Marvel’s ‘limited series’ is a bit of a bumpy ride, but its central character is an admirable one.
Viewers can expect both a warm feeling of nostalgia and the excitement of discovery from Marvel’s Agent Carter, which airs every Wednesday at 9.05pm on FOX HD (Astro Ch 724), the ongoing limited series (to use comics parlance) featuring the capable British operative first seen in Captain America: The First Avenger.
The recreation of the period – it’s set just after World War II – is so convincing that you are whisked back to a time when men still drag their knuckles as they shamble, while “capable operatives” who fought alongside Captain America are reduced to taking lunch orders for the guys.
Yet, in spite of the chauvinism that permeates the setting, the series also captures the giddiness of a nation ripe with potential and possibilities after coming out on the winning side of The Big One.
And there’s that whole thrill of seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – you know, that behemoth that’s raking in billions at the global box office – in its formative years, so to speak. A time when millionaire playboy, philanthropist and inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, and others of his calibre were tinkering with the technology that would eventually power much of the MCU, and when the forces that would shape it are putting their plans in motion.
Four episodes (out of eight) into its run, Agent Carter has also given fans a few treats. To name two: the appearance of a young Anton Vanko (whose son Ivan would Whiplash his way through Iron Man 2) and a seemingly wholesome girl who is (so we hear) the product of an early version of the Soviets’ “Black Widow programme”. Evil mega-corporation Roxxon Oil, such a major source of evil in Marvel’s comic-book universe, would be number three.
Now, building blocks and Easter eggs are one matter, but a good TV show also needs a strong protagonist to make you want to take this journey of discovery/trip down memory lane.
And it certainly has one in the form of Margaret “Peggy” Carter (Hayley Atwell), who not only makes a heroic operative, but a convincing person as well, whose principles and sense of honour guide her to do the right thing even when it’s not the popular thing.
Still coming to terms with the disappearance and presumed death of her beloved Steve Rogers/Captain America, Peggy has continued to work for the US Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR).
But with the war over and the menfolk back, she finds it a very different place – one where manning (ahem) the telephones and fetching meals is about the extent of her duties.
Howard is now a fugitive because some of his high-tech secret weapons have been stolen, and everyone thinks it’s just a ploy so he can sell the stuff to a foreign power.
And as if things aren’t bad enough for Peggy at work, Howard enlists her to covertly recover his property – thereby ensuring she will be put in situations that test her loyalties and jeopardise her career (such as it is).
To help her investigate the theft while he flees the country, he leaves her in the company of his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy from Cloud Atlas). Who is, of course, no ordinary butler.
While the banter between the reluctant partners is often entertaining, their pairing occasionally strikes a false note – like D’Arcy’s stilted voice and terribly forced ear-tugging “tell” in Episode Four, to indicate that Jarvis was lying to Peggy.
By this halfway point, Agent Carter has turned out to be a bit uneven, just like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. stumbled along through most of its first season (until its timeline dovetailed with Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
The weapons theft, the enigmatic Leviathan and his/its agents, that “communication device/typewriter” (OK, Fringe fans, we heard you), the vial of Captain America’s blood ... it’s intriguing stuff, but the whole mystery seems to suffer from having too many elements and being dragged out too much.
Frankly, the whole “double agent” thing with Peggy forced to lie and embarrass herself and sneak around doing stuff for Howard Stark is the most patience-testing aspect of the show.
But it’s valiantly carried through by Atwell, who does just as well in the occasional moment of physical comedy as she does when she’s kicking butt and bravely trying to navigate her way through the “polite feminine society” of post-WWII America.
It’s also good that Agent Carter doesn’t make its knuckle-draggers look incompetent all the time. In the fourth episode, for example, it was a pleasant surprise to see the brutal, crude Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) get information ... in a non-violent way ... out of a reluctant hobo much more effectively than the sympathetic Agent Sousa (Dollhouse’s Enver Gjokaj). The sudden surprise involving Peggy’s neighbour in The Griffith boarding house was also quite ... eyebrow-raising.
And of course, there’s nothing like a Stan Lee cameo to warm an old Marvel Zombie’s blood.
I’m willing to stick with the show in spite of the odd speed bump to see if our heroine gets to shut all her doubters up – and then just get on with the business of keeping the world safe from unspeakable evil. You go get ‘em, Peggy. And by the way, don’t trust the b-- er, femme fatale in Apartment 3F.