Marvel reached into the past to kick off the first chapter of its more diverse future with the arrival of the Agent Carter miniseries on ABC Tuesday night.
The show brought along all the classic cars, classy hats and fresh pie from a giant vending machine that you’d expect from a show set in post-World War II New York. It’s also brought with it a load of lofty expectations from an audience seeking the inclusion of characters in comic-influenced entertainments that break the cycle of mostly male and exclusively white heroes in the lead roles.
Female heroes all too often carry an unfair burden in the eyes of fans. They must be confident, yet not bitchy. Tough yet vulnerable. Competent and resourceful, yet not edging into the realm of being a dreaded Mary Sue.
Thankfully, after two movie appearances and the brilliant short film that was the catalyst for this miniseries, Hayley Atwell slips into the role of Peggy Carter as flawlessly as the tailoring on those retro-40s costumes and treads that fine line with relative ease.
Atwell gives us a character who simultaneously strives to change the world, but also yearns to find a way to feel included in it as well. She mourns for a person she cared for deeply but is determined to carry on his legacy as a hero who is as equally adept at using her wits as she is using her fists.
Agent Carter and the era she lives in is an ideal starting point for this needed enhancement to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and proof that the studio has learned some lessons from the beating it took over the first season of Agents of SHIELD, its first foray into TV.
This miniseries isn’t hemmed in by spoiler sensitive outside events designed to generate at least $500 million in worldwide box office in a few months, so there’s room for the story to stretch out and play a little. It’s set 70 years in the past so a glowing glass orb that smokes when you open it is as special as the effects get. No need to waste time or budget 3-D holographic displays or showing a jumbo jet go stealth (which is good because the hat, wig and car budget alone has got to be pricy).
Most importantly Atwell is charismatic. Nothing against Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen who are great at what they do, but they all too often try to out-stoic one another on SHIELD.
Atwell always makes sure you can see the intelligence and mischief in her eyes after she takes on a triple life at the behest of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). It’s fun to watch Peggy at work no matter if she’s trying to sneak across the office unnoticed, unsuccessfully keeping a suspect conscious long enough to interrogate or putting on an American accent to talk her way into inspecting suspicious milk trucks.
Despite the world-saving seriousness of the main plot, the show’s writers kept the tone light but meaningful by building a strong rapport between Peggy and Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) and using running gags like the ham-slapping Captain America radio show that Peggy’s own heroics were ultimately juxtaposed against.
Agent Carter isn’t going to fill the complete diversity checklist or make up for Marvel’s deliberate pace of building a more inclusive universe. With projects centered around Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Black Panther and Captain Marvel carved into Marvel’s master plan, these early solo adventures of Peggy Carter are a great step in the right direction and definitely worth watching and celebrating.
Craig Wack is a veteran journalist. Please follow his Twitter.