Years Active: 2015-current
Years Reviewed: 2015
- Hayley Atwell
- James D'Arcy
- Chad Michael Murray
- Shea Whigham
- Enver Gjokaj
- Lyndsy Fonseca
- Bridget Regan
A near-perfect example of how to adapt a comic book world for the rest of us.
Caution: Minor Spoilers.
A couple of years back we got a brilliant, Marvel One-Shot short called “Agent Carter”. Working off that post WWII era super cool, ABC green lit this “limited” series also called ‘Agent Carter’. Peggy Carter was instrumental in the turning of Private Steve Rogers into “Captain America”. The war has ended and Captain America has been lost after his plane crashed in the Arctic. Now, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) champions on as an SSR (“Strategic Scientific Reserve”–a precursor to SHIELD) agent.
“Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist” Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper reprising his role from ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’) has a vault filled with highly dangerous, “defective” gadgets stolen. These “experiments” gone awry are now in the hands of unknown enemies. The SSR swoops in and puts the blame squarely on the doesn’t play well with others Stark. So Howard turns to his old pal “Peg” for help.
Unfortunately, the gender bias of 1940s America makes it difficult for any woman, even a bad-ass like Miss Carter, to be taken seriously. Carter abandons her role as “secretary” to the boys in the SSR and goes off and conducts her own, secret and unsanctioned investigation. The always resourceful Howard Stark gives Peggy access to a most trusted ally–his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Together Carter and Jarvis hope to clear Howard’s name.
SSR chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) and his second Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) go all in to sink Howard Stark, no matter what. While Carter and her new BFF Jarvis are off on their own, stirring a nest full of assassins, spies, and a powerful, unknown Russian agency called Leviathan.
‘Agent Carter’ gets eight hour long episodes to focus on this singular task. Every little detour and seeming distraction either starts with or leads towards figuring out what Leviathon is doing with Howard’s stolen tech and how to stop them. Even the single-minded SSR agents on their anti-Stark mission have similar goals–find the stolen “misfit toys” and stop whoever is using/abusing them.
The first few episodes paint a frustrating picture of Peggy’s “career” in an agency woefully undervaluing her talents. With no other option she must “save the day” in secret. Her slowly developed and always quirky partnership with the stuffy Jarvis becomes a series highlight.
Side characters like would be suitor and fellow SSR agent Daniel Sousa (‘Dollhouse’s’ Enver Gjokaj) and Peggy’s “normal” friend and local diner waitress Angie Martinelli (‘Nikita’s’ Lyndsy Fonseca) add a more human side to Carter’s mission-driven life. A moderately sized cast that’s easy to keep track of. No filler.
episode weekly adventure offers action (often involving Agent Carter kicking some big thugs’ ass), plenty of laughs and Marvel Universe inside jokes, lavish sets and costumes reflecting this simpler post-WWII era, and some nice, often intimate character moments as Peggy struggles with every day catastrophes, consequences, and loss. Special attention is given to how Peggy is coping with losing Captain Rogers–this series takes place a little over a year after his “death”.
And with the assortment of wild and unintentionally very dangerous Stark inventions on the loose, there’s always some over the top imminent threat to overcome. Watching Stark and Jarvis offer uncomfortable explanations of how these items were supposed to work is hilarious.
A wide range of wacky characters pop-up including some killer MCU cameos. From “Black Widow” program origin story complete with an early “graduate”, hypnotist/evil mastermind Dr. Faustus (Ralph Brown) during the nail-biting climatic back-half, and the Howling Commandos complete with Dum-Dum Dugan (Neil McDonough) swoop in to help Peggy and company on a mission in Belarus. There’s even the perfunctory Stan Lee cameo;)
In strong contrast with Marvel’s “other” show, ‘Agent Carter’ keeps the tone reasonably light even as the stakes remain high. As this is the defining prequel of all things Marvel, they are really unable to breach much new territory or unleash any truly lasting consequences. Howard Stark must survive to make Tony Stark (“Iron Man”), Peggy has to reunite with a thawed out Cap in the 21st century, and these near mythical villains can’t be allowed to do too much damage as that would disrupt how the MCU exists in the modern era.
