Looking Back at the Success of Marvel’s Agent Carter

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.

Copyright © 2015 by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.
Copyright © 2015 by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.

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.

Tossing Shields Left and Right: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Ever since I saw The Avengers in 2012, I’ve realized that, despite my long-held joy of Robert Downey, Jr. playing the great Tony Stark and Iron Man, it was Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, who truly was my favorite Marvel superhero. While he may not have a powered suit of armor or divine birthright or unstoppable strength, Cap is the pinnacle of human endeavor and integrity, achieving the impossible with enhanced human potential and never losing faith in his ideals.

In the second Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, we see those ideals and that strength put to the test. Set two years after the failed invasion of New York, Steve Rogers is still adjusting to life in the 21st century. When someone attacks Nick Fury and he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised from within, Rogers has to rely on himself, with the dubious help of fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow, who appears to have her own agenda and loyalties. Meanwhile, the cabal in charge sends their most ruthless agent, the Winter Soldier, to dispatch their enemies, which forces Rogers to confront an all-too-familiar face from his past.

Copyright 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Acting-wise, Chris Evans is great as the titular Captain, bringing the same enthusiasm and awkward moments. He provides a lot of great moments with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, especially when she keeps pushing his buttons on trusting people and finding someone to ask out on a date. As always, Samuel L. Jackson steals every scene as Nick Fury, but it’s nice to see him get a lot more screentime and even a nice long car chase sequence. I also didn’t expect to see Robert Redford in the film, but he plays the role of Alexander Pierce with a very subtle and sinister charm. It’s nice to see him in a political thriller again (perhaps as a nod to his role in Three Days of the Condor).

The real surprise in the cast (for me) was Anthony Mackie, who played Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon. I enjoyed his connection with Steve Rogers at the beginning of the film, talking on the level of fellow veterans working through their trauma, which made their eventual partnership as heroes much more believable by the end. And honestly, it feels right to see someone like Falcon (whose flight harness reminds me of the American eagle’s wings) paired up with a patriotic superhero like Captain America.

The film wins me over on the amazing action scenes, from Nick Fury shooting out his pursuers in Washington, D.C. to Captain America trading blows and shield throws with the Winter Soldier, whose appearance and fighting is wonderfully silent and pragmatic. The CGI is also dropped a notch compared to other Marvel films, which made me appreciate some of the hand-to-hand fight scenes more. It felt like watching The Bourne Identity with even more superpowers.

What got me stuck, however, was the reveal of the villains and their plot. It’s not that they want to make the world “safer” through questionable means, but that they’re willing to resort to incredibly obvious and very expensive superweapons to do it. I mean, if they can turn human beings into living weapons like the Winter Soldier (who was already said to have “shaped the century” through an impressive record of assassinations), then why not create a few more of those elite troops and scare the world into submission that way? But I suppose it can’t be helped. If you’re going to have a giant, explosive climax for a Captain America movie, you might as well try to justify your special effects budget in the plot.

What I enjoyed most about this movie was how the plot allowed us to see more implications about Cap’s presence in the modern era, with his idealism clashing against the pragmatism of men like Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce. He sums it up in one bit of dialogue during the climax:

Sam: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Steve: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Overly simplistic? Definitely, but it also fits the attitude that Steve and the US had in WWII: the Nazis are threatening to stomp all over Europe and we need to stand up for those who can’t defend themselves. While it does unbalance the film’s tone from its cold discussion of pragmatic solutions to complex security issues, it does at least affirm Captain America’s dedication to justice through hard work as opposed to “easy” solutions that the villains pursue.

All in all, I think this film’s a better installment of Phase 2 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s more topical than most superhero films (akin to The Dark Knight), with so many parallels to modern debates about NSA surveillance and the use of drones in the War on Terror, but in the end, it’s got plenty of heart and enthusiasm, putting an earnest hero right in the line of fire for an appreciative audience.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is showing in theaters now, available through Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Bibliography: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Based on the comic by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Perf. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: April 4, 2014.

A Marvelous Day: The Marvel Film Marathon And “The Avengers” Premiere

Last week, I had the privilege of going with a friend to the AMC theater in Downtown Disney to attend a sixteen-hour-long event known as the Ultimate Marvel Marathon.  All five film adaptations of Marvel Comics heroes, plus the midnight premiere of the long-awaited Avengers.

Now, in my defense, I hadn’t actually watched all the Marvel films beforehand (just the two Iron Man films), so I thought this would be a great way to catch up on the franchise and get a better chance at enjoying The Avengers.  So to give you an idea of how this worked out, I’m going to do a quick review of each Marvel film before I get to the proper Avengers story.

And before I do that, I have to quickly applaud Clark Gregg for his performance as SHIELD Agent Coulson throughout most of the films and for his fan-oriented “briefings” that linked each film during the marathon itself.

Iron Man (2008)

Copyright © 2008 by Paramount Pictures.

As great as The Avengers was, I think the first Iron Man film will always be my favorite in this series.  It’s got some great action scenes, impeccably sharp dialogue, and a meaningful story arc.  Robert Downey, Jr. has made Tony Stark into a solid hero and the comedic heart and soul for the Marvel film franchise.  The film itself jumps into the realistic superhero genre in the same way that Batman Begins did a few years before.  If I have any complaint about this film, it’s that I’m a bit underwhelmed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance, but to be fair, the love interests in these films aren’t given a whole lot to work with.

And speaking of love interests…

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Copyright © 2008 by Universal Pictures.

