Spy craft: Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ is a blast in the past

AC-4153_R_2.JPGBy JIM SABATASO | STAFF

[A version of this review appears in the Rutland Reader.]

“Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” That’s the cringe-inducing tagline with which ABC decided to promote Agent Carter, the new eight-part miniseries and latest installment in Marvel’s ever-expanding interconnected TV and film universe. I get it: female characters have a messy history within the superhero genre — they are either fragile love interests in constant need of saving, or, when they do get to be heroes, they end up taking a backseat to their male counterparts.

It’s an old trope that both critics and fans have been slagging for some time, and one that the studios themselves have been slow to address. Yes, we will get both a Wonder Woman and a Captain Marvel solo film in the next couple years, but that news comes after we’ve already had, to date, five Spider-Mans, three Iron Mans, two Captain Americas, two Thors, two Wolverines, one Hulk, and more Supermans and Batmans than you can shake a golden lasso at.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s problem with female characters has always been one of representation rather than characterization. Where DC series like Arrow and The Flash have been far more regressive — still dealing in distressed damsels and doomed lovers — Marvel has taken care to demonstrate that what few leading women it does have are perfectly capable of saving themselves.

So I get why ABC and Marvel are eager to position Agent Carter not only as a kickass female hero, but the original kickass female hero. The series, which debuted its first two episodes on Jan. 6, is great fun. It’s stylish, snappy, often humorous, and everything I’d hoped the often-bland Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. would be. Aesthetically, the show is on point: everything has a sleek 1940s feel, from the flashy period wardrobe and the jaunty jazz soundtrack to the big cars and chunky, low-tech spy gadgets.

Hayley Atwell reprises her role of Agent Peggy Carter from the Captain America films, where she was very much playing a supporting role to Chris Evans’ Cap. However, Atwell’s performance as a confident, spunky, and supremely capable secret agent made her a fan favorite, elevating Carter’s minor role in the comic books to major player status in the MCU.

With more room to breathe here Atwell’s Carter is only more enjoyable. The series opens several years after the events of the first Cap movie in 1946 with Peggy still working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), a sort of predecessor to S.H.I.EL.D. Carter is a smart, tough agent whose gender forces her to endure the frequent indignities of a male-dominated workplace. Carter’s fellow agents treat her like a secretary, diminishing the role she played in WWII (they call her Captain America’s “liaison” with every bit of innuendo intended), dumping paperwork on her desk, and asking her for coffee while they do the “real” work.

It’s all a bit heavy handed — we get it, the past was hella sexist — but Atwell plays it well. Hopefully there will be fewer scenes like this as the series progresses, and her peers get hip to her skills. Carter is neither a doormat nor a shrinking lily; she doesn’t need man to defend her honor, a fact she makes abundantly clear to one sympathetic male agent who sticks up for her when another agent gets out of line.

It’s clear she is still mourning the “death” of Cap. As a result, she has put up a shield of her own to keep everyone at bay, including those who would help her both personally and professionally. Of course, by the end of episode two, she realizes that no one can go it alone, and begins to let people in. It’s your requisite superhero moment of realization, but it’s done well, especially since the people she lets in are so damn fun.

So far that inner circle includes Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the billionaire industrialist and father to Iron Man, and Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Both men exist in contrast to Peggy’s SSR spy bro colleagues; these men show her respect, and treat her as an equal.

D’Arcy is a delight as Jarvis, a fastidious Brit who prefers to keep his spy work between the hours of 9 and 5. Onscreen, the chemistry between he and Atwell is hard to miss. Jarvis is married, but so far his wife is essentially Maris Crane — unseen and maybe a little demanding — so it’s unclear if there’s any romance on the horizon here, though a couple scenes certainly hint at it.

Cooper’s Stark is every bit the snarky, arrogant playboy that Robert Downey Jr. is as his son. But where Tony’s brush with death humbled him into heroism, Howard has yet to have such a fall. A scene of the elder Stark’s flippant appearance before Congress is a nice callback (or call-forward, if we’re speaking in-continuity) to Tony’s own in testimony in Iron Man 2.

Here Stark is a driven, prolific inventor who serves as the series’ MacGuffin. Early on we learn that a shady organization called Leviathan has made off with Stark’s “bad babies” — his weapons so dangerous that he keeps them hidden away from the world.

When Carter asks why’d he’d even invent them in the first place, he replies that he couldn’t help himself, that inventing things is what he does. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing of his son’s own tragic hubris that will play out this spring in Avengers 2.

With the weapons now on the black market, the US government labels Stark a traitor and a fugitive. It’s up to Carter, then, to help recover the items and clear Stark’s name, all the while sidestepping the SSR, which is running its own by-the-books operation to bring Stark in.

But for as much as Peggy sees Stark as an ally, we see that he’s still a wildcard with his own agenda. (It’s not Marvel unless there’s at least some degree of mistrust among the good guys, right?)

So far Agent Carter’s strength has been its tight pacing. At only episodes, the series has a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. The two-hour premier did a great job of balancing exposition an action, bringing viewers up to speed on what they need to know without losing any steam. Action scenes are fun and inventive with strong choreography and solid visual effects.

One fight scene in particular, in which Carter takes out an assailant while the hokey Captain America radio program plays in the background, is extremely fun. The juxtaposition of the real-life Peggy Carter with her helpless radio analog is one of the show’s more clever nods to the show’s jettisoning of the damsel in distress trope.

With a premier that drew more than six million viewers, beating out all but one episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season to date, it seems Marvel has yet another hit in Agent Carter. Atwell has already expressed an interested in multiple seasons exploring subsequent decades of the MCU, which presents a dizzying number of possible stories. Whether or not that fits into Marvel’s larger plans remains to be scene, but if it continues turning out episodes like these first two, bring it on.

Agent Carter airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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