For a series that started off as a 15-minute fan favourite short movie that was included as a bonus feature on the Iron Man 3 DVD, Agent Carter’s two-hour debut did not fail to live up to the massive hype that comes along with being a part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. But with no shortage of comic- book-inspired shows flooding the small screen, the best thing that Marvel’s latest property has going for it is the fact that it’s not a superhero show.
Sure, its premiere episode started off with some flashback footage from 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger — nor did it shy away from referencing the star-spangled hero as often as it could — but Agent Carter wasted no time in establishing itself as an upbeat spy series with a distinct identity that will appeal to Marvel fanboys and casual TV viewers alike.
The year is 1946 and, despite playing an integral role in helping the Allies win World War Two, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) finds herself stuck doing administrative work for the covert, and highly misogynistic, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR).
As the only woman in the SSR’s New York-based offices, she is routinely brushed aside and talked down to by her dim-witted and far less capable male colleagues.
That all changes when she reconnects with Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), an eccentric playboy billionaire who has been labelled a traitor after his weapons begin to surface on the black market. In an effort to retrieve his stolen weapons and clear his name, Stark pairs up Peggy with his punctual and overly formal butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy).
What follows is a fun and gripping spy story that combines the best parts of Dick Tracy, The Saint and Alias with the comic-book pizzazz that we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios, as Peggy and Jarvis race to recover a set of compact bombs before they get into the hands of the mysterious Leviathan.
But what really makes Agent Carter stand out is not its distinct setting or its link to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but Atwell’s performance.
A fan favourite since her debut in Captain America, Atwell brings smarts, beauty and quippy one-liners that steal the show while Peggy’s ability to fight atop moving vehicles, throw people out of windows and beat up bad guys with a stapler evoke memories of Alias’s Sydney Bristow.
Despite the rampant sexism she faces in her professional life, some of Peggy’s best moments come when she uses her society’s perception of women to her advantage. Whether it’s to help her gain classified intel or steal a valuable item, it’s clear that she is always one step ahead of everyone.
It’s also clear that she is an emotionally complex character who still bears the scars of losing her true love in the war.
Simply put, Peggy is the femme fatale that the Marvel Cinematic Universe so desperately needed to showcase, and Atwell’s performance reminds us why critics hold Captain America: The First Avenger in such high regard.
While the show’s eight-episode season should allow it to tell a crisp, compelling story without having to worry about muddying the main plot with unneeded crime-of-the-week filler episodes, there is a worry that its shorter may hinder it from developing the supporting cast.
While Cooper reprises his role as Tony Stark’s father, Howard, in the series, he is nowhere to be seen after the show’s opening minutes. Angie, a waitress at a local diner (played by Lost Girls’ Lyndsy Fonseca), is given little to work with despite being billed as Peggy’s close friend.
Even Peggy’s sexist boss and co-workers (played by Shea Whigham, Kyle Bornheimer and Chad Michael Murray) would benefit from a bit of backstory.
Hopefully, as the season goes on, we’ll learn more about these characters.
With that being said, Jarvis’s comical demeanour and formal mannerisms make him perfectly suited to be Peggy’s reluctant sidekick, and at times he even steals the spotlight away from our ass-kicking heroine. Atwell and D’Arcy are great playing off each other and you can bet that Peggy and Jarvis’s relationship will prove to be a fan favourite by the end of the season’s run.
Agent Carter may not redefine the spy genre, but it’s clear that Marvel’s latest television property has carved out its own distinct identity that, while still tied to the larger cinematic universe, is not reliant on it.
That’s a good thing considering that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has got much better in its second season, and Netflix’s Daredevil, starring Charlie Cox, and A.K.A. Jessica Jones, starring Krysten Ritter, are set to premiere some time in 2015.