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Why Marvel TV Owes a Debt to Agent Carter

Peggy Carter was ahead of her time in more ways than one.
  • Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter. (ABC)
    Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter. (ABC)

    WandaVision has been rightly praised for so confidently and successfully planting a flag for all of the new Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows that are headed to Disney+. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is set to pick up the mantle this week, with another eleven announced series to follow. But while it's true that WandaVision established the Disney+ series as a place for creative, unusual versions of the Marvel stories, it's hard to imagine it happening this way were it not for one of the most overlooked Marvel properties of the last dozen years. It's time to sing the praises of Agent Carter for showing the MCU how a TV series could be done.

    After Marvel established its cinematic universe with Iron Man in 2008, its ever-widening landscape frequently looked to push into the realm of television, with decidedly mixed results. The handful of series produced for Netflix — including Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and the crossover miniseries The Defenders — each had their bright spots and not-so-bright spots, but they were ultimately hamstrung by existing within the greater Avengers universe but never really being a part of it. Someone would reference Captain America or the Battle of New York, but the MCU characters and plotlines themselves were strictly off limits, and no character from the Netflix shows ever crossed over into the movies. ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a bit more within the family, bringing Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from the movies back from the dead to lead a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives. The plotlines from that show ramped up to the films and were influenced by their events, but the crossovers were tangential, and the show — while at times pretty great on its own terms — felt like an entirely different beast from the films it was evoking.

    By the time Agent Carter premiered in January 2015, there was some healthy skepticism about Marvel ever being able to make a TV series work. Once again, here was a B-level character — Captain America: The First Avenger's Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) — being brought over from the movies for a series that didn't look like it would have any bearing on the actual MCU. The show did have a few things going for it: Atwell's performance as Peggy Carter was well liked by fans and critics, and the show debuted as a mini-series, coming at a time when the sprawl of the MCU was first beginning to feel truly oppressive. At eight episodes, airing as a mid-season fill-in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter had the chance to be an entertaining diversion rather than required reading.

    Agent Carter picks up where the first Captain America film left off in the 1940s. It's now after the War, Steve Rogers is lost to his presumed icy grave, and Peggy Carter is working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, batting the sexism of her era and the underhandedness of some of her colleagues as she tries to make a place for herself. While at the SSR, she finds herself secretly assisting Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), wealthy industrialist and future father to Iron Man, who's been accused of selling weapons to the enemy. It is, essentially, an old-timey political/spy thriller, with Agent Carter a terrifically charismatic lead character. And while there are plenty of Avengers connections to be found — not only are Carter and Stark major characters, but we meet Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy), Stark's personal assistant and, one presumes, the inspiration for Tony Stark's A.I. creation JARVIS (who would later evolve into Vision) — the story took place in its own, self-contained universe, before even the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Carter got to exist purely on its own terms, in a fun way that removed it from the heavy-action dictates of the MCU films.

    The reviews for Agent Carter were almost uniformly good-to-great, with critics praising the show's light tone, quick pacing, and above all its liberation from having to advance the MCU storyline (something that even WandaVision couldn't ultimately maintain). It was the first MCU TV show to receive something approaching critical goodwill. Coming at a time when the MCU films were getting dinged for seeming like one massive TV series, and the other MCU TV series were getting dinged for playing like incredibly long movies, Agent Carter stood out for being a TV show that behaved like a TV show. Also making the show refreshing was the fact Peggy Carter was, at that time, the only lead female character in the entire Marvel film/TV universe. Atwell was a complete star in the role, and in a more just universe, the Emmys would have paid attention.

    Despite not-so-great rating, Agent Carter managed to get a second, Los Angeles-set season, but no more, which only more solidly firmed up its reputation as a great show that never got its due. At just 18 episodes, it was able to bring us into Peggy's world, and by making the audience care about Peggy, it made us care all the more about the great lost love of Peggy and Steve, which (cut to several years later) made the romantic ending of Avengers: Endgame work even better. Agent Carter may not have connected its plot to the events of the MCU, but it connected its emotions, and ultimately that was to the benefit of the entire MCU, something that will hopefully also be the case as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch herself, moves into her subsequent MCU films.

    At a time when Marvel was gathering all its limbs back into its greater whole, Agent Carter showed that a Marvel TV show could be blessedly, thrillingly itself, existing with a vibe all its own, telling distinct and unusual stories with the strong emotional core of a female lead. In other words, Agent Carter paved the way for WandaVision and beyond. All 18 episodes are currently streaming on Disney+ and they're highly recommended.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Marvel's Agent Carter, Disney+, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Marvel Cinematic Universe