Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Fearsome Female Protagonist Program: Marvel’s Agent Carter

Hayley Atwell stars as Peggy Carter in Marvels: Agent Carter on ABC.

When Marvel pushes an agenda, it pushes hard. The Marvel Cinematic Universe can be called many things, but lazy generally isn’t one of them. And there’s quite a lot to prove with ABC's Agent Carter, their first miniseries, being both a continuation of an established Captain America storyline and a testing ground for the miniseries format (Marvel has plans for five more Netflix-based mini-shows, whose existence will largely depend on the success of this first effort).  Agent Carter is also a melting pot of proven talent, bringing in Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, writers of both Captain America movies, and Joe Russo, who co-directed the excellent CA: The Winter Soldier, for the first two episodes. It’s hard to imagine such a strange, mutant project earning many accolades out of the gate, especially when it’s based on a character with so little audience recognition power outside of the comics-and-cosplay community – but if the MCU has taught us anything, it’s that Marvel will leverage all its power to see it succeed.

Well, if the pop culture press is to be believed, the show has done just that. Comparisons to The Rocketeer and – be still my heart – Indiana Jones are not misplaced. This “lesser-known” heroine everyone is suddenly taking notice of is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), agent of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (“SSR”), who has to keep up appearances at her mundane office job while secretly helping Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) keep the operatives of a shadowy organization called “Leviathan” at bay (and away from his dangerous technology, or as he calls his more deadly inventions, his “bad babies”). She also has to dodge the annoyances of a male-dominated 1940s workplace, all while mourning the loss of her lover, Steve Rogers, whose “death” from the first Captain America film is replayed at the beginning of Agent Carter’s premiere. Stark offers Carter the help of his persnickety butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), whose prim adherence to the rigid structures of genteel living grate on Peggy’s dynamic superspy sensibilities. Taken together, these elements make Agent Carter a funny, exciting adventure serial that revels in its period details, a striking retro world guided by an exceptionally strong lead.

Carter’s agency [apologies!] as a woman in a man’s world goes way beyond precociousness; she’s an effective and capable spy in her own right, often taking advantage of the way people underestimate her. What’s more, she doesn’t require an origin story or elaborate background – the show is rooted in the Saturday-evening serial tradition where we learn everything we need to know in the first scene (which is a thrilling montage that establishes everything from her skill with a sidearm to her grief at having lost Steve in the war). Peggy might have to field an inappropriate comment or two at work (which she answers with stinging wit, like when a coworker asks her to do his filing because “[she’s] better at it”, and she replies “Better at what? The alphabet?”), but she has her own goals outside of the requirements of her job, and achieves them so skillfully that nobody even notices. Atwell shows she’s a deft hand at comedy too, dressing in a severe health-inspector disguise in order to gain a peek inside a fleet of milk trucks, which she suspects contain one of Stark’s “bad babies”. It’s in her growing relationship with Jarvis, though, that Atwell really shines. Both Brits are allowed to keep their natural accents for their characters, and they have an unaffected chemistry that’s bolstered by the friction the script creates between their characters (“You’re new to espionage, aren’t you?” asks a sardonic Peggy, to which Jarvis replies “Far from it. Last summer, I caught the cook pocketing the good spoons.”).

The supporting cast isn’t really given a chance to shine in the first two episodes, except perhaps for Shea Whigham as the brusque SSR station chief, whose calculated portrayals of drunken, pigheaded Irishmen in Boardwalk Empire and True Detective stand him in good stead here, and The Wire’s Andre Royo as a reptilian nightclub patriarch. Further episodes may flesh out the offices of the SSR and, hopefully, the inner workings of Leviathan, but the central cast is so strong that I’d be happy to continue watching even if it only starred the dynamic duo of Carter and Jarvis at the core of the show.

James D'Arcy as Jarvis in Agent Carter
Unfortunately, while the direction by D’Esposito and Russo is generally strong, the fight choreography whenever Carter is jumped by an enemy spy is blunted with overly rapid cuts, which seems to be a mainstay of the superhero genre these days. Flashy choreography and convincing physical performances only make up half of a good fight scene; clear, grounded, patient camerawork and measured editing are also key in communicating the rhythm and excitement of a fight. (As an example: Hannibal’s second season opener featured a fight sequence between Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter and Lawrence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford that was a masterclass of martial thrills: the camerawork was deliberate, the editing fast but brutally clear, and the choreography mirrored the shifts in power taking place within, as well as without, the characters themselves. It’s a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison, as Hannibal is anything but an action-adventure show, but it serves to illustrate that fight sequences are tools to drive narrative, as well as audience engagement – something Agent Carter’s showrunners would do well to remember going forward.) There is one notable exception: in the second episode, “Bridge and Tunnel”, a specific hand-to-hand battle between Carter and a Leviathan crony cuts back and forth between the action and a studio recording of “The Captain America Adventure Program”, where foley artists smack glistening sides of beef as Peggy’s punches find their mark. The popular radio program – which is of course a favourite of Jarvis’, much to Peggy’s chagrin – features a hilariously inaccurate “damsel-in-distress” portrayal of Captain America’s love interest, and Russo cuts between the voice actress pleading for help from her hero and Peggy kicking tons of ass. It’s an exhilarating and ultimately very clever showdown sequence, making the rest of the show’s combat seem almost rote by comparison.

In the larger Marvel context, Carter is satisfying for the same reason that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is satisfying: it brings the drama of a superheroic world down to a human level, where we interact with normal people who just happen to live in a world of magic serums and flying cyborg men. Agent Carter doesn’t help contextualize or frame the larger stories of the MCU the way S.H.I.E.L.D. does, preferring to take a more standalone stance, but it knows how to make interesting characters out of the people who aren’t dressed in spandex – something that I thought DC’s Gotham utterly failed to do, with its seeming unwillingness to tell a story set in Batman’s city that wasn’t also about Batman.

Agent Carter draws from well-loved source material to find its tone and character, and manages to stir those elements into a cohesive whole with its own unique flavour. The question is how well Carter will use these elements in the weeks to come. Which Indy will it be: will it mine its pulpy source material for risky, character-driven serial adventures like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Or will it devolve into meaningless, by-the-numbers, weekly MacGuffin-hunts like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? The series’ first season has been restricted to just eight episodes – this is Marvel’s first true miniseries, after all, although a second season is looking more and more likely – and my hope is that their inability to dilute subplots and character development over a longer run of episodes will result in a tighter, more focused experience. Thanks to snappy scripting, convincing period detail, and an extraordinary performance from its lead, Agent Carter’s beginning was remarkably strong. Let’s hope its middle and end are just as engaging.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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