A new show aired last night: Agent Carter, the latest edition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The show is set after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and after World War 2. It’s the point when SHIELD is first being formed, when all of Hydra’s strange and occult (and alien) toys are being seized. It’s the point when Hydra infiltrates SHIELD and lives on.
I actually thought the show was premiering next week, so the plan was that this week would be my thoughts about the show before it aired. Since the show snuck up on me, there’s really two parts to this post. The first part was written before the show aired on Tuesday evening, and the later part will be a review having seen the initial two-hour premier.
Peggy Carter herself was an addition to the Captain America universe in the 60’s, a creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. She is added in flashback scenes mainly as Captain America’s love interest. So the movies have really added to her character, and all in a good way. Fans are excited for this female-led comic-book show, and why not? Well, I have some worries that have nothing to do with Peggy Carter herself, and have everything to do with creating a backstory story in an ongoing film and television universe. So let me fret about the story first, and then on to the episode review!
How Do You Create Tension?
I think this is my main concern with the show. Because it’s going to be SHIELD, and mysterious artifacts, and potentially super-powered foes. So how do you create tension in a prequel story? When the fate of so many characters is already known? Characters like:
- Peggy Carter herself. We see her in Winter Soldier so we know she survives. In the comic lore, also, Sharon (Agent 13) is a relative and was also in the movie.
- The Howling Commandos, who were teased for the show. According to the Smithsonian display in Winter Soldier, the only Howling Commando to give their life in service to their country was Bucky Barnes. However, in working for SHIELD, does that not count? Could something happen to them? I would be surprised!
- Howard Stark. We see him older and giving wisdom to young Tony decades later in Iron Man 2. And of course he has to live long enough to have Tony!
- Hydra. Not dead and stopped, but living on. We know they get recruited to help, and we know Hydra infiltrates SHIELD. Sure, it can be interesting to watch it happen, but it won’t really be surprising or unexpected.
So my main question is, how do you tell this story when we kind of know what happens? We know the main characters come through largely unscathed, and we know that the bad guys secretly infiltrate – and are never caught in doing so. How do you make an engaging show with the audience already knowing and expecting so much?
One way is with short seasons, and it sounds like that is the plan for Agent Carter. They previewed next week by saying it was going to be a 7-episode series – but I’m getting ahead of myself! How was the premier?
And Now For Something Completely Different
Alright, so I’ve now seen the two-hour premier, which was happily one long episode, instead of two episodes (like ABC did with Galavant on Sunday). The timeframe was after the war, but before SHIELD was a thing. So Agent Carter was still an agent of the SSR, like she was in The First Avenger.
And apparently, the answer to my question about creating suspense and tension, about dealing with known quantities and outcomes, is to approach the issues from an entirely different angle. So this isn’t the story of Peggy Carter, Agent of SHIELD. This is the story of Peggy Carter, top-notch working woman who gets sidelined by male colleagues as they return from World War 2. Treated as a secretary (or less) when she could likely kick any of their butts and take any of their names.
The mystery, then, is centered around Howard Stark, who is being seen as a traitor. Agent Carter knows better, and Howard knows he can trust her: so he pulls on up, and asks her to help clear his name. We as the audience know him too (or think we do?!?) so we’re on their side. Oh, and Jarvis, the real life Jarvis and not an AI, is on the team too.
So it’s Peggy Carter, sneaking around in advance of the SSR, doing the job better, solving the real case. The tension then becomes one not of whether our heroes are in peril – we know she’s not because she’s a badass – but instead it’s a tension about whether or not the boys club that is the SSR catches on to what she’s doing. Because if she’s caught, well, she’s working with a traitor.
Oh, And Sexism.
Have I mentioned the sexism? They definitely are playing this as a period piece, and it’s catching a really specific moment in American history. A moment that really changed everything, though it took time.
They are playing into this motif pretty heavily. Juxtaposed with the scenes of Peggy solving mysteries and kicking butt are narratives from the Captain America radio broadcasts, where a female love interest of Captain America (a miss Carver) is the damsel in distress, and is helpless without Cap to save her. You come to realize this caricature character is supposed to be Carter, and join her in her annoyance at the whole thing. She doesn’t need Cap to help save the day.
But maybe she’s trying too hard. Maybe she can’t do it all alone. The growing partner relationship between Carter and Jarvis is interesting, and definitely something I am hoping to see grow over the course of the series. Because he’s a butler, not a spy; so he’s willing to help, but can’t be the lead. A good partner for her.
One Last Theory
Okay, so one other thing that aired tonight, after the show, was the first teaser for Ant-Man. And it definitely makes it seem like there has been Ant-Man before, like the name, the mantle, has existed before. And we kind of expect this, as Paul Rudd is playing Scott Lang: not the first Ant-Man in the comics, but the second.
Anyway, as to Agent Carter: is there going to be the original Ant-Man, young Hank Pym, in the show? Will they tie it in with the cinematic universe that way? I kind of hope so, as that could definitely be something that will make me more interested in the movie!