Tweetable Takeaway: Agent Carter is all the pulpy, post-war, sci-fi, noir spy thriller, feminist goodness you will ever need.
Airtime: Tuesday at 9ET on ABC
By: Dana Leigh Brand, Contributor
AGENT CARTER has a lot to live up to for me. Happily, and I’d say surprisingly given how high my expectations were, it is everything I wanted it to be.
I’d like to start off with a brief primer (or perhaps “disclaimer” would be a better word) on my particular obsession with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the summer of 2011 I was reluctantly dragged to a movie theater in the middle of the night by a large group of nerd boys. We were going to see Captain America, which sounded like a train-wreck to me. All preachy and faux-patriotic–Team America: World Police but without the satire. I was not happy to be there. Until the film rolled. I’ve never been so enthralled with a movie in my entire life. It overloaded my brain with personally-tailored gloriousness to the point where I almost started looking around for surveillance equipment. It’s a raygun gothic masterpiece about a scrappy underdog, structured just like a Hollywood film from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Basically, it pushes all of my buttons.
Anyone who’s been hanging around has seen my weekly meltdowns over Agents of SHIELD’s second season as well. My only caveat when they announced Agent Carter was that they did so during the still-terrible first season of Agents of SHIELD. If that was what Marvel had to offer on television, I thought it would be better if they just left Peggy Carter alone. But after blowing my mind to shreds with Winter Soldier and there at the end of AoS’s first season, my expectations for Agent Carter ballooned all out of proportion. Anything less than perfection was not gonna cut it with me.
So what they gave me was pretty much perfection. They hit every genre reference I could want, from raygun gothic sci-fi to moody post-war noir. They deal head-on with the disillusionment and sexism women faced after World War II. The MCU references are relevant, but not so relevant that you have to be crazy-obsessed to understand the story. The whole thing is on point.
Stylistically, it has all the bright, high-contrast, dynamic pulpy flare that it should. Even more than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agent Carter visually pays homage to the comic book roots from which it springs. The “Molecular Nitramene” in particular, an atomic age terror weapon that causes implosions, gives us plenty of dark shadows and orange, glowing chiaroscuro.
In addition to playing with comic book aesthetic, Agent Carter has all manner of genre mixing in action. The Golden Age sci-fi tech, the Cold War spy gadgets, the noir crime syndicates–even the B-movie action elements and gorgeous costumes take every single good thing I love about classic science fiction and 20th century cinema and present it with all of the bad bits stripped away.
Because the bad is always that women are portrayed as brainless secretaries or single-minded baby-makers. The bad thing about reading sci-fi novels, or old comic books, or romance movies is that, as a girl, you’re told that you amount to a plot device or a love interest. Femme fatales, at least, are fed up enough that they claw their way to power in the patriarchal system that screws them over. Agent Carter looks that real life historical oppression in the face, and Peggy–deeply human, well-rounded, fully-realized Peggy Carter–thrives even in the face of that adversity. Her competence is not diminished because she’s “treated like a secretary.” Peggy just goes out and gets it done on her own initiative. She’s a flaming badass, sure. She can hold her own in a fight, infiltrate enemy strongholds, and shoot men with pinpoint accuracy at great range. But she also is allowed moments of emotional vulnerability. She’s still haunted by Steve Rogers’ death. She blames herself for the murder of her roommate by a mysterious crime goon. She pushes people away for fear of getting them killed. And because of the time period, Agent Carter can confront blatant sexism head-on without seeming didactic or exaggerating for dramatic effect. Peggy plays the system at every turn, re-filling coffee mugs to eavesdrop on information, asking for a sick day for “lady troubles” so she can investigate her own assignment (bless everything), using classic knock-out lipstick, and playing the good girl in search of a husband to get herself a nice flat. She knows the difference between playing a role and keeping her integrity. And through watching her, we get to recognize that difference too.
In-universe references also abound. The scientist Vanko who Carter and Jarvis consult is the (later) disgraced Soviet scientist who dies bitter in Siberia at the beginning of Iron Man 2. The Roxxon Corporation is a Marvel comics fictional conglomerate that’s sprinkled throughout the entire MCU–most notably in Iron Man 3 and Agents of SHIELD. Some characters and names are pulled from the comic canon as well, which are nice shout-outs to comic book fans (which I am not, though I’m a good wiki-diver.)
Setting me loose with Agent Carter is like setting a sugar-rushed child free in Disneyland. It seems to me like the perfect meeting of character, genre, setting, style, and intrigue. I’m completely enamored.
Some of my favorite bits:
- The opening newsreel about Howard Stark, complete with the intertitle “Millionaire! Playboy! Traitor … ?” Good play on that line.
- Jarvis. Just Jarvis. He’s delightful. Preciously domestic, polite, and snarkily calm. It’s nice to meet the original that Tony Stark’s A.I. engine personality is based on.
- Peggy defusing the sci-fi-science bomb with household materials. Get it, girl.
- Peggy threatening a jerk’s life with a fork for being a douchebag to a waitress.
- All of Agent Carter’s undercover personas. Because she’s not just a military major or a desk jockey–she’s a kickass spy too.
- The remote radio typewriter had me clawing my face in delighted glee. I’m a huge nerd for that kind of dieselpunk retro tech.
- The “Captain America Adventure Time” radio show running throughout the entire second episode. First, because it’s a radio show. Second, because that’s only slightly less meta than Captain America: The First Avenger featuring actual Captain America comic books in the damn movie. Third, the fictionalized version of Peggy Carter (Betty Carver) is fantastically similar to actual 1940s comic book “heroines” and Peggy’s reactions to being characterized as such a ninny are spectacular. Her eye rolls are from every woman ever.
- Enver Gjokaj back on my TV and playing the (currently) least objectionable in the jackass boys’ club SSR office.
- The constant swing/jazz/big band music in the background. And when a radio isn’t play, Christopher Lennertz steps in with setting appropriate score.
I am more than happy to spend a few weeks with Agent Carter if it keeps being this pitch perfect. I couldn’t think of a better way to avoid Agents of SHIELD twiddling its thumbs waiting for Age of Ultron. Thumb-twiddling last season is what turned that series into a disaster. This year we get to hang out with Peggy Carter. Is two episodes enough to steal the top spot on my MCU favorites list? Not quite. But it’s definitely up there already. And by “up there” I mean (see chart) right in that spot where it should be.