Marvel’s Captain America spinoff Agent Carter premiered tonight in two parts, bringing Hayley Atwell’s ’40s can-do spy Peggy Carter to the small screen. If your barometer for the show is the other Marvel Cinematic Universe cable tie-in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the quality of Agent Carter and the willingness of the show to shed those ties to the larger MCU. If your barometer is a true 1940s spy serial, you might be just a tad disappointed.
Peggy first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (set during WWII, when Peg has a passionate fling with Steve Rogers) and popped up again in The Winter Soldier (set in the present day, so Peggy’s old as hell). Agent Carter takes place immediately following the war, and scenes from First Avenger kickstart the pilot episode and continue to frame Peggy’s loss after Cap plunged into the ice at the end of that film. Squeezing Chris Evans into your show without actually paying to cast him, or creating a new contract or convincing him to film new scenes? Nice, Marvel.
But aside from those rehashed clips, Agent Carter is refreshingly un-MCU-like. Sure, there are plenty of Marvel Cinematic Universe connections; thankfully they’re not as on-the-nose as the painfully pandering shoutouts in the aforementioned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s an appearance by a Doctor Vanko, father of Mickey Rourke’s villainous character in Iron Man 2, and Agent Carter will hopefully depict the rift that comes between Vanko and Stark. Jarvis, Howard Stark’s butler, provides some nice insight on why Tony Stark would later name his artificial intelligence system J.A.R.V.I.S.
And Howard Stark himself is at the center of things in the pilot episode, played again by Dominic Cooper as he too reprises his role from First Avenger. A manhunt for Stark is underway as the episode begins, and some very valuable and very dangerous items from Stark’s labs have fallen into the wrong hands. Someone or something known as Leviathan seems to be pulling the strings. Peggy, of course, is the only one who can stop things from hitting the fan.
Hayley Atwell is phenomenal in the title role, and hopefully later episodes will give her a little more meat to chew on. The writing, frankly, leaves a bit to be desired. Peg’s roommate gets killed and the obligatory “She’s died and it’s all my fault” scene follows directly on cue. Jarvis stiffly moves forward the sometimes we have to make sacrifices rejoinder. Cliché cliché cliché. But this is Comic Book Land, let’s remember, so hoping for Graham Greene-caliber dialogue was probably misguided from the get-go.
The rest of the casting is solid as well, but outside Atwell’s Carter and James D’Arcy’s Jarvis no one really seems to have anything to do. Enver Gjokaj seems eminently capable of doing more than shrugging and grinning; Chad Michael Murray is, somehow, not entirely out of place, though he’s also thrown mostly scraps; and the immensely talented Shea Whigham is the most criminally wasted as the grumpy, so-insignificant-you-forget-his-name police chief. The look and feel of the sets and cast are pretty spot-on (the budget must be much higher than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) but there’s still a fairly weak foundation in the script.
This will improve, we hope. Atwell proves out of the gate that she can carry a show, and if Marvel allows Agent Carter to become truly unique and mention Captain America less than once per episode (sacrilege!) then this could be a lasting series.