Review: Marvel’s Agent Carter 1×1-1×2 (US: ABC)

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, ABC

One of the biggest, medium-changing successes of the past half-decade has been the Marvel Avengers movies. Combining both the individual and ensemble adventures of superheroes Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers series has taken billions of dollars around the world and launched whole new movie franchises with other superheroes in a roadmap laid out until 2020 or so.

There are superhero movies everywhere and movie producers are looking for even more superheroes to film, even as we speak.

The effect hasn’t been restricted to just films and comics, either. Series featuring Marvel superheroes are set to fill up Netflix and on TV, for example. However, those feature the likes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, rather than anyone in the Avengers movies themselves.

Which is a problem. If any of the audience wanted an Avengers spin-off TV series at all, it was featuring characters they’d grown to know and love.

On ABC, of course, we have Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD featuring Agent Coulson from the movie series, but when audiences around the world were watching (The) Avengers (Assemble), they weren’t thinking, “We’d really like a TV show featuring a bunch of whole new people and that guy who’s in three movies for about five minutes and then gets killed in this one.”

No, they were thinking, “We want a Black Widow movie.”

That’s not happening, though. Stupid producers.

Perhaps the most obvious candidate to star in a TV series who wasn’t Scarlett Johansson and commanding a double-digit million dollar salary was Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger. A wartime spy and soldier who loved – and was loved by – Captain America, she was feisty, fun, well acted and had a tragic ending to her story – after all, Captain America ends up frozen underwater until he wakes up in modern times, never able to make that date he’d arranged with her.

Marvel puts the feelers out for a potential Agent Carter series on the Iron Man 3 DVD, giving us one of their Marvel One Shots, with Carter working post-war for a spy outfit run by Bradley Whitford, the only problem being she’s a woman and no one takes her seriously. At the end, Carter joins her wartime compatriot, Iron Man’s dad Howard Stark, in setting up the future SHIELD.

Since then, she’s popped up in Captain America 2 as well as Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, but if you thought a full series of Agent Carter adventures was on the cards, you’d have been mistaken – the order for that is probably sitting under the long-lost script for that Black Widow movie – because coming to our screens is ABC’s now-traditional filler approach to mid-season replacements: a limited series of just eight episodes.

And if you thought it would be all about what Carter got up to running SHIELD, think again. Again.

Because despite the fact it includes footage from that DVD One-Shot, Marvel’s Agent Carter is set before it in 1946, detailing just one of her cases while working post-War for the Strategic Science Reserve. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) has disappeared, apparently selling weapons to US enemies, but he emerges to reveal to Carter that the truth is that some of his secret inventions have been stolen. He asks her to recover the weapons and clear his name, with the help of his butler, Jarvis (James D’Arcy) – and decidedly not with the help of all those sexists back at the SSR who just want Peggy to make the tea.

Given the period setting, Atwell, guest appearances by fan favourites, references to other Marvel properties and all the opportunities a prequel can present, you’d think that Marvel’s Agent Carter would be a slam dunk. But while it’s certainly a whole lot more entertaining and exciting than Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD was when it started, it’s still not the must-see you’d have expected. Here’s a trailer.

ABC presents its second action packed series from the creative minds at Marvel in Marvel’s Agent Carter, inspired by the feature films Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger and Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, along with the short Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter.

Years before Agent Phil Coulson and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team swore to protect those who cannot protect themselves from threats they cannot conceive, there was Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier) who pledged the same oath but lived in a different time when women weren’t recognized as being as smart or as tough as their male counterparts.

But no one should ever underestimate Peggy.

It’s 1946 and peace has dealt Peggy a serious blow as she finds herself marginalized when the men return home from fighting abroad. Working for the covert SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve), Peggy finds herself stuck doing administrative work when she would rather be back out in the field — putting her vast skills into play and taking down the bad guys. But she is also trying to navigate life as a single woman in America, in the wake of losing the love of her life, Steve Rogers — aka Captain America.

When old acquaintance Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger) finds himself being framed for unleashing his deadliest weapons to anyone willing to pony up the cash, he contacts Peggy — the only person he can trust — to track down those responsible, dispose of the weapons and clear his name. He empowers his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), to be at her beck and call when needed to help assist her as she investigates and tracks down those responsible for releasing these weapons of mass destruction. But Jarvis, who is a creature of habit and sticks to a rigid daily routine, is going to have to make some major life changes if he’s going to be able to keep up with Peggy.

