Hayley Atwell in “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” on ABC.
Episode 1, “Now is Not the End,”/Episode 2, “Bridge and Tunnel”
Fun, stylish and energetic, Marvel’s Agent Carter is everything we wanted it to be – and everything Marvel Studios’ first foray into lady adventure character stories should be. While the 4-color world of superhero comics has yielded literally billions of dollars in revenue by developing their properties for movies and television, the resulting films and shows have been so outrageously sausage-heavy that even the mainstream entertainment press felt the need to shine a light on how badly women characters tend to fare in a superhero world and ask why there’s never been say, a Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel or Storm movie. The good news is that some of these ladies are finally going to get their spotlight (WW and CM have films slated), but the big news is that Miss Carter calmly walked out in front of them all and planted her flag first.
Because make no mistake, Peggy Carter is very much a superhero. As much as Bruce Wayne or Ollie Queen or Steve Rogers is one; with outrageously adept hand-to-hand skills, an array of high-tech gadgetry that would make Batman weep with envy, a secret life and mission, and a butler sidekick (who kind of looks like Benedict Cumberbatch’s older, better-looking brother) to tend her wounds and drive the getaway car. There’s a reason, after all, why she’s constantly put in red, white and blue ensembles – and it’s not patriotism. It makes even her cocktail dresses and suits look like superhero costumes. And of course it ties her directly to Captain America; not by making her look like a weepy, mourning girlfriend (although they give her enough moments of humanity to allow you to feel her grief), but by making her into someone who’s picked up his mantle and is carrying on his work.
The word that comes to mind here is “unapologetic.” Not just in the way the show gleefully dives into the Marvel cinematic universe (in a way its sister show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. failed to do at its outset, to its long-term detriment), but in the way it forcefully announces and celebrates the lead character’s gender. It says something about the current cultural and political landscape that a show about an adventurer who happens to be a woman feels the need to constantly make overt statements about chauvinism and living in the patriarchy. While such discussion points are extremely timely – and kudos to Marvel/Disney/ABC for making them a central point of the show – they also, strangely enough, gave it a retro, ’70s feel in the vein of Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic Woman, and oh yes, even Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, which set its first (and most fun) season during World War II and had a distinctive “filtered through network TV” ’40s retro aesthetic that looks surprisingly similar to the world Peggy Carter inhabits.
In fact, we detected a quite deliberate and very subtle tipping of the hat to a range of classic female adventurers, like the aforementioned ’70s jiggle goddesses, a whole lot of Sydney Bristow and Modesty Blaise (and other ladyspy characters), and interestingly enough, a heavy dose of that other trailblazer named Peggy, Mad Men‘s Peggy Olsen, whose entire character arc has been about her dealing with men who keep thinking she’s a secretary when secretly she’s the smartest, most talented person in the room.
(As an aside, if you’ve read our Mad Men posts, then you might have heard that Tom’s mother, in 1960, was a good Catholic girl from an outer borough named Peggy, working as a secretary in a NYC skyscraper, which was one of the reasons he immediately fell in love with the show. What you surely don’t know is that Tom’s grandmother, also named Peggy, worked for the phone company in NYC a generation before. Try to imagine his squeals of delight last night when Peggy Carter’s cover job was revealed.)
It is a universal truth that a fantastic or superheroic story requires leads that can sell the hell out of the material. In Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter has found its Harrison Ford/Christopher Reeve/Sean Connery/William Shatner; a charismatic force of nature that sucks all the light in the room toward it, forcing every other actor to react to her in every scene. It’s a total star turn and she made practically every line sing. Like the aforementioned iconic actors, she knows how to strike exactly the right balance between smirking knowingly at the material and indulging its every melodramatic conceit at the same time.
Even the best actor can’t make crap material work, though. But if you can manage to land a powerhouse making a star turn and give her a really fun, witty script to tear her way through, then you’ve pretty much got TV gold. The scenes are tight, tense and clever throughout, especially the use of a Captain America radio drama to not only punctuate the fight scenes with sound effects but also to provide a running, wry, and very sarcastic commentary on the differences between a real, heroic woman and the weepy, silly female characters that populated a lot of superhero stories for much of their history. To have “Oh, Captain America! What would I do without you?” play breathlessly in the background just as Peggy finishes kicking ass is both very clever and very poignant at the same time.
It’s a show that’s hitting on all cylinders, right out of the gate (to mix our metaphors); loaded with confidence, style, and a great sense of fun. If we wanted to pay this show the highest compliment we could think of (and we do), then it’s this: if we had daughters, we’d want them to watch this show. Not that little boys couldn’t use some superheroines to look up to, but right now, little girls need some Peggy Carter in their lives.