Six months after it aired in the US, Agent Carter, Marvel’s Hayley Atwell-starring spy caper about the fearless English rose who stole Captain America’s heart, belatedly made its UK debut on Fox last night.
Set in 1946, a year after Captain America: The First Avenger, the series finds Peggy Carter (Atwell) struggling to adapt to single life in New York, where she has been posted to the Strategic Scientific Reserve (a sort of proto-SHIELD), and is still grieving the loss of her beloved Cap who ‘died’ heroically ditching a Hydra megabomber into the freezing North Atlantic.
Despite her distinguished war record, Peggy is frustrated to find her role at the SSR is reduced to filing and making coffee for her male counterparts – a clever reference to the way hardworking women were swiftly replaced by returning men following the end of World War Two.
Unsurprisingly, then, the action-starved agent is chomping at the bit to re-prove her mettle. So when playboy inventor Howard Stark (a suave Dom Cooper) is accused of selling weapons of mass destruction, Peggy jumps at the chance to return to the field, turning double-agent against the SSR as she bids to clear the name of her wartime ally.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is crammed with characters who have superpowers, or at the very least a flying suit of cyber armour, the company’s TV endeavours have thus far taken a more grounded approach, from the average-Joe suits of Agents of SHIELD to Netflix’s gritty street-fighter interpretation of Daredevil, and Agent Carter fits this mould perfectly.
A smart, capable woman, Peggy relies on her wit and determination to get ahead. We also learn she’s no easy push-over as she swiftly despatches several baddies with some slick, inventive fight moves.
Peggy should also be praised for the way she handles the casual misogyny that pervades in every corner of her office as refuses to let any man defend her and even goes as far as to reprimand one well-meaning colleague for doing just that.
Instead, she lets her work do her talking, whilst also using her superiors’ sexism to her advantage when the opportunity arises to snoop some Intel, and Peggy quickly picks up the trail of those responsible for framing Stark.
Atwell is fantastic in this role, delivering a charming, layered performance as she momentarily allows Peggy’s loneliness and heartbreak leak out from under her resilient, no-nonsense exterior. It makes Peggy a relatable hero who is exceptionally easy to root for.
Peggy also forms an entertaining ying-and-yang relationship with James D’Arcy’s mild-mannered butler Jarvis, a trusted employee of Stark’s who is sent to assist Peggy in her secret missions. Although they share only a few brief exchanges in this first episode, Atwell and D’Arcy’s sizzling chemistry is immediately apparent and their characters’ burgeoning partnership should add some much-needed levity in the coming weeks.
It must be said, too, that the series is incredibly stylish, the exquisitely detailed production design evoking the period setting, with sharp suits, curvy cars and fetching hats the order of the day; while retro gadgets like a safe-cracking wrist watch add a classic espionage thriller flavour to proceedings.
This unique style also helps to distinguish the series from the wider MCU as – save for an early flashback to The First Avenger and a few other subtle references – Agent Carter feels free to plough its own course, safe in the knowledge that its historical displacement means it doesn’t have to worry about the twists and turns of the current continuity – something which often henpecks Agents of SHIELD and, to a lesser extent, Daredevil.
It’s not entirely faultless, though. There are a few lines of clunky exposition, the villains feel like silent, slippery caricatures, and the desire to make Peggy’s SSR colleagues overtly sexist means they barely register as one-note characters at this early stage.
Nevertheless, the pacing is swift and the plot is action-packed with the first episode introducing plenty of mysterious threads to unravel as the series develops, ensuring viewers are immediately hooked on this stylish, progressive drama. It may have taken its time getting here, but Crikey O’Reilly, Agent Carter is well worth the wait.
Click here to watch the trailer for Agent Carter