The new TV show Agent Carter sort of picks up where the first Captain America left off, with Peggy Carter mourning the presumed-dead Steve Rogers. We didn't get a Chris Evans cameo, outside of movie clips. But Captain America did show up, in the funniest, most subversive way possible.
So yeah, Captain America is represented by a terrible radio program, the Captain America Adventure Hour, in which Cap's exploits against the Nazis are given a very Adventures of Superman-style campy spin. And instead of Peggy Carter, the tough-as-nails British agent who fought alongside Steve Rogers as an equal, we get Betty Carver, the beautiful triage nurse who's always getting captured and tied up.
During the second hour of the two-hour premiere, the Captain America radio program keeps sounding as a kind of Greek chorus to Peggy's exploits, reminding us why people constantly think of her as just a secretary, or a helper, or a potential damsel in distress. This not only shows how the real story has been covered up, but also underscores how gender roles were forceably returned to normal after the end of World War II, leaving Peggy in the lurch.
Here are some of the best bits of the Captain America radio show:
The basic plot of the two-hour opener is pretty simple: A bunch of playboy inventor Howard Stark's deadliest creations have been stolen from a vault under his house, and everybody thinks Howard turned traitor and let those inventions loose himself. Howard asks Peggy Carter to help clear his name with the help of Howard's butler, Edwin Jarvis — then Howard gets on a boat and disappears.
Soon Peggy tracks down the first missing invention — a kind of implosive compound called nitramene — but it's already been weaponized. A man with no larynx, Leet Brannis, is trying to sell this WMD to the highest bidder, but another man with no larynx is tracking Leet down on behalf of the organization that Leet double-crossed. Because Leet used to work for the organization that the other man still works for, a group called Leviathan.
(And along the way, we meet Anton Vanko, Howard's buddy and the father of Mickey Rourke's character in Iron Man 2.)
In the end, Peggy neutralizes the implosion bombs, but Leet is killed and her only lead to Leviathan is a mysterious symbol. And instead of clearing Howard Stark's name, she's left a key piece of evidence incriminating him at the scene of one of the incidents: a license plate from Stark's car. And her colleagues from the Strategic Scientific Reserve are on to her.
More subtle than the short film
This is the follow-up to a short film, also called Agent Carter, that appeared on the Iron Man 3 DVD. There are some inconsistencies between the two stories, and it's not entirely clear how they can both be true — but the Agent Carter TV show is a lot more layered and nuanced in its exploration of the same issues the "one shot" film delved into.
In the 15-minute version of Agent Carter, it's a year after the end of World War II, and Peggy Carter is frustrated and bored, because her sexist male colleagues at the S.S.R. keep her from field work and force her to do all the filing. When all the men go out drinking and leave her at the office, she gets a call about an emergency situation, and decides to deal with it on her own. This gets her into hot water with her idiotic boss — until Howard Stark calls up, saying he wants her to come run SHIELD. She leaves the office full of knuckle-dragging poltroons in triumph, and never looks back.
It's a pretty simple, but incredibly satisfying, story in which Peggy Carter is first kept down by idiotic sexism, and then has her greatness recognized.
But in the full-length TV version, the invitation to come and "run SHIELD" appears to have gotten lost in the mail. And the sexism that keeps Peggy in her place is a mite more subtle. There are still lots of guys telling her to do the filing, and she's still not considered a field agent. There's still the suggestion that Peggy only got ahead because she knew Captain America and other fancy people. Guys keep making dumb jokes about going home with Rita Hayworth.
But the guys keeping Peggy down feel a bit more like real people and less like one-dimensional jackasses. There are hints that all of these guys are suffering from PTSD after World War II — Chad Michael Murray's Jack Thompson gives lots of hints of being damaged. There's one agent who tries to defend Peggy, Daniel Souza (Enver Gjokaj), and he's also treated as a second-class agent because he lost a leg in the war. The worst of the bunch, Krzeminski, is also kind of a moron in general who gets openly mocked for his idiocy. Their boss, Dooley, occasionally shows flashes of respect for Carter in between belittling her.
But if the Agent Carter show doesn't offer us a set of cardboard cut-out sexists to hate, it also doesn't give us the easy closure the short-film version did, either. You come away from the opening two-parter with the sense that Peggy Carter is going to have to work hard to prove herself. And sneaking around behind her colleagues' backs, and doing favors for the man they're supposed to be investigating, won't necessarily win her any friends.
What's especially good about this set-up is that it gives the show a strong emotional core — Peggy Carter's frustration at going from wartime hero to peacetime secretary is palpable, and it's the kind of injustice that automatically makes you want to root for someone. And Hayley Atwell really sells the frustration and wounded dignity of a great operative who's being sidelined for the most idiotic of reasons.
There are plenty of mysteries set up in the first two hours of Agent Carter that will play out between now and March.
For one thing, it's strongly hinted that Howard Stark is playing Peggy — even if you don't watch the promo for the upcoming episodes, in which he pretty much says so. At one point, he tells Jarvis that Peggy will never suspect a thing.
The chemistry between Peggy and Jarvis the butler is a thing of great beauty, and James D'Arcy does a lot with the character of the prim married man who has to be in bed by 9 PM but is used to cleaning up Howard's messes. Late in the story, Jarvis tells Peggy that she can't set herself apart from the people she wants to protect, and she needs to have a personal life. Jarvis, at least, seems to care about her and not to be capable of huge amounts of guile — but I guess we'll see.
Of course, Peggy is trying to stay apart from other people because of what happened to her roommate Colleen, who was a former factory worker made redundant after the boys came home from the war:
Colleen gets killed by the Leviathan assassin, and Peggy is afraid that the same fate will befall anyone she gets close to.
But then Peggy gets a too-good-to-be-true offer of housing in a women-only complex full of brilliant achievers (and one slut). She'll be living next to her new friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca), the waiter at the diner where Peggy likes to go and assault the dickish male customers.
Angie is also an aspiring actor, and she bears a startling resemblance to the woman who's seen on a boat with Howard Stark in some photos that Souza has:
Is that Angie boating around with Howard, and why is she so eager to have Peggy as her new neighbor?
Then there are all the various agents that Peggy works with. Souza, in particular, seems too nice to be for real, and he's probably going to turn out to be hiding something nasty. Meanwhile, Jack Thompson also seems to have a dark secret. And Krzeminski can't possibly be as dumb as he looks... can he?
Oh, and what was Roxxon Oil, run by the never-trustworthy Ray Wise, doing with that implosive compound? Are they in league with Leviathan?
And finally, what exactly is Leviathan? Who's on the other end of the Fringe-style typewriter that the nameless assassin uses? And what do they want with all these weapons?