Mar 20, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Nurse, Tessie 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 Men, Agent 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.
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.
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.