The latest Marvel television effort is quite a different take on things, and if you’re looking for something that will add to your Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. watching, you might be in for a surprise.
Focused on Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and with much transitional exposition from Captain America taking place in the pilot, Agent Carter is a kind of crossover involving the stylistic backdrop of a “cartoonified” film noir, and the narrative structure of an Indiana Jones movie (actually, it’s closer to Allan Quatermain, but the difference is negligible). This mashing of setting and set-up is then layered with the unavoidable details surrounding the idea that a woman is in the spotlight, mostly by virtue of her colleagues’ unending amusement at the thought of Peggy’s ability to do anything beyond fetching coffee.
This leaves Agent Carter in the non-unique situation of keeping up the appearance of her alter ego, despite not quite being another Marvel superhero. She has the help of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), or at least his butler, Jarvis (James D’Arcy), but she has a lot of dancing to do if she hopes to surreptitiously save the world by adding another level to her already do-gooder status. You see, our story begins with a lot of Howard Stark’s ultra-secret weaponry showing up on the black market, and in the wrong hands. The authorities want Stark, who has gone into hiding, and Peggy learns that some of Stark’s most secret inventions were stolen. Stark asks Peggy to use her position to help him, but that leaves her in a difficult position.
The show requires an ability to play along with its multi-faceted throwback, which includes not simply the ’50s decade as a setting, but as an entertainment theory homage. It isn’t simply throwing on costumes and calling people, “Dame,” or, “Palooka,” or even heavily featuring an Automat (which hopefully will come back to reality by someone who can update the idea… because it’s awesome). In this case, it’s also a throwback to the structure and narrative style you might imagine if Alan Quatermain was suddenly thrust into The Asphalt Jungle… and then wrapping the lot in a dime novel. If you’re not ready for repetitive, and, by today’s standards, goofy action sequences, you aren’t going to have a good time here.
That’s potentially crazy, and something that may have to struggle to get fans on board.
That said, and with the understanding that you have to able to meet this thing halfway, the show is really a lot of fun. One of the show’s smartest moves is putting together a great supporting cast, and then using them as more than wallpaper. Peggy’s day job, which is already working for the SSR, a sort of secret police/spy agency (or whatever), finds her under the command of Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham – Boardwalk Empire). Also in the group – Ray (Kyle Bornheimer), Daniel (Enver Gjokaj), and Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray). The dual level of secrecy, as Peggy is forced to avoid her own team while investigating the same thing, adds a certain, manufactured tension, and it doesn’t always play perfectly. This leads to some scenes that feel too familiar, as when Peggy takes a haranguing from Ray for “inadvertently” letting information slip, or the myriad times Peggy and/or Jarvis duck behind whatever is handy to avoid being seen and/or seen together.
Coupled with the genre homage, and mix of genre homage, these can lead to a new spin on grandiose effort at effect. Still, it’s all pretty easy to forgive, and if you make it through the first few minutes, you’re probably on board.
What may ultimately bring it down is the fact that it seems that it never met a wrinkle it didn’t like, which is always a test for writers. There’s nothing like a new plot twist, but when you have to cover dozens of angles in the first few episodes alone, it may become a ride more bumpy than can really be maintained.
Like the dime novels, westerns, and various other period efforts it draws from, its best chance is to stick as close to the general idea as it can – going back to the idea that being a mostly goofy adventure does not automatically mean the audience has to be stupid.
It works, and hopefully ABC will give it the chance they gave Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which kicked off with very low numbers), because it deserves it a lot more.