Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ has been a highly anticipated mini-series for a long time now. Rarely has a supporting character from a movie garnered such high praise as to land a starring television vehicle. Off hand, I can’t think of one. Yet, there she was, Hayley Atwell, showcasing all of her brains, brawn and beauty in last night’s ABC double-episode premiere. It’s two episodes played out as one 2-hour debut, so that’s how I’ll review it. At first glance, does the show have what it takes to warrant a full second season? Was she better off left in tears over Captain America’s supposed 1940’s death scene? Let’s wonder no more, true believers, and dissect Marvel’s second play at making substantial waves on the small screen.
The appropriate Marvel logo makes way for a brief clip from ‘Captain America: The First Avenger,‘ which brings us up to date on Peggy Carter’s lost relationship with Steve Rogers. It’s New York 1946, so the Star-Spangled Boyscout has yet to surface from his icy hibernation, yet he’s celebrated in “death” through garish radio plays starring him and one damsel in distress Betty Carver. The movie clip is one of two shown last night, and both were perfectly executed. Then, the story kicks into gear with Peggy getting dressed for work while talking with Colleen, the woman she’s sharing a small apartment with and lying to about her job at that phone company. Of course, we all know her real line of work is far more dangerous. Shortly before the days of S.H.I.E.L.D., we had the SSR – Strategic Scientific Reserve, an HQ full of post-war secret agents who sit at their desks all day and act like chauvinist neanderthals.
A war hero now relegated to office work, Peggy is dissatisfied with her situation, but still knows that she’s awesome. Her demeanor is very cool and self-assured no matter what her old-timey coworkers say to bring her down for being a woman. I’d even go as far as to say that she’s quite arrogant. Her only real friend at work is a gimpy fellow named Sousa who injured his leg in WWII.
What powers the story is Howard Stark, played by Dominic Cooper, and the shenanigans he’s gotten himself into. Accused of being a traitor and a fugitive, Stark senior is on the lam for allegedly selling munitions to the “enemy” and the SSR are primed to bring him to justice. Eventually Stark furtively contacts Peggy and explains to her that his tech was actually stolen from his private vault and is being sold on the black market. This marks the beginning of bad guys stealing Stark technology for the next 70 years. He ropes her into the long and difficult mission of clearing his name. Then he takes off in a 40’s style speedboat because Dominic Cooper is a B-List movie actor who probably isn’t trying to be on TV too often. He leaves behind his personal valet – one Edwin Jarvis, yes from comic book fame, to assist Peggy in her new adventure.
Peggy definitely uses her sex and sexuality to her advantage – such as eavesdropping on a field agent briefing under the premise that she’s serving coffee. The male agents don’t think anything of it because she’s just doing what a woman is “supposed to do.” Later, after uncovering the nightclub location of the black market arms buyer, she goes undercover and uses her hotness to infiltrate his privacy. So, the story makes sure we understand her plight of sexism, yet she’s not above spinning it to aid her in handpicked circumstances. She knocks out the buyer with a kiss full of tranquilizer lipstick and rifles through his safe in one of the most improbable lockpick sequences I’d ever seen.
Enter: the golden Pokeball. Immediately I thought Infinity Stone, because Marvel has programmed me into thinking that every baseball-sized glowing object they throw at us might be one. But it’s not, of course. It is, however, a mighty bomb and it’s angry. A quick phone call to Jarvis tells her how to diffuse it. He’s at home, wearing an apron, in the middle of making a souffle’ for his wife. Again, the gender role dynamic is very in-your-face. But this time, it’s a man’s place being in the kitchen while the woman works the hard beat. Jarvis tells her to handle the orb with care during her escape. However, a fight scene breaks out and is followed by the cliche’ dance routine which both fail to ignite an explosion, so maybe the bomb isn’t as volatile as Jarvis lets on. Still, I gotta wonder what the hell Stark was thinking when he made this thing in the first place…
Back home with Colleen suddenly sick in bed, Peggy diffuses the bomb in the bathroom with household items. There’s a dangerous second where it looks like the thing might blow, but it doesn’t, yet it’s a very cool effect. She responds to a noise in the bedroom, finding Colleen shot dead. The assailant attacks Peggy and a big fight breaks out. He’s got an obvious surgical scar on his throat. Apparently having followed her back from the buyer’s hideout, he gets thrown out the apartment window for his troubles. Now, 3 or 4 action scenes into the show and I’m noticing something glaring. Peggy is unusually strong for a woman of her questionable muscle tone, accomplishing amazing feats of strength without even using her combatant’s momentum. I know it’s television and they can’t spring for movie caliber fight choreographers, but a few tweaks here and there would make it all more believable.
