Agent Carter is a gamble for Marvel Studios. It’s the company’s first miniseries, giving the first indication of what people can expect from Marvel’s five upcoming Netflix minis, and it’s the studio’s first project focusing primarily on a woman, gauging viewers’ interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s female heroes. There’s a lot riding on Agent Carter, and the creative team carries that weight with ease in these first two episodes, delivering a product that surpasses expectations with its dynamic direction and fight choreography, clever writing, and hugely charismatic lead.

Hayley Atwell gave a strong performance as Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger, but the character really came into her own in the “Agent Carter” short film released as a bonus feature on the Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray. Part of the Marvel One-Shot series, that 15-minute story is the blueprint for the ABC miniseries, albeit with a few changes. (Most notably, the replacement of Bradley Whitford’s Agent Flynn with Shea Whigham’s Chief Roger Dooley as Peggy’s supervisor; I would have loved to see Whitford on this show because he and Atwell have great chemistry.) The short film establishes the challenges Peggy faces as a female in a workplace and profession dominated by men, balancing comedy, action, and social commentary with a story that is given extra character by the 1940s time period.

The TV miniseries retains a lot of elements from that One-Shot, including Eric Pearson, who writes the script for “Bridge And Tunnel,” and Louis D’Esposito, who directs “Now Is Not The End.” They are joined by more veterans of the Captain America franchise: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, writers of both Captain America films, pen the first episode, and Joseph V. Russo, co-director of The Winter Soldier with his brother Anthony, is in charge of the visuals for the second chapter. This creative team makes Agent Carter feel more like a direct continuation of the Marvel films rather than the watered-down TV tangent that was Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. in its first season, and the slick visual style of these first two episodes shows that the miniseries format may be the best route for Marvel to take for future projects, because the budget is clearly more substantial than whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. is working with.

The main thing that distinguishes Agent Carter from the rest of Marvel Studios’ recent output is the time period, which presents all kinds of new design opportunities for costumes, props, and settings. The importance of good production design should never be underestimated, and forcing the creative team to put added emphasis on those period-specific details make for a more visually appealing series. Anyone complaining about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s bland, uninspired look can take pleasure in the rich retro world of Agent Carter, which is a considerably more colorful environment than Marvel’s gray and brown ongoing series. The production design isn’t quite on the scale of something like Mad Men, but it’s a huge step forward for Marvel Studios on television.

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The other major opportunity presented by the time period is the social commentary, which largely concerns the weight of antiquated gender roles on women that broke out of the traditional mold by entering the work force in World War II. Some women, like Peggy’s roommate Colleen O’Brien, worked in factories while men fought abroad, and Peggy herself fought on the front lines at Captain America’s side. “Now Is Not The End” spends a significant amount of time detailing the prejudice Peggy receives from her male coworkers, and while she’s always prepared with a quip to defend herself against the rampant sexism, she also takes advantage of her female nature to pursue her own agenda when necessary. No one expects her to be as formidable as she truly is, and she’s able to fly under the radar because of that misconception.

As an agent of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (the organization that would grow to become S.H.I.E.L.D.), Peggy is tasked with secretarial duties when she wants to be in the field, and when Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper in a cameo appearance) offers her the chance to get back in the action, she accepts his request to help clear his name by tracking down the thieves that stole some of his most dangerous inventions and put them on the black market. He’s asking Peggy to become a traitor to prove that he’s not a traitor, putting her in direct opposition with her superiors at the S.S.R., who are on the hunt for the fugitive Stark while Peggy tries to prove his innocence.

Stark offers Peggy the services of his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), and the relationship between Peggy and Jarvis provides a lot of charm in these first two episodes. As Noel Murray mentions in his review, the two have a classic TV relationship: “one headstrong, one persnickety, and both extraordinarily handy in their own way.” Peggy wants to believe that she doesn’t need any help, Jarvis is overly eager to provide assistance, and they have to learn to work as a team in order to clear Stark’s name. They’re the central relationship of the series, and luckily Atwell and D’Arcy immediately connect on a personal level that makes the characters’ partnership substantial and engaging.

