One of the many reasons that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so beloved is that its movies tend to provide heart-warming secondary characters in addition to its marquee heroes—characters that the movies aren’t quite about—resulting in a desire from the viewer to learn more about them, which adds appeal to the next marquee movie which they feature in.
Agent Coulson was the first and most powerful instance of this in the MCU, and we saw Joss Whedon utilize the audience’s fondness for him with devastating effect in Avengers. Rhodey was another, Rocket was even more so, and Falcon was as well, but aside from them and Coulson, the character MCU fans have probably wanted to learn the fate of with the greatest urgency was Agent Peggy Carter, left behind after the first Captain America film.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier eventually filled us in on her fate (again with devastating effect) but now we get to see the decades that became between those Captain America movies, the decades that consist of Peggy’s entire life. And it makes her eventual fate all the more painful, because if the first two episodes of Agent Carter are any indication, learning about Peggy’s post-Cap life is an experience of sheer delight.
Basically, can we talk about how great the debut of Agent Carter was? Because it was so great. Spoilers ahead for the aired episodes.
Viewers were treated to a quarter of this mini-series on Tuesday night, with ABC airing the “Pilot” episode [Update: Officially titled “Now is Not the End”] and its follow-up “Bridges and Tunnels” in a two-hour block, and while so far the series’ plot is fairly thin and straightforward (An organization called Leviathan stole Howard Stark’s deadliest inventions. Peggy is on the case, assisted by Howard’s butler Jarvis. That’s almost entirely it.) it still gives the viewer enough so that we see Carter in a variety of richly entertaining situations. The capable woman who wowed us in the first Cap movie is still very much present and fits so naturally within the insane normalcy of the MCU that it feels like Hayley Atwell has been playing Carter her entire life.
Part of that natural presence is thanks to how stylish the show itself is when it comes to set decoration and costuming. While Agent Carter doesn’t quite manage the effortless cool of a period series like Mad Men it still creates a wistful feeling for the style of days gone by. I know that automats are, in practice, a terrible place to eat and relax, but damn does the L&L look like a sharp place to chill out with your notebook and an egg sandwich. Even the most expected set pieces, like the Roxxon factory, are dressed with an attention towards the materials in use at the time. You don’t really know what the Leviathan/Roxxon heavies are doing with the nitrogli…nitrome…the implosives, but it’s all happening in creamy cast iron and and heavy bubbled glass, so it looks pretty important!
The decoration does more than just make you wiggly for art deco. It quite successfully creates a contained world for Agent Carter that separates it from the vast Marvel Universe just enough to let its story carry a real weight within its larger mythology, despite the fact that we know how Everything Eventually Turns Out. Watching Agent Carter is a much different experience than watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or even the first Captain America film. The boisterous color and patina of the show fashions the visuals into something more akin to a comic book. While Captain America: The First Avenger was concerned with the grit and theater of war, Agent Carter visualizes a New York City in the aftermath of that war, a civilization that is returning a sense of order and color to a world that nearly came to an end. The worldbuilding of the show is superb in this sense, providing a believable setting for a Peggy Carter who eats alone at automats only one year after losing the world’s first superhero.
The show’s struggle to assert its worth within the MCU is the same struggle as its main character. Since the end of the war and the loss of Captain America, Peggy’s own worth has been subsumed under the hurry to assert normalcy. Peggy is technically Agent Carter of the Strategic Science
Institute Reserve, but hardly anyone at the SSR treats her as an equal since she’s the only female agent on staff. Agent Carter is not subtle about this discrimination but it’s also demonstrably not trying to be subtle. The show wants you to know that her peers at the SSR think of her as a remnant of Cap’s glory, because this helps form the overall tapestry of what Peggy’s life has boiled down to when we see her again in 1946.
It’s not enough for you to know that she lost Steve in 1945, Agent Carter tells us. That’s the most important bit, sure, but it’s one blow in a series of blows that Peggy has taken since the end of the war. The most worthy person she ever knew is gone, her skills are considered irrelevent by her contemporaries, her counterpart on that terrifically popular radio show is the worst, and even her perfectly sweet and supportive roommate is ground under by the mindless agendas of voiceless men. The only time we see Peggy cry is after she avenges that same roommate. Colleen’s death hits her hard, not only because of the loss of that innocent, but because it’s such a bitterly perfect encapsulation of what Peggy’s life has become. Everything, no matter how world-altering or quiet, fails Peggy Carter.
