Mar 6, 2016

Agent Carter Is My Favorite Part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

No Marvel cinematic title comes close to “Agent Carter” in terms of charm and sheer enjoyment.

Agent Carter

Note: The following contains potential spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Marvel’s Agent Carter wrapped up its second season last week and I’ve been experiencing signs of withdrawal ever since. The ABC series follows the exploits of Margaret “Peggy” Carter, an English agent who was first seen in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, as she fights for truth and justice in post-WW2 America.

Much of the series’ fun and substance comes from watching Carter (Hayley Atwell), a very skilled and capable agent, struggle to prove her worth when most of her male colleagues consider her little more than a glorified secretary. Mix that in with a lot of gee-whiz sci-fi doohickeys and plot points (especially in this last season), some truly inspired casting, and amazing, retrotastic set design and special effects, and you’ve got one crackerjack series.

As much as I’ve enjoyed Marvel’s other cinematic efforts on both the silver and small screens, none come close to Agent Carter in terms of charm and sheer enjoyment. Ultimately, it’s more than just another “comic book” show; yes, there are secret societies, obscure and fanciful technologies, and otherworldly phenomena, but at it’s heart is the story of a woman trying to go her own way and make sure others see her worth and skill. Or, as my Christ and Pop Culture colleague Geoffrey Reiter put it:

[W]hatever Agent Carter may not be, I am inclined to appreciate it for what it is. Of course, Carter holds her own in the paternalistic S.S.R. world, but she does so with wry humor and dignity in addition to the requisite butt-kicking; and, refreshingly, the series largely avoids the temptation to put her in the position of using her sexuality manipulatively. Rather, she tends to rely on her intelligence and resourcefulness (we even learn she has done codebreaking at Bletchley Park). Nor is she a mere caricature — Atwell’s charm and the show’s writers present a woman who is competent but complex, who is afforded ample opportunity to demonstrate her skill-set but who sometimes… must bear humiliation for the sake of friendship and loyalty, which she has found in short supply following the War.

By the time the second season opens, Carter has gained some respect from her male colleagues, most notably fellow agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), who has experienced his share of ostracization due to war injuries, and is also a potential love interest. She finds herself partnered once more with Howard Stark’s unflappable butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) and facing a new threat: Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), a famous Hollywood starlet who also happens to be an evil genius (and becomes something other than human as the season progresses).

Some of the original season’s battle against the patriarchy still takes place, but interestingly enough, most of it concerns Frost as she seeks to have her genius and abilities recognized and respected by the men in her life (her husband, his powerful friends). Adding another layer of social commentary is Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), a physicist who becomes caught up in Frost’s machinations; as a black man in the 1940s, Wilkes has experienced plenty of discrimination, and one of season two’s best scenes occurs when Frost tries to persuade Wilkes to side with her on the basis of their shared experiences of prejudice because of what they are.

To the series’ credit, it never feels heavy-handed or preachy when it delves into such weighty themes as sexism and racism. Rather, it approaches them in a rather matter-of-fact manner right alongside the comic book-y thrills and mayhem, and trusts the viewer to go along and pick up on what’s being referenced.

In season two, the aforementioned thrills and mayhem arise from the discovery of an extra-dimensional substance called “zero matter” that grants its wielder tremendous power and — natch! — could bring about the end of the world. (Since both Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. bring up ideas that are further explored in the Marvel movies, I suspect we’ll hear more about zero matter in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie.)

So it’s up to Carter, Jarvis, Sousa, and Wilkes to stop Frost, find a way to get rid of zero matter, save the world, and in the process, look fabulous and nonplussed while trading snappy banter. That latter part is where Agent Carter really shines, thanks to Carter and Jarvis, two proper and civilized Brits who find themselves in the “foreign” land that is Los Angeles.

Carter and Jarvis are arguably the true stars of Agent Carter, and their relationship is wonderfully nuanced. While it subverts certain gender roles, there’s never any doubt that they respect and trust each other. Furthermore, it’s refreshing to watch male and female characters relate to each other when sexual attraction is basically nonexistent. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Hawkeye and Black Widow, especially in the last Avengers movie, which writer/director Joss Whedon has discussed before:

I find strong bonds between men and women that aren’t sexual not only cool and useful, but very romantic in a broad sense… I thought what was awesome was two people who would lay down their lives for each other who are not trying to sleep with each other. People keep saying that doesn’t exist, that men and women can’t be friends unless blah, blah, blah, and I’m just like, “Oh shut up.”

Of course, it helps that Jarvis is thoroughly committed to his wife Ana (Lotte Verbeek), whom we finally see this season after hearing so much about her last season. When Carter meets Ana, she’s a delight. She’s not ignorant of her husband’s activities with Carter, but she trusts him and is perfectly willing to help Carter on her missions with zero jealousy.

However, this dynamic sets up what’s arguably the season’s most affecting moments when Ana lands in harm’s way as a result of Carter’s pursuit of Frost. And it leads to the second season’s best scene, as Carter and Jarvis’ relationship is strained then reinforced by the two being both brutally honest and compassionate with each other.

It’s a wonderfully nuanced moment, especially given the show’s often pulp-y feel. But it’s also just plain good storytelling, something that Agent Carter has in abundance. And I haven’t even discussed Dottie, an enigmatic Soviet assassin who makes a delightful return in season two; or the ebbs and flows in Carter and Sousa’s relationship; or the gangster Joseph Manfredi, whose love for Frost injects some nice pathos into the story; or Rose’s can do attitude and Samberly’s near-constant aggrieved-ness.

Instead, I’ll just share this delightful musical number(!) with you.

There’s been some doubt as to whether Agent Carter will return for a third season, given the season finale’s ratings and Hayley Atwell’s new acting gig. But according to Nerd Reactor, Agent Carter has been renewed for a third season. I find myself agreeing with io9 commenter “magus-21,” who wrote, “Agent Carter is the type of series Marvel should be making: limited run shows with highly focused storylines in the MCU, as opposed to shows that run for years and years and get bogged down by their own baggage.”

Speaking of io9, they’ve posted some excellent Agent Carter analysis throughout the season:

Now, as much as I miss Agent Carter, it’s time to get ready for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which returns this week. Fitzsimmons forever!

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