The Superhero Period Drama: Marvel’s Agent Carter


It’s hard work keeping the world safe in 1946.

‘Bout time! Last night, Hayley Atwell, scenestealer extraordinaire of Captain America, took center stage as Agent Peggy Carter in ABC’s new miniseries, Marvel’s Agent Carter. As the first woman to take a title role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve all had high expectations for this series, and have no doubt, Atwell delivers.

If ever there was a time for this show, it’s 2015. With comic book superheroes dominating the movies and period dramas dominating prestige television, Agent Cartecaptainamericapuncheshitlerr aspires to deliver the best of both worlds. But this is more than just a popular genre mashup. Agent Carter is set in 1946. Carter and her adorable sidekick, Steve Rogers, defeated Hydra in 1943, with the Allies finishing the job against the Axis powers in 1945. Not for nothing is this also the Golden Age of comic books—not only was Captain America a World War II hero, but Captain America debuted in print on 1941, with the protagonist socking Hitler in the jaw. By setting Agent Carter at the birth of comic books, the show takes the opportunity to comment on the history of the medium. With a woman at center stage, the feminist commentary is practically self-evident. Comics culture—and nerdery in general—is going through a feminist transformation, but not without a few dedicated reactionaries trying to turn back the clock. Peggy Carter is here to show that the past holds no quarter for 21st century misogyny.

Even more, that message is promoted by the medium. With its historical setting, Agent Carter becomes a costume drama as much as anything else. While comic book culture traditionally excluded women and femininity, period dramas compel fans to engage via feminine-coded means. Hair, makeup, clothes, and manners become essential elements peggycarterof immersion within the world of the show, and better yet, become the engine of commercial success and critical acclaim—as Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and even Game of Thrones have demonstrated. A period setting implicitly endorses cosplay, to the chagrin of various jackwagons in the comics world, and Hayley Atwell will even help you out.

Agent Carter knows exactly the game it’s playing. Even though superheroes are real, superhero stories still get on the air in this world: Captain America is the leading role for the radio serial that seems to be always on in first two episodes, still punching out Hitler. Notwithstanding Peggy’s lead in Cap’s actual exploits, her role in the radio drama has been transformed into “Betty Carver”, an American nurse who needs constant saving while keeping the hero’s pants mended (really). Peggy grimaces each time she hears Betty’s voice—but in one action sequence while the radio is left on in the background, she gets her status restored as her punches and kicks are accented by the radio Foley artist’s sound effects (cracking lobster shells, punching a ham, and other bits of old-timey charm). This show knows where the gaps are in our superhero stories.

Peggy is, of course, the consummate action hero throughout—jumping on cars, punching out bad guys, and escaping massive explosions. Simultaneously, the show focuses on her femininity, in a way that never undermines her physical prowess. Peggy seeks entrance into a world that is dominated by men, but she implicitly understands that her exclusion is based on their misogyny, rather than any inherent weakness or inferiority based in femininity itself.

That point is hammered home when she defuses an explosive with a mix of household chemicals applied via a perfume atomizer. It’s not a cutesy gimmick layered on the plot: she has access to necessary products which men lack. Jarvis, her male ally, had despaired at finding chemicals in time. With this sequence, the show allows femininity to be powerful, and practical, without resorting exclusively to the usual femme fatale antics (even if this is another tool in Peggy’s arsenal).

Her characterization maintains the same balance—female characters who show signs of emotional vulnerability tend to be shown as weak, but Carter gets to have her own human feelings: she sobs when she discovers her murdered roommate, and she shows honest affection when befriending Angie, a waitress at an automat.

At the same time, of course, she bristles at being forced into female social roles, particularly in a world that’s aggressively asserting traditional gender roles when a year earlier, the icon of American womanhood was Rosie the Riveter (Carter’s late roommate was a factory worker who sees her female peers laid off daily to make room for returning GIs). At work, she’s ignored, mocked, or confused for a secretary. At home, she’s stuck in a hotel that infantilizes the adult women who live there, demanding elegant attire and a 10 pm curfew. She passes herself off as a telephone operator instead of a government officer, because ultimately, she’s pushed into a double life, hiding not a superhero identity from the public at large, but simply her professional identity. Despite these frustrations, she refuses to hold herself above women who do not have her abilities or ambitions. Peggy Carter will never say that she’s not like other girls: she fiercely defends Angie, and easily befriends actual telephone operator Rose.

Yeah, that's Bubbles.

Yeah, that’s Bubbles.

Hayley Atwell could pull this off as a one-woman show, but Marvel’s committed a very solid supporting cast to the show. Unfortunately, it is not yet a particularly diverse group; the only person of color so far is Andre Royo as a sleazy club owner, who ends up shot.

Carter’s office at the Strategic Scientific Reserve is staffed by three bumbling jackasses, Chief Dooley (Shea Whigham), Agent Thompson (Buffalo’s own Chad Michael Murray), and Agent Krzeminski (Kyle Bornheimer). Each is obnoxious in his own way, and their roles seem to swing from story obstacles to Carter’s clean-up crew, arriving to the scene fifteen minutes after she’s finished the job. Their relative authority, despite their boorish incompetence, highlights the bullshit Carter has to deal with in order to do her damn job. On her side—though still oblivious to her double life—is Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj). He walks with a crutch because of a war injury, he is the rare character with a disability on television, and his empathy for Carter seems to come from that source. So far, he’s mostly a friendly face, and we’ll have to see how the show treats him.

Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father to Tony Stark/Iron Man, is the link back to the MCU, and before going into hiding, he assigns his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) to assist Peggy. Neither radiates misogyny, yet their still-privileged role as men adds some complexity to the show’s treatment of gender. Stark is wanted for treason, but still manages a level of comfort in the world beyond what Carter can achieve. Jarvis plays the sidekick role, doing character work usually reserved for women. He treats Carter’s wounds, he drives her getaway car, and he’s the one to provide emotional support, reminding her to accept help and friendship from the people around her. He also has  extensive domestic duties with his (yet unseen) wife—cooking, cleaning, mending, and staying home at night. Regardless of his devoted service to Carter, she still has a note of uneasiness around him; her independence, in a world that refuses to listen to women, can still be compromised by her affiliation with a man, even one who takes her orders.

Finally, there’s Angie Martinelli (Lyndsy Fonseca), automat waitress, aspiring actress, and Carter’s devoted friend. She sets Carter up with an apartment when needed, and beams lyndseyfonsecaagentcarterangiewhen Carter moves in. If this were anything but an American network TV show, Angie has every mark of a love interest, but with limited screen time so far, her actual role remains obscure. If ABC lets anything happen to Angie, I will drive out to L.A. and we shall have words.

We’re just starting out with this one, but Marvel’s got something special on its hands—a prestige television drama in the MCU. We’re going to hear what Carter needs to say about the world. Agent Carter, landing not only the costumes and scenery of a period drama but the action and characterization of a superhero story, is a goddamned delight.

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6 thoughts on “The Superhero Period Drama: Marvel’s Agent Carter

  1. I was definitely feeling the lady love with Peggy + Angie. After Korrasami, I might be getting too optimistic, love.

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