‘Agent Carter’ Premiere Review: “Pilot; Bridge and Tunnel”
Who is Agent Carter? More specifically, who is Agent Carter removed from Steve Rogers and Captain America? Marvel attempts to answer that question with the two-hour premiere of ‘Agent Carter,’ a miniseries that takes us back to 1946, and arguably delivers Marvel Studios’ first solo female superhero project. And they’ve really delivered.
The first hour of ‘Agent Carter’ fumbles a little, as most series do when they’re introducing us to a new world—granted, the world of ‘Agent Carter’ isn’t that unfamiliar, as it’s the same world inhabited by Steve Rogers, and the cinematography of the episodes help ease us in, seeking to replicate the feel of the first ‘Captain America’ film. Things are a little darker, a little more classic, and a little more cinematic, which goes a long way in setting ‘Agent Carter’ apart.
Hayley Atwell's Peggy is arguably our first Marvel female superhero with her own platform. She may lack in traditional superpowers, but that doesn’t make her any less super. The first 15 minutes of the series had me fully committed, as we’re transported back to a time when women were thought of as little more than secretaries and servants, as white noise in the background of the lives of more capable men. Right away, Peggy’s colleagues at the SSR treat her like the phone operator she pretends to be to the outside world, but nobody puts Peggy in a corner, and she takes every opportunity to combat their casual sexism, throwing classy shade at every sexist jerk with some seriously snappy one-liners.
The pacing of ‘Agent Carter’ never really hits a lull, and perhaps that’s due in part to how new this world feels, even with its familiar framing. From the outset, the series employs “flashbacks,” editing in bits of Peggy’s time with Captain America, and it’s this editing that really highlights how close in tone and feel the series is to its cinematic predecessor. The only real drawback of the series (so far) is the score, which often lingers a little too long and feels slightly tone deaf—it definitely cheapens the proceedings, and reminds us that this is television, not film.
Even so, Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark plays a part in ‘Agent Carter,’ as the exceptional weapon he’s created was unwittingly sold to the bad guys, so he recruits Carter on the down low to help him recover the volatile chemical. He also tasks Edwin Jarvis (yes, as in that Jarvis), played by a very game and delightful James D’Arcy, to help Agent Carter with her mission. Peggy repeatedly balks at Jarvis’ attempts to be helpful (as a butler, it’s in his nature), lumping him in with every other man who assumes she can’t take care of herself, but a wonderful heart to heart between the two of them in the second episode eases Peggy’s mind. If she wants to succeed in this mission and be the kind of heroic woman she considers herself to be, than she needs to swallow her pride and accept help from those good-natured and well-intentioned individuals—male or female—who offer their services. This exchange is wonderfully written and acted, and it’s one of those nice moments that quietly establishes this show’s ethics.
The pilot episode may seem a bit concerned with Steve Rogers, but I love the way he’s always on the periphery of Peggy’s mind, especially during the night club scene, where an incognito blonde Peggy refuses a man’s offer to dance by replying, “I’m afraid I’d step on your toes.” As you’ll recall (and as the episode will later remind you), this was the last thing Steve Rogers tried to say to Peggy as he crashed into the ocean, and it’s quite cleverly worked into the episode.
And of course, there’s no shortage of action, as Peggy fights the nefarious criminal elements who have obtained Stark’s chemical creation. What’s more of a badass feminist statement than watching Peggy beat a man unconscious with a stapler, or completely demolish a dude in her kitchen? These scenes are both engaging and contemplative, almost like an art installation that repurposes the stereotypical habitats for women. SHE BEATS A MAN WITH A STAPLER. I believe the original note I typed out for this was “feminist as f---.”
The second episode feels a little more loose, as the series settles into its rhythm without feeling the need to explain why it exists. We get to know some of the supporting characters better, like SSR Chief Dooley, played by the always great Shea Whigham, a consistently underused and misused actor. It’s fun to watch Dooley and the SSR agents (like Thompson, played by Chad Michael Murray) try to solve the mystery of the blonde woman from the club, who is definitely involved in this whole criminal enterprise. That SSR can’t figure out that they’re tracking one of their own agents further proves how much more intelligent and capable Peggy is than her male colleagues—and really, it’s not about being better than them, but being recognized as an equal, though she does kind of make them look like idiots.
We also meet Lyndsy Fonseca’s Angie, a spiffy waitress from the local diner that Peggy frequents. Angie wants Peggy to move into a newly vacant apartment down the hall (these sorts of residences for single women were common then), but Peggy is apprehensive because she feels responsible for the death of her prior roommate, and wonders if every person she allows to get close to her will end up dead. Of course, she ends up moving into Angie’s place, where the head administrator warns that there are to be no male visitors above the first floor at any time, period—you know who’s probably going to break that rule often? Peggy, obviously.
After the two-hour premiere, it feels slightly disappointing that we’re only getting eight episodes, but at the same time, it’s somewhat of a relief, given the sometimes unnecessary drawn out nature of television, where certain shows can feel as though they’re killing/filling time and struggle to find a consistent plot thread. That sort of bipolar and manic storytelling can be exhausting (looking at you, ‘American Horror Story’).
But ‘Agent Carter’ definitely asserts itself strongly in the first two hours, delivering a show that’s satisfyingly feminist, while also being a damn good time. It’s fun and engaging, with intriguing mystery and delightful action.
So, who is Agent Carter? She’s a sophisticated and exceedingly talented government agent. She’s tough. She’s classy but kind of sassy. She’s considerate and kind. She’s a woman. And yes, she’s a superhero.
- Howard Stark is very much a Stark. The black and white courtroom footage echoes Tony Stark’s own courtroom scenes in both ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Iron Man 2.’ Like father, like son.
- Lyndsy Fonseca is slowly growing on me. Her mannerisms are like what would happen if Kristen Wiig satirized a 1940s character on ‘SNL.’ Her voice sounds right, but the mannerisms are a little too broad.
- “I figured you’d never have trouble finding a man.” “The trick is finding the right one.” With two lines, ‘Agent Carter’ nails what it’s like being a single woman.
- I would like a spinoff with Shea Whigham’s Dooley called “Carrot or Stick,” in which he’s a detective and famed interrogator who employs his literal carrot or stick visual to break criminals.
- Let’s talk about the guest stars on this series. Ray Wise shows up in episode 2, having scotch with Shea Whigham, and it’s like a page right out of my own fan fiction.
- ‘The Wire’ star Andre Royo, better known as Bubbles, shows up in episode 1, though his time with Peggy is brief.
- Fantastic character actor James Urbaniak appears in the second episode, along with James Frain, who recently starred on the BBC America series ‘Intruders.’ I will always think of him as Forney from that Natalie Portman movie ‘Where the Heart Is.’ You know, when Portman shouts “FORNAYYYY” in that thick country accent.
- Broken Lizard’s Kevin Heffernan is the sexist diner patron in the first episode.
- And finally, yes, that’s Devin Ratray, aka Buzz from ‘Home Alone,’ in episode 2 as the guy Peggy leaves tied to a chair.
- If the name of the guy in the lab who Peggy visits for intel on the explosive sounds familiar, that’s because he’s Anton Vanko, the father of ‘Iron Man 2' villain Whiplash.
- For the record, I have not seen any episodes of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ but I hardly think that will matter while covering ‘Agent Carter,’ which doesn’t feel beholden to contemporary Marvel narratives and connections.