Marvel had yet to release a major property headlined by a woman in its cinematic universe until Agent Carter premiered earlier this month. In fact, Marvel will have produced 10 movies starring blond white men named Chris by 2017. Black Panther (2017) will be the first MCU film to star a person of colour and Captain Marvel, which is the first to feature a female super-lead, hits in 2018. The Marvel/Netflix deal will move the ball forward with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage hitting the scene over the next year or so, but Agent Carter, an 8-episode miniseries written by Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, is an admirable first start from the studio.
Agent Carter centres around Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) agent who finds herself increasingly delegated to secretarial work post-Second World War in 1946. This mistreatment comes despite her central role working in the field with Captain America himself during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. She is the proxy for all of the women displaced when G.I.s came back from the front and displaced their female counterparts in America’s industrial complex.
The first two episodes are part spy-thriller, part police procedural. Carter returns to the field at the behest of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony Stark’s father. Stark is in hiding after the SSR charged him for treason and he asks Carter to clear his name, explaining that stockpiles of weapons and a formula for the very explosive nitromene were stolen from his mansion and soon turned up for sale on the black market. In the process of her investigations, Carter teams up with Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Carter’s stoic soldier-like personality and Jarvis’s looser, more emotionally-driven outlook is a common but likable enough combination – hopefully one that will develop over time.
Through Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), one of the nicer SSR agents, Carter learns that Agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) is following a lead on club-owner Spider Raymond (Andre Royo). Carter beats the other agents to the club, finds the nitromene formula and discovers a weaponised nitromene bomb in Raymond’s safe. She takes the bomb home and successfully diffuses it (using a wonderful concoction of household items) but is followed home by a mysterious silent henchman who kills Carter’s roommate Colleen. A thrilling fight scene ensues and the henchman is ultimately defeated when Carter throws him out of a window.
Carter’s relationships with other women is something the show has a lot of potential to explore. Although Colleen doesn’t have a lot of screen time before her death, another friendship the show does set up is between Carter and Angie Martinelli, a waitress, and hopefully Angie will allow both Carter and the audience too see what post-war life was like for women in the world outside of the SSR and its mysteries and spies. Carter is a woman trying to make it in a man’s world – but so are thousands of other woman at the time.
Too often shows pit female characters against each other, with the “empowered” female character dismissing other women who have made different life choices. So far, Angie is an interesting foil to Carter, and hopefully their relationship won’t fall prey to the typical cycle of non-spy friend is disappointed/angry that spy-friend doesn’t have enough time to hang out with her.
After Carter mourns Colleen’s death, Carter and Jarvis travel to Roxxon Labs where they find two more henchmen producing hundreds of nitromene bombs. Carter manages to take down one of the henchmen but the other one escapes to a dairy truck full of more nitromene bombs. This henchman is as silent as the other ones, revealing a Y-shaped scar on his neck. Speaking through a voice box, he warns Carter and Jarvis that “Leviathan is coming.” He then sets off a nitromene bomb, giving all three of them about 30 seconds to escape Roxxon Labs. The first episode ends with a mysterious call from Jarvis to Stark, who ominously says “Miss Carter’s an excellent choice. I don’t think she’ll have any suspicions at all.”
The second episode picks up with a broadcast of “The Captain America Adventure Hour” radio show, a fictional serial-broadcast about Captain America’s escapades during World War II. Snippets of the show are played throughout the second episode, and the serial’s breathy and helpless lead female character – who is inevitably always rescued by Captain America – is a stark contrast to Carter’s demonstrable talent and capabilities in the field.
The second episode doesn’t do much to advance the story. Carter and the SSR agents try to track down the dairy truck that contains all the nitromene bombs. There are some great fight scenes set to jazz scores, and Carter again demonstrates her ability to manipulate the SSR into the direction she wants the case to go (i.e. not towards “Howard Stark is a traitor!”). Per usual, Carter is one step ahead of the SSR, something that only Sousa seems to care about or notice.
Carter eventually tracks down the henchman from Roxxon labs, Leet Brannis (James Frain). Brannis is killed when his fight with Agent Carter causes his dairy truck to crash into a lake and all of the nitromene to explode. Before he dies, however, he draws a heart with an arrow going across it in the mud. What this all means will undoubtedly be explained in coming episodes.
Per usual with Marvel, Leviathan is some sort of secret evil organisation with a mysterious past and an endless supply of henchmen. In the comics, Leviathan has its roots in the Soviet Union. It shares a history with various organisations, including Hydra and SHIELD, with whom they attempted to create super-soldiers. It will be interesting to see how Agent Carter adapts this storyline.
My guess is that Howard Stark was involved with Leviathan in some scientific capacity, perhaps to collaborate on the supersoldier program (this would be another nice callback to Captain America). Stark is the kind of person who’d put aside ethical qualms in the name of scientific advancement (I mean, he’s literally a weapons manufacturer). Maybe a falling out with Leviathan led to the theft of Starks’ weapons? Jarvis’ mysterious phone call to Stark at the end of the first episode would then be indicative of both men’s desire to keep Carter unaware of Stark’s involvement with Leviathan – something that really would be grounds for treason.
The first thing that struck me about the show was how well is was placed in the Marvel universe. The pilot begins with a flashback to Steve Rogers crash-landing his plane in the Arctic. While flashbacks are often used to little effect, this scene firmly grounded Agent Carter within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both episodes felt like a continuation of Peggy Carter’s narrative rather than a diluted TV digression from the cinematic storyline.
Another way the show grounds itself is through its nuanced portrayal of an action heroine. Carter seems like an actual human being with emotions and desires — some of which contradict themselves at times — which lends credence to her personhood. The two episodes address the palpable listlessness that many women felt after they were relegated to domestic duties following the return of G.I.s, as well as the contemporaneous sexism Carter deals with from her male co-workers at SSR.
Gone is the all-too-common male fantasy version of female empowerment: skin-tight leather, high kicks and no personality. Carter manages to portray both the struggles of her position in a post-war world and a likable, down-to-earth attitude. This allows audiences to sit back, relax and enjoy the wonderfully choreographed action scenes without needless distraction. Although there are moments that seem overwrought with symbolism (Look! She’s using domestic items to fight her assailants!), the suspense when a henchman attempts to burn Carter on her own stove is spine-tingling. The writers and the ever-charismatic Atwell should be applauded for their efforts.
Furthermore, although she lacks overt sexualization, Hayley Atwell is a gorgeous woman and everyone on the show knows it. Many series with strong female leads tend to ignore this aspect of their protagonist. There is a societal emphasis on being effortlessly beautiful, but any woman that appears to be invested in her own appearance is decried as vain and shallow. Not only does Carter use her looks to her own advantage when stealing a secret formula from womaniser and club owner Spider Raymond (incidentally, also one of the few people of colour in the pilot), but scenes of Carter getting ready and dressing up for a work day also highlight the effort needed for women to conform to the beauty standards of the time.
This, I think, is a more nuanced perspective than many other shows and movies. In many action films, beautiful female characters somehow find the time to apply their makeup and shave their armpits between car chases and beating up henchmen and the audience just takes their perpetual grooming for granted. See practically every post-apocalyptic movie ever for more on this phenomenon.
“Now is Not the End” and “Tunnel and Bridge” provide an interesting setup for the miniseries. The showrunners have created a nuanced world inhabited by a complex cast of characters. Although procedural dramas can get bogged down once the main antagonists are revealed, hopefully Agent Carter will continue to build on its strengths in a way that’s as charming as its first two episodes.