As I presumed, Agent Carter was miles more entertaining than Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That comment is intended more as praise for Agent Carter than a criticism of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. To be honest, I can’t criticise Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because I haven’t watched it since the first season ended. I found that first season so sanguine and unfocused. It was too self referential and too Whedonesque; they had this modern concept and premise and for some reason they decided to go old school with it. It’s my understanding that some of those problems have been rectified with the second season but the first season failed to engage with me so much that I have little interest in watching the second. That’s one area where I feel that Agent Carter differed. It engaged with the viewer.
One could argue that Agent Carter has it’s moments of self reference, such as Howard Stark making an appearance and undergoing trial with the same glibness that his son would in Iron Man 2. Or Stark having a butler whose name is actually Jarvis. Or Peggy Carter taking advice from Anton Vanko on how to dispose of an explosive device. But these are all smaller ties to the larger picture and there is the benefit that we actually get to see Jarvis and Vanko. They aren’t just names bandied around for credibility. If you’ve kept up with the movies, those will more similar to revelations than shout outs, such as ‘ah, that’s where Tony Stark got the name Jarvis from’.
It helps that Agent Carter feels like its filling in a significant, untold story in the Marvel universe. The post-Captain America world and how S.H.I.E.L.D. came to be is a tale that we’d heard snippets of but haven’t heard all the details. Of course, it’s not going to really affect anything because it’s the events here can’t influence Thor: Ragnarok. But Agent Carter is informed by the events of the future films, or in a way informs them. Events that happened in the films are shown to have roots back here in the pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. and its is exciting to see the beginnings of the feuds and fights that shaped the films.
The Spy genre is also largely untouched by Marvel, which allows Agent Carter to stand out from the many other Marvel projects. In the same way that Captain America as a political thriller contrasts to the high fantasy of Thor, Agent Carter can utilise spy tropes and it can feel fresh because we haven’t seen it done in the Marvel universe yet. And it is rather fun to watch Peggy make use of gadgets such as lipstick that put the recipient to sleep. Sure it’s a little silly but it is amusing too, but because of the genre and the time period. That kind of gadget is exactly the kind of thing they would have thought of in the 40s and 50s, had they got the technology. That and the long distance typewriter that types out replies with the keys moving along. I have no idea how that works but it’s cool. It reminds me of the Fallout Video Game series, a post apocalyptic series where technology has marched on but science and perceptions are stuck in the 1950’s way of life. Agent Carter manages to be just as quirky and fun.
Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is also very likable. I have the feeling that a lot of fans will like her because she’s a badass woman with sass and heels. Good reasons to like her, certainly. Fighting on top of a moving milk truck is definitely cool. But I don’t like Peggy Carter because she’s a strong female character, I like her because she’s a strong character period. In the aforementioned milk truck fight she sustains a wound to her leg and Jarvis sews it up for her later. On the one hand this does askew typical gender roles but more than that it simply shows that although she is tough, she’s not invincible. In another scene, she tries to retrieve something from an evidence box and stumbles upon a picture of Steve Rogers. The memory brings tears to her eyes. In the same episode, Peggy is shown to be strong and vulnerable thus creating the picture of a well rounded character, regardless of gender.
The contrast between the show and in-show radio dramas hasn’t escaped my notice either. The drama annoys Peggy Carter, though whether that’s because the woman is a damsel in distress or because it’s a constant reminder of Captain America is hard to say. On the one hand the drama paints a contrast between Peggy and the female in the drama who needs a man to save her. Alternatively though, one could say that the drama is made up of flat characters. Captain America shows up and fights Nazi’s and that’s the extent of his involvement. The Nazi’s are evil and do evil things because they’re evil and like doing evil things. The contrast here isn’t strictly between the women. Unlike the radio drama, the characters in Agent Carter are deep and developed. No one ever needs rescued in the show but Peggy benefits from the independent intervention of Jarvis. It’s nice juxtaposition that shows that well written characters are dynamic and have changing roles.
Much like Gotham, Agent Carter succeeds where Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. faltered because it’s plot isn’t dictated by some wider world. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sharing that world allows for a more organic build between movies. But for a TV series its soul crushingly limiting. It can’t go too big or the real heroes would intervene and it can’t go too small or viewers would wonder why they even bother. Agent Carter has carved out a niche in that shared world but off to one side where it can do its own thing without being too imposed upon by the big daddy shared universe. If you like The Americans and early James Bond films then give this a shot.