Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: Agent Carter "Pilot," aka "Now is Not the End"

You know, I'm really glad Agent Carter was picked up for an eight episode run. If ABC had only ordered this pilot, and then decided not to continue, that would leave us with an episode called "Now is Not the End"... only for it to actually be the end.

That would just be cruel.

Plot
One of the biggest obstacles that this episode, and the show in general, had to overcome is how plain it is, for lack of a better term. I mean, don't get me wrong. Peggy Carter secretly working to clear the name of the wrongfully-accused Howard Stark is a good hook, and the race to take care of the nitramene is tense and exciting. But you have to admit that it isn't exactly as flashy as, say, Tony Stark running around in an armored suit, or Phil Coulson leading a team of gadget-using superspies.

The 1940's setting, with rather subdued fantastical elements, is more down-to-earth than other installments in the MCU, meaning that the episode has to deliver in two other ways: Story and characters. Luckily, this episode delivers a good set-up for some interesting adventures to come, and the character interactions are wonderful.

But I'd say the biggest flaw in the storytelling is the lack of a face for the villains. I'm not saying that the show should have revealed the main villain in the first episode. Far from it. But at no point is there any character one can identify as the bad guy of the episode.

Brannis? Mustachio? Van Ert?

The League of Evil Milkmen?
Merely pawns on the chessboard, and they never really feel like anything else. The slowly-revealed Leviathan plot is interesting, but a faceless organization with members fighting each other simply doesn't have the same impact as a single person we can look at and say with all certainty, "This is a bad guy. I hope Peggy punches him."

Themes
Self-reference has been a part of TV for a long time. An episode of Star Trek, "Bread and Circuses," poked a little fun at Star Trek's troubles with the studio. Doctor Who's "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" poked a little fun at the fans who tuned in every week, but still complained that the show wasn't as good as it used to be. And ABC's The Muppets recently retooled their show by introducing a character who kept trying to retool the show-within-a-show.

Agent Carter's main premise is a little bit of self-reference, too. Peggy Carter has to prove herself despite the odds, as does the show.

In-universe, it's because she's a woman. Out of universe, it's mostly because she's a love interest who barely appeared in the original source material. Not exactly what you'd call a major draw. And when you couple that with the fact that the 1940's setting isn't exactly as attention-grabbing as the more contemporary stuff in the MCU, this show was working uphill. Which maybe explains why ABC only ordered an eight-episode miniseries.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap spends a few decades frozen in the ice. When he wakes up, the world he knows is gone. Bravely, our hero must soldier on in the wake of losing the woman he cared about so dearly. But Agent Carter reverses this in a pretty unique way. Agent Carter shows the love interest having to soldier on in the wake of losing the hero of the story. And that's a pretty risky move to base an entire show on. Luckily, Peggy Carter was already a pretty interesting character in her own right, meaning that her transition into protagonist happens smoothly; the writers don't have to establish much more in the way of personality for her to be able to carry the show.

Characters
Chief Dooley (Shea Whigham)
The stereotypical gruff authority figure. But thanks to the quality writing and Whigham's performance, he has a bit more depth than that. Sure, he's part of the institutionalized 1940's sexism, but not once does he ever disrespect Peggy to the extent that agents like Thompson or Krzeminski do.

He clearly sees her as more than just a pretty face. When she snuck into the meeting, Agent Thompson said she might learn something, while Dooley knew she wanted something.

So while he might not treat her well by today's standards, Dooley is no fool and recognizes that there's something inside that head.

Agent Sousa (Enver Gjokaj)
The obvious love interest. I mean, come on. Peggy fell in love with pre-Super Soldier Steve. Why wouldn't the new love interest be a nice guy war veteran with a crutch? I mean, Sousa has to end up having a kid with somebody. How else is he going to end up with an identical grandson by the time of The Avengers?

Either that, or the Time Stone's been acting up again.
Out of all the agents, Sousa definitely treats Peggy the best, even though the first thing we saw him do was indulge in a little white knighting.

Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray)
Agent Thompson, on the other hand, is yet another jerk to Peggy. But if you pay attention, it's actually more of a rivalry. Look at the scene where he hands her his work. They both get some good insults in. And his jab that Peggy "might learn something" seems like an insult aimed at her as an agent, rather than a woman.

So while he's still a sexist jerk, he's not the biggest jerk on staff. Perhaps he has some hidden depths with a heart of gold? It wouldn't surprise me if he ends up with a grandson who was the same way. One who ended up going to Midtown High with a young man named Peter Parker....

