Last month, I said The Flash was the best superhero show of 2014.
But just a week into 2015, Barry Allen and company have a spry rival for that title. The challenge comes not from Gotham, the hyped-to-death prequel to Batman, or Marvel's own Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., featuring a covert government organization rife with superhumans. Instead, it comes from the out-of-nowhere force that is Agent Carter, which debuted last night on ABC. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled for the better part of a season to find itself, Carter has hit the ground sprinting.
Carter comes from Marvel, but it's more Rocketeer than Iron Man, more Dick Tracy than Black Widow, and more Temple of Doom than Captain America. And in following the life of Agent Peggy Carter, Steve Rogers's love interest from the first Captain America movie, Marvel has created one of the snappiest, nimblest, most entertaining shows on television.
Here's why you should be watching.
It doesn't feel like a Marvel show
There's nothing technically wrong with Marvel's stable of movies and its lone television show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. They are polished, crisp pieces of work that have set the standard for the genre and changed the way we think about superhero cinema and film franchises. But over the past handful of years, Marvel's projects have begun to feel more clinical than organic.
My colleague Todd VanDerWerff wrote about the logistics of Marvel's movie plots of late, and how they all tend to follow the same formula — three big fight scenes, soul-searching, and snarky humor. Again, that formula works. The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy had very similar plots and storytelling rhythms, but both were excellent, entertaining, and much better than many films in the genre previously.
What makes Agent Carter so thrilling is that you can practically see Marvel unfurl its wings and create something new. It feels like the try-something-different spirit we saw in the first Iron Man movie, and more recently, the second Captain America flick. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. too often felt like Marvel struggling to bring its movie formula to the small screen in its first season, Agent Carter feels like the studio has finally figured out what works and doesn't work for viewers at home.
For starters, this is a show set in the slick, golden, and tawdry 1940s. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, writers of Captain America: The First Avenger, have writing credits for the show's eight episodes, but they're allowed to play with much more abandon here. They're joined by veteran producers Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, who've done great work in genre TV before, most notably on The CW's Reaper.
Consequently, Agent Carter is not about a superhero finding themselves; it's about a secret agent doing her job. What she does and the mysteries she confronts feel like they exist in her own world, her own pocket of the universe. And most refreshingly, that pocket isn't determined by Marvel's other properties or the company's endgame plan to make every property tie together.
Hayley Atwell is a star
The only problem with casting Hayley Atwell as the title character in Agent Carter, is that it means (unless Marvel wants to surprise us somehow) she can't headline any of Marvel's future franchises.
What Atwell does with Carter is brilliant. Under-appreciated and underestimated by her sexist male colleagues, Carter could easily feel like a tired trope. But Atwell's skill at shifting between rigid steeliness and sharp, campy one-liners makes you realize very quickly that we're not dealing with a knockoff of Mad Men's Peggy Olson.
Despite the premise of espionage, Atwell tackles a lot of comedy — more than enough of it physical. It's not an easy role, but the actress is so effortlessly likable and downright hypnotic that I hope Marvel's execs are kicking themselves, wondering why she isn't Captain Marvel.
It's just fun
One of the most frustrating things as a comic book fan is the idea that the only superheroes or comic books that matter are the ones that are serious. This, of course, is bunk. Heroes like Spider-Man, The Flash, Squirrel Girl, and the Guardians of the Galaxy understand that having fun, being light-hearted, and making you feel like a kid is inherent to their storytelling and their being.
Carter is a nod to that same kind of spirit. There are dark moments, sure, but it's doesn't linger on Peggy fighting demons within or brooding in the shadows. There are swinging nightclubs where dastardly deeds are done, there are explosives being smuggled around in a purse, and there are type-writers that write themselves. It's all surprisingly gleeful. Like The Flash, it's refreshing to see a show that's focused on entertaining you, instead of trying to aim for a very grim idea of greatness.
It gives you hope for the future
It's hard to watch Agent Carter without wondering how great the upcoming film version of Captain Marvel is going to be. Though Carter was essentially a minor character in comic books, she shares a lot of the same struggles as Carol Danvers (a.k.a. Captain Marvel), whose movie lands in 2018.
Carter's sexist bosses and colleagues are the main villains here, the show makes very clear. And Marvel is essentially telling a story of the emergence of feminism and institutional sexism, wrapped around the idea of espionage. There are moments where this feels heavy-handed, such as when Carter takes a sick day, faking her period. But it ultimately works, in large part because of Atwell.
It seems possible that going this heavy-handed with Carter's battle against sexism and seeing how it's received by viewers is a trial balloon from Marvel. The company just might be seeing how it can introduce characters like Danvers or even Ms. Marvel — a teenage, Muslim, Pakistani-American Girl — to tell different cinematic superhero stories.
Maybe there's a superhero story about someone like Ms. Marvel who struggles with her identity. Or perhaps there's something to be told in a story like Carol Danvers, about a female Air Force pilot who would give up love to explore the cosmos.
As such, Agent Carter feels not just like one of the most promising new shows of the season, but also the beginning of things to come.