Oct 8, 2019
Marvel’s Agent Carter: the final four
[Note from the editor: This article is by prospective staff writer Joel Schlosberg. Be sure to check out his blog!]
Last month, I posted a take on Marvel’s Agent Carter that was incomplete. It had to be, since only the first half of the limited series was out at the time. Now that the full run has aired, it’s time to finish the job.
The final four of the show’s eight episodes followed through with the arcs set up in the first half, taking enough care in not dropping threads to retain even the cheesy fictionalized in-universe radio version of Captain America’s adventures. Peggy Carter, Cap’s love interest-turned-Strategic Scientific Reserve’s most undervalued secret agent, continues investigating Howard Stark’s disappearance, aiming to find out who stole his diciest inventions and why. As her Jenga tower of cover stories to avoid suspicion from coworkers, neighbors, and even Stark himself gets impossibly high, it finally crashes down. When the real threat is found at last, Carter must clear her name, unearth the culprits, and save the day.
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The finale invoked Cap just enough to tie in with Captain America: The First Avenger, while literally moving on in its own direction. And it gave a proper ending to the storyline. (With the obligatory post-credits teaser, since this is Marvel, after all.)
The MacGuffin-chasing of Stark’s inventions was dialed down after SSR got their hands on them, although the plot had more of them in store. Howard Stark’s return was held off, yet the unseen presence-in-absence of both Stark and Cap didn’t overshadow Carter. Edwin Jarvis, Stark’s butler, didn’t wear out his welcome with a character actor role expanded to a lead. The show was willing to give Jarvis the attention that would normally have gone to the cooler Stark.
The miniseries’ length forestalled the budget from visibly running out, and the momentum between episodes built up, with spiraling consequences to earlier events. And as the series went deeper into the nefarious Leviathan project, it wound up in some disturbing territory.
One of my predictions was promptly outdated. The publicized appearance of the Howling Commandos in the fifth episode turned out to be exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t: limited to a single episode, complete with a literal sign-off at the conclusion. Not that I had any real idea how the team could be brought in for the rest, beyond somehow generally joining up with Carter, but I expected them to find a way. Yet, after Carter returns from meeting them at the Cold War front lines in Europe and heads back to more budget-friendly New York settings, the trip’s events continue to have repercussions, as the stakes on the home front escalate. The scope is also enlarged via flashbacks to Leviathan’s development in Russia. Some of these are in episode cold opens so divergent that a viewer tuning in late might not even realize which show they’re watching.
But nothing in the later episodes makes me want to retcon my original views. The series retained its early strengths and stuck to the landing. While confident in recommending it, I originally worried that my previous take might have come off as too one-sidedly positive. Although that was mitigated somewhat by my praise of its successes being on a relatively unambitious scale, and of it being more a case of the show avoiding the pitfalls one would expect, and biting off exactly as much as it could chew than of attempting to reach lofty heights.
And admittedly, the show pushes some of my idiosyncratic personal buttons: the period setting (resonating with growing up a ‘90s kid in another transitional interwar period), the light retro-futurism, and the cost-cutting feeling like that of old-school B moviemaking. But the flaws really do fit what Hitchcock called “fridge logic”, in not being bothersome while watching. Well, except for the overuse of the “holding a gun on a person close enough for them to knock it away” cliché being annoying enough to make Dr. Evil go Scott Evil.
Like most things on the Internet, my article had comments posted on it. But I was frankly puzzled at the direction of most of the criticisms of the show in the comments.
The main concern was the show’s various plot holes, in seemingly willful avoidance of “repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax”. Much of this focused on the entrances to the SSR headquarters. But viewers never getting any indication of how the men enter, except for loyally subordinate Jarvis, makes good enough thematic sense. In a universe that already has a skull-faced guy getting power from a glowing cube out of Norse mythology, why draw the line there? Although, for those who had a hard time suspending disbelief on Carter’s multilayered deceptions going unnoticed in the early episodes, their quick unraveling offered compensation.
And why grumble about grudgingly sticking with the show without enjoying it? If you must know what occurs in order to understand possible future callbacks, just read the plot summaries on Wikipedia.
The suggestion of a deliberate steering-clear from gunplay, which seemed odd due to the decent amount of it in the second episode’s truck chase, was fully refuted by the fifth episode’s full-fledged shootout. Given all the grisly Leviathan stuff later, unthreatening comfort-food TV where nothing really bad ever happens, like Downton Abbey (or for that matter, The A-Team), this is not.
I didn’t comment on the dialogue, another commenter beef with the show, because it just didn’t stick out while watching, for either good or ill. If no lines stand out as memorable, none were as awkwardly self-conscious as the Agents of SHIELD pilot’s “I think there’s a bulb out.” And not only did the solid construction of the scripting overcome unremarkable line-by-line dialogue, sharp delivery by good actors went a long, long way to breathing life into them. The dialogue only veers into jarring ham-fistedness when introducing Dum Dum Dugan (with the line “That’s Dum Dum Dugan!”) and the rest of the Howling Commandos (with the line “You guys are the Howling Commandos!”). But at least it’s bothering to name what The First Avenger might as well have called “The Assorted Bunch of Dudes One of Whom Has a Bowler Hat and a Really Cool Mustache Brigade”.
It was suggested that Agent Carter could have been a two-hour TV movie. That is likely. But the intricacy, scope, and slow-burn of the plot would have been sharply limited. And we wouldn’t have had as much of a chance to hang around with characters we like (or love to hate) in interesting settings. So why bother?
I came to like Agent Carter enough to stick with it past the earliest episodes, purely on its own terms. I wasn’t looking for grand tie-ins to the Marvel movies or whatever the hell is going on on Agents of SHIELD. (I didn’t even realize that a major plotline was backstory for the Black Widow.) Taking place before almost all existing Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity wouldn’t have prevented leaning on the rest of the MCU, relying on viewers’ Star Wars prequel-style foreknowledge of things to come, but it’s not even necessary to have seen The First Avenger to follow the show. Maybe additional Marvel cameos should have been provided by the period’s Flexo the Rubber Man, or the Whizzer.
The first Iron Man movie, about Tony Stark first and his cool suit second, looked like it was ushering in an era of comic book movies that were more human-scaled. In a way, Agent Carter is a belated return to that promise. It may have been intended merely as filler, a placeholder on Tuesdays until Agents of SHIELD’s return. But like Carter herself, it surpassed an undemanding mission. And it’s suited to gradually picking up a following beyond the existing fan base. Especially since its plotting is dense enough to benefit from binge watching.
It’s undoubtedly the best filmed adaptation of a solo female comic book character (well, okay, not counting Persepolis), but that is a low, low bar. How pathetic is it that the strongest competition is probably Barbarella? In a field where being self-aware of one’s badness is enough to stand out among the clueless, it’s nice to have an entry that’s actually good.
So, now what? At this point, nobody seems to have any idea yet if or when there will be an official follow-up with Peggy Carter in the MCU, or what format a continuation would take. Alas, the stellar reviews—a higher Tomatometer than The LEGO Movie!—didn’t translate into more than so-so ratings. It wasn’t big enough to bury the notion of superheroines as box office poison, and it’s too late to hope for the wave of emulations a smash-hit show would have spurred. But Agent Carter’s most enduring legacy will be that it gave proof that a comic book woman on screen doesn’t equal an embarrassing fiasco.