If caught going on these secret missions for Stark, Peggy could be targeted as a traitor and spend the rest of her days in prison — or worse. And as she delves deeper into her investigation, she may find that those she works for are not who they seem, and she might even begin to question whether Stark is as innocent as he claims.

Marvel’s Agent Carter stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter, James D’Arcy as Edwin Jarvis, Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill, A Cinderella Story) as Agent Jack Thompson, Enver Gjokaj (Dollhouse) as Agent Daniel Sousa and Shea Whigham (American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street) as Chief Roger Dooley.

Tara Butters (Resurrection), Michele Fazekas (Resurrection), Christopher Markus (Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Stephen McFeely (Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Chris Dingess (Men in Trees), Kevin Feige (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s The Avengers), Louis D’Esposito (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s Iron Man 3), Alan Fine (Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s Thor), Joe Quesada (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s Avengers Assemble), Stan Lee (Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk) and Jeph Loeb (Smallville, Lost, Heroes) are executive producers. Marvel’s Agent Carter is produced by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.

Is it any good?
It’s good but other than Atwell, it’s not as great as it should be.

The show’s biggest problem is that rather than create an eight-part episodic series or even an eight-part series with serial elements, the producers have effectively taken that 15-minute One-Shot and turned into an eight-part mini-series. And while there was definitely 15 minutes’ worth of potential in that One-Shot, there’s not eight hours.

So what we get – at least in these first two episodes – is Agent Carter chasing the MacGuffin of Howard Stark’s missing inventions while a whole bunch of her work colleagues and criminals talk down to her. And that’s more or less it in terms of plot.

Everything else is slaved to pointing out that 1946 was quite a sexist time. Now, there are interesting things to be said about this period: after all, women had more or less been running the US for the past five years and with the GIs returning, there was a deliberate policy of firing women from their jobs so that men could take their places and women could ‘get back to the kitchen’. And if Agent Carter had used that just a bit more subtly, it might have been a good backdrop, at least.

Instead, it’s in-your-face at every turn, but not really for much more purpose than to give Carter something to grouse about and some low expectations to exceed. For a while, you’ll be rooting for her to succeed; after two hours of it, you’ll be wondering if anyone’s heard of subtext at all.

It doesn’t help that Howard Stark’s missing inventions aren’t really that interesting: a glowing bomb material that sucks things up, rather than some exciting, prequel-exploiting future tech we’ll all recognise from the other Avengers movies. Neither does the fact that the bad guys Carter is up against are little more than Hydra with a rebranding, laryngectomies and mechanical voice boxes. That’s just weird.

Nor does it help that as the name suggests, this is the Agent Carter show. Now, Atwell’s superb, exhibiting the charisma, charm and flair she showed in Captain America with fresh aplomb. But everything is designed to show off how great she is, with everyone else, both men and women, little more than props to show off how isolated but strong she is in this ‘man’s world’. And if the show had been content to focus purely on her, rather than have all the numerous other characters around her, that might have worked, but instead we have Atwell surrounded by something of a vacuum. Even Whedon-fave Enver Gjokak (Dollhouse) who plays her physically disabled, feminist ally co-worker is just there to show that #NotAllMen.

Which is why the show feels a little hollow – it’s got a great big hole around its centre.

Nevertheless, with Atwell/Carter at its core, the show is a good deal more fun than a lot of shows I could mention. While it undoubtedly would have been better with Cooper’s Stark as Atwell’s partner in crime, whose “like father, like son” presence is felt even when he’s absent, there is a lot to be said for her pairing with James D’Arcy’s Jarvis the butler, even if it occasionally fails the Brit dialogue test (plus points for calling an apartment a flat; minus points for calling a zip a zipper). There are some lovely period touches, right down to hints of TB and other 1940s problems, even if the show feels more like it wants to be set in the 1950s. The references to other Marvel properties, ranging from Captain America through to Iron Man 2, work in the show’s favour, too, and you’ve got to dig the fashions.

Had this been a series of adventures, this would have a great show; had it been about the foundation of SHIELD, it would have been great show (maybe). Instead, we’ve got something that while good, feels like it should have been left as a one-off.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.