Marvel’s Agent Carter: a halftime report

[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Joel Schlosberg. Be sure to check out his blog!]

With this week’s episode bringing Marvel’s TV miniseries Agent Carter to the halfway point of its eight-episode arc (and finally including the obligatory Stan Lee cameo), it’s a timely moment to take stock of where this miniseries has taken us so far.

The show fills in what Captain America: The First Avenger’s love interest Peggy Carter was up to in 1946, after Captain America went missing in action. Just as in the “one-shot” 15-minute short of the same title (seen on the Iron Man 3 Blu), Carter’s considerable sleuthing and combat skills are sorely undervalued at her day job as an agent of the SSR, the precursor to SHIELD. The series gives her a chance to better use her talents moonlighting for Howard “Iron Man’s Daddy” Stark, helping him clear his name while he’s on the run on a bad rap. Some of Stark’s most dangerous research projects have been turning up on the black market, and Peggy must work together with Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis to retrieve the items and also find out who sold them in the first place.

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This is not a particularly promising setup for a series. It sounds like an invitation to make do with Star Wars prequel-style tweaks of the familiar, with Howard Stark as the Jango Fett version of Tony Stark. Tracking down lost projects one by one could easily be disjointedly episodic, chasing arbitrary MacGuffins of the Week. And given how cutesy callbacks to external comics continuity have become the basis for entire TV shows, Captain America’s absence could have loomed over the series, with constant mentions of an off-screen character as lame as in James Bond Jr.

Marvel's Agent Carter: a halftime report

But just as its protagonist is determined to avoid being defined as “Captain America’s girlfriend”, the show also moves on and does its own thing. Although it opens with a clip of Cap’s final moments from The First Avenger, the show shifts focus enough to not feel cheap by comparison. Momentum has built over the episodes as Carter juggles ever-increasing complications, with Stark’s situation becoming thornier and intersecting with troubles at work and home. There has clearly been a plan in mind for the limited eight-episode run, which also allows it to be mercifully free of filler. And it doesn’t cram the good stuff into the pilot only to run out for the rest of the series.

Hayley Atwell may not be Meryl Streep, or even Natalie Portman, but if Richard Roeper is watching, he should notice that she’s capable of far more than “sporting red lipstick and tight sweaters”. Her character has developed enough depth to have been engaging for four episodes, and promises to do the same for the four to come.

Marvel's Agent Carter: a halftime report

There are real stakes, with actually-significant characters killed off. Yet, the optimistic spirit of Stark Industries’ slogan “better living through technology” prevails. In a time before the horrors of World War II had been fully absorbed, when the comics pages could lob a V-2 missile at Donald Duck for a laugh, even the WMD potential of Howard Stark’s tech in the wrong hands is treated breezily.

The First Avenger’s action was widely regarded as one of its most disappointing aspects, with many pointing out that it was cut like a trailer of the real action scenes. Agent Carter’s fight scenes follow the one-shot’s stellar example in being, well, good: well-choreographed, clearly shot, and with solid heft. The first episode already serves up a brutal scuffle in Carter’s apartment whose intensity makes it feel a lot longer than its 45 seconds. Though the show’s violence level has raised eyebrows, it’s not that far from Lois Lane unloading a machine gun in the Fleischer Superman cartoons (of which some count her as the real protagonist). Even Nancy Drew packed a gun back then! And while the preference for Emma Peel-style short-range combat instead of shootouts and explosions might be due to budgetary considerations, so were the fistfights in the era’s serials and B-movies; it’s a better homage than Sky Captain’s much-hyped static CG tableaus.

Marvel's Agent Carter: a halftime report

Although there were such anachronisms for the Rifftrax to point out as the 1964 Unisphere, The First Avenger paid attention to capturing the vibe of its 1940s setting. But ultimately, the period details were just window dressing on a standard modern blockbuster template. In all honesty, they only got so much attention because they were one of the film’s distinguishing aspects during an interminable glut of solo superhero origin stories.

