You really have to give Marvel Comics credit for being able to achieve multiple media franchises in a few years. Not only do we get the ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we’re starting to see a rise in mainstream superhero TV shows. From Marvel properties like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to DC Comics’s Arrow and The Flash, it’s no longer so weird to see superheroes fighting crime in primetime.
Of course, most of these shows are based on long-established superheroes. It’s less likekly we see something based around a side character like Marvel’s Agent Carter. This 8-part miniseries tells the story of Peggy Carter (played by the lovely Hayley Atwell) after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. Back in postwar America, she has to contend with the men who retake control of the Strategic Scientific Reserve while also conducting her own investigation into clearing Howard Stark’s name of treason. What follows is Peggy’s journey from glorified secretary to a respected field agent, all while facing down a mysterious organization known as Leviathan and dealing with Stark’s deadliest inventions coming back to threaten the world.
I think, ultimately, there were three things that gave Agent Carter a chance to shine where other contemporary superhero shows don’t.
A strong, smart, and humanized female lead.
Everyone knows about the ideal of the Strong Independent Female Character, who doesn’t require a man to be successful or to offer her sympathy–yet more often than not, still has to contend with men taking the spotlight. Peggy Carter’s story is a critical view of that trope, based not only on deconstructing old standards but paying homage to real-life female operatives during World War Two (like Phyllis Latour Doyle). Peggy can fight and scout out threats just as well as her male counterparts, with her only major flaw being not trusting others to help, whether it’s well-meaning agents like Daniel Sousa or non-fighting types like Edwin Jarvis and Angie Martinelli.
An honest look at the attitudes and politics of the postwar world.
It’s easy to separate the Forties and the Fifties in American movies and TV shows. If the good guys are fighting Nazis, it’s the Forties; if they’re fighting Communists, it’s the Fifties. However, as producer Christopher Markus put it:
“Everything was up for grabs for quite a while, and murky. We didn’t know we really won.”
That brief ambiguity after World War Two and just before the start of the Cold War is mined for some good plots in Agent Carter. We see the effects of war on veterans like Daniel Sousa and Jack Thompson, as well as the unfair discrimination put on women who worked hard in wartime, only to get sidelined and demoted when the men came home. And I’ll admit that, while some of the blatant sexism in the first few episodes did make me roll my eyes, the show did progress enough for me to see Peggy get some better treatment from her colleagues, some of which is probably accurate to changing attitudes about women in that era.
Plus, I imagine it’s really hard to stay a chauvinist when your supposed “secretary” is outclassing you as a fighter, a field commander, and a spy.
A well-developed myth arc.
Shows like Arrow or The Flash have decades of comic book lore to draw from when creating their own story arcs and villains, from Deathstroke to Gorilla Grodd and so on. And while we all know about the enemies of Captain America, we don’t know who would be a match for the likes of Peggy Carter. In this case, we’re treated to a mysterious organization called Leviathan, a glimpse at the Russian program that would eventually spawn Agent Nastasha Romanoff, and the first signs of how the SSR eventually gave way to the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization we know from the Marvel saga.
Instead of going for the usual bad guys that were common in a superhero’s run, we get a glimpse behind the curtain at the backstory of the movies themselves. It’s a lot better than waiting almost 70 years for Steve Rogers to be thawed out.
I’m glad to see that Agent Carter got such a huge response during its run. And speaking as a member of the 18-to-49 male audience (the so-called “key demographic“), I would love to see more female-led shows with top writing like this.
Marvel’s Agent Carter is available through ABC.
Bibliography: Marvel’s Agent Carter. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Produced by Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Chris Dingess, Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Joe Quesada, Stan Lee, Jeph Loeb, and Sara E. White. Perf. Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj, and Shea Whigham. ABC Studios, Marvel Television, F&B Fazekas & Butters. ABC (channel). Original run: January 6, 2015 – February 24, 2015.