How Agent Carter gets the female comic book hero right

No latex, no drooling, no preaching – has Marvel's Agent Carter mastered the comic book heroine?

Warning: contains mild spoilers for Agent Carter.

The perfect standalone female comic book hero has been a somewhat unobtainable dream for both Hollywood moviemakers and small screen show-runners ever since Blade, X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man launched us into the modern age of superhero multimedia dominance.

Of course, there have been attempts – Catwoman and Elektra were released in 2004 and 2005 respectively, both hoping that the proven bankability of their heroine’s male counterparts (as in, Batman and Daredevil) and a few skimpy outfits would be enough to help launch massive new female-fronted franchises.

Sadly, both productions essentially missed the point. While exploitative images of nearly-nude lady vigilantes might be enough to make a few shillings from the comic-buying masses, making a mint from a comic book movie takes strong performances, solid action, likeable characters and – above all – good stories.

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Arguably, female heroes have fared better in supporting roles, with the appearances of Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Avengers Assemble and Captain America: The Winter Soldier generally being received as excellent – particularly the latter two. She’s strong, independent and always more-than holds her own. Similar characters have popped up on telly, with Caity Lotz’ Black Canary from Arrow being another prime example of how it’s possible to successfully bring a female hero to life in live action form.

So why has it taken so long for a female character to take centre stage in her own not-awful live action comic book adaptation? It comes down to, essentially, poor decision-making from the behind-the-scenes teams, we would wager.

After a long wait, though, the unobtainable dream has finally come true. Unlikely as it may seem, the first great standalone female comic book hero of our time has come in the shape of Captain America’s supporting character Peggy Carter, a role that has been greatly expanded from the comics into an eight-episode television series.

Without further pre-babble, here’s how Marvel Studios’ Agent Carter TV series has finally got it right…

It’s entirely void of latex

One of the primary ways in which Catwoman and Elektra went wrong was in focusing too much on the appearance of their respective heroines, and not enough on the scripts. We imagine that the costume-design meetings went on far longer than the writing sessions, on both accounts. The critical and box office failings of these films proved that audiences generally don’t want to be fed rubbish that looks nice, at least not from their comic book films (Transformers still rakes in the cash, after all).

One of the first things that the Agent Carter TV show had to get right was the method of visually presenting Peggy. Given the portrayal of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha in the cinematic Marvel outings, and the tendency towards tight-fitting black that women wear in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., there was always a chance that history might repeat itself and the powers-that-be would decide to stick Hayley Atwell in some sort of S.S.R. prototype latex cat-suit, and not for reasons of costume department continuity across the MCU.

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Thankfully, however long Marvel Studios might have spent settling on a look for Peggy – and there must have been some lewder options in there – they eventually settled on something character and period-appropriate. On a day-to-day basis in her show, Peggy Carter likes to rock a killer blouse, a respectable skirt, a striking blue coat and a compliment-garnering hat.

This builds on the stellar work that kept Hayley Atwell’s dignity intact during Captain America: The First Avenger (where she mainly favoured trousers, shirts, ties and jackets). As much as costume isn’t the most-talked-about facet of filmmaking on this site, these decisions were arguably vital to the success of Agent Carter in mastering the female comic hero’s live-action representation.

The result is Peggy Carter: a beautiful woman dressed appropriately not just for her historical era but also for the work she has to do. It’s an important exterior display of her interior characteristics – as a woman in a man’s world who wants to be taken seriously and viewed on the same level as her male colleagues and rivals, if Peggy turned up at the office dressed frivolously, or went into battle in a Black Widow-esque outfit, the very core of her character would be misrepresented.

Yes, Peggy donned a blonde wig and a low-cut sparkly dress in the first episode, but that costume change was aimed at furthering her secret mission, such is the right of any woman to choose how she dresses for whatsoever purpose. She knew that such attire would help her extract the necessary intel from club-owner Spider Raymond, with the added bonus of hiding her true identity to any glancing eyes. It was Peggy’s decision, and it paid off (despite nearly landing her in hot water when the club photographer turned up).

All in all, then, the use of costume in Agent Carter has essentially thrown out the common flaws that faced Elektra and Catwoman. Instead of a dignity-less femme fatale with little likeability, we have a woman who commands respect, not shallow perving. Top notch stuff, Marvel.

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It’s empowerment through initiative

Indeed, instead of a female hero who saunters and flirts her way through confrontations, Peggy Carter is as capable and adept as any male spy doing the televisual rounds at the moment. Rather than her body, she uses her initiative to solve problems, including some particularly ingenious decision-making moments.

Thanks to the brilliantly old-school technology of the 1940s, Peggy always has a trick up her sleeve. In just three episodes we’ve seen her employ a glowy ball thing to momentarily blind an assailant, a wrist-watch to open a safe, a fridge door wallop an attacker, a gas hob to properly injure him and some knock-out lipstick to disarm a potential threat. And that’s before we get to our favourite moment so far of Peggy’s ingenuity.

That would be, of course, what we can only summarise as the ‘milk truck inspector’ sequence. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching the second episode yet, or just happen to be very forgetful, this is a scene in which Peggy must locate a particular milk truck that should be full of highly dangerous explosives (or implosives, technically).

