‘Marvel’s Agent Carter’ fights villains, sexism in ABC’s new series

Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as a sleuthing agent at the Strategic Scientific Reserve and Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy) the butler of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) form a perfectly balanced pair. via Kirk McCoy/Los Angeles Times/TNS

If it were possible to write an article composed solely of excited squealing, this review would be a page of high-decibel happiness. “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” which premiered on ABC on Jan. 6, is the latest expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and gives viewers a taste of how refreshing a female-led superhero story can be. The seven-week series stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter, a character introduced as Steve Rogers’ love interest in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). However, Atwell and her character have proved in “Agent Carter,” and in a 2013 Marvel “One Shot” short film of the same name, that Peggy Carter is no simple ingenue, but a hero in her own right.

The series takes place in 1946 New York City, an era with a shimmering aesthetic that the show playfully incorporates into its narrative. The booming brass soundtrack, vintage cars and sharp ’40s outfits ground the show in reality, but also heighten its almost-nostalgic charm. It’s a simpler time; families listen to the radio, every suit is pressed and everyday sexism is even more blatant and extreme than it is today. Carter is working as the only woman in the Strategic Scientific Reserve, the precursor to modern-day Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., and is treated by her male co-workers as a secretary rather than an agent.

The historical backdrop of the show intensifies interpersonal drama. While many of the characters in the show are male, their misogyny toward Carter and their inability to take her seriously is turned against them, allowing the show’s creators to portray the men’s behavior as a great weakness and even foolishness. Although the ostensible villain is a Hydra-esque shady organization that Carter is tasked with bringing down, her true nemeses on the show are the men who wish to belittle her and prevent her from doing her job. She is able to circumvent the limitations of her workplace environment by using the feminine identity they misunderstand and underestimate, playing up their misconceptions to her advantage. Watching Carter interact with men — both those who treat her with respect and those who treat her with misogynistic contempt — is one of the most entertaining aspects of the show. She is always one step ahead of her boss, Roger Dooley (Shea Wigham), and his lackey, Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), frequently leaving the duo confused. She is able to outsmart and beat up men with class and aplomb, making her a hero worthy of both that decade and this one.

One of the most intriguing aspects of “Agent Carter” is how clearly the protagonist is paralleled with Steve Rogers. Carter must listen to radio broadcasts which dramatize Captain America’s exploits, often featuring him saving a female character from certain death. In the series’ second episode, Carter’s fight with a man is juxtaposed with a radio broadcast in which the fictional Cap is beating up a Nazi. Both Captain America and Agent Carter win their respective matches, saving the day and proving their worth. The setting of “Agent Carter” may not be a woman’s world, but Peggy Carter is certainly carving out her place in it.

Carter’s partner in the show is Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) polite yet hilarious butler. Jarvis provides the show’s comedy as Carter’s bumbling sidekick, unaccustomed to a life of espionage. The pair’s buddy-cop dynamic adds warmth and humor to the show. Cooper is likewise entertaining as a guest star, reminiscent of a 1940s-style Robert Downey Jr. (as Howard Stark is Tony’s father, this parallel is entertaining and appropriate). Enver Gjokaj is also excellent as Daniel Sousa, Carter’s SSR colleague who was wounded in World War II and is one of the only men to recognize her talent.

“Agent Carter” can be campy, but its importance should not be overlooked. The show brings a powerful female character to the screen, one who doesn’t compromise her femininity or her strength. Since the “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman” movies are yet to be released, “Agent Carter” is the only female-led comic-based story that currently exists in television and film. For right now, “Agent Carter” brings enough action-packed fun for a superhero fan and feminist to be satisfied, and hopefully the success of the series will signal a continuation of such stories on screens both big and small.


Summary

"Agent Carter" brings a powerful female character to the screen, one who doesn’t compromise her femininity or her strength.

4.5 stars
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