Marvel Studio’s initial foray into modern television, Agents of SHIELD, was a throwback to the week-by-week episodic storytelling that’s fallen out of favor in recent years – with rising demand for the highly serialized storytelling that typifies prestige shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. The company’s second televised effort, Agent Carter, is a different sort of throwback.
Set in the aftermath of the first Captain America film, Agent Carter follows the titular secret agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as she returns from the Second World War only to find herself caught between her loyalties to her country and her friends when Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) comes under suspicion by the agency. Things quickly escalate and the series’ occasionally convoluted plot doesn’t outstay its welcome thanks to its short length.
Agent Carter Sneak Peak
The most compelling element of the show is by far its aesthetic and the series has great fun milking its post-war setting for all it’s worth – there are plenty of outrageous accents and outdated gender-norms to go around. Agent Carter may have a smaller budget than it’s big screen predecessor, but it’s no less committed to bringing Marvel’s misty-eyed vision of the 1940s period to life – and the way that this vision develops and evolves over the course of the season (in parallel with the geopolitical shift towards Cold War-era espionage) is fascinating to watch. That said, the score is occasionally too overbearing in a way that prevents you from immersing in the series setting – painting even the darker parts of America’s past with the same overwhelming nostalgic brush.
The casting goes a long way to making this all work. Hayley Atwell continues to own her role as Peggy. She’s equally talented at trading quips with partner-in-crime, Jarvis (James D’Arcy) – Stark’s Butler – and throwing down in the series’ fight scenes. Like Agents of SHIELD, the choreography here is solid and its enhanced by the series’ scoring – even if, once again, the soundtrack does smother the pacing of certain fights.
That said, the most disappointing part of Agent Carter is that all these great elements combine to produce a final product that, while not disappointing, is a little bit unambitious. It’s content to be a fun, short, disposable adventure in the past of the Marvel universe – and one that undeniably falls short of the sum of its parts.
There are lots of individual elements of Agent Carter that I enjoyed (the setting, Atwell’s performance and chemistry with the rest of the cast, etc), but each episode struggled to cross over into the realm of must-watch television. In particular, the series hits some strong notes when it comes to examining and deconstructing gender roles but doesn’t really say anything beyond ‘Gee! Isn’t it so backwards how the patriarchal society of 1940s America can’t see the value of women!’ – though a moment in the series’ finale comes close.
Where Agents of SHIELD struggled out of the gate and was perhaps too hasty in connecting itself to every nook and cranny of Marvel’s cinematic universe, Agent Carter suffers from the reverse. It often feels too isolated from the rest of Marvel’s efforts – and this leaves the series’ central conflict of proving Stark’s innocence utterly inconsequential.
Agent Carter is a strange series to recommend. It doesn’t quite offer enough for Marvel-fans and fails to truly deliver as a period-piece for more casual audiences. That said, the evolving relationship between Peggy and Jarvis proves itself a strong emotional spine for the series and the stylish aesthetic adds a lot to even the most conventional televised encounters. For some, this will be enough. For others, it’s perfectly missable.
Hopefully a second season will follow in Agents of SHIELD’s footsteps, pushing boundaries and trying to show audiences parts of the Marvel universe they haven’t seen before – rather than continuing to dwell on the well-trod past.