Supervillains never learn, but major broadcast networks occasionally do. A year and a half after fumbling the launch of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., an ambitious bit of corporate Spackle that initially played as if its scripts were scribbled on TPS reports, ABC has once again dipped into the shallow end of the company watercooler1 in search of ratings. A skeptic had every reason to fear the worst. Perhaps a procedural built around Professor Erik Selvig’s graduate seminars (How to Get Away With Marvel) or a sitcom about Tony Stark’s shell-shocked Malibu neighbors (Marvel’s Agents of Real Estate)? As Fox’s tepid Gotham proved, the public’s appetite for slick brand extension is rivaled only by the desire of multinational business entities to sate it.
Disclosure: Do you know what else is floating in that Mickey Mouse–branded watercooler? Grantland!
Happily, Marvel’s Agent Carter, which premieres with two back-to-back episodes tonight, is more than the sum of its copyrights. To begin with, it actually feels like a TV show, with a clear sense of purpose and a savvy sense of style. Rather than biding time between blockbusters, like the dot-connecting drudgery of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter travels back in it: The show is set in the years immediately following World War II, at a time when ray guns suddenly seemed as plausible as A-bombs. Second (and this is key), it actually feels like an ABC TV show: Peggy Carter, a plucky striver with a thing for powerful men — and that thing is often her fist — wouldn’t be out of place in that competing comic-book universe known as Shondaland. As played by the terrific British actor Hayley Atwell, Peggy displays only one obvious superpower, an ability to sprint in high heels. What makes her exceptional is a gutty resourcefulness that stands in sharp opposition to her shoddy treatment by her so-called allies. With the boys back home from the front lines, Peggy’s wartime heroism (as evidenced in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger) has been quickly forgotten. The biggest battle in Agent Carter isn’t against creeping fascism, it’s against lazy sexism. Peggy can do the work of a dozen colleagues in the Strategic Scientific Reserve (a precursor to, yes, S.H.I.E.L.D.), but she also has to bring them coffee.
That superhero shows work better when they focus on human foibles shouldn’t be such a puzzler for Marvel, a company that has made more money off teenage angst than Kurt Cobain ever could. And yet it’s a lesson the company seemed strangely slow to learn, as the bendable, forgettable action figures populating Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can attest.2 (Actually, superhero shows work best when they focus on actual superheroes, but that’s something only Marvel’s long-term rival DC seems interested in testing, primarily in the noncanonical wilds of the CW.) Agent Carter showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (Reaper) smartly imported the gee-whiz pop aesthetics of Joe Johnston’s underrated first Captain America movie, but the most important move they made was rescuing Atwell from whatever corseted costume drama she would otherwise be trapped in. It may not always be possible to care about the magical MacGuffins that cross her path, but it’s downright easy to care about Atwell’s Peggy. Her dancing eyes stay buoyant whenever the larger dot-connecting becomes too heavy (if you think Hydra is complicated, just wait till you meet Leviathan!); the loss of an apartment hits her harder than Thor’s hammer. It’s a superhumanity that elevates everything it touches.
Yes, the series has improved mightily in Season 2. But that’s because it has embraced its destiny as the mildly entertaining DVD extras of the Marvel Universe.
That is necessary considering the stiffs trying to get their paws on her. Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill) and Enver Gjokaj (Dollhouse) don’t make much of an impression as Brylcreemed colleagues. Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham, as Peggy’s boss, looks good in a fedora and seems content banking a hefty paycheck in return for barking orders. Dominic Cooper, a treat as Tony Stark’s playboy father, Howard, breezes through the first hour like a one-night stand. The sight of him disappearing into what will no doubt be a string of lucrative guest appearances is hugely deflating — aren’t there any interesting characters willing to sign a long-term contract? — but thankfully he leaves something worthwhile in his wake. James D’Arcy, as Stark’s butler, Jarvis, proves to be a worthy foil to Atwell. The Brit is a bit Cumberbatchy in his demeanor — his stiff upper lip appears to be crafted from pure vibranium — but his eagerness to help is smartly cut with a total naïveté about the particulars of spycraft. It makes for a clever inversion of the typical male/female power dynamic, as well as a nascent flirtation drier than a perfectly poured martini.
It’s all good fun (or at least good enough), particularly when guest stars like Andre Royo (The Wire) and Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) show up to gnaw on the scenery. And, with only eight hours in the season, it’d be hard to imagine the series wearing out its welcome. But I do wish Agent Carter leaned harder into the specific circumstances of its leads. While Peggy and Jarvis chase breathlessly after extraterrestrial doodads, it bears mentioning that they are themselves aliens. As calm-and-carrying-on British expats adrift in the glittery optimism of post–V-J Day Manhattan, they’re at once mystified and delighted by the everyday strangeness they encounter. (D’Arcy pronounces the word “Hoboken” like he’s attempting to speak Asgardian.) But they’re also held at arm’s length from it: Peggy’s only friend, a waitress at the local Automat, calls her “English,” and her own colleagues treat her like a secretary. I wouldn’t mind Fazekas and Butters expanding their cast with other earthbound outcasts — perhaps Derek Luke could reprise his First Avenger role as Gabe Jones? After all, the X-Men were founded on the idea of weirdos fighting to save a world that refused to accept them; it’s an extra layer of drama that could transform Agent Carter from a diversion into something deeper. As always with comic-book stories, caring about a world is just as important as saving it.