I find this approach to be a refreshing and substantial way to tackle the gender issues inherent in a show like Agent Carter, making sexism just one of many injustices that define Peggy. Further, it’s a quintessentially Marvel way to do so. Where a larger-than-life figure like DC’s Wonder Woman would be expected to be a viewpoint of the role of women in societies over the course of the centuries, the story of Peggy Carter’s life is kept realistic by keeping the viewpoint on gendered expectations on how they affect her life and her actions. We see a creep in the automat continually degrade and harass the waitress Angie in the automat, but it’s the effect that this gender-motivated interaction has on Peggy that makes it more than just a stereotypical sledge lesson, putting it in context for us as viewers.
Because, as we learn explicitly by the end of the first two episodes, Peggy is a hero. She begins by wanting to do what’s right for her friend Howard, a man whom, while kind of a jerk, nevertheless asserts a heroic morality that Peggy wishes to preserve and promote. Her motivation is more than a little selfish, as well. Howard is in many ways all that she has left. But she ends those two episodes by putting her life in incredible danger to eliminate a weapon that could do more harm than the atomic bomb itself. (At first it doesn’t seem like it is but consider: The nitro is just as powerful, far more easy to construct and mass produce, has a precise radius of destruction, doesn’t make the real estate irreversibly irradiated and useless, and is ridiculously portable.) She could follow orders and let her bumbling compatriots at the SSR fail to handle the situation, or she can trust in her own skills, in her own confidence, and do the right thing before anyone else gets hurts.
The right thing is terrifically implosive, it turns out.
By the end of “Bridges and Tunnels” it’s easy to see how this mini-series will result in the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D., as Peggy echoes the same qualities that we see in Coulson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the MCU films. (I only just realized their initials are both “P.C.” Huh.) Agent Carter has much to thank Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for, really, as my experience with AoS lowered my expectations for Agent Carter and made it easier for the latter to really wow me. And man, Agent Carter really just clobbers the hell out of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The former is everything I’m waiting for the latter to incorporate in regards to colorful surroundings, humor, worldbuilding, and characterization. Although to AoS’ credit, its characterization has improved 1000% since its inception and its plotting is far above what Agent Carter has shown us thus far. AoS also contains villains that are far more compelling than Voicebox Wormy and whatever “Leviathan” is supposed to be.
But it’s not nearly as fun as Agent Carter.
- Showing Peggy repurposing Howard Stark’s sex roleplay outfits as undercover costumes was a stroke of genius.
- This show is also seriously funny. I pretty much died in the opening scene when Peggy follows Colleen’s “but you work at the phone company…” with an enormously loud “CA-CLICK” gun noise. It wasn’t the response that was funny so much as the way it was staged to show that Colleen doesn’t hear it even though she’s right next to Peggy.
- Also…DAT JARVIS. The sexual tension, the capability, the tenderness, the politeness! It is so immediately clear why Tony fashioned his household A.I. on the man.
- The Mystery of Jarvis’ Wife is one I’m eager to see unfold.
- Having the SSR that Peggy works for bumble about is one thing, but having their bumbling actually assist Peggy’s secret missions in a roundabout way is ALL the things. It’s a great way to give them characterization beyond their more insipid, antagonistic qualities. And the Chief got the very best line in the second episode, by far.
- Goodness gracious, this show hasn’t even really busted out its hole card, Enver Gjokaj, which means Agent Carter is going to get even better.
- The woman’s home that Peggy signs up for at the end of “Bridges and Tunnels” is probably going to be hilariously problematic for her secret agent duties. I could just imagine one of the episodes being titled “Enter: The Matron.”
- I’m curious to know how Peggy actually feels about methods of interrogation. The SSR’s “interrogation” of Van Ert is brutal, and while I believe that Peggy is capable of handling exposure to that kind of brutality, I had a hard time telling whether Peggy may actually think it’s necessary. Her confrontation with McPhee later on doesn’t shed any light on that.