While “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is on hiatus, we’re getting “Agent Carter,” a flashback-prequel companion series that will be telling some of the stories that fill in background and hopefully secrets going on in the background this season. A lot of folks are excited about this series, especially people who aren’t watching “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” so hopefully this will refuel the viewership. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts on the pilot episode of “Agent Carter.”
Who Is Peggy Carter?
In the comics, Peggy Carter was the World War II romantic interest of Captain America. Created as a retcon by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966’s Tales of Suspense #77, she was the relative (older sister, then aunt, then possibly granddaughter) of current day love interest Sharon Carter, who had appeared two issues earlier. Yeah, it’s as creepy as it sounds. When I started reading comics, Sharon Carter was dead, just like Bucky and Jason Todd, until she got better. Sharon was always more prominent than Peggy, as she was affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D., known as Agent 13, and fighting super-villains whereas Peggy’s only perks were being in the French Resistance and joining S.H.I.E.L.D. herself in her twilight years.
There is speculation among some comics readers that Peggy Carter was around far more earlier than previously thought. Some folks think she was Agent X-13 who showed up in Cap’s first story in Captain America Comics #1, and have also identified other similar characters in Cap’s history as being her with some memory problems caused by amnesia and being tortured as a prisoner of war. This is one of those coincidences that I prefer to disbelieve. Sometimes comics continuity can be more confusing than it needs to be. Although, it should be noted, screenwriters may have inserted the X-13 theory into her first cinematic appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Agent Carter on Film
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sharon Carter is still around, being overshadowed, outgunned, and made redundant by the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell, from her appearances in the first Captain America movie and in this season of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” kicks ass. She is not just a ‘romantic interest’ in Captain America: The First Avenger, she is one of the hero’s mentors, trainers, and a butt-kicking secret agent all on her own. Unlike most superhero ‘girlfriends,’ she doesn’t need anyone to save her.
Hayley Atwell has had a relatively short acting career yet has garnered many award nominations for her work. She certainly made an impression in that first Captain America movie. Her character is smart, beautiful, dynamic, and manages to steals spotlight from the dashing Chris Evans in his own film. Such an impression that it inspired the powers that be to give her cameo in the sequel and in her own one-shot short film, all of which have culminated in this TV series.
Why Is Agent Carter Important?
The character of Peggy Carter is a very important linking point of the MCU of World War II and the present day. The organization she works for – the Strategic Scientific Reserve – is the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. and as shown in the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” series, she obtains the first 0-8-4, known as The Diviner, and she also captures and interrogates Daniel Whitehall. The Diviner is later revealed as a Kree device that imbues some humans with superpowers, and of course Whitehall was a current day Hydra leader seeking the device. There are secrets to be revealed in coming weeks.
Agent Carter also appears in the self-titled one-shot short film (the first part of which is above) included on the Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray. Besides kicking serious period butt, she’s also searching for Zodiac, notable enemies of both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers in the comics. They’ve also been mentioned once in passing on the TV series, but in this context, it’s a serum. The short also features traditional comics S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Dum Dum Dugan, and Howard Stark who asks Carter to head the newly created espionage organization. As a founder, she is very important to “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Who’s Who, and Why They’re Cool
First and foremost on the who’s who register are those folks from the comics. The first one we’ve seen before, in Captain America: The First Avenger, and that’s Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark. Yeah, he’s Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s dad, and like his son, he’s a spoiled rich kid genius whose inventions have fallen into the wrong hands. He’s modeled after a young Howard Hughes, coincidentally just like the original 1960s Tony Stark was, and he is smooth cool. As noted above, he has a hand in the formation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization.
Next up is one of the favorite supporting characters of all time among readers and fans of the original Avengers comics – Edwin Jarvis. Played here by James D’Arcy, he portrays Howard Stark’s butler who helps Agent Carter clear his boss’ name. In the comics, he was Tony Stark’s butler, who by connection of Stark’s home becoming Avengers Mansion, and headquarters to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, also becomes the superhero team’s majordomo and yes, butler. He is much beloved in the comics, but essentially replaced by an AI called J.A.R.V.I.S. in the movies.
