With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. well into its sophomore year and four Netflix shows on the horizon, Marvel is looking to stake its place in a television landscape in which rival DC Comics has already firmly established itself with Arrow and The Flash. But before it launches its Netflix salvo, Marvel has Agent Carter on the docket, which follows up with British Agent Peggy Carter’s story after World War II ended and Captain America was left lost on ice. Peggy now works for the Strategic Scientific Reserve in 1946 New York City, and when she’s not dealing with everyday sexism in the workplace from her male coworkers, she’s thrust into a plot that has scientist/businessman Howard Stark accused of selling weapons to the enemy.
Unsurprisingly, the shadow of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, looms large over this 2-hour premiere (which is really just two back-to-back episodes). The beginning starts off with quick flashbacks to scenes from Captain America: The First Avenger, followed by a few more instances sprinkled in later on, including a replay of the tearful goodbye that Peggy has with Steve. She’s still clearly broken up over his disappearance, but not enough that it breaks her spirit while on the job. Peggy has to keep her guard up in a workplace that doesn’t treat her seriously even in her position as an agent. She even tells a coworker who sticks up for her to back off because she can take care of herself.
But there’s not enough time to deal with that when her friend Stark is a fugitive from the law and a mysterious organization named Leviathan is hanging in the background and possibly working with the chemical corporation Roxxon. The weapons storyline has shades of the first Iron Man movie, where Howard’s son Tony would feel guilt for his weapons falling into the wrong hands. Dominic Cooper shows up as Howard Stark for not even five minutes just to make an appearance and ride off into the night, so Peggy ends up forming a working relationship with Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis, played by James D’Arcy.
These first two episodes set up the relationship between Carter and Jarvis as the center of the show, and the repartee between star Hayley Atwell and D’Arcy (who looks and sounds remarkably like an older Benedict Cumberbatch) is the best thing about them. Otherwise the episodes are mostly standard Marvel Studios fare. The 1940s production design is quite elegant and just stylized appropriately enough for the comic book tone, even in the face of ugly digital photography that washes out the striking colors of the sets. In the Marvel Universe tradition, there’s a dangerous glowing orb/MacGuffin striking up trouble, and there are plenty of nods for comic fans out there that thankfully don’t feel forced in just for fan service. The movies have already established a long running history throughout this universe and the show has fun playing with that by laying the groundwork for the future.
Early on, Agent Carter insinuates that it’s going to have yet another hero who leads a secret double life from her roommate, but gladly that gets dropped because it’s a trope that has been worn out too many times in this current television age. On the flipside, these opening episodes leave a majority of its supporting cast, including Chad Michael Murray and the great Shea Whigham of Boardwalk Empire fame, to play rather flat characters. Apart from Peggy, Jarvis, and a waitress that befriends Peggy, these episodes are much more concerned with getting the plot rolling rather than creating a fully rounded stable of characters.
There’s just enough espionage and action, including a well-done brawl atop a moving van, to hold the attention, but if the show wants to have some legs and avoid the early pitfalls of S.H.I.E.L.D. it’s going to have to step it up when it comes to its characters, as witty and delightful as Atwell remains in the lead role. Pilots are always hard, especially with television shows that have a lot of moving parts to set up. But with an appealing heroine at the center and plenty of potential to be mined from the time period, if Agent Carter keeps its leads front and center and plays up the old school spy/sci-fi intrigue (and maybe hire a better cinematographer), then it can establish itself as a worthwhile addition to the Marvel world.
EPISODE RATING: 6/10