‘Marvel’s Agent Carter’ Review: Hayley Atwell Is Mesmerizing on ‘Captain America’ Sequel Series

ABC limited series follows up with its titular character after World War II as she goes undercover in her own organization for Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark

Last Updated: January 6, 2015 @ 7:04 AM

It has been more than three years since Hayley Atwell blew away audiences with her tough and beautiful portrayal of Agent Peggy Carter in 2009’s “Captain America.” And yet, in a way it feels like no time at all has passed with ABC’s premiere of the “Agent Carter” limited-run series.

In the film, which took place during the height of World War II, Carter was an active agent, kicking butt and defying gender stereotypes. The series picks up the action a few years later in 1946, and those gender stereotypes are back and louder than ever. After the men returned from the war, Carter found herself reduced to more secretarial duties at the Strategic Scientific Reserve, despite her stellar record.

But this proves a blessing in disguise when she agrees to go undercover within her already undercover job. To the outside world, she works for the phone company, but in reality she’s working as a secret agent for S.S.R. And within that role, she’s now also working for Howard Stark — played by Dominic Cooper, who’s also reprising his film role — trying to help exonerate him.

The basic premise of the eight-episode series is rather straightforward. Howard Stark’s nastiest inventions have been stolen and are on the black market. While the government is ready to blame Stark for this, he’s hoping Carter will help him prove his innocence, and take some truly dangerous objects and weapons off the streets. He followed some leads out of the country, leaving Carter to handle things stateside.

To Marvel’s credit, “Agent Carter” hits the screen a much more confident show than “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” did last season. This is a show with a clear vision, a powerful acting ensemble, and the perfect Marvel blend of action, excitement, pathos and humor. With beautiful production values, costuming and set design, “Agent Carter” looks more like it was produced on a film budget rather than a television one.

It’s a testament to the creators behind the show, and the talent on-screen. There’s a reason Atwell was given her own show, and she proved it time and again on the first two episodes of the series premiere. She’s quickly making a case for being a feminine icon: strong, powerful and in need of rescuing from no one.

Well, almost no one. Luckily, she has James D’Arcy’s delightfully in-over-his-head Edwin Jarvis to lend a hand. He proves himself a loyal companion and a good friend to Carter, even if he is often overwhelmed by the world of espionage he’s now finding himself in. The two share a wonderful chemistry on-screen, while Jarvis often provides the show’s humor with his responses and reactions to the crazy situations they find themselves in.

Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper in "Marvel's Agent Carter"

ABC

With a little more room to breathe across eight hours as compared to a supporting role in a superhero film, “Agent Carter” is also exploring Peggy Carter, the single woman in 1946. This means she needs a place to live, she needs a personal life, and she needs to decide if she’s ever going to allow herself to fall in love again. There’s a potential love interest in Enver Gjokaj’s Agent Sousa, but at the same time this is a woman who is still deeply mourning the loss of Steve Rogers to the icy depths.

In many ways, she is a broken woman emotionally, and frustrated woman professionally. While “Agent Carter” is a show about female empowerment, it is not subtle about it in any way. The boys club blatantly and openly puts down Carter, while other women in the show are treated just as poorly by other men.

Meanwhile, the worst of these men are basically imbeciles on the show. There’s a team of three agents investigating Howard Stark who might as well be the Three Stooges of the agency, though they are fun to watch bumbling about and getting constantly bested by Agent Carter and Jarvis.

While the 2015 individual might find the 1946 misogyny on display almost cartoonish and completely unbelievable, it’s hard to say how accurate that might be without having been there. Certainly sexism was openly practiced at the time, and was likely worse in professions like Carter’s.

But more importantly, it doesn’t matter. This is a heightened superhero reality we’re talking about. Just because Agent Carter isn’t fighting crime in spandex doesn’t mean this show isn’t a part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Things aren’t supposed to be entirely plausible in a world of Norse gods and talking raccoons. If there is blatant sexism in Agent Carter’s world, it exists so that we can watch her rise above it.

While fans have been getting excited about the announcements of female-led superhero movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel,” they should slow down and appreciate that the first female-led superhero project is here. Agent Carter doesn’t need super-powers to be a superhero. Like Scarlett Johansson‘s Black Widow, Carter is a super-spy, only she’s more capable when it comes to donning disguises and infiltrating enemy strongholds with guile than her leather-clad, present-day counterpart.

“Marvel’s Agent Carter” is easily one of the most entertaining premieres of the season. It has connections to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe for hardcore fans, but it’s completely accessible to newbies as well. In an era of strong female lead performances, Hayley Atwell easily stands with the likes of Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) and Claire Danes (“Homeland”) as a small-screen force to be reckoned with.

The only disappointing thing about it is that after watching the premiere, there are only six episodes left. ABC and Marvel are open to doing more, so hopefully the audience will show up and demand just that. While “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has vastly improved in its second season. “Marvel’s Agent Carter” may well have supplanted it as the strongest Marvel show on television after only two episodes.

“Marvel’s Agent Carter” premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ABC.