In its second season, Agent Carter's brightly colored world continues to be well worth visiting.
Agent CarterAirtime: Tuesdays, 8pm
Cast: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Enver Gjokaj
Subtitle: “The Lady in the Lake”, “A View in the Dark”, “Better Angels”
Air date: 2016-01-26
When you're the Walt Disney Company, you can have everything. You can have big, brash, larger-than-life adventure films filled with A-list talent and household name characters, accompanied by a multitude of explosions and endings that leave you wanting more, regardless of whether the outcome is bright, melancholy, or sentimental. Alternatively, Disney can have dark, brooding character studies that deal with addiction, or the mental conditions of secondary superheroes doubting their sanity and their dysfunctional relationship to the human condition. These latter dramas often take place in the seedy underbelly of New York, amid grime and filth, amid broken doors and shattered expectations, amid threats so existential that the average viewer must profoundly ratchet up their own imaginations, teetering dangerously on a precipice that looks back at their personal propensity toward sociopathy.
And then there is Marvel's Agent Carter. Returning in its second season, this short-run series is a pulpy, coloring book world that seems pulled directly from the science fiction of the era in which it is set. While there are threats to life and limb, horrible, science-fictiony substances laying about, Russian spies and mind controllers, big guns and even bigger hats, it’s always lighter than any Netflix original. Characters like Robert Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land, however, would fit into Agent Carter’s world without overstretching their sexist 1950s personas. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and Howard Hughes would find it difficult to tell each other apart.
This season, Agent Carter, played by the very beautiful and personable Hayley Atwell, descends on Hollywood, taking the show even further from the grim streets that'll later evolve into the hangouts of Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock’s Daredevil.
The story is pure old school sci-fi, with a mysterious company, Isodyne Industries, doing dubious things with a dangerous substance supported by a cabal who meets in secret men’s clubs to plot the over-through of the Western World (a comic book borrowing known as the Secret Empire and its Council of Nine or Twelve, a former Hydra-affiliated organization that has wrecked havoc throughout the earthly Marvel universe). And then there’s the FBI, muddling and meddling in things neither they nor the Strategic Science Reserve (SSR) really understand -- hinting at the need for S.H.I.E.L.D.
The opening scene of the first episode finds a woman frozen in a lake on a day too warm for ice. That triggers Carter’s transfer from New York into the waiting supervisory arms of potential former love interest Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), on hand as the SSR’s LA chief, creating a bit of tension in the relationship department.
Not to lose an opportunity for modern irony on old-school sensibilities, the real center behind Isodyne appears to be a woman: aging actress and incognito scientist Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), who also seems to have a center made of Zero Matter, which is the dangerous substance Isodyne is trying to turn into a potential energy source or weapon.
The web's all abuzz about Zero Matter, as it might be a cross-over element to the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. In classic quantum physics, zero-point energy’s also known as vacuum energy, thus perhaps sucking everything into the alternative universe void. Zero-point anything is a controversial topic in physics, which makes it fair game for science fiction writers to fill in the speculative blanks.
Carter is clearly an Atwell vehicle. She stands out against the 1940s backdrop like the only figure colored in on a coloring book page. She’s smarter, more prepared, and ballsier than any of her SSR counterparts while still remaining feminine. Carter finds a love interest in one Doctor Wilkes (Reggie Austin), an Isodyne scientist who helps her with an off-book venture to recover the Zero Matter. The cross-racial budding romance demonstrates how modern Carter's thinking is (and how not filmed in the 1940s the show is). So far, the show runners have concentrated on building out Carter’s character, but shared sidekicks Jarvis (James D'Arcy) and Howard Stark also get deeper hues in season two.
In episode two, Carter's romance goes sci-fi as Wilkes becomes a victim of Frost's zero matter personality and literally disappears. Carter’s clearly shaken, and after some stirring from Stark, Wilkes reappears in episode three, sort of, from the alternative space-time continuum he'd been evicted to. Viewers enter episode four, however, with major questions about what Frost will become.
Speaking of becoming: there are many questions about Disney's intentions with Agent Carter. A show that started out as a short about a Captain America character remains shorted. At the end of season two, Agent Carter will have only 20 episodes, not nearly enough for syndication. Perhaps that doesn't matter in the age of binge-watch streaming. On the plus side, as a period piece, it will never become dated, and its short run will make it much more consumable than taking on the mythology of series such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Finally, as a Marvel property, certain things about the narrative are known going in, making it an easy adjunct to any Marvel-related properties.
If you're the Walt Disney Company, you can have it all. And why not? When Disney acquired Marvel they bought a backlog of stories that were far from rationalized through time, stories that were comedic and reflective, moving and superfluous. There were special one-offs and books that ran for decades. There were characters who’d been retired and brought back into service, and characters who had been killed and rebooted, killed and resurrected. And the readers loved them all. So why not offer that same kind of variety to visual media consumers? When you meet Stan Lee, it’s clear that he, Jack Kirby and the rest of the Marvel team were often just pulling ideas out of their collective web slingers. With the budgets of television and movies, Disney has to be a bit more cautious, but they have the money to experiment, to create great niche products that add color, side commentary, and backstory to their bigger, beefier wares.
I for one, wish more of television would take the leap that is Agent Carter. At this point, I'm following her wherever she goes.