies. Peggy and Jarvis escape before the SSR boys arrive on the scene. Sousa (the nice agent from the previous episode) discovers a hotel room key dropped by Green Suit in his grapple with Peggy.
Later, as Jarvis is stitching up Peggy’s wounded leg, he implores her to let him be more of a help to her. She resists, playing the tough independent, but he persists.
Jarvis: There is not a man or a woman, no matter how fit he or she may be, who is capable of carrying the entire world on their shoulders.
Peggy: Steve was.
Jarvis: From what Mr. Stark has told me, Captain Rogers relied heavily on you for courage, strategy and moral guidance. You were his support.
In other words, if even Captain America needed help, so too does the admittedly great Peggy Carter… and a reluctant team is born.
As she already proved in the Captain America films, Haley Atwell is fantastic as Peggy Carter and it’s a juicy, refreshing character. Though Steve Rogers hangs over the story, this isn’t about Peggy finding another man. It’s more about her establishing herself as capable in a world where men aren’t ready to relinquish control. When Peggy’s not outwitting enemies and colleagues alike with her ample brain power, the stage-combat-trained Atwell convincingly beats the crap out of people and engages in various other stunts. More than just a man in a skirt, Peggy not only has to fight the bad guys, she has to overcome the accepted sexism of her era. Importantly, however, she’s not defined by that sexism any more than she’s limited by it. It’s more an obstacle for her to overcome and she does. Peggy is a unique, but worthy and welcome counterpart to the few other female heroines who have taken center stage in their own TV adventures in the last 20 years or so: names like Dana Scully (The X-Files), Buffy Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Sidney Bristow (Alias) and most recently Sarah Manning/Helena/Alison Hendrix/Cosima Niehaus (Orphan Black). And like those heroines, the material she has to work with is as good as anything given to a man. A bad show with a good female character would still be a bad show. Agent Carter is a terrific show made just that more compelling for the rarity of its central figure.
Not to be overlooked, there is also the show’s ultra-appealing setting. Though it was one of the less popular of the recent Marvel solo efforts when it came out, right-thinking people all over the world are finally coming around to the realization that Captain America: The First Avenger was charming and entertaining as hell primarily because the Gee Whiz/Aww Shucks World War II-era milieu was a refreshing throwback to a time in comics before the likes of Frank Miller and others turned comics into a darkly grim endeavor; a flag of seriousness that was picked up and popularized in cinema by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Miller, Nolan et al. and their vision are fine, but Agent Carter is a wonderful relief from the angst. Milking that wonderful post-war innocence (not to mention the beautiful production design) for all it is worth and stripped of the 21st century’s knowing irony, it comes across more like an Indiana Jones-type serial throwback than anything like the recent non-CapAm big screen Marvel adventures. It’s regrettable that, in its impatience to bring Captain America into the Avengers fold, Marvel couldn’t wait and squeeze in one at least one more World War II adventure for him, but now here is Peggy Carter who is more than capable of doing it herself.
With only the first 2 of its total of 8 hours played out, Marvel’s Agent Carter delivers on much of what the early advertisements promised while leaving room to grow. With smarts, humor and plenty of action, the stage has been set for one of the more entertaining adventure shows (regardless of the gender of the lead) to come along in a while. If it continues to build, it has the potential to be among Marvel’s best stories yet, whether on the small screen or the large.