Review: ‘Marvel’s Agent Carter’ swings into the big band era

One of the smartest things Marvel has done with its movie output is to let each film exist as its own entity. There are callbacks to previous films, and hints about future ones, but you don't have to have seen “Thor” to appreciate “Iron Man 3” (or vice versa), and the movies represent many different genres, sometimes even within an individual series, like how “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a retro war movie, while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a paranoid spy thriller.

The mistake made early on with the studio's first TV show, “Marvel's Agents of SHIELD,” was in not letting it stand on its own. In its early days, “Agents of SHIELD” was an aimless, charmless show without compelling characters or any reason to exist save for extending the Marvel brand into primetime. Now, it's a fun, confident action series that understands how to exist as its own thing rather than as a small piece of the larger empire.

Most of the creative team of “Marvel's Agent Carter” is separate from the people who make “SHIELD”(*), but it's good to see the studio's second TV series has learned so many lessons from its first. “Agent Carter,” which debuts tomorrow night at 8 on ABC with back-to-back episodes, suffers from none of the issues that held “SHIELD” back at the start. There's a central character – Hayley Atwell, reprising her “Captain America” role as British-born spy Peggy Carter – with an obvious personality and clear arc, rather than the show simply assuming you will like her because she appeared briefly in a few films. Peggy has a relatively straightforward mission to deal with, and sources of conflict both within and without her job with SHIELD precursor agency SSR, and even the references to Peggy and Captain America's unconsummated romance are about informing her story, rather than setting up anything for the next two Chris Evans films. And though Peggy made a few “Agents of SHIELD” cameo appearances earlier this season, the first two “Agent Carter” episodes stand entirely on their own, free for viewers to jump right in whether they've been watching “SHIELD” or not. 

(*) “Agent Carter” producers Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters did, however, work with “SHIELD” showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen on “Dollhouse.”

It's New York in 1946. The war is over, the men have returned from abroad to take back all the jobs that women handled just fine in their absence (Peggy's roommate is a Rosie the Riveter type who fears she'll be laid off soon), and all but one of Peggy's new colleagues at SSR (the exception is a fellow outcast, a disabled veteran played by yet another “Dollhouse” alum, Enver Gjokaj) treat her as a glorified secretary – or, worse, someone who's only in the office because she was (sort of) Captain America's girlfriend.

Though working on a TV budget budget, pilot director Louis D'Esposito(**) does a nice job evoking the period setting of “The First Avenger,” as well as actual films of that era. There's a lovely shot early on of Peggy walking to work, the lone splash of color in a sea of men in grey suits and hats, and the mission of the first hour requires a visit to a swank Harlem nightclub (run by Andre Royo from “The Wire,” no less) with a big band (and an excuse for Peggy to don a blonde bombshell disguise).

(**) He previously directed the “Agent Carter: One-Shot” short film that appeared as an “Iron Man 3” home video bonus feature. The TV show has the same tone and many of the same themes (and features one or two brief clips from the film as flashbacks of Peggy in action), but the stories aren't in continuity with one another.

The arc for the eight-episode season (designed to fill the timeslot until “Agents of SHIELD” returns in March) seems straightforward enough: when the most dangerous inventions of Tony Stark's father Howard (Dominic Cooper, also reprising his role from “The First Avenger”) start turning up on the black market, SSR chases him as a fugitive from justice while Stark asks Peggy to hunt down the group that actually stole them, giving her only a list of names and the assistance of his faithful butler Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy).

This is, more or less, the plot structure of most of the Marvel movies – dangerous MacGuffin on the loose, pursued vigorously by heroes and villains alike – spread out over eight hours, but that formula has been elastic enough to function in all those very different films, and what worked in, say, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” works in the early going for “Agent Carter.” 

A running theme of the show is the pressure Peggy feels to step into the large boots left behind by Captain America – the second hour is highlighted by a running gag involving a radio drama about everyone's favorite star-spangled hero – and Atwell effortlessly moves from the wings to center stage. She has physical presence to spare, a fine deadpan comic delivery, and projects just enough vulnerability to remind you that this is not a woman with superpowers, even if she's doing her best to live up to the example of a man who was very super indeed. She also works very well alongside D'Arcy (much better served here as the dry and unflappable manservant than he was with his previous job as a criminal profiler on A&E's “Those Who Kill”).

The dismissive treatment Peggy gets from most of her male colleagues (played by Shea Whigham, Chad Michael Murray and Kyle Bornheimer) is the most cartoonish that “Agent Carter” gets – not that sexism didn't exist in the era, but that it's a tough thing to dramatize from a modern perspective without feeling winky and smug. It's a dance many period dramas have to do, not always successfully, and while it would be foolish to pretend a woman like Peggy wouldn't have had to deal with these kinds of idiots all the time, “Agent Carter” is at its liveliest when the three stooges are nowhere to be seen, and Peggy is being a dashing, cool super-spy on her own, or with Jarvis trailing her with a needle, thread and umbrella.

Jarvis is, like Peggy, a character with deep roots in Marvel's comics, and with ties to the films. (Iron Man's proper British operating system in the movies was modeled after the flesh-and-blood Jarvis.) “Agent Carter” wisely doesn't work too hard to link itself to the films, preferring to focus on the specific story it's telling. If you happen to realize that a scientist Peggy and Jarvis interview is the father of a villain from a previous Marvel film, it's a nice Easter Egg; if not, he's just a guy who helps move the story along. The show is its own thing, first and foremost, and should be. (About my only concern with the “SHIELD” mid-season finale was the possibility that the series may be turning back into a promotional tool for future movies, rather than being driven by what's best for the series itself.)

The second hour of the premiere is a bit more convoluted than the first, and features enough flashbacks to events from the first that it may feel clumsy watching them in a row, as scheduled. But on the whole, Atwell is so good, and the show has so much fun with the period setting, that it's a really promising start for “Agent Carter” – and also a very encouraging sign for all the upcoming Marvel TV shows.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at