Saturday, February 28, 2015

Agent Carter review

    Agent Carter recently ended and I thought I'd stop to give my thoughts on this miniseries and what it managed to accomplish in its short time onscreen. For those of you unfamiliar with the series or its premise, it is an eight-episode season following the adventures of Agent Peggy Carter of the SSR (a precursor to Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D).

    Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was the love interest of Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger but made a strong impression on audiences. She was smart, capable, tough, strong-willed, and beautiful. Despite her counterpart in the comics being a comparatively minor character, people wanted to see more of her. Making her the star of her own series was an obvious decision and presented all sorts of opportunities.

    Or perhaps not.

Haley Atwell makes a formidable agent.

     After all, Peggy Carter's adventures take place in the 1940s and is a time unrelated to the later popular Avengers franchise. Unlike, Agents of SHIELD, it would have to rely on material established entirely in Captain America: The First Avenger rather than later movies. Yet, the post-World War 2 period is one ripe for exploration with Hydra, Stalinism, and the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D to draw from.

    So how was it?

    Extremely good.

    The premise is Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony Stark, has had his most dangerous weapons designs stolen by an unknown party. The SSR believes Howard sold them to a foreign power and are intending to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law. Appealing to their shared service with Captain America, he convinces her to investigate the crime against the wishes of her superiors.

The action scenes are very well handled.
    Even if this might get her charged with treason. Making things worse is the presence of a conspiracy of Russian soldiers, one of whom is a precursor to the Black Widow program. What is Leviathan and what do they want with Howard Stark's inventions? It's a plotline which holds together surprisingly well, even if there's a couple of parts which don't make much sense like the assassins lacking voice-boxes.

    The series is carried by the extremely good acting of Ms. Atwell. She gives us a physically potent, emotionally mature, and engaging protagonist in Peggy Carter. The character is easily the best developed of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's females and one audiences will easily fall in love with. Not since the rebooted Lara Croft and Alias' Sydney Bristow before her have I enjoyed a female action protagonist this much.

    While Peggy is easily the draw of the series, she is backed up by a great supporting cast which brings out the best of her character. There's Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy) who serves as her partner in crime in a manner reminiscent of the classic English spy series The Avengers. Peggy's coworkers are a group of sexists bigots with one exception but, even they, play an important role other than as obstacles to her success.

Beautiful but deadly.
    The villains in this series are great too. While the identity of the mastermind behind the plot is a secret which shouldn't be spoiled, I have to say I was pleased to see another Marvel villain adapted from the comics in an unexpected way. The highlight of the series, though, is Bridget Regan's 1940s Black Widow. As a huge fan of the actress from her role in Legend of the Seeker, she poses both a physical as well as mental threat to Peggy.

    The action sequences are elaborately staged with a substance to them usually lacking from live-action television. According to reports from the sets, Ms. Atwell's enthusiasm resulted in several stuntmen on the set getting punched for real. While I regret their pain, you can really see it adds a believability to the fights. Peggy is a dirty fighter, compensating for her small size and strength by making use of every possible advantage she can.

     The world-building for the series is excellent. We get insight into the Soviet Black Widow program, how the SSR transitioned into S.H.I.E.L.D, the Stark Household, and what happened to the Howling Commandos after the War. Fans of The First Avenger will be pleased by the amount of cameos from the movie. Reducing the number of episodes from thirteen to eight is a good choice if it means quality actors, sets, and special effects. The plot is also fast-paced and tightly written, meaning every single episode is a treat.

The tension of Peggy working against her own agency is well-handled.
    So is there any downsides? Period accurate or not, I did get rather tired of the relentless barrage of sexism poor Peggy is subjected to throughout the movie. From the fact her wartime adventures have been reduced to "screaming nurse love interest" in the in-series Captain America Radio Show to the constant commentary about her past relationships in the office, poor Peggy is chomping at the bit to be given something more than secretary work.

    I think they could have toned it down a little while maintaining its importance to motivating Peggy. Likewise, I think they could have used more of the 1940s Black Widow. Then again, I just love Bridget Regan.

    There's no actual serious flaws with the miniseries, something exceedingly rare in live-action television. I even liked Peggy Carter's annoying neighbor and confidante Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca). The fact she went from playing Alex on the CW's Nikita to a normal non-spy character is kind of funny on a meta-level but she adds a delightful sense of 1940s mundanity in an otherwise over-the-top series.

Angie may not be up to the level of Thor's Darcy for funny commentary but she comes close.
    Watching the series balance drama, humor, action, and tense thrills gives me a sense Agent Carter is something great-in-the-making. I hope the mini-series is duplicated for a second season as it would be a shame for it not to be. It's been years since Captain America: The First Avenger yet I still felt emotion watching Peggy Carter come to terms with Steve's "death."

    In conclusion, as a man who was iffy about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D for the first season, this is a tour de force from start to finish. I recommend it to all fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and think anyone who doesn't watch it is missing out on a really great experience.



  1. I will check it out. I have been watching The Blacklist but the second season is not as strong as the first. Kind of like Reaper.

  2. I love the Blacklist but the melodrama between Elizabeth and Reddington is my least favorite part of the show. I also think they kind of underdid the confrontation with Berlin, who turned out to be not at all that impressive. I think Agent Carter has a lot of "energy" for lack of a better term and it helps Hayley Atwell is just a joy to watch (plus one of the loveliest women I think in television). It's just a FUN series, albeit a short one.