The killer disappears and reports back to his superiors via typewriter instant message. It’s a vehicle taken right out of episodes of ‘Fringe,’ one of my favorite tv shows. The name “Leviathan” is mentioned menacingly and we don’t know if it’s a boss character or a project or what, but we’ll surely see it again. He asks for permission to terminate Carter, which doesn’t make any sense because he totally just failed at doing that – and without even asking first. This and the silly safe cracking are just two of a few head-scratchers in an otherwise successful premiere.
After some introspection over Colleen’s death and more feels for Captain America, Carter and Jarvis (Carvis?) track down the location of Stark’s other hostile stolen arms. It’s a huge refinery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. A little stealth infiltration and Carter is exposed in a really amateur screw-up. Cue another action scene that prompts her chasing a scientist through the refinery and she uncovers an entire truckload full of angry Pokeballs. Godalmighty, Stark what the hell?? Before stealing the truck and breaking dodge, the scientist (who also has a throat scar…hmm, curious) bursts a Pokeball on the floor and Carter has 30 seconds of running in her future. Jarvis picks her up in the car and they barely evade a massive explosion that takes out 500 yards of refinery real estate, and follows up with an implosion that turns it all into one giant metal sphere. It’s a super cool effect and just a taste of Peggy’s harsh future in cleaning up Stark’s messes.
There’s other stuff going on in the show, like her growing friendship with Sousa. Colleen was the lease holder and Peggy was staying with her secretly, so now Carter’s gotta find a new apartment. She’s also fast making pals with Angie, a waitress played by Lyndsy Fonseca and she’ll quickly pick up the bff role Colleen died trying to uphold. Peggy’s got her work cut out for her and there’s lots more to explore in the next six episodes: she’s gotta find that truck, find out what Leviathan is, clear Howard Stark’s name, evade the hunt of an assassin and find a new apartment. And why do the assassins have throat scars? Some of those issues righted themselves by the night’s end, but I didn’t want to spoil too much. But I do have some stray thoughts…
— Jarvis and Carter have great chemistry. Seeing them play off each other is a real treat.
— The art direction and costumes are great. The only way to gauge the authenticity of their 1940’s mimicry is to have been alive in the 1940’s and seen it firsthand. But it’s believable in a way that ‘Mad Men’s’ 60’s dress is believable, just a notch below.
— Hayley Atwell is a competent English actress and really worked the spy angle by taking two undercover roles in her TV series debut – both with American accents. So, in an ‘Orphan Black’ kinda way, Atwell played 3 roles in one night, including playing Carter. Nicely done, but she’s got lots of work in store for her if she wants to display the acting range of Tatiana Maslany.
— However, when it comes to fight scenes and running, Atwell doesn’t seem athletic. Outside of the obvious stunt double shots, Atwell works in slowly and it’s that kind of delivery that keeps her out of the same league as Scarlett Johansson. But, in her defense, Scarjo gets to wear a costume. Atwell fights in heels and a skirt.
— I’d love to see more Howard Stark. No idea how many episodes Dominic Cooper signed on for but I hope he’s not playing too hard to get.
— Carter eventually does get that apartment, living next door to Angie in a women’s only building, a la ‘Bossom Buddies.’ It’s notable that Stark offered to set her up in one of his many posh seasonal residences, but she declined. The independent woman messages are strong in this series.
What did you think of last night’s premiere? Did you stick around for the ‘Ant-Man’ trailer? Sound off below!
Source – ABC