So without much wiggle room on the inevitable end game, the show can put its focus on character development and history lessons–showing how all these iconic pieces fit together in making the MCU of today. But, unlike the woefully reckless and out of control ‘Gotham’ this show offers restraint, only hinting at things to come. There remains plenty of secrets for a possible Season Two and other films/series to uncover.
Plenty of experienced behind the scenes talent including ‘Captain America’ scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely who wrote the pilot, showrunners Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters wrote the dramatic finale, ‘Winter Soldier’ co-director Joe Russo helms an episode and a host of seasoned TV/film veterans spread around in all roles.
Stellar design and visual effects immerse us into the world of 1940s New York with period appropriate vehicles, architecture, and costuming. Things are bright, colorful, and authentically “comic book” looking without being corny. Attention to details that keep us firmly planted in this “reinterpreted” vision of post WWII America.
The biggest kudos lie with the cast. Being able to convince as these larger than life, yet serious-minded 1940s people is a tough balance. In the hands of lesser thespians the “big” dialog and melodrama would come off as pure camp–à la ‘The Rocketeer’. However, this material gets the necessary weight without any overwrought hysterics.
Enver Gjokaj as the earnest do-gooder, one-legged war veteran “Sousa” provides a nice counterpoint for this chauvinistic, male-driven world. While Shea Whigham as Peg’s boss “Dooley” and Chad Michael Murray as tough guy “Thompson” offer nearly nothing but obstacles for Carter to overcome. Yet, both get a handful of redemptive moments that humanize these usually thick-headed and always sexist macho men.
I was hoping Lyndsy Fonseca, coming off her kicking-ass role on ‘Nikita’, would get more action. However, she must rely exclusively on her biting dialog and NYC girl charms as this wanna-be actress/waitress and Peggy’s only outside world confidant “Angie”. Bridget Regan as the seemingly ditzy, but full of secrets “Dottie Underwood” dominates during the later episodes.
Regretfully, Dominic Cooper only appears for three episodes. His natural charm and playful banter with Peggy is a treat. “Howard Stark” is Peggy’s only living connection with Steve Rogers, which adds tremendous layering and depth to their unique friendship. She may not approve of Howard’s playboy lifestyle or cavalier (reckless!) scientific endeavors, but she risks everything to try and clear his name.
James D’Arcy perfectly reflects this reserved, but full of hidden talents, English butler. “Edwin Jarvis” will be a huge influence one day on a young Tony Stark (Tony models his AI partner JARVIS after him, no less). It’s gratifying to see him given such depth. Watching Jarvis and Ms. Carter bound through their missions is cool. An authentic, unlikely partnership rife with conflict and waffling trust.
Ultimately, it is Hayley Atwell that holds this series and its concept together. Over the course of these last few years Atwell has completely embodied this tough as nails, yet full of emotion and loss heroine. Exquisitely balancing compassion, sadness, regret, ruthless determination, devoted loyalty, and an unrelenting sense of right and wrong. Carter is not one to be underestimated, on or off the battlefield. Can’t imagine anyone else selling this mix of bad-ass, deeply felt, brilliant, get things done, damn the rules, and über-hotness.
Any faults? Sure, there’s a few. Some of the mid-episodes ease up a little too much and there’s couple of cringe-worthy leaps of logic in getting from point A to point B. However, as “comic book” worlds go, this one’s fairly grounded….and definitely NOT boring.
So if you have even a passing interest in all things Marvel, enjoy period action/adventure TV (and who doesn’t?), or are just looking for a quick, entertaining distraction ABC’s ‘Agent Carter’ is just the thing. Well produced, well written, well acted, and loads of high-adventure fun. Highly Recommended.
Joe Russo, director