Well, it’s finally here. The mid-season replacement for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD starring the most unlikely Marvel Comics protagonist to carry a prime time major network television series: Agent Carter. What studio would dare present a period piece starring a nuanced British female protagonist in this era of homogenized cookie cutter network shows? Marvel Studios, that’s who, and thank Kirby they did because experiencing the first two episodes of Agent Carter was like watching Marvel’s latest cinematic release for the first time from the comfort of my couch.
First off, the first episode of Agent Carter avoided the pitfalls that the initial episodes of Agents of SHIELD fell into. There wasn’t busy exposition or slow burn mysteries that were more ponderous than they were clever. Agent Carter relied on two things: character and action. When Agents of SHIELD first began, many fans complained of the lack of established Marvel characters. Agent Carter avoided this right away by making Captain America the first thing the viewers saw as the show went on the air. Yeah, it was footage from Captain America: The First Avenger, but the sight made me feel like Agent Carter picked up right where that film left off.
The show maintained the tone and aesthetic established by director Joe Johnston in the first Cap film. Steve Rogers was a constant presence; his loss was palpable and almost visible on Peggy Carter’s stoic visage. Captain America was never far from the story, his origins, his inspiration, his effect on the popular culture in which the story was set in. Using a production of a Captain America radio serial was a brilliant way to show the specter of Captain America was ever present to Peggy Carter and her world.
As for Peggy herself, Hayley Atwell is magnetic, and it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off her when she is on screen. She plays Peggy with equal parts quiet dignity, pain, sex appeal, and innate toughness. She was the perfect hero for the age, a quick thinking, ass kicking defender of freedom with an edge of loneliness. She was not just the atypical tough gal, she was a nuanced woman who wants to do her job to the best of her ability, to continue to fight for the same beliefs Steve Rogers fought for in his honor. The juxtaposition of how she views Cap and how the world views the fallen hero, as seen through the Cap radio show, was constant and powerful, with Cap constantly saving a ditzy dame on the show while Steve Rogers’ true love fights alone, needing no man to save her.
As for the story itself, like Peggy, it was elegant in its simplicity. A shady criminal organization stole a cache of weapons created by Howard Stark. Stark was framed for the theft and turns to Peggy Carter to prove his innocence. That’s it, no alien conspiracies, no ponderous mysteries, just a woman using her copious skills to help an old ally. Of course, Stark’s presence gave the series another tether to the Marvel universe proper but also a sense of whimsy and fun as Howard is every inch the narcissistic playboy as Tony.
Assisting Carter in this mission was, Stark’s faithful butler, Jarvis, played by James D’Arcy. It was so good to see Jarvis as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, it was cool and clever to have JARVIS be the onboard A.I. in the Iron Man armor for the movies, but things just didn’t feel right without the flesh and blood Jarvis existing somewhere. D’Arcy plays the gentleman’s gentleman to perfection, being refined enough to do the role justice but bringing his own spin to the part without being too Alfred Pennyworth. Jarvis is forever at Carter’s side during her initial adventure but must make the solitary woman trust him if the team is to work.
Peggy’s loneliness and solitude stretched to her place of employment. Despite obviously being the most capable agent around, she must toil as a secretary even though she fought side by side with greatest hero America has ever known. In fact, it’s only the extraordinary men in her life that bother to treat her like the hero she is, men like Steve and Howard Stark, while the typical guys who reflect the mores of the time period treat her like she’s furniture. It’s ironic, after tonight’s premiere, Peggy Carter is now the only Marvel cinematic hero that has a secret identity. She must hide her actions from her colleagues or else fail her mission for Stark.
The series adversary, Leviathan still has a welcome air of mystery and is somehow tied into Project: Rebirth, the experiment that created Captain America, making the stakes very personal for Peggy indeed. I’m looking forward to watching this series unfold as this week, the action was awesome, the character work was pitch perfect, and the supporting cast was well conceived. Agent Carter is how to guide for network period drama and it will be a pleasure to watch Atwell’s Carter come to life in the coming weeks.
Retro Marvel Moments
– Vita-rays made me cheer out loud. Of course, vita-rays were the special type of radiation used to create Captain America, something Carter was uniquely qualified to understand and track.
– Edwin Jarvis first appeared in Tales of Suspense #59 (Nov 1964) and was created by Stan Lee and Don Heck. He has been a constant and vital part of Avengers history since his debut. It’s so good to see the old chap get his proper due in a live action media.
The organization known as Leviathan was first revealed in Secret Warriors #11 (February 2010). In the same way HYDRA grew out of the Third Reich, Leviathan grew out of Soviet operatives in the Cold War. With Agent Carter’s pre-Cold War setting, this Leviathan could be something similar.
Looking for Marvel Comics set in the era of Agent Carter? Check out our guide to exactly that!
Marc Buxton will now read his old Invaders comics until the wee hours.