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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Madame Masque Villain of Agent Carter Season 2

Edited by Robert Beach 

here’s no denying this has been a rough year for Marvel studios. Age of Ultron did well but wasn’t the same cultural smash as the first film, and Ant-Man’s modest success was undercut by the MCU’s ongoing issues with representation. Yet one area Marvel has really thrived in 2015 is in television. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was finally able to find a major audience as it ramped up its connection to the films; Daredevil was a smash hit on Netflix that catapulted the Kingpin to a major villain position and helped fast track Jessica Jones, and their winter mini-series Agent Carter has been picked up for a full series. 

Now with half of the year over, and the fall and winter seasons looming, the first details on Agent Carter season 2 are beginning to filter through the media cracks. Some early news indicated the series was going to be set predominately in Hollywood this season and would feature the return of Howard Stark despite Dominic Cooper’s role in Preacher. The first major reveal has been slipped: the season 2 villain will be Iron Man antagonist Madame Masque. 

Madam Masque is a strong choice for a villain. Like a lot of foes that pop up on Marvel television, she’s a little too C-list to have been considered for a film appearance, even though they have  enough personality and identity to be worth adapting. 

At the same time, Madame Masque works as major female antagonist, which is something of a rarity with Marvel comics and completely unheard of in the films. It’s a smart way to keep the emphasis of Agent Carter on women and their struggle for independence, strength, and respect. However, I’m very psyched about the development because Madame Masque, canonically, has nothing to do with Hydra.   

In the highly likely event you’ve never heard of Madame Masque, she could best be described as a female Dr. Doom. She’s the daughter of Count Nefaria, a criminal mastermind and head of a group called the Maggia. The Maggia are one of Marvel’s goofier ideas informed by a very peculiar set of circumstance at the time. 

During the mid-60s and 70s, when Marvel was forming a lot of its base mythos, the mafia actually held a pretty tight control over a lot of the distribution and transportation industry in New York. Because Marvel was basically just an independent New York comic company at the time, they couldn’t run the risk of alienating the mafia by portraying them poorly in their comic books. 

To get around that, they created groups like the Maggia who could act as Mafia stand-ins without running the risk of getting Marvel in hot water. This is the same tactic that led to a lot of Marvel’s mobster villains like Kingpin or Hammerhead.  Madame Masque’s father, Count Nefaria, was leading the Maggia but kept his daughter secret for fear his enemies would try to strike at him through her. Eventually, she chose to join her father’s empire only after sustaining severe burns to her face, hence dawning the golden faceplate and taking the name Madame Masque. I’ve always liked the idea that in the Marvel universe the mafia is run by people in Count Dracula capes and golden facemasks in addition to all the men in business suits.  

As head of the Maggia, Masque often clashed with Iron Man; this ties into the very bizarre place Iron Man held in the Marvel universe prior to his reinvention in Civil War. Initially, Iron Man’s whole ethos as a hero was a weird blend of corporate espionage and cold war competition. That’s why a lot of the more memorable Iron Man villains like Crimson Dynamo or Titanium Man are actually just Russian versions of his character. Madame Masque played more into Tony’s role as a playboy in those comics as she actually maintained an on-again-off-again relationship with the armored Avenger for quite a while. Ultimately, she has never really been the same dynamite villain the Mandarin or Radioactive Man have become.

That’s the curse of a lot of Iron Man foes: highly memorable design or powers relegated to the background of the Marvel universe. The big reason is Iron Man is one of the more in between Marvel heroes as far as power levels go. Folks like Grey Gargoyle or Dreadknight are just powerful enough to be worthwhile foe for Iron Man but would get creamed by more powerful folks like the Fantastic Four or Hulk; meanwhile, weaker heroes like Daredevil probably couldn’t stand up to guys like Iron Monger. That’s part of why so many Iron Man villains ended up in The Thunderbolts, a team of quasi-reformed villains working for the government as Marvel’s equivalent of the Suicide Squad. 

As such, Madame Masque has never really been given the chance to be the high-powered super villain she could be so I’m glad she’s getting the chance to shine on Agent Carter.  Powerful female villains are actually a major rarity in super hero comics, which usually force female villains into the role of henchwoman in some capacity.  Even the big name villainesses of Marvel like Mystique or Medusa are usually kept in the realm of quasi-villain, with an emphasis on grey morals over egomania.  

I hope that Agent Carter doesn’t take this route and also tones down any connection between Madame Masque and Howard Stark to keep her from just becoming his angry ex.   There’s a lot of historical room for Agent Carter to explore and develop Madame Masque as a new character and it’d be a shame to just resort to something insular like having her be another one of Howard Stark’s mistakes that Peggy needs to clean-up or just more Hydra.  Most of all I hope that Agent Carter’s emphasis on strong, self-defined female characters extends to their villains. 

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