1946 was a rough year for the working women of America. While the end of World War II ushered in a joyful period of economic (and population) growth, it also brought about the dismissal of women who’d been essential members of the workforce during the war—the Rosie Riveters and Wendy Welders, members of the armed forces and medical field—to open up positions for discharged GIs. Some women adjusted by changing fields (the service sector was booming); others stayed on, but with diminished responsibilities (connecting calls, fetching coffee, filing papers).
It was a sorry situation. But also, as ABC’s limited series Agent Carter ably portrays in its premiere tonight, a pretty funny one, too. Like many women of the period, the show's Peggy Carter came out of the war exceedingly overqualified for secretarial work but unable, by dint of social norms, to show it. Like Spider-Man, Captain America, The Hulk, and any number of humbled, geeky, tiny men-turned-heroes before her, Carter's a token underdog imbued with secret powers. It's the realization of her training and experience in a man's world that raises Agent Carter from the umpteenth Marvel origin story to a wickedly fun revisionist fantasy.
A Marvel character with a minor, but important, role in the Captain America comics, Carter was first introduced to moviegoing masses as an operations supervisor in Captain America: The First Avenger. In her position she oversaw the transformation of the puny Steve Rogers into the hunky, '40s-equivalent-of-an-Abercrombie-model Chris Evans as Captain America. She was the female love interest who actually saved her hero boyfriend (from a soldier with flame-throwers).
But when we catch up with Carter at the beginning of the series, a year after Rogers crashed a plane and disappeared, she’s being treated like a career secretary. Still employed by the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), Carter’s humored because she's the Cap’s former girl. Early on, when she leans in to defend her old engineer buddy Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) from accusations that he sold weapons to the enemy, her boss dismisses her thusly: “I’m sure being Captain America’s liaison brought you into contact with all sorts of interesting people.” The bulk of her mental legwork at the office, then, consists of thinking of quips to insult these misogynists: When the worst of the lot, Thompson (Chad Michael Murray, playing the chauvinist asshole rather convincingly), asks her to file papers, she responds by wondering if he needs help figuring out the alphabet.
The story spins off of Captain America and a short film that accompanied the Iron Man 3 Blu-ray, but one doesn’t have to be familiar with Marvel’s tight-clad men to appreciate the poetic justice that unfolds here. Lo and behold, her old buddy Stark comes calling, asking her to help him clear his name and play traitor to her workplace, but not her professional instincts. The long-suffering superagent acquiesces. “I know they’re not using you right over there,” Stark says, as if he had to sell her on the idea.
Anchored by Hayley Atwell's deadpan performance, tinged with a bit of arrogance—she was trotted out but underused in both Captain America films and season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—the two-hour premiere sails along on Carter’s attempts to keep this double identity, as well as a few others, under wraps. Presumably the disguises will only multiply as the series fills out its eight episodes, and Carter chases down all of Stark’s stolen, weaponizable inventions (a favored, and usually rather boring, Marvel plot device).
The setup has more than a few shades of Alias, the double-agent early-aughts J.J. Abrams series, which also ran on ABC and featured an athletic actress performing her own stunts. And like Alias, the combat is served with a side of sarcastic social commentary. In one memorable scene in the premiere, one of Carter's brawls is juxtaposed with a Captain America radio story featuring a helpless triage nurse wailing, “If only Captain America were here to rescue me!”
For all the girl-power undertones, however, the show isn’t out to demonize the rest of Marvel’s primarily male heroes. Carter’s just one star in a massive Cinematic Universe and, sadly, because this is Marvel’s first female-driven property, a bit of a filler: The series comes on the heels of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season finale, and will be standing in at its Tuesday 9 p.m. time slot. Its 8 p.m. special premiere tonight is being sweetened with the first teaser for Ant-Man.
The series does, however, put Carter on par with the rest of the guys in the comic-book club. Captain America: The First Avenger was an improbably good film because it made light of the hero’s origins as pro-America propaganda who was essentially dressed up—from his suit to his superserum-induced muscles—to look the part. Agent Carter succeeds doing the same for the era’s fetishized female glamor. In knee-grazing dresses with wide lapels, with a Carmen Sandiego hat and perpetually scarlet lips, Carter looks as good as a pin-up. What the show never lets you forget, however, is that all of it is calculated. Carter makes the most of men’s stupidity faced with red lipstick and helmet curls. The intimidation factor that drives home that allure is her super-suit.
Carter’s not a superhero, per se. But as a supersized allegory for a downtrodden woman who suddenly gets new powers—a sense of purpose imparted by a fulfilling, demanding job—Carter is a worthy equivalent of the rest of the heroes in Marvel’s oeuvre. She even has a bona fide sidekick: James D’Arcy plays Jarvis, the milquetoast butler to Howard Stark who’s tasked with aiding her on her quest. Their comedic back-and-forth, like that of Sherlock and Watson, wisely doesn’t come with the romantic undertones that would make this a far more cookie-cutter female story. Jarvis, thank god, has a wife, and their bond is such that he’s the one making the dinner.
It’s Carter’s resistance to accepting Jarvis’s help that’s the most compelling bit to the series so far. Jarvis may not be well-schooled on the workings of espionage (his previous brush with crime is a cook stealing the spoons) but he does have an important lesson to impart: If you’re to save the world for a living, you have to be open to being saved once in a while, too.