In contrast, Agent Carter more closely resembles the titles devoted to contemporary professional women—Nellie the NurseTessie the Typist—that Marvel turned to in the late 1940s. In fact, Captain America’s absence from the series parallels the fading of superheroes from their place in comics of the time; by the end of the 1940s, they were treated as just another over-with fad that, like Cap, seemed destined to never return.

And like Mad MenAgent Carter takes a span of American history usually written off as a gap between better-remembered periods, and by making the stubborn transition the theme, turns it into a strength. And the postwar setting avoids the awkwardness of tiptoeing around showing Nazis.

This allows a more day-to-day, lived-in evocation of the time period, down to the clunky vintage refrigerator in Carter’s apartment (which does not get nuked). In contrast to the glitz of The First Avenger’s World’s Fair-like Stark Expo, the show finds its yesterday’s-futurism setting in an automat restaurant, even if Carter’s friend being a waitress there is like being a teller at an ATM booth. This is complemented by cinematography straight out of faded Kodachrome photos and a brassy score evoking the jazz and big band music of the era. If the editing is faster than it would have been in 1946, its clarity makes it feel old school.

Marvel's Agent Carter: a halftime report

The First Avenger missed the chance to take a page from The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial’s handling of its Captain’s transformations between alter egos, and have two completely different actors play Steve Rogers before and after the serum. Likewise, an early Agent Carter MacGuffin disappoints with the initial hint that it might remain unseen except for its glow, like the contents of the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly, but it does establish a pleasingly nuts-and-bolts feel to the gadgets.

Marvel's Agent Carter: a halftime report

Agent Carter can’t be said to have a groundbreaking, original story. And it’s not for the squeamish. The scale could use an opening-up; the addition of the Howling Commandos shown in the teaser for the fifth episode will hopefully be that, rather than a one-off.

Time will tell if such an expansion of scope and stakes is in the cards, and whether there’s a satisfying ending for the eight-episode arc in store, or if it will simply assume a continuation. While Agent Carter could take on more challenging assignments, all that’s necessary to ace the final grade is keeping up the good work.

Tag: Marvel Cinematic Universe

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  • Gallen_Dugall

    Great acting is carrying this show. The main characters are a joy to watch. Decent premise doesn’t hurt. It is hobbled by absolutely mediocre (bordering on fan fiction quality) writing that is far too impressed with itself (virtually BBC levels of over impressed with itself) repeatedly hauling out denigration of a shallow and lazy sort to make its lone point. The show relies too heavily on cinematic “bad ‘ol days” filler and lots of punching because of a “guns bad” mentality that is not entirely out of place given the setting, but it is unavoidably very awkward. It hasn’t lost me but so far it has done nothing that could not have been abbreviated into a made for TV movie.

  • FK3

    This show disappointed me after the first episode. I haven’t been convinced that Agent Carter needs to do what she does. She hides her job from her friends, but then she hides what she really does from her co-workers. Why is she the only one shown to have to enter through a secret entrance? Do all the “SSR” agents have to go through the same entrance? The SSR interrogates people regularly – do they all get taken through there as well? What’s the point of a secret office if everyone (like Ray Wise) knows who they are?

    She’s pretty much a complete rogue, which ruins any point of the SSR office in the first place. It might have worked if she had to have two lives, but everything in the series is focused on the same goal – Howard Stark’s inventions. Pretend Agent Carter didn’t exist, and everything else had to happen – the SSR agents would have to get to the bottom of things anyway. They’d have to find who really stole Stark’s inventions, even accidentally. The SSR leader might want to pin the problems on Stark, but any evidence would only prove that Stark was innocent.

    A really incoherent show.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      a fair assessment, although they do have time to do something to tie things together better as it moves through the second half

      • FK3

        At this point, they can’t tie anything together. The “world-building” is already done, all they’re doing now is pursuing the goal. The series asks too much in asking us to believe that anyone who could identify Carter, can’t.

        Imagine any other TV agent, like Mulder or Cooper, that had to work for a special agency, but had to somehow secretly work on the side, working on the same case the rest of the office was assigned. It’d be ridiculous, which is what this series is.