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In just two episodes, Agent Carter has more genuinely thrilling moments than the entire last season and a half of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., elevating its lead character to Marvel superhero status by showing just how much of a badass she is without any superhuman powers. She’s put in classic action hero scenarios—the close-quarters home ambush, the hand-to-hand brawl atop a moving vehicle—and she always comes out on top. The fight choreography in both episodes is exceptional, beginning with an action sequence in Peggy’s kitchen that finds a lot of danger in a domestic setting. The fight is quick and forceful, and the movement is accentuated by D’Esposito’s energetic direction.

The highlight of Russo’s direction in the second episode is another close-quarters action sequence that cuts to a recording session of the “Captain America Adventure Program” throughout the fight. The Captain America radio show’s wildly inaccurate portrayal of Cap’s female companion is a recurring joke in “Tunnel And Bridge,” and Russo creates a very fun showdown by jumping to the radio program’s foley artists for key sound effects during Peggy’s hand-to-hand battle with Sheldon McFee (Devin Ratray). Her later fight on top of a moving milk truck is also very flashy, but it doesn’t have the imagination of the McFee beatdown, which takes advantage of the popular entertainment time period for a different approach to the action.

Peggy is more than capable of taking care of herself without the help of others, and while that’s definitely an advantage for her as a secret agent, her self-reliance prevents her from forming substantial relationships with others. Whenever she gets close to someone, whether it’s Steve Rogers or Colleen O’Brien, that person ends up dead (or presumed dead in Steve’s case), and “Bridge And Tunnel” sees Peggy pushing others away in order to protect them. She doesn’t want to live in the same building as her waitress/aspiring actress friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) because she doesn’t want to put her life in danger, and she keeps Jarvis out of action for the same reason. Peggy wants to be strong like Captain America, but Jarvis reminds her that Steve needed her to stay strong and motivated. Being a hero is harder when you’re going at it alone, and putting her faith in others will ultimately make things easier for Peggy once she gets past her anxieties.

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Even with the strength of its design, writing, and direction, Agent Carter wouldn’t be as successful without Atwell’s central performance. She’s confident, strong, and sassy, but isn’t invulnerable to pain, as evidenced by her reaction to Colleen’s murder. Atwell fully embraces the multiple dimensions of her character to give the audience a well-defined lead to latch on to, and judging by these exuberant opening episodes, viewers that stick with Agent Carter are in for quite the adventure.

Stray observations:

  • Peggy Carter and Howard Stark star in the new Marvel Comics miniseries Operation S.I.N., which debuts today in comic shops and on Comixology. I’ve read the first issue, and like Agent Carter, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. The script from Kathryn Immonen is exciting and full of personality, and the art from Rich Ellis and colorist Jordan Boyd is full of great period-specific details. If you like what you see tonight, I highly recommend checking out this comic.
  • Marvel debuted the teaser trailer for Ant-Man at the end of tonight’s Agent Carter broadcast, and it’s a surprisingly (unfortunately?) serious affair considering it’s a frickin’ Ant-Man movie written by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd from a story by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. I have faith that the actual movie will have more humor, and that trailer delivered just enough shirtless Rudd and ant-riding action to keep my spirits up. Here it is in all its high-def streaming glory:

  • This show sure has a lot of white people in it. It wouldn’t hurt to have some diversity in the cast.
  • From stove grates to staplers and forks, Peggy Carter will find a way to turn your household items into tools for inflicting serious pain.
  • These two episodes feature multiple mentions of Leviathan, the organization that is most likely going to be the major adversary of this series. Introduced in Jonathan Hickman’s Secret Warriors (a series that has had quite a significant influence of the MCU), Leviathan is a terrorist group that stemmed out of the Communist Bloc following World War II, sort of like the Hydra east of the Iron Curtain.
  • While the jazzy music definitely helps transport the viewer into the past, it can get overbearing at times. This is a problem S.H.I.E.L.D. had in its first season. The soundtrack doesn’t need to be so aggressive in order to still be effective.
  • “Don’t hold your breath. Especially with tuberculosis.”
  • “Well, that was a bit premature.”
  • “Crikey O’Reilly!”
  • “I’m taking a pretty big risk doing this, least you could do is smile.”
  • Hugh Jones: “What’s your name darlin’?” Peggy: “Agent.”
  • “Hate to see what would’ve happened if you left the carrot.”
  • “That’s Sarah. She’s a slut.”

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