Marvel Made a Woman-Led, Anti-Sexist Superhero Show

It’s mostly about men.

Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter
Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter.

Photo by Katrin Marchinowski/MVLFFLLC/Marvel

After obligatory flashbacks to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, from which ABC’s new period entertainment/marketing opportunity/sleep aid Agent Carter springs, Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) struts into the top secret offices of the Strategic Scientific Reserve in a royal-blue skirt suit with a bright-red hat cocked at a jaunty angle and shadowing her face. It’s 1946 in New York City and the gutsy Agent Carter, with her posh British accent, bold color choices, and concealed firearm, is a brash independent woman—until she walks into work, takes off her hat, and is told to get the phone by her sexist male superior. Agent Carter goes back to the grind and so does her television show, never to capture the flair and attitude promised by that hat, even though the incessantly springy soundtrack insists otherwise.

Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Agent Carter is a spinoff of Marvel’s hugely lucrative Avengers franchise, which is as good a fiscal reason as you’ll ever hear for making a TV show, if not a particularly inspiring creative one. As the series begins, Captain America’s friend, the inventor, industrialist, and playboy Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, reprising his role from the film) has gotten himself into a spot of trouble. (Captain America himself is still frozen in ice for another half a century, making it easy for Chris Evans to avoid a low-status TV cameo.) America’s enemies keep popping up with Stark’s newfangled weaponry. As he explains to his old pal Agent Carter, it’s a frame-up. His workshop was robbed by some unknown nefarious element and all of his “bad babies”—the weapons he would never sell, even to his friends—are now surfacing in black markets around the world. Agent Carter’s colleagues think Stark is a double agent, but he convinces her otherwise. Will she clear Stark’s name while tracking down all his ultra-dangerous inventions?

Agent Carter would seem, at this point, to have created a satisfying if predictable story structure: Every week, Agent Carter bests a super-weapon-toting bad guy by solving a mystery twice as fast as her misogynist colleagues. And yet, somehow, in its first two episodes, Agent Carter muddies this structure up so sufficiently that it does not even deliver its rote pleasures, as diminished as they may be.

Instead of riffing on noir or screwball, or really any genre with dialogue and great outfits, Agent Carter dedicates huge portions of both episodes to incoherent action sequences that at their very best look like they belong in a laughable B-movie, and at their worst serve as a surprisingly effective soporific. What chatter there is largely involves Carter and her colleagues, a collection of handsome men recognizable from other TV shows—Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham; One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray; Kyle Bornheimer, a quintessential, “oh, that, guy”; and Dollhouse’s Enver Gjokaj, as the nonjerk of the bunch—who are also trying to find Stark and his arsenal. Carter always beats them to it, which means we have to watch these boorish men repeat her detective work while ineffectually trying to establish the identity of the dame who is always one step ahead of them.

Meanwhile, the bad guys carry over from episode to episode. That means not only do you have to learn what nitramene is—an extremely volatile and glowing substance that can explode a city block before creating a vacuumlike implosion—you have to remember what it is the following week. You also need to recall and recognize assorted baddies—some missing their vocal cords, some accepting violent missions via ominous typewriter—who all look more or less the same and have totally convoluted motivations. This may be the sort of serialized mythology that both comic book and TV fans typically enjoy, but the execution is needlessly confusing, with none of the winking light touch one would rightfully expect from storylines involving a bad guy whose name, Leet Brannis, sounds like an herbal toothpaste and who can only talk through a vocoder.

To be fair, Agent Carter has an idea in its head, an idea about sexism. But sexism hangs on Agent Carter like a scarf made of lead, so heavy that it weighs the whole show down. During the war, Agent Carter was a valued asset of the American government. But now her colleagues treat her like a secretary, and not even a glorified one. No matter what she does, she can’t get no respect. Peggy’s roommate works at a factory, where every day, women are being laid off to make way for returning GIs. (“I had to teach a guy from Canarsie how to rivet yesterday.”) The waitress at Peggy’s local diner has to deal with male customers who pat her on the ass and insult her intelligence. The men are, by and large, buffoons. The women are undermined and undervalued. This may be well meaning, but it’s dull, a too simplistic gloss on post-war gender dynamics. Who wants to watch anyone, male or female, behave in such predictable ways?

The show does have one inspired bit: Peggy keeps hearing a radio program about Captain America, in which the character based on her is reduced to a damsel in distress, happily chirping for Captain America to rescue her, even as, in real life, Peggy is literally kicking ass. The radio show infuriates Peggy. It’s further proof that no matter what she does, she won’t get credit for it: The fiction of the helpless woman who needs a heroic man is way more powerful than the nonfiction about a more equitable partnership. Yet, in an extremely adept bit of self and audience flattery, exactly the opposite is true of Agent Carter itself: Modern day viewers, unlike fictitious old-timey radio listeners, are presumably tuning in not for the damsel in distress, but for the ass-kicker. How times have changed!

But have they really? For all its lip service about sexism, Agent Carter is still a show that is almost entirely populated by men. Peggy Carter may be the star and heroine, but a sweet blonde ends up dead—a bullet between the eyes—in the first episode anyway. Carter is surrounded at almost all times by male actors, not just her colleagues, but her sidekick, a debonair butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), bequeathed to her by Howard Stark. As with New Girl and The Mindy Project, there is a woman at the very center of things, but all the supporting characters are men—so male-dynamics end up being the focus more often than not anyway. (The only good guys on the show are Jarvis—an effete, albeit married, butler—and Gjokaj’s Daniel Sousa, who lost a leg in the war, which says a lot more about the show’s vision of masculinity—only palatable when reduced—than it does about femininity.) Agent Carter, clever and brave as she may be, solves most of her problems with her fists. She may not be a man or a superhero, but she’s living in a man’s world, and, ultimately, playing by his rules.