Last night was the two-hour premiere of Marvel Studios’ latest TV venture, Agent Carter, a spin-off series starring Captain America’s main squeeze, Peggy Carter. It’s the second network show for Marvel, following last year’s Agents of SHIELD, and since there are only eight episodes in what is being billed as a “limited series”—aka, “we’re not planning on renewing this unless it’s REALLY popular”—I’ll be recapping episodes each week. Let’s start with this two-hour premiere, which set up Peggy’s post-World War II, post-Captain America life in New York.
Right off the bat, Agent Carter is a better all-around show than Agents of SHIELD. To be fair to that show, it has improved in its second season, but it still has problems of the bland variety. Agent Carter, however, benefits from its setting of 1946 New York, incorporating some great production and, most especially, costume design for a more distinctive look. This feels like a more individual show with oodles of its own personality, helped along by Hayley Atwell’s tremendously charismatic performance as Peggy. Her character was an immediate fan favorite following her debut in Captain America: The First Avenger, and the show reminds us frequently that Peggy and Cap were Tru Luv 4Eva until Cap crashed his plane in the Arctic (Chris Evans must be pleased with the residuals he will receive for not one extra day’s work).
The plot of Agent Carter revolves around suspicion that has fallen on Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, reprising the role). Following the war, some of Howard’s “bad babies” have been stolen and are starting to pop up on the black market, and Howard stands accused of treason. So he goes to Peggy, now an agent with the proto-SHIELD Strategic Scientific Reserve, for help. This allows the show to feature a new villain/glowing McGuffin each week while still feeding the larger mystery of who is framing Howard. Based on the first two episodes, the treason plot is WAY more interesting than the villain of the week.
The main problem I had with these twinned episodes is how extremely plotty they are. Even as a diehard comic book nerd who lives for this shit, I had a hard time following who was doing what and why. At one point, Peggy was rattling off scientific mumbo-jumbo and I realized that I had NO idea what she was talking about. Because the real interest lies in the larger treason mystery, and also character-driven moments, it wouldn’t hurt if the rest of the series lightened up a bit on the McGuffin plots. We don’t really care about that—we want to watch Peggy kick ass and move on from Cap.
Even as I got bogged down by the overly complicated plot, though, the character moments were the saving grace of the premiere. Atwell is just fantastic as Peggy, and now starring in her own vehicle we have the opportunity to know her better. In one scene she recounts how it seemed like Cap could shoulder all the world’s problems and has to be gently reminded that no, he did not do that and that everyone needs help. It’s a great scene not only for Peggy’s moment of vulnerability but also that we can see the beginnings of the Steve Rogers Legend being formed. In watching that scene, my mind leapt immediately to the imagined Smithsonian exhibit in The Winter Soldier—Cap wakes up a national icon and it’s because extraordinary people like Peggy Carter put him on a pedestal.
But a goofy radio hour show about Cap’s war exploits does factor into one of the best sequences in the two hours. Agent Carter has the same generic/crappily photographed action problems as Agents of SHIELD, but in one sequence a radio show that depicts Peggy as a useless damsel in distress plays as the real Peggy beats the crap out of some guy. It’s a clever sequence that’s only partially ruined by generic fight choreography (much better is the scene in which Peggy knocks a dude out with a stapler).
To a lesser degree I also had trouble with some of the characterization in Agent Carter. Atwell is fully capable of carrying the show, but her supporting cast is a mixed bag. James D’Arcy is brilliant as Edwin Jarvis, Howard’s butler and the real-life inspiration for Tony Stark’s AI in the Iron Man movies. D’Arcy nails both comedic and dramatic scenes, and having him serve as Peggy’s sidekick is a masterstroke. He’s keeping a secret, but he also seems to really want to help Peggy, and it’s clear that he admires her right away—but he’s the only one. The other men are cartoonish sexist pigs that took me out of the show every time they opened their mouths.
Institutional sexism in post-war America was real—an early scene shows Peggy’s roommate fretting over losing her factory job to returning GIs—but does every single guy Peggy meets have to be a complete asshole? Besides Jarvis, the only other decent dude is a fellow SSR agent, Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj, Dollhouse). It’s not even that they’re rude to her, it’s that without any context other than “because 1946”, it cheapens what could be meaningful character moments.
For instance, Peggy’s boss has to have read her war record, so he would know what she has done and is capable of. Perhaps he treats her poorly because he resents that a woman accomplished more than him during the war. More intriguing is Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), a WWII vet who served in the Pacific Theater. I would love to know what a veteran who didn’t ever see Captain America in action thinks of “the world’s first superhero”. Maybe that’s why he’s such a dick to Peggy—she and Cap were always saving people in Europe, while his buddies died in the Pacific.
One area in which Marvel always lets me down is how superheroes impact historical events. They open these doors and then never really go through them. (We’ve had two Thor movies and yet somehow no one has mentioned that the appearance of actual pagan deities/confirmation of intelligent alien life must be wreaking havoc with organized religions.) We know Cap is a national icon, but we don’t have much sense of what that really means outside of a museum. This would be an interesting place to explore how the arrival of superheroes immediately begins to change things in the post-war era.
Overall, though, Agent Carter is a fun show. Peggy Carter remains an engaging heroine, and getting to see how “the love interest” deals with no longer being the love interest is an intriguing premise on its own. And the addition of Human Jarvis to the Marvel Cinematic Universe fills an interesting pocket of Iron Man lore. I would trade a little less plotting for a bit more depth, but this was a satisfactory start for Marvel’s sophomore TV effort.