Tuesday, January 13, 2015

'Agent Carter' pilot review

Just in time for tonight's latest episode of "Agent Carter" is my review of the two-part pilot! Check it out and let's talk shop in the comments section afterward! Without further ado …

Actress Hayley Atwell is a delight in the ABC limited series "Agent Carter."

Don't let her gorgeous face or great figure fool you:
Agent Peggy Carter is one tough lady.
If you're like me and fell in love with the appealing British actress in the 2011 film, "Captain America: The First Avenger," you'll fall even deeper under her spell in "Agent Carter." Atwell basically proves her Peggy Carter performance and onscreen charisma was no fluke in "The First Avenger."

Somehow she has increased her appeal and puts an exclamation point on why Carter is one of the pioneers of what will become SHIELD. Carter kicks plenty of ass, which is somewhat surprising, given how classy, genteel and feminine Atwell looks and behaves in each and every one of Carter's figure-hugging outfits.

But Carter isn't just eye candy who knows how to throw a punch (or make use of a handy stapler to her own advantage). She's a role model for female empowerment — especially in the midst of a time period when women are largely ignored.

Set in 1946, Carter is working in the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) office with sexist and chauvinistic co-workers who have come back from World War II with a chip on their shoulders. They think she's best at filing — that is, if they acknowledge her existence much less her contribution to the spy-like federal agency at all.

Carter isn't just snarky and taking no crap off those creeps; she can outsmart them. And does so on a regular basis. 
Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes aim at a Nazi spy in the 2011 film
"Captain America: The First Avenger."

Her co-workers think Carter's best days are behind her (her adventures with inventor Howard Stark, Captain America and his Howlin' Commandos in WWII) and only think of her as Cap's girl who still pines for America's one and only Super Soldier, who is presumed to have been killed in action. (Although I'll pat myself on the back that I rightly predicted that such a subplot shouldn't be overlooked in the series.)

So when the SSR suspects that Howard has turned traitor once some of his most dangerous inventions (what he calls his "bad babies") fall into the wrong hands, it's Stark who enlists Carter into digging into the matter and find out what has happened while he stays off the feds' radar. Capheads know Stark and Carter are tight from WWII, but check out the deeper irony: Leave it to an infamous ladies' man to trust Carter to do dirtier work than the other SSR agents are doing the same investigation. Unlike Carter's demeaning co-workers, Stark knows just how capable and useful she is.

This makes Carter what ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY rightly calls Carter "a double-secret spy." To keep her identity in the field secret from the SSR and not tip the agency off that she's working the Stark case on her own, she disguises herself. And this is where Atwell shines.

So many fans — especially the male ones like my best friend Mark Willis — enjoy the "hubba hubba" of the voluptuous Atwell disguised as a white blonde in a sparkly gown with the plunging neckline she wears while tracking down in a lead at a nightclub. I was especially impressed with and fond of Carter being a geeky diary truck inspector in the second episode. Each of the disguises or personas allows Atwell to not only nail an American accent, but more importantly, the situations show off her acting skills.

Hayely Atwell's Peggy Carter rocks a red hat on the way to work.
There's no doubt Atwell's Carter generally is a deadringer for actress Rosalind Russell from the classic Cary Grant film "His Girl Friday," but the fun script means she delivers great zingers with the best of them. Plus she can play a heartbreaking femme fatale as easy as she emobodies Carter's natural take-no-crap personality.

Let's take a moment to acknowlegde the importance of "Agent Carter." As EW writer Natalie Abrams reminded me in her winter TV preview (the Jan. 9 issue), the ABC series is "the first Marvel property run by women" (long-time writing partners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas).

Taking an even bigger perspective, "Agent Carter" is the first stand-alone, female-centered project from the comic book world. The series precedes DC Entertainment's 2017 "Wonder Woman" film,  Marvel's Captain Marvel movie, which is scheduled for release the next year and even Black Widow, who already has been in three Marvel Studios flicks (including last summer's brilliant "Captain America: The Winter Soldier") and will be in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" this May.

Abrams puts it best: "In a way, (Carter's) the most obvious choice, especially for TV because she's so relatable. She can't fly or shoot lightning bolts, but she's brilliant, hardworking and vulnerable." Butter goes on to tell the EW writer that Carter's "superpower is the fact that other people underestimate her … and she often uses that to her advantage."

In the pilot it's obvious Carter uses her intelligence to stay a few steps ahead of the SSR, which is doing the same investigation she is. I figure this will be an ongoing theme throughout "Agent Carter" — just as Carter despises the cheesiness of the Captain America radio program.

Agent Peggy Carter (left) and Captain America's Howlin' Commandos  make a cameo in the first episode of Season 2 of the ABC V series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
The opening minutes of the pilot clearly emphasizes the importance of "Agent Carter" in the Marvel cinematic universe and how much Capt. Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) means to her. While that's thrilling for Capheads and nerds like me, it's a smart move to clue in the viewers who aren't as well versed in the Marvel world. (Keep in mind I hoped the script wouldn't overlook Carter's connection to Cap.)

Another brilliant tie-in to the Marvel movies is Stark's butler, Edwin Jarvis (a prim and proper James D'Arcy), the man whose last name inspired the artificial intelligence used by Stark's son, Tony (aka Iron Man).

D'Arcy's chemistry with Atwell's Carter can't be overstated. Their relationship is a beautiful twist on the stereotypical male-dominated world of the 1940s. The assertive Carter calls the shots by beckoning Jarvis whenever she needs his assistance. The gentlemanly butler is a homebody and dedicated stay-at-home husband to his as-yet unseen wife and worries about Carter's well-being. In short, the two characters are a fun ying-and-yang to watch and the actors' easy chemistry makes it all pay.
Edwin Jarvis (right, played by James D'Arcy) tends to a gunshot
wound for SSR Agent Peggy Carter.

Just as most of "Captain America: The First Avenger" does, "Agent Carter" stays true to its 1940 vibe, from the overdone melodrama of the Captain America radio program to the costumes and beautiful sets.

"Agent Carter" has the three F's I enjoy most in everything I read or watch: Fun, focus and fascination. This is a must-watch experience sure to delight the faithful fans, but also those who aren't familiar with Marvel folkore — especially if you enjoy feisty female characters. Grade: A

Want more of CCC's take on the comic book version of Agent Peggy Carter? Check out my review of the recent collection of Carter-centered comic stories through the last several decades titled CAPTAIN AMERICA: PEGGY CARTER, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D.

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