What ‘Agent Carter’ has that ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Doesn’t, and Why it Matters

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by Andrew Bloom

in Marvel, Television

While watching the first season of Agent Carter, I couldn’t help but wonder why I enjoyed it so much more than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., its much maligned and mildly resurgent Marvel television counterpart. Although the two shows have different teams behind them, they are, nevertheless, small screen cousins, with Peggy Carter making more than a few flashback cameos on AoS. The two series would seem to have too much shared DNA for anyone to have such different reactions to them. But in investigating this mystery, I kept coming back to one, overwhelming factor – Hayley Atwell.

Atwell soars as the protagonist of Agent Carter and commands nearly every scene she’s in. She portrays the titular character as a woman of quiet strength, with a steadiness in everything she does despite the tumult that surrounds her. But Atwell’s take on the character transcends the trope of the typical “action girl”, instead making Peggy a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Atwell acquits herself well when Peggy is exhibiting a steely resolve in a tense situation, and can just as convincingly show the character’s vulnerability and empathy in a private moment, with each emotional state feeling genuine and inhabited. She brings an undeniable presence to the character, and her rising tide lifts all boats in the series.

hayley atwell agent carter

Perhaps that’s the all-important piece of the puzzle that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never seemed to be able to place – a compelling, versatile lead. Agent Carter certainly has other advantages—its narrower focus, the period setting, a closer connection to the films—but Atwell is the lynchpin that holds it all together. To the point, the material Atwell works with is good, but not great. Much of the production design and score on Agent Carter are often hokey or heavy-handed. And most of the other performances on the show range from serviceable to enjoyable, but rarely wow. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. contends with all of these same problems, but lacks a ringer like Atwell to help the show rise above them.

What’s funny about this sentiment is that, to be honest, I barely remembered Peggy Carter from the character’s appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger. The enjoyableness of Agent Carter prompted me to watch that film again, and while Atwell still makes an impression opposite Chris Evans’s Captain America on the silver screen, Peggy Carter is best realized on a smaller one, where Atwell is given enough time and space to develop her character and display a fuller range of her talents. When given that opportunity, she anchors the show and becomes an essential part of what makes it work.

hayley atwell peggy carter red dress

The range of her performance also helps give Agent Carter its other biggest advantage over Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – its charm. The folks on Agent Carter just seem to be having more fun than their S.H.I.E.L.D. counterparts, while still advancing a high-stakes plotline. The accents of the show’s 1940s backdrop certainly help in that effort. The period setting not only adds an enjoyable bit of retro charm to the proceedings, but allows the show to be less constrained by the ongoing continuity demands of the present day Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A big part of that charm also comes from the next strongest performance in Agent Carter – that of James D’Arcy as Edwin Jarvis, Howard Stark’s steward and all-purpose fixer. Much has been made of the fact that Carter and Jarvis gender flip the usual dynamic in action-adventure stories. Carter is bold and daring in the face of a challenge, while Jarvis is more skittish and reluctant to get involved. But D’Arcy teases out an inherent decency and steadfastness in his character, and his performance helps avoid the clichés of the anxious butler.

agent carter jarvis

When put together, Carter and Jarvis have the rhythms and playful banter of a duo in a Katharine Hepburn comedy. While the show depicts the two as strictly platonic, there’s something nevertheless adorable in the way Carter and Jarvis manage to fluster each other. It’s refreshing to see that kind of spirited camaraderie depicted between a man and a woman without the need for the tedious and perfunctory will-they-won’t-they routine. The Carter-Jarvis relationship provides the show’s strongest pairing, in terms of both emotional resonance and humor. To wit, the scene where the two navigate how to escape a locked interrogation room while handcuffed to a table was uproariously funny, and it’s hard to imagine any other pair of actors making it work nearly so well.

Which is another significant element that gives Agent Carter a boost over Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and adds to that charm – the fact that the show can be legitimately funny. Atwell, D’Arcy, and the rest of the cast have the comedic timing to make the jokes land, but many of the laughs come right from the dialogue itself. While AoS will tack on a jokey quip in an otherwise serious scene, to mixed results, Agent Carter has proven itself a worthy inheritor of the comedic stylings of Joss Whedon’s most notable work before The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Buffy the grandiose beats of genre television were often punctuated with some wry observation of their absurdity. In the finale of Buffy’s first season, the protagonist encounters the fiendish vampire Big Bad who taunts, “Did you really think you could best me here when you couldn’t below?” Buffy takes a beat and replies with a subdued, “You have fruit punch mouth,” to the vampire’s amusing bewilderment.

In that proud tradition, the funniest exchange from the season finale of Agent Carter sees the dastardly Dr. Fennhoff make an impromptu change of plans after hearing a radio bulletin that Howard Stark is in town, while his accomplice, Dottie the Russian assassin, briefly takes out a mook. When Dottie returns, Fennhoff cryptically tells her that “a new opportunity has arisen,” and she a responds with a quizzically deadpan, “Just since I left the car?”. These lighter moments not only help to ground the show by lampshading the conceits of the genre, but also make it warmer and let the characters who populate it feel more like real people.

agent carter dottie

Both of those things are necessary because they enhance the one thing that, at base, is what makes Agent Carter succeed where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stumbles – weight. There’s an impact to the events of Agent Carter and a sense that there’s something more to the story being told that has been spotty-at-best in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Much of that comes from Atwell, who brings gravitas to the moments when Peggy Carter is considering her life after the war and confronting her role as a woman in the S.S.R., but also when she mourns the loss of Steve Rogers and feels isolated from her colleagues and compatriots. Some of it comes from a shorter season which allows each episode to feel more streamlined and part of a building narrative. And some of it comes from the closer connection to the films that introduced these characters and makes the show more a part of the Big Marvel Story being told across different works and media.

But that meaning comes first and foremost from the stories of the characters themselves, who, while introduced as archetypes, are given shading and unexpected depth along the way. This gives the audience a reason to care when they flail, fall, flounder, or find solace over the course of the show’s first season, independent of the particular plot simmering at the moment or the bigger superhero stories happening in the background. Agent Carter is not without its faults, but its characters, Peggy Carter chief among them, make the events depicted feel like they matter, not just in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the smaller world of the individuals whose story is being told here and now, and that’s something Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has struggled with from day one.

 

Andrew Bloom runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. Andrew is fine with Fox owning the movie rights to the X-Men as long as Marvel can still use the theme song from the 90s cartoon series.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

OldSchool80s March 14, 2015 at 8:18 am

I have to say that I like both shows. I think Agent Carter had the advantage of trying to tell a whole story in 8 episodes nice and neat. SHIELD seems to be losing focus and jumping around a bit much. It is still better than most other action dramas on television these days and I am interested to see where it goes (especially as we get closer to the new Avengers sequel coming out soon). I do agree that Hayley Atwell was very compelling to watch.

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Americanegro August 1, 2015 at 3:22 pm

My guess was ”vagina”.

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