Hulk is another good installment in the franchise, though it’s not nearly as strong as Iron Man.  Edward Norton makes Dr. Bruce Banner into a dynamic and sympathetic antihero and Liv Tyler does just as well as his girlfriend Elizabeth Ross (personally I like her much, much more than Gwyneth Paltrow).  Together they make for a good blend of optimism and despair that makes the Hulk’s story so poignant.  That said, with all the CGI texturing, some of the Hulk’s fights did get a little blurry that it was hard to focus on any one thing.  But beyond that, it’s got a great story and a troupe of good actors (and for any Modern Family fans out there, that includes a small but heartfelt performance by Ty Burrell).

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Copyright © 2010 by Paramount Pictures.

As a sequel, Iron Man 2 was… okay.  Robert Downey, Jr. is still great, Don Cheadle gives an equally good performance as Lt. Col. James Rhodes (replacing Terrence Howard), and Scarlett Johansson is nicely introduced as Black Widow.  But beyond their parts, the rest of the film feels a bit lacking.  Tony Stark goes through the same life lesson as before despite fighting injustice as Iron Man.  The two villains also are given some good setup, but ultimately don’t deliver; they’re mined for comedy more than serious threats (personally, I thought they could have stuck with Mickey Rourke’s villain and developed his plot a little more).  Not to mention that the climax is fast-paced and then just… ends.  Not much else to say but, hey, at least they’re continuing to build up The Avengers!

Thor (2011)

Copyright © 2011 by Paramount Pictures.

Thor more than makes up for Iron Man 2.  This is King Lear as told by Marvel Comics (seriously, it makes sense if you see Thor as Edgar, Loki as Edmund, and Odin as Gloucester).  Chris Hemworth’s Thor is appropriately boisterous and grand, while Tom Hiddleston really sells his performance as the manipulative Loki.  Natalie Portman is okay as the love interest and Kat Denning helps a lot as her snarky sidekick (which, when you think about it is kind of cool, that a love interest gets her own sidekick instead of the hero).  I will say that the climax doesn’t seem as giant as the epic battles shown near the beginning of the film, but then again, it is a more personal conflict for Thor at the end than it was at the start.  Kenneth Branagh did a great job directing this film, making it a very character-driven, visually rich superhero story.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Copyright © 2011 by Paramount Pictures.

Like ThorCaptain America: The First Avenger was another evocative film, but in this case, it was less Shakespearean and more of a grand old World War II film.  The film captures the sense of 1940s America, especially with the cheek-in-tongue newsreel and war bonds promotions.  Chris Evans really proves himself to be a worthy actor for the role of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America.  He proves that despite being pathetically nice, he’s also inhumanly determined and moral, even in the face of almost certain annihilation.  It takes a while, but the fun of this film is seeing him bring out the best in everyone around him, which made me like this hero a lot.  Tommy Lee Jones really shines as Col. Phillips and Hayley Atwell does pretty well as Peggy Carter, giving us a female lead who both fits and breaks the Forties’s standards for women.  Hugo Weaving does a very believable Nazi, and in that same regard, the CGI in this film is rather good.  My only complaint is the editing, where everything is paced rather quickly and we get a few montages to speed things along even further instead of letting each scene breathe.

The Avengers (2012)

Copyright © 2012 by Walt Disney Pictures.

The short version: this film is great.

The longer version: this film is a successful fulfillment on the promise of the Marvel film franchise.  Throughout the end of each film before this one, there’s a subtle current of Nick Fury and SHIELD building up these heroes and linking them together–and linking their adversaries together, too.  It culminates in putting forward the Avengers Initiative, a team-up of heroes against the threat of Loki and his extraterrestrial allies.  There’s also a quiet but meaningful subplot about Tony Stark and what it takes to get him to be a truly selfless hero who can work well with other superpowered individuals.

Despite the large cast of lead characters, the performances are all balanced.  We get a good dynamic between Tony Stark’s cynicism and Steve Rogers’s can-do attitude, Bruce Banner’s meekness and Black Widow’s icy personality, and then there’s Nick Fury just walking around like he owns the place (which he does, and “the place” happens to be a flying invisible aircraft carrier).  Tom Hiddleston returns as the trickster Loki, where he really gets into playing up the fact that he’s an Asgardian and deserves to be treated like a god.  And though I still like Edward Norton’s portrayal more, I think Mark Ruffalo did a very great Bruce Banner, playing him more meek and apologetic, which ultimately pays off when he becomes the Hulk and steals the show every time he’s on-screen (just the match between him and Loki alone is worth the price of admission).

With Joss Whedon directing and writing part of the screenplay, there is a ton of sarcasm and snarky asides in this film, but it’s worth it for when you get to the climax, which is appropriately huge and wonderful.  Even the “stinger” is nicely done, a clever little jab for all the audiences who’ve been trained by previous Marvel films to sit and wait after the credits.  This film knows it’s huge and does it ever deliver.

This was a great event through and through.  I will say that I’m still not sold on 3D filmmaking, though these films weren’t too bad in that regard.  I won’t say that you can’t enjoy The Avengers unless you’ve watched the five other films beforehand, but it certainly helps and it’s worth the wait.

Bibliography: The Avengers (2012).  Directed by Joss Whedon.  Produced by Kevin Feige.  Screenplay by Joss Whedon.  Story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon.  Based on The Avengers by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Perf.  Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson.  Marvel Studios.  Walt Disney Pictures.  May 4, 2012 (US release).