Love the Hat
The episode actually opens with what all the “Agents of SHIELD” has been clamoring for yet never seemed to get enough of – superheroes. Chris Evans as Captain America is front and center immediately. We see his seeming WWII end in flashback. We see his friendship and connection to out two leads Carter and Stark, and the plot to come. It’s a year after these events and the war is over.
As we meet Peggy’s roommate Colleen, the subtle superhero stuff creeps in. Peggy is living a secret life. Colleen wants her to get a man, and thinks she works for Bell Tel. Yep, this is why period pieces are so cool. And even in this short conversation with Colleen, Atwell’s charisma and sharp wit rule the screen. She’s not just a star here, she’s the star.
Once at work, we learn what’s up. Howard Stark has been accused of selling weapons to enemy states, and in true period style is asked to be questioned in a Congressional hearing. He no more or less flippant than his son was in Iron Man 2, and it’s not a good thing. When he doesn’t show at the next hearing, the SSR makes him a fugitive.
Shea Whigham from “Boardwalk Empire” continues his typecast run as unlikable characters with Carter’s boss, Roger Dooley. In the comics he was a misguided ass, and here he’s a sexist pig who thinks Carter should be a quiet secretary rather than an agent – or perhaps he thinks she should be barefoot and pregnant. Yeah, it’s that bad.
Not only are the sets, cars, and wardrobes beautifully post-war, but the writing and the attitudes are wonderfully period, and primitively backward, as well. The scene early on in the automat (look it up, kids) portrays a serious dilemma in this country back then. Women had to go to the work place while men were at war, but when the men returned, the women were expected to go back to the kitchen. After a taste, not many wanted to go back.
In many ways, this is the theme of “Agent Carter.” In a time when men weren’t available, she was the woman for the job, but now, that job was only open to men. When Stark shows up and asks Peggy for help, even though it endangers her position in the SSR, she jumps at it. Like the woman playing her, Peggy Carter wants the spotlight.
The Name Game
So many Easter eggs in this opening episode! Jarvis consults a Soviet scientist, a friend of his boss named Anton Vanko. Sound familiar? It should, he’s the father of Ivan Vanko, who was played by Mickey Rourke in the aforementioned Iron Man 2. He called himself Whiplash there but these character names are also associated with the Iron Man villain, the Crimson Dynamo.
Vanko’s findings on an explosive created by Stark, that Carter found indicates it was weaponized by Roxxon Oil. In the comics Roxxon is an evil corporation with a capital E, whose activities have included everything from creating super-villains to collecting artifacts of cosmic power and conquering parallel worlds. They have also had their fair share of time with the Cosmic Cube and the Serpent Crown. So far, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they seem just as slimy.
Revealed during the very period, very film noir (although in color), very cool sequence in Spider Raymond’s club is a weasel-like man named Leet Brannis, chillingly portrayed by James Frain who some of you might remember from “Grimm.” He’s our baddie (not counting Dooley of course), having already killed Colleen, he’s after Stark’s explosive that also gives off vita-rays, a component used in turning Steve Rogers into Captain America.
Brannis is of course part of something much bigger. There are men with weird Y scars on their throats requiring voice boxes to talk, the seeming ability to survive falls from stories high apartment windows, and of course the whispered threat of something called ‘Leviathan.’ If this is the same Leviathan from the Marvel Comics, it is apropos, as this organization rose from the Communist nations just as Hydra was formed from the former Axis. Time will tell.
One of the things I’ve loved about “The Flash” is its fun positive attitude and its not shy inclination to use elements from the comics. It sure seems like “Agent Carter” is following suite. They’ve taken all the good espionage bits of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” added a wonderful film noir vibe, and starred a charismatic actress who just won’t quit. I’m really digging this and can’t wait for more.
I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon with episode two of “Agent Carter.” Until then, watch out for staplers, and hold onto your hats!