Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Agent Carter Comes Out of the Gate Superhero Strong

I'm going to give you three guesses as to what I spent last night doing, and the first two don't count. Or, for those of you who aren't obsessively tracking my interests, last night was the series premiere of my new favorite show, Agent Carter. It was very good. I liked it. You should watch it.

And if that's all you're here to find out, then I recommend you get right on that. The show is exactly as awesome and wonderful and satisfying as we all dreamed it would be, and both of the episodes that premiered last night were tight, action-packed, and the kind of dramatic that means that I looked up at what I thought was halfway through the episode only to find that we had five minutes left. It's that engrossing and exciting - you don't notice the time pass.

It's an auspicious start for what might be the most-watched of the Marvel properties so far. The films, after all, kicked off with Iron Man, which was an instant success, but would not have destroyed the genre if it failed. The following films were all good and fun and exciting, but not the kind of surprising or subversive that would have dramatic implications for the whole superhero movie phenomenon if they bombed. Except maybe Avengers. But yeah, if one of those movies about a white, male, jacked superhero didn't do well, they'd just make another one. Like with Hulk. Or Green Lantern. Or Superman Returns.

Agent Carter, however, has the distinction of being Marvel's first female-lead property to hit either the big or little screen. And as such it has a lot of expectations riding on its shoulders. Were Agent Carter to take some time to warm up, like Agents of SHIELD did, or not stick the landing, like Captain America: TFA didn't, it would be seen as a sign that superhero properties with female leads aren't going to work. Unfair, yes. But true.

Fortunately for literally everyone, the show is awesome. Amazing. Perfect? Maybe. But at least definitely good enough to make the naysayers shut up and to show once and for all that people will turn out for a well-written, well-acted, compelling story about a female superhero. Because let's be real, Peggy is a superhero, and it's great.

The show starts out by retconning the fifteen minute short that got this whole ball rolling*. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) has survived losing the love of her life, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and coming home from the war in one piece, but now that the war is done she's floundering. She's still working at the Strategic Science Reserve, but the men in the office treat her as a glorified secretary, a woman who got her position because she was sleeping with Captain America. 

Peggy's obviously not thrilled about this, but doesn't really see any other options. It mirrors very interestingly her scene with Steven in Captain America: TFA when he claims that he can be a lab rat or a dancing monkey, and she asks him if those are his only two options. As far as Peggy can see, she can be a glorified secretary or she can pack it in and give up. Those are her only two options until, suddenly, they aren't.

See, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is in a bit of hot water at the moment. While he was busy womanizing in Monaco, someone broke into his safe and stole all of the ideas and inventions that he thought were too hot to sell or give to the US government. So that's not good. The press is crying for blood and the government is prosecuting Stark as a traitor. Since he's definitely not - a scoundrel, sure, but not a traitor - Stark enlists Peggy's help to clear his name and recover his inventions. He can't help, because he's busy being on the run, but she'll have access to his estate and to the help of his butler, the original Jarvis (James D'Arcy).

She's quick to get on the case, partly to clear his name and partly because she's so bored at work, but problems quickly arise. It's one thing to figure out who has Howard's inventions, it's quite another to get them and dispose of them while her coworkers are just down the hall following up the same lead. I mean, yeah, Peggy's way better at this than all of them put together, but they're not terrible detectives. The do manage to keep up at least a little.

And for all that Peggy has an ally in the office, in the form of wounded veteran and general wonderful person Daniel Sousa (Enver Gokaj) she can't find it in herself to confide in him. He wouldn't understand, and he might get hurt.

It seems that Peggy's arc here too mirrors Steve's arc in Captain America: TWS. She's bored and lonely and she desperately misses him. She's afraid to get close to people because the people she loves inevitably get hurt, and it causes a delightful bit of tension when she pushes Jarvis away for his own safety, only for him to come back and be stolidly there for her through it all.

So the storyline of the show looks like it's going to be twofold. On the more bright and flashy side, it's going to be more episodes of Peggy tracking down Stark's wayward inventions, and that should be super fun. But on the more sedate and meaningful end, I predict that the show will follow closely Peggy's grieving process. She's not the type to break down in sobs over losing Steve, but she is clearly upset. Hurt. Sad. She pulls out his file sometimes and looks at the picture of him before the serum because she just plain misses him. So her arc this season is going to be about grief, and about learning to live again.

