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At this point the most introspective question in geek media is whether or not the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie/TV projects are “overrated.” That the features are overall extremely well-reviewed among action films isn’t in dispute, it’s more a matter of degrees: Is this really that above-average of a blockbuster cycle, or are fans overpraising their good points when they’re really just high on the experience of Continuity Porn finally being part of superhero-cinema?
Speaking only for myself? I don’t necessarily think “overrated” is the problem, but there’s probably a significant level of under-criticizing. For example, a largely forgettable feature like THOR: THE DARK WORLD should probably have taken more lumps for being forgettable; but instead its average-ness passes without much scorn because, hey, those were some nice ULTRON/GUARDIANS/INFINITY building-blocks, huh? These things happen.
On the other hand, sometimes the big continuity experiment justifies itself; namely by allowing the production of something that otherwise wouldn’t likely have seen the light of day. It’s hard to imagine even the most niche of TV networks jumping at the chance to run a scifi-tinged female-led period spy series that’s also set up as a broad (pardon the pun) metaphor for the uniquely and largely lost-to-history struggles of American women between the end of World War II and the decade-later advent of contemporary feminism; but if it’s an AVENGERS prequel? Suddenly, you’ve got a show.
The result was a real winner. AGENT CARTER had an energy and a sense of self like nothing else currently airing, at once a throwback and forward-looking as it deftly balanced it’s meta-plot (Peggy Carter versus the postwar patriarchy) with a more straightforward espionage plot that teased at both Marvel Universe obscura and Cold War stirrings, only to subvert both expectations with a villain scheme that ultimately boiled down to revenge on America for a war crime committed against Russian allies during The Big One.
Along the way, some cursory groundwork (maybe) got laid in terms of what will lead to the dissolution of the SSR and the rise of S.H.I.E.L.D (plus it’s built-in internal rot via a surprise last-minute appearance by Arnim Zola) and the historical background of The Avengers’ Black Widow; but in the end this was an eight hour action-adventure story that was “about” – both thematically and in basic plotting – the lives of women and the search for identity of one woman in particular… and that’s what it needed to be.
Not that this was some kind of polemic: In the end, Peggy Carter’s journey was about overcoming her own insecurities even moreso than the sexism of her colleagues, and it’s “message to the men” boiled down to “don’t make assumptions based on gender.” In the end, AGENT CARTER made it’s most radical points just by existing – it’s hard not to notice that the seemingly mundane aspects of Peggy’s story (invisible sexism, morality-policing in so-called “safe spaces,” complex friendships among women, etc) are actually more “exotic” presences of a network series than all the balletic martial-arts, sci-fi devices and near-magical hypnotists. Ray guns and madness-gas? Been there. Carter instructing a well-meaning male colleague that his eagerness to leap to her defense is less help than hindrance? That’s fresh.
Not that this was a one woman show: The supporting cast (largely original characters or dramatic reimaginings) was uniformly great, a who’s-who of character actors who look better in period settings than they would anywhere else. It’s not every show where outsized “Oh! That guy!” talents like James D’Arcy, Neil McDonough and the great Shea Whigham feel right at home; along with the welcome return of Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark. And special attention must be paid to Bridget Regan, who invested the late-arriving Dottie Underwood (the proto-Black Widow) with real character.
It remains to be seen where AGENT CARTER goes from here. The series has spawned a small but passionate fanbase, particularly on social media among women, but it wasn’t a ratings juggernaut. Could a full series (perhaps in a more forgiving timeslot like Sunday nights?) be in the offing? Another mid-season fill-in for AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D? TV movies – or maybe a feature try-out? I couldn’t guess at this point. But Marvel has created a powerful new resource here – they’d be crazy not to make more use of it.