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Edited by Robert Beach
Let’s talk about Agent Carter. Springing out of the surprise success of Captain America in the early 2010s, Agent Carter was the second major attempt by the highly successful Marvel Studios to transition from films to television. After the tepid response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 2013, Agent Carter’s 2015 launch was vaunted as Marvel TV done right with Kevin Feige promising a true experience to wow and engage audiences, and, at first, that’s what we got. The first season of Agent Carter wasn’t necessarily great, but it was solid as far as period espionage plots go.
The thing about Agent Carter I think derailed the series quickly is the same bizarre problem that has come to infect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: misunderstanding why people like Marvel movies. Agent Carter season 1 wasn't amazing, but it at least felt like a Marvel product. It had a distinct identity with a tinge of deeper commentary, but season 2 ditched most of that for an elaborate Hollywood caper that felt like it was the plot of a completely different show. The problem here is the show was doing its best to mitigate the superhero elements of the series rather than enhance them.
This has been the problem with Marvel Network television from the word go. There were worries about the barrier between film and TV keeping the shows from engaging with the universe as much as they really ought to be. I’m not saying Agent Carter or indeed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needed to be weekly Easter eggs volleys, rather they need a sense of world building outside their very narrow focus.
In the case of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., they’ll always be trapped by the fact they must co-exist with the films and Netflix shows. Agent Carter doesn’t have that problem. Marvel is steeped in numerous heroes who will never get adapted to the broad audience section of the MCU, but it would make perfect supporting cast and series antagonists for a period show like Agent Carter. Changing the language of the show from a ‘40s pulp and blossoming ‘50s noir to a world that’s actively filled with super people would go a long way in transforming how Agent Carter functions on a core narrative level.
See, the other big problem with Agent Carter is that its central thematic argument can only really be made within a very specific context. The reason Carter’s position as a war spy of serious importance demoted to desk secretary works is because it highlights a previously unexplored wrinkle of history while also creating a split of dramatic irony.
We, the audience, already know Agent Carter is awesome and capable. No one else in the show is willing to admit it, so making the show a long stroll towards the supporting cast accepting Peggy as a strong, capable woman was a good way to tell the audience what they already agreed with while teaching us all something new about history. And yet as soon as you move out of the immediate post-war era, that central gimmick gets repetitive and a lot less interesting.
That’s the big problem with Agent Carter’s bizarre brand of feminism, especially in comparison to her contemporaries like Supergirl and Jessica Jones. Supergirl’s story-of-the-week set-up allows the show to explore the various challenges and everyday sexism directed at women with power in the world today (like how women aren’t allowed to be angry the way men are). Conversely, Jessica Jones’ subject matter of rape culture and systemic misogyny was so complex and its characters so nuanced that they could approach it from dozens of different, all equally unique and engaging, angles. For Agent Carter, we’re just getting the one, very limited central, story of how great Peggy Carter is.
If you really want to convince the world of Peggy Carter’s greatness, you need to just let her be great and focus on how she interacts with the emerging superhuman world around her. Comparing the intensely limited nature of the Marvel TV universe to the expansive world of the CWniverse is a study in contrast. Marvel’s stripped down and limited TV-verse stands devoid of major elements; meanwhile, CW’s universe explodes with possibilities.
Focusing in on the emergence of S.H.I.E.L.D. (how it might be tied with the early compromised history of the CIA and the developing UN) and the whole superhuman world of super threats that Captain America kicked-off would be a way to make her entire period universe richer and well textured. It will provide the writers a ton of great stories to draw from.
This would allow Agent Carter to function as both a direct prequel to major elements of the MCU. For example the show could explain how things like the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Ant-Man, or the super soldier research first happened as well as a filtering more standard ideas through a period lens. Exploring how ideas like those would function in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and maybe even the ‘60s, would provide a ton of possible storylines for years to come.
Marvel already did a good chunk of this in the comics, creating a whole team of bizarre heroes around the idea of the Avengers forming in the ‘50s that could make for a great superhero unit on Agent Carter. There was also Howard Chaykin’s series Avengers 1959 that imagined the original Nick Fury forming a super-powered black ops wetwork team to go after escaped Nazis in the wake of World War 2; that could easily be adapted into a whole season of Agent Carter. More recently, there was The Secret Origin of Tony Stark that involved Howard Stark forming a team to deal with a freaky alien force made up of MCU names like Dum Dum Dugan and Thunderbolt Ross.
Finally, this set-up would allow Agent Carter to dive into some of the other issues of the day, touching on the jingoism and paranoia of the ‘50s through the replacement Cap storyline where the government decided to give the name and costume to a new man. Or they could get into ‘60s civil rights with the Josiah X and Isaiah Bradley storylines, touching on how the Cap serum was initially tested on abducted black men.
Any one of these set-ups could turn Agent Carter from a passing curiosity to an audience must watch with ease. I realize there’s still risk in adapting bigger elements of the MCU to the small screen, but that also didn’t stop Marvel from putting Luke Cage, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Punisher, and Iron Fist into Netflix series. At this point, they’re clearly getting much more lax on the question of what they’re willing to give over to the TV side of things.
What’s more, adopting this set-up and coupling it with a more story-centered set-up telling brief stories across 2-3 episodes instead of season-long arcs could redefine how people approach making Netflix shows. With some polish, a directional course correct, and a production team legitimately interested in the material, I firmly believe Agent Carter could be one of the most groundbreaking media experiences Marvel puts together since Avengers.
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