Created by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, loosely based on various sort-of-related comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others. Starring: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Dominic Cooper, Enver Gjokaj, Shea Whigham, Bridget Regan, Ralph Brown, Neal McDonough, Ray Wise.
This review contains some spoilers.
Following her distinguished service in World War II, Peggy Carter (Atwell) joins intelligence agency the SSR, where she’s treated disrespectfully due to being a woman. When industrialist Howard Stark (Cooper) asks her for help clearing his name from accusations of treason, she gets the chance to show herself equal or superior to her colleagues, but the dangers are vast, since sinister forces are after the powerful inventions stolen from Stark’s secret vault.
Agent Carter serves up much to like. The beautifully realised 1940s setting permeates everything from set construction and costume to lighting and music, making the show look like a noir film, if those had been shot in rich colours. The feminist angle is interesting too, showing from a woman’s perspective just how oppressive and restrictive the “man’s world” of most of the 20th century was compared to today. The writing is competent as well, certainly a couple of notches above Agent Carter’s “parent show” Agents of SHIELD, and there are several memorable characters, including Carter herself, confidently and convincingly played by Atwell.
But although it oozes quality and has a decent mystery story at the centre of its espionage/sabotage concept, it seems to me that the creators of the show should have dialed everything up a little. For example, the dialogue is good, but could have been great, especially in the often humorous interactions between Carter and Stark’s butler-cum-adventurer Jarvis (D’Arcy). The action sequences have oomph and showcase just how powerful a fighter Carter is, but they’re seldom all that outstanding, except one or two featuring “Dottie” (Regan). The mystery is good, but the revelations it offers are warm rather than blistering hot. The show takes place within the Marvel Universe, which it uses competently but without that whizz-bang punch of recognition and amazing connections that could have been there (for instance, they put none less than Ray Wise in charge of sinister Marvel oil company Roxxon, but nothing comes of this plot strand). All of this decent capability gradually grows frustrating and paradoxically disappointing – the show turns out merely good when it initially promised greatness.
The Marvel Comics connections are rich and its elements well chosen: apart from Roxxon Oil, we get to meet the Howling Commandos, Tony Stark’s father Howard, Jarvis the butler, Doctor Faustus (although not named as such in the show), a surprise finale cameo, and a precursor to the Black Widow, among other elements large and small. All of this is well done, whereas the previously established link between Carter and Captain America is less elegantly utilised, and seems to be there A) because it’s expected (Carter and the Captain had a relationship in the first Captain America movie), and B) as a red herring.
Where Captain Carter wins is in its expertly balanced tone, somewhere between early James Bond comedic suavity and more austere cold war thrillers, all spread like custard over a world that seems almost like ours … except when it happily gallops into comic book science fiction. It is, I dare say, the very tone Agents of SHIELD was initially going for but failed to reach. As a consequence of this ambience, Agent Carter is fun virtually all the time and keeps you dashing madly along with Carter in her adventures even when your brain’s buzzkill centre keeps telling you “they could have done more with this” or “that wasn’t very clever, was it?” and so on. Fun is, just like in the comics, the whole raison d’être for something like Agent Carter, and in that regard it delivers continuously. We could have used a stronger season finale, some dialogue sharpening and perhaps a less harebrained endgame from the main villain, but this show still sends the pulse pounding, the Marvel reference-o-meter pinging and the old sense of adventure soaring. Not great, but quite, quite good.
Rating: 7 of 10.