Her solution? That would be – inspired by the contents of Howard Stark’s collection of night-time entertainment garments – to pose as a health and safety inspector in a long white coat and just turn up demanding access to all the trucks. Embracing undercover work with fantastic flair, Peggy really commits to the role (in a fantastic turn from Hayley Atwell) and even goes so far as loudly complaining that a certain tyre needs pumping up. All the while, of course, she is scanning the trucks for evidence. As the series progresses, we’re sure we’ll see more of Peggy’s imaginative espionage ideas. We hope so, anyway.

This is why we love Agent Carter: it’s a show about a woman who has all sorts of clever ideas to get her mission completed, not just low-cut sparkly dresses.

It steers away from preaching

Of course, there’s nothing everyone would want to see less than a comic book show that spent more time poking its political agenda into your eyeballs than focusing on the entertainment factor. The political thrills of Captain America: The Winter Soldier found a near-perfect balance with the big action beats, and Marvel has winningly achieved a similar blend with Agent Carter.

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This is a show with a staunchly feminist message, and it rightly makes no apologies for that, nor does it shy away from it. However, what it does do is handle the matter gently, and not using preachy dialogue. We can imagine a parallel universe’s ill-thought-out version of the same show might cringingly feature an episode-closing Scrubs-esque voiceover where Hayley Atwell intones things like ‘it’s a hard work here for a gal, but I always get results.’

Instead, Peggy’s views on female-empowerment shine through in her actions, without reducing the fun factor of the show at all. For example, the scene where she nearly puts a fork through an artery of a particularly grotesque male diner overtly passes you the intended message that misogyny and sexism should sod off, without feeling the need to spoon-feed it through righteous dialogue.

Taking its message to another level, the show also presents us with the idea that the media’s representation of women is just as harmful to equal rights as the presence of everyday misogyny. This is achieved through the brilliant conceit of the Captain America Adventure Hour, a radio programme that has rewritten British Peggy’s key role in World War II proceedings into an American damsel in distress, presumably to fit the expected conventions of the era.

When the Agent Carter teaser trailer arrived a few months back bearing the awful slogan ‘sometimes the best man for the job… Is a woman!’, we truly feared the worst for the programme. We had visions of cheesy voiceovers and vacuous comedy moments where Peggy winks down the camera after some male morons make mishaps, but thankfully that isn’t what we got.

Instead, we have a show that portrays its brilliant equal-rights agenda through Peggy’s actions, side characters and show-within-a-show meta moments rather than letting politics overtake proceedings and ram messages down people’s throats. Please take notes, Wonder Woman movie.

It’s awesome in its own right

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly of all, Agent Carter is an excellent show in its own right. Were this exact same show made with a male protagonist, who used his ingenuity to solve problems, dressed respectably and occasionally wore a revealing V-neck to help dumbfound easily-distracted villains, we would still be sat here writing about how ace it was.

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The brilliance of Agent Carter flows not just from its expert handling of the conundrums of presenting complex women as protagonists, but from every element of the show itself. The recreation of the 1940s, music and all, is handled well, which would have had us on-board with or without Peggy’s involvement.

Likewise, the rest of the cast is full of interesting characters with their own agendas, secrets and stellar performances. In particular, James D’Arcy has impressed as Jarvis, the jovial butler with a mysterious past and hidden motivations. Elsewhere, Enver Gjokaj has won our affections as the one-legged war veteran Sousa and Lyndsy Fonesca’s aspiring actress/housemate/diner employee Angie has quickly become a firm favourite, too.

Even with their flashes of disrespect towards Peggy, characters like Chad Michael Murray’s Jack and Shea Whigham’s S.S.R. chief Roger Dooley are inherently watchable thanks to some solid scripting and performances. Of course, Dominic Cooper’s brilliance barely needs mentioning.

Agent Carter excels as a comic book/espionage show too, with plenty of nods to Marvel lore, a constant stream of tightly-directed fight scenes, two creepy villains, a mysterious organisation, things blowing up and constant chases.

Before you can make a good female-fronted hero show, you must first make sure you have the groundwork laid for a good any-gender show, which Agent Carter surely does.

All in all, then, there’s no great secret to the success of Agent Carter in presenting the first truly excellent female-fronted comic book property of the current live-action resurgence, but there are a few lessons that the teams behind Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and the often-touted Black Widow film can take away from it.

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Firstly, scantily clad costume choices are far from essential to proceedings. While all these upcoming films will surely cast Hollywood beauties who will probably wear tighter outfits than Atwell in their title roles, it’s worth remembering that the quality of the end product isn’t down to the leading lady’s revealing clothing. Agent Carter rarely gets exploitative, and it would be wonderful if the bigger properties that will follow in its footsteps could heed its example.

Instead of banking solely on latex to sell tickets, Hollywood could also echo Agent Carter’s success by putting time and effort into establishing the entertaining skills and abilities of their upcoming female leads. Peggy has a firm right hook and a keen eye for an undercover alias, and the writing team’s investment in this does the show a whole lot of favours.

As well as being careful to portray political messages in an entertaining manner, the key to a successful female-fronted comic book franchise is surely this: make a good film, TV show or comic in the first place, regardless of your protagonist’s gender.

Read our spoiler-filled reviews of Agent Carter, here.