It’s with a period drama set in 1946 that Marvel has decided to stop ignoring half of its fan base. Marvel’s Agent Carter brings Hayley Atwell back to her Captain America role and marks the studio’s first live-action project with a female lead since 2005’s Elektra.
The eight-episode series, inspired by a Marvel short film also starring Atwell, follows Peggy Carter as she works for the covert Strategic Scientific Reserve in New York. Despite playing a key part in the super-soldier project that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, Peggy is treated more like an administrative assistant by her misogynistic co-workers (including Chad Michael Murray and Shea Whigham) than a talented agent. Peggy must balance mundane tasks, like getting coffee, with secretly working to prove that her friend, and the man the SSR is currently investigating, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), is innocent, and not selling deadly weapons to terrorists. With the help of Howard’s uptight butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), Peggy must find the real culprit before the SSR figures out she’s working against them.
Agent Carter is a smart and entertaining series brilliantly carried by Atwell. While scenes without her can get boring, Atwell shines in the role, delivering a captivating, seemingly effortless performance. If there’s a single reason to watch, she’s it. Atwell’s scenes with Cooper are vibrant and some of the show’s best to-date, but it’s her chemistry with D’Arcy that steals the show. The plot devices (flashy, dangerous orbs) will be familiar to any avid Marvel fan, but Atwell’s Peggy Carter is special enough that you probably won’t be bothered.
Peggy Carter is easily one of the best things to come out of the Captain America movies. Badass and confident, witty and vulnerable, she can fight—or talk—her way out of (almost) any situation. She is human. She is real.
Clearly unhappy with culture’s treatment of women, Peggy tirelessly combats it by throwing the sexism of those around her back in their faces. She masterfully uses PMS as an excuse to get out of secretarial work and manipulates her unsuspecting co-workers into giving her information in order to secretly get ahead of the SSR on the Stark case. Peggy wields her years of misogynistic experiences into an unconventional weapon.
The show doesn’t shy away from the sexism rampant of post-WWII culture, or the fanboy outcry of 2015 with its feminism. It’s made clear that Peggy is equal, even to the likes of Captain America. She’s her own damn hero.
But the feminism of Agent Carter is flawed. There’s not a single person of colour in the main cast, and it’s difficult to recall a guest star that wasn’t white. Issues of race are completely ignored, which means the issues and hardships of women of colour are as well. It’s a huge misstep, one that isn’t excused by the fact that it’s 1946.
While Peggy is the lead, she’s surrounded by men. Aside from the women who are segregated from the agents while answering phones, all of her co-workers are men; the people she interrogates are men; and she spends most of her time outside of the office with Jarvis, who, while charming, is definitely a dude. Sure, 1946 is a man’s world, but that doesn’t mean Agent Carter has to be too.
It’s possible that this will improve over the second half of episodes. Although their scenes are too short, Peggy’s friendship with her neighbour Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) continues to develop, hopefully leading to something great. And with the show’s fourth episode revealing Bridget Regan’s character, Dottie, to be a product of the Black Widow program (where Scarlett Johansson’s Avengers character derives from), her role’s about to become a lot bigger too.
Still, it’s amazing to have a show that celebrates women, especially one in the Marvel-verse. With an upcoming Netflix series, AKA Jessica Jones, and a Captain Marvel movie a few years away, Agent Carter could be a precursor of great female comic book adaptations to come. When the Avengers sequel, coming out in May, has a male to female ratio among the main cast that’s 11:3, that’s a change that Marvel desperately needs.
After 10 years and 10 films, all dominated by white guys, it’s almost a relief to have Agent Carter.
By Patricia Karounos