Hayley Atwell Gives the Male-Centric 1940s a Kick in Its Pants in ‘Agent Carter’

As the titular Marvel heroine, the smart and one-liner ready Hayley Atwell towers over Iron Man and his ilk in this contemporary take on post-WWII politics.

Many a red-blooded male viewer fell for the smart, curvaceous agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in the 2014 film Captain America: America’s First Avenger. Like Steve Rogers, many gents were impressed by this bombshell that also defuses bombs.

Agent Carter reframes her appeal by returning to her comic-book-noirish setting. Debuting Tuesday 6 January with two episodes, ABC’s series dropped viewers into 1940s America, as cool as a couple of ice cubes bathed in Chivas Regal. The show’s darkness is repeatedly broken by Carter’s bright smile, bright attire, and pretty platinum locks when called for. She also fires off one-liners and insights like Sam Spade. Carter is the full package.

Although she spends some time pining for lost love Steve Rogers, when it’s time for action, the show and its star are all business. Atwell seduces men, solves problems, kicks asses, and stays mostly composed — except when tragedy strikes, again.

The show begins with flashbacks to remind us of Captain America’s demise, after which it introduces Carter’s cover job at the telephone company. The plot then sets up the core motivation for Carter’s future development as it launches into Howard Stark’s Howard Hughes-like predicaments, from womanizing to being accused of treason.

While Dominic Cooper makes an appearance as Stark to kick off the proceedings, he doesn’t play Robin to Atwell’s Batman. That role falls instead to James D’Arcy as Edwin Jarvis, the human Jarvis prototype for Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent service companion. Here, Jarvis acts as both protector and confidant for Carter, who is running her own secret agency. Also on hand are Chad Michael Murray as Jack Thomason, great attractor for all things stereotypically male in the 1940s, and Enver Gjokaj as Daniel Sousa, who pines for Carter.

With the men assembled thus, Carter is immediately the brashest and ballsiest character. Employed by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s precursor, a secret Allied agency called the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), she’s surrounded by typically unenlightened male post-war professionals, self-reliant and isolated, albeit resourceful. Like other comic book heroes, she’s working in relative anonymity, using her secret agency to clear Stark and save the world. This means she has to be satisfied by Stark’s occasional kudos and Jarvis’ reserved compliments. It also means she’s working out her relationship to SSR, which isn’t evil –at least not yet — but male-dominated according to her era, which of course is its own kind of evil. Carter’s associates are after the same things she is, namely truth and justice.

Agent Carter sets that pursuit in a 1940s context and also provides commentary on today’s global politics. As S.H.I.E.L.D. fell in Captain America: Winter Soldier, we were told that Hydra had patiently orchestrated global events so that the world will descend into chaos, readying people for the freedom from decision-making that Hydra proposes they want. Agent Carter, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., frames its plotlines with allusions to our own experience of confusion and terrorism.

Also like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s part of a grand Disney-ABC experiment. Never in the history of television have we seen integration across media like that woven through Marvel. Movies like Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man combine with other properties to form The Avengers.

The TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spins out of this movie universe; Agent Carter builds a temporal bridge between a fiction that was and a fiction that will be. Of course, all of this has been done on the pages of comic books before, where budgets are small, and therefore experimentation — and correspondingly failure — is not so costly. With the deep pockets of Disney, Marvel has little fear that its core will be threatened; however, unlike the motion picture and film divisions, the television series are riskier gambles. In many ways, Disney is teaching corporate America about what can be learned from acquisitions. Rather than assimilating them or subjecting them to creative lobotomies, Disney absorbs their best ideas and revs up its massive machinery to elaborate on them, in the process making the whole enterprise better.

Agent Carter is history but also unfolding in its own present. As such, we might anticipate that Carter’s SSR associates will learn from their insightful and resourceful colleague and come to trust and rely on her. That learning process is something I’m looking forward to watching, even if the initial run is only eight episodes. So far, the Disney experiment is working, if not always perfectly. Agent Carter‘s tone seems right and its lead seems perfect, helping the live-action wing of the Marvel franchise to evolve as it spreads across time into our current entertainment and its future.

RATING 8 / 10