Apparently there was never meant to be TV spin off series for Agent Carter, Captain America’s World War 2 love interest played by Hayley Atwell in the two feature films starring that comic book hero. But fans loved Carter in the movies, and so somewhat grudgingly Marvel decided to make a short mini-series to placate the fans wanting more of Carter’s solo adventures. Rather embarrassingly, what they ended up with was a show that to a large degree eclipsed Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, the still-struggling prime time series that is supposed to be the main television representative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – not just in terms of popularity among the fans but also in critical acclaim, too. Whoops. What an ‘unfortunate’ problem for Marvel to stumble into…
As well as serving as a mid-season stand-in for SHIELD on US networks, Agent Carter similarly neatly plugs a hole in what has very obviously been an all-male line-up of main characters in the MCU to date. Agent Carter herself might not possess any super-powers but her ability and training makes her the equal of any other Marvel lead character, and in terms of style, intelligence and aplomb she easily outranks even the best of them, thanks to a smart and sassy starring performance from Atwell. She could easily carry the show solo, but fortunately doesn’t have to given solid support from a cast that includes James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj and ubiquitous bad guy James Frain.
With only eight episodes to play with, the first instalment can afford to waste no time in getting things underway and it does so by putting a simple but useful format in place as Carter accepts a covert assignment to help disgraced genius inventor Howard Stark (father of Tony) track down deadly super weapons that have been stolen from his archives. The only drawback to the furious pace of the first episode is that you’ll need to know your Captain America feature film lore to follow what’s what and who’s who because there’s little time wasted on introductions: Chris Evans appears as Cap only in context-less archive footage from the films, while Dominic Cooper is persuaded to pop up in a scene- (or even show-) stealing cameo as Stark before getting the hell out of New York and delegating his role to butler Jarvis played by D’Arcy, prefiguring Paul Bettany’s robotic reincarnation of the character in the Iron Man films to similar degrees of wry success.
The whole thing is set in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of the war, giving the series access to some lovely Hollywood golden age/film noir period glamour that makes it a continual visual delight, despite the show clearly not having the benefit of anything like the same budget that the SHIELD series was lavished with to much lesser end effect. Despite – or maybe because of – the reduced budget, the show adopts a more cartoonish approach overall but at the same time pulls off some cracking low-key action sequences such as a vicious and brilliantly choreographed fight between Carter and an assassin in a kitchen.
There’s a certain pastiche feeling to the whole show, more along the lines of Indiana Jones than Sin City however, and especially reminiscent of the first season of the 70s TV series of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter that was similarly set in the war years. That feel extends to the characters themselves who with the exception of the beautifully unique Carter all seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously channeling over-sized caricatures of various film archetypes and stars from the 1940s, with Cooper in particular revelling in playing a hilariously over the top louche figure somewhere between Orson Welles and Clark Gable. The script gives them great lines to play with, crackling with whip-smart wise cracks all played out against the sort of espionage hi-jinks that put me in mind of a period Alias.
Against all this fun is a backdrop dripping in appropriate-to-the-period sexism and misogyny, with the women who had commendably stood in for the men on the home front during the war years now finding themselves surplus to requirements as the soldiers return from overseas and expect their old jobs back by right of being war heroes. Although a full agent herself, Carter is sidelined and belittled as she is sent to make the tea while clearly being twice as good as any of the male agents of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (a.k.a. SSR, a pre-SHIELD organisation in much the same way that Office of Strategic Services prefigured the real life CIA). Her righting of sexist wrongs both at work and on civvy street is an utter delight and gives the series genuine and unexpected depth and worth among the cartoon action.
If I don’t come across as quite so enamoured with the show as a whole as many fans and critics have been, then you can put it down to my general ennui with all things comic book superhero at the moment. But within that now far-too-crowded genre, Agent Carter is definitely one of the best things around. She’s head and shoulders above most of her peers and the show is certainly worth the time spent seeking out and watching it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Agent Carter continues on Fox on Sundays at 9pm. The series is not currently scheduled for a home media release in the UK as of time of writing. A second ten-part mini-series is now in production.