        • Mike

          It’s based on a Marvel
          Comic book character drawn from a series where the title character survives
          being frozen in ice for decades. It’s SUPPOSED to be ridiculous!

          I admit there is no
          logical explanation why none these agents use aliases and I don’t care. No more
          than I care no one can figure out Batman and Bruce Wayne are despite all the
          obvious giveaways. Yes one could argue that Carter doesn’t really have to work
          on the same case in secret and could be better serving her cause if she just
          tells her superiors what she knows assuming they could trust her word more than
          she can trust Stark, but that would defeat the whole point of her conflict.
          That’s she wants to do that right, feels a certain loyalty it this friend even
          if she can’t entirely trust him, and isn’t taken seriously by her superiors as
          women in a male dominated world. Yes it’s kind of hokey, but it comes from a
          long line of hokum you come to expect in pulp fiction. At least I do.

          When I said I find this
          series mysterious, I didn’t mean there’s a big mystery because I agree there
          really isn’t. I just find these characters intriguing and I’m left wondering
          what troubling details from there past are gradually being reveled, and what’s
          going to happen to them next. Who stole the inventions? Eh, so long isn’t a
          space alien or something than it will unlikely too be too weird a revel for me.

          Watch a movie like Laura
          (1944) enough times and really try and piece together everything that
          supposedly happens sequential and you find that it’s absolutely ludicrous. Which
          would bother me if the atmosphere and the colorful characters weren’t so
          engaging that I could just let it slide.

          • Jonathan Campbell

            “I admit there is no
            logical explanation why none these agents use aliases and I don’t care.”
            Real spies don’t use aliases if they can avoid it. They actually prefer to stick as closely to the truth as possible wherever they can; if you are caught out lying about your name or anything else, that is a dead giveaway that you are lying about other things.
            Besides, the SSR aren’t given any reason to use aliases in the first place. They act more like a secretive FBI- their location is secret and classified, but they obviously have public authority since they throw their weight around crime scenes.

    • Mike

      “The SSR leader might want to pin the problems on Stark, but any evidence would only prove that Stark was innocent.”

      How you possibly now that? Even if he isn’t guilty of what they’ve accused him of he is clearly hiding something big, even from Peggy. The term Cold War wouldn’t become part of the popular lexicon till the year after the events take place, but lingering fears of espionage, sabotage, and subversion had already created a social environment where even the appliance of guilt could be enough to ruin someone’s life.

      Also did you stop watching this show after the first two episodes? There a lot of peripheral characters here who are given choices screen time and the possibility that’ll play a larger role somewhere down the line. The focus is NOT merely on Stark’s inventions. They’re just the McGuffens need to pull the story along. When you say it’s incoherent, I say it’s mysterious. In the way some many thrillers from that era are mysterious (The Big Sleep or Laura) and only come off as incoherent in that strange way not everything SEEMS totally clear as it’s happening.

      • FK3

        So far, the series hasn’t been ambiguous about Stark’s inventions – someone else is obviously behind the theft (unless there’s a last-minute “twist”).

        Stark’s inventions are not “McGuffens,” because there is no other point of the series. There’s no mystery, because the series is just holding out on showing us the people responsible. I’ll allow that there’s a slow revealing of facts, but it’s not a mystery.

        Agent Carter actually does the SSR a disservice by withholding information from her peers. The weird symbol in the ground? Maybe one of the other agents could have identified it immediately (we’ll never know otherwise).

        But please explain the other agents. They operate in public, openly, using their real names. Agent Carter uses her real name (again, like in the Ray Wise scene). How could this NOT be tracked to where they work? If they’re like the CIA or FBI in any way, then her “secret status” makes no sense, considering the way the rest of the organization operates.

  • Murry Chang

    It’s something that I don’t hate to watch on Tuesday nights until SHIELD comes back on anyhow. I am hoping for a decent payoff at the end though; something that connects to SHIELD and/or the movies would make me feel a lot better about having spent my time watching this show.

    • Murry Chang

      UPDATE: This weeks episode was really kickass, I hope this is indicative of the rest of the season:)