Part of that seems like it's going to come from her budding friendship with waitress and aspiring actress Angie Martinelli (Lyndsy Fonseca). Angie is younger than Peggy, less experienced, and yet she has this spark of life that Peggy so desperately needs. By the end of the second episode (they aired two last night), Peggy was moving in down the hall from Angie, and I am all for this development. Peggy needs friends, she needs people nagging her to get out and get on with her life, and Angie is just the ticket.

Also she is played by Fonseca, who most notably played superspy Alex on Nikita. So I have a small amount of hope that Angie's going to get to kick some butt in the show. Not that she has to, but I feel like it would be fun.

So yes. An auspicious start. And a big part of that comes from the fact that the writers aren't trying to force an origin story down our throats. In your average show like this, the first few episodes would be devoted to understanding how and why our hero is being a hero. That's what Flash and Arrow did. But with Peggy Carter we don't actually need to do that. We have an entire movie's worth of evidence on how amazing and capable Peggy is, as well as some historical context from the next movie that tells us that she went on to found SHIELD and live to be in her nineties. We don't need an origin story, we just want an adventure.

And that's precisely what they give us. After reminding us of who Agent Carter actually is, the show transitions right quick into showing how utterly wasted she is in the SSR. How much her skills are not being used and how truly infuriating that is. It's sometimes hard to remember, but the show refuses to let you forget how far we've come as a culture since the 1940s. 

Peggy's roommate talks about girls from her factory being fired to make way for less trained GIs coming home from the war just because "the boys deserve the jobs more". Peggy has to deal with taking orders and condescension from men who don't even have clearance levels high enough to know what she did in the war. It sucks. But it's true.

It's true and I really appreciate it being included in the show. As fun as historical revisionism is, it's also really nice to get a show like this, with an amazing kickass female protagonist who's superheroing it up on the streets at night, who faces really accurate historical discrimination. It's satisfying because we know that Peggy's detractors are wrong. It's a whole show about how wrong they are. We know they're wrong, but we're reminded of the fact that these are the people who had the power then. And in a lot of ways they're the people who have the power now. It's a stark reminder.

And Peggy herself is never allowed to forget how other people see her and her role in the war. The second episode includes a running gag where Peggy is forced to listen to a radio serial about Captain America and his love interest "Betty Carver". She's clearly based on Peggy, but "Betty" isn't a superspy and secret agent, she's the Howling Commando's triage nurse and personal housekeeper. She even has a line at one point about how nothing is more fulfilling than mending Captain America's pants.

While the radio parts are hilarious, they just heighten our awareness of the sexism of the time. But here's the brilliant thing! Peggy rails against everyone's misconceptions of her at the beginning of the show, but as she gets drawn more and more into clandestine, "after hours" work, she starts to embrace it. Better to be underestimated than caught. So she pleads off work with "women's problems" and flutters her eyes while she asks for an afternoon off and pours coffee for the men so that she can spy on their meeting. Peggy's not happy about being considered a second class citizen because of her sex, but she's also not above taking advantage of it.

Which I feel like is the strongest statement that the show could actually make. Peggy's not ashamed of being a woman, nor is she unhappy with her appearance or gender. The problem is not Peggy, it's the world around her that refuses to take her seriously because she's pretty. And while she hates that, she's also the sort of incredibly practical person to take full advantage of it. I like that. I like that a lot.

There are lots of other things I could mention about the show, which really did come out of the gate strong, but I think I'll leave it there. It's a good freaking show, an excellent start, and I can't help being hopeful that this spells good things for female representation at Marvel. 

*You can still watch Agent Carter, which appeared on the Iron Man 3 DVD, and it is still totally worth watching. Just not official canon anymore. It's like an abridged version of what's going to happen in the series. And very entertaining.


  1. I don't know when I'll get to see this, though it's one I'll be buying, so it's not like I *won't* get to see it.

    And if the guys don't like it when she plays on them not taking her seriously, the solutions' obvious. To us at least, if not to them.

    1. It's so fantastic. I hope you get to see it soon.

      So far I feel like the funniest part of the show is how much the guys don't notice her at all. Don't notice when she's making fun of them or taking advantage of them or mad at them. And it's one of those things that you can see her clearly turning for her advantage. It's actually pretty great.

  2. Actually the Agent Carter One Shot happens after the series: