A humming undercurrent of enthusiasm runs throughout the super-sized premiere of Agent Carter, Marvel’s latest small-screen venture; from start to finish, it’s clear as day that the creative types driving the show know what they’re doing, and that they’re overjoyed to be doing it. Unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.LD., which took the better part of its first season to really take off and find its identity, Agent Carter has hit the ground running with its pilot episode, “Now is Not the End,” as well as “Bridge and Tunnel.” The pair basically act like a big introductory movie, establishing the world Carter navigates, while setting up both tone and plot for the remainder of the series.
The former can be distilled into just a short phrase—slick retro fun—while the latter demands decidedly more verbiage. We know Carter’s story begins with Captain America: The First Avenger, where the no-nonsense English officer served as Steve Rogers’ liaison-cum-love interest; the film is referenced through flashbacks, so, uh, spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it. “Now is Not the End” begins with that picture’s tragic curtain call before taking us to the present, where Carter’s talents with espionage and ass-kicking are being wasted working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve. Rather than be allowed to perform to the utmost of her ability as a soldier, Carter is instead treated as little more than a secretary by boorish male superiors, each a sad product of their era.
For the Carter character, sexism represents well-tread ground; in the Marvel One-Shot short, also titled Agent Carter, Peggy suffered the ignominy of being mansplained to by Bradley Whitford, a dynamic of the man’s world of the 1940s. On television, the symptoms of the period remain. Dudes not only remain in charge of the SSR, but they’re able to marginalize Carter freely and without anyone (even her male allies) really being able to do anything substantial about it—save for Carter herself. She’s an agent with agency, more clever than most of her colleagues bother giving her credit for.
Following the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, it seems that Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, briefly reprising his role from Marvels movie universe) has been up to no good, trading nasty weapons to nastier people. It’s a frame job, of course, and Stark himself calls on Peggy to help prove his innocence and stop the bad guys. A well-reasoned person could easily deduce that Stark is the victim of a set-up; naturally, this means that the SSR is hot on the millionaire playboy’s trail, having branded him traitor, while Carter knows that something about the whole ordeal is fishy. And so our plucky, resourceful, hard as flint heroine gets down to business, following leads, outrunning explosions, merrily quipping with James D’Arcy (playing Howard Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, with sweet, stuffy brio), and brawling on top of moving milk trucks.
It’s quite as fun as it sounds, and in fact more so. Peggy Carter is a terrific character, and Hayley Atwell the perfect actress to play her; bringing them both to TV sounded great on paper, and it’s even better in practice. Neither Captain America: The First Avenger nor the one-off left Carter underdeveloped, mind, but giving her dedicated space to inhabit allows Atwell much more room to breathe, and to develop Carter as a multi-faceted woman who’s more than capable of standing on her own two feet. She’s tough, alright, tough enough to operate in an environment that demeans and diminishes her by its very nature. At the same time, she’s utterly isolated, and made all the more vulnerable for it. A woman can’t be an island, as we’re reminded toward the end of “Bridge and Tunnel,” and so the series is as much about Carter’s mission to clear Stark’s name as it is about her struggle to fit into a patriarchal, lonely, post-war New York society.
And that’s the Marvel formula at its best, one that marries gravity and pathos with rollicking entertainment. Agent Carter brings drama along with a heaping helping of theme, but it also comes packing gunfights, fistfights, creepy mute assassins, Kevin Heffernan being threatened with a fork, property damage, new shadowy organizations with mythological names, more outfit changes than New York Fashion Week and MCU references galore. (Keep an eye out for cameos by, and allusions to, the sires of several Marvel luminaries, both good and nefarious.) If you’re the type to suffer nausea at the sight of commercial serialization and comic book fare, Agent Carter obviously won’t be your cup of tea, but in this case you’re most definitely missing out. The show’s cardinal outings work, and work wonderfully, as a starting point for a strong character study coupled with old school, two-fisted adventure. “Now is Not the End” and “Bridge and Tunnel” both set the foundation for the rest of Agent Carter’s duration. If the rest of the show’s outings can match the energy showcased in these, then we’re all in for a great ride.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.