Agent Krzeminski (Kyle Bronehimer)
This guy is the only out-and-out sexist asshole. Dooley was "considerate" enough to merely imply that Peggy slept with Captain America. Krezeminski joked that she probably slept with everybody.

Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper)
It's good to see Dominic Cooper back as Howard Stark, even though it's pretty obvious that he can't exactly stay on a weekly basis, hence suddenly leaving for Europe. Still, the old chemistry is there, and it's good to see a new side to his personality. Namely, his obsessive-compulsive need to invent, even when he's making something he really shouldn't.

Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy)
Jarvis is an absolute delight. Not only because we finally get to see a comic-accurate version after years of the AI from the Iron Man films, but because his fussy, uptight attitude is the perfect complement to Peggy's straightforward, get-it-done mindset.

I do like the fact that he thinks he's more competent than he actually is; it makes him stand out when compared to mentor figures like Alfred Pennyworth. I also liek the fact that he isn't Peggy's love interest, meaning that their partnership can be just that: a partnership. No sexual tension getting in the way there.

James D'Arcy was nervous about taking the role, since he usually gets cast as psychopaths, but I have to say that he nails the comedic aspects of the character. Oh, and I didn't know this when I made the joke about him looking like Benedict Cumberbatch, but it seems that James D'Arcy is yet another former Sherlock Holmes playing a major MCU character, alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Is that like a job requirement for MCU actors now?
Leet Brannis (James Frain)
Brannis is pretty bland, though the voice box gimmick is pretty neat. Only time will tell what's he's actually trying to accomplish, and why Mustachio's after him.

Mustachio Furioso (James Hebert)
Though he never seems like a real "villain" for Peggy to go up against, the silent killer seems less like a man and more like a force of nature.

Agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell)
Peggy Carter is exactly what we remembered and more.

Snarky. Serious. And good at what she does.

In the Captain America film, Peggy defied sexism. Now, she has to use it to her advantage to remain undetected as she investigates the robbery of Stark's vault in secret. It's a pretty interesting way to address the sexism of the time in a way other than having her try to fight against it the whole time.

Peggy definitely suffers from some survivor's guilt, as seen in her reaction to Colleen's death as well as the way she generally keeps herself from becoming close with people. But in order to solve Stark's mystery, she'll have to learn how to put that behind her.

Haley Atwell definitely has the charisma to carry the show, and she delivers some really good one-liners, in addition to the drama.

Visuals
The show was subjected to the same treatments as the first Captain America film, to give a consistent look to the setting. The show had to be careful with its design, so as not to look like a ripoff of Bioshock, or something, with it's retro-sci fi look.

In the end, the classic 1940's look doesn't have much in the way of fantastical elements to speak of, and the few there are don't look out of place in what is otherwise a pretty real-to-life depiction of the time. And, luckily, the budget was high enough to keep the CGI special effects from seeming out of place in this sepia-toned world.

It also helped that a lot of things were done with practical effects, even using as many set locations as they could to avoid having to CGI up a 1940's New York.

Final Thoughts
I wouldn't exactly call it perfect, but this episode had a lot to accomplish in the way of set-up. New characters, a new setting, an ongoing storyline... There was a lot to do within the space of an hour.

While it lacks that little bit of oomph to be spectacular, this episode was a pretty good beginning that promised many exciting adventures to come.

And actually, this pilot episode was immediately followed by a second episode, to give a little glimpse of what was in store for Peggy, now that the status quo had been set up. And next time, we'll see exactly what happens when Peggy chases after Leviathan. See you then!

5 comments:

  1. Always good to see another Marvel show that barely features any actual canon Marvel characters! I mean whaddaya think this is, Netflix or sumthin?

    - That One Anon

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    1. Well, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Supergirl, they're treading carefully to use characters that probably won't be adapted into films. Unfortunately for Agent Carter, that doesn't leave much. Hence all the original characters.

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    2. And I get that, not really any good way around it, but it's still hard to get invested in a story when all you can say about 90% of the cast is "WHO?" Korvac, I feel your pain.

      - That One Anon

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    3. Oops, that should be Korath, not Korvac. The Kree enforcer, not the reality-warping alien abductee. Then again, I'm probably the only one nerdy enough to care...

      - That One Anon

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    4. To be fair, Korvac probably doesn't know who Star-Lord is either.

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