Agent Carter is the long anticipated TV spin-off from Captain America: The First Avenger. Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers’s love interest in the movie, takes the helm as the first female lead in a Marvel franchise since the ill-fated Elektra. Peggy was a sensation in the first movie and swiftly became a firm fan favourite – a strong female character who took no shit and represented the many unsung women who did work as agents in World War Two. Fans clamoured for the spin-off and were overjoyed when it went into production.
An unfortunate side effect is that many see this as a test case for women in superhero media. I’m always angry and frustrated when I see this come up again and again. Any female-led enterprise that doesn’t fall squarely in the traditionally female realm of romance is asked to stand in stead for all women everywhere, and any failure is taken to be a sign that women ‘just can’t carry’ whatever sort of genre is flavour of the month.
Nevermind that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is arguably the most successful* superhero television show of all time. Only Smallville compares for longevity, and if one includes Angel (the five season spin-off), Buffy as a franchise easily outstrips it. And for awards, Buffy leaves Smallville a mere memory in the rearview mirror. The list of awards received by the Buffy franchise has its own Wikipedia page.
Nevermind, too, that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay had the biggest opening weekend of any film last year, cementing the status of the already highly successful female-led action-sci-fi franchise. The three Hunger Games movies mark spots six, seven, and fifteen on the list of biggest opening weekends of all time.
With nine movies released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since Iron Man in 2008 and not a single female-led movie or even a team with more than one woman in it, Marvel has a lady problem. Seven more movies are planned before the single female-led film, Captain Marvel, in 2018. Two-thousand Eighteen – ten years and sixteen movies after the first MCU film! Despite the fact that clamouring for a Black Widow movie has been at fever pitch since the release of The Avengers.
And yet the pressure is being put upon Agent Carter, rather than on Marvel. I’m livid about that. Agent Carter has bugger all to prove. It’s been proved. People will watch action films with women at the helm. They will watch science fiction films with women at the helm. We have known this since Alien and The Terminator, but still every female-led enterpirse comes under this scrutiny.
Let me be absolutely clear about this: it is not women who need to prove ourselves, it is Marvel.
Women can and do lead TV shows and films to success in all genres. Asking each and every new female-led enterprise to stand for all women is a dirty, underhand trick. It isn’t women who fail when an individual film or TV show isn’t good enough. Women are sick of individually being asked to stand up for our whole gender – it’s a familiar ask from our every day lives and it’s as much a swindle in fiction as it is there. But even if it weren’t, we have already passed enough of your bloody tests.
Perhaps it will be true that if Agent Carter does not do well-enough, Marvel will not give us a Black Widow film, but let me be brutally honest: we’re talking about asking for one more movie out of a line up that is currently nineteen to one**. Marvel’s record would still be despicable even if we got a Black Widow movie. And it is Marvel who should be held accountable for that, and not women.
All of which is to say that the reputation of women in superhero films and TV shows doesn’t live or die based on this one show, and if Marvel can’t hack it, we’ll simply look elsewhere.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at Agent Carter itself.
Agent Carter is a fun comdey-noir. Hayley Atwell is as charming and kickass as she ever was. We see her after the war, somewhat at sea in a world that has forgotten her achievements. As with many women of the time, she finds that men are eager to replace her now that they are back from the war. Most of her colleagues at the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) treat her with disdain, and her relationship with Steve Rogers is used to dismiss her contributions and relegate her to being a hanger-on. So, in secret, she sets about solving the missions she is excluded from.
The only man who treats her as she deserves at SSR is Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), a disabled veteran who was injured in the war. Life seems pretty crummy until Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) shows up, asking for Peggy’s help in clearing his name – having had some of his secret projects stolen, Howard has been accused of treason. As Howard flees on a speed boat, he leaves Peggy his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), as a kind of sidekick.
The result is an adventurous spy-show that plays with a taste of noir whilst never quite taking itself sufficiently seriously to truly sit within that genre. I find the comedy aspects a little strained. A lot of lines feel like they’re delivered just off the beat, and the artificial formality of Jarvis just doesn’t ring true. The script makes the common mistake of supposing that posh English people are inherently over-wordy, which leaves James D’Arcy struggling around some frankly awkward lines.
That said, whilst the script could do with a little smoothing, Agent Carter stands out against other televisual forays into the superhero genre from recent years. I’ve been unable to make any headway in Agents of SHIELD, despite urgings from friends that ‘it gets better’, and despite trying to love Arrow, it was certainly harder work to get into than Agent Carter.
There’s a lot of talent on screen. Hayley Atwell is sparkling, and James D’Arcy works well with the lines he is given, but the real diamond in the rough is Enver Gjokaj. Anyone who saw his work on Dollhouse will know that he is an astonishingly seamless impressionist. There’s great potential for a character with real mercurial flare in disguises and if he remains deskbound because of his injury it will be a loss to us all.
Speaking of which, I’m very pleased to see someone with a disability form one of the main cast members. I’d hoped for greater diversity all round, to be honest. There were remarkably few female characters, although Peggy does move into an all-women accommodation block at the end of the premiere, giving hope that more female characters may develop into substantial roles in the future.
I’d also hoped that there would be more people of colour. Enver Gjokaj has Eastern European origins, although this is less significant in a US TV show. I had some hope that the crime boss portrayed by Andre Royo would mark a recurring character (and a nice change from Royo’s usual comic relief!), but it was not to be.
There’s been some buzz about the fact that Steve Rogers is Peggy’s motivational lost love – a mirror to all the fridged women in all the comic books, films, and TV shows across the last century. However, although there is a nod to this, I would hesitate to overstate that parallel. Steve is not denied agency the way those women are. Nor is Peggy really motivated by his apparent death. She’s sad about it. It seems to have deflated her. She doesn’t really brood about it and use it as a motivation to deliver hell unto bad guys. In some ways that’s good. I don’t want Steve to dominate Agent Carter – this show is about her. But the low, deflated place we find her in rings a little false. I’m not convinced that she would have allowed herself to be pushed to the side in this way. And whilst I understand that they want to leave room for character progression, male characters like Oliver Queen in Arrow, are allowed – even expected – to come out the door punching and full of hubris, and it’s annoying to see my kickass lady hero brought to heel in this way.
Overall, I feel like the show has potential, and that more of that potential is realised than in the pilots of equivalent male-led TV shows that have aired in the past few years – Arrow, The Flash, Gotham. I will be tuning in next week, and I’d recommend that you do so, too.
*Live action. I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t some equally successful animes, but I don’t know enough about the genre to comment.
**More, if one includes the 2008 The Incredible Hulk.