The Agent Carter television series has been described ‘a Triumph for Women, Marvel and TV,’ and heralded as an important new chapter in comics culture. But why is this supposedly groundbreaking new show struggling to find an audience? And if Agent Carter fails, does it spell doom for the future of female-led superhero franchises?
Agent Carter is the American television series inspired by the Marvel films Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The series centers on Agent Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell), formerly a prominent World War II agent for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) and the love interest of Captain America. When Agent Carter picks up, it’s 1946, the war is over, Captain America is presumed dead, and Peggy has been relegated to SSR secretarial duties. That is until Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is accused of treason, and secretly recruits Peggy to clear his name with the help of his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Once more, Peggy is able to put her considerable skills in subterfuge and bad-assery to good use.
From the moment Captain America: The First Avenger hit movie screens in 2011, fans were clamoring for the Peggy Carter spin-off. She was one heck of a hero in her own right – a tough, smart agent, quick-witted and able to wear the hell out of red velvet lipstick.
Calls for a series devoted to Peggy Carter arose from a collective desire to rectify the lack of female superhero adaptations, and help counteract the general sexism evident in the slim pickings we do have. Marvel has been justifiably raked over hot, feminist coals for not yet making a female-led superhero movie – last year, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said they were just too busy to make a Black Widow or Captain Marvel movie (meanwhile their adaptation of Ant-Man is being released later this year, to the widespread disbelief of Marvel fans).
Adding fuel to fire of the spinoff rumor-mill was Atwell herself, who has previous experience calling out sexism. Atwell expressed keen interest in being part of a series after Marvel successfully released a Peggy Carter One-Shot (direct-to-video short film) at the 2013 Comic-Con. She was also happy to add her two cents to the topic of female-led superhero movies: ‘Where are the women? Where are the women who are leading and not just the hot sex symbol in the tight outfits, or the aggressive ones with their sexy action sequences? Where are the ones that are battling with their own identity like Iron Man is? Or trying to make a difference in the forefront?’
And then it happened. The news we’d all been waiting for – ABC picked up Marvel’s Agent Carter and announced Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas as showrunners (women writing women – hoorah!). The show premiered on January 6 this year with a double episode, and 6.91 million viewers tuned in – it received an 8.6/10 rating on IMDB and scored 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Oliver Sara wrote for the AV Club, ‘Marvel Studios’ first miniseries is off to an exuberant, stylish start,’ giving the back-to-back episodes a score of A-.
But by the third episode on January 13, viewer numbers had declined to 5.10 million, and the next day ABC entertainment president Paul Lee was forced to defend the show, saying, ‘We feel very optimistic about it.’
It’s interesting to note that the other Marvel adaptation that airs on ABC is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. After premiering to 12.12 million viewers but dropping down to 8.66 million by the second episode, similar articles appeared about its ‘shocking decline’, yet it was still renewed for a second season. Then again, Agent Carter has only been given an 8-episode first season, whereas Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was given a full-season order of 22 episodes – suggesting that from the outset, Marvel wasn’t throwing its full confidence behind Peggy.
Early Agent Carter numbers are certainly not cause for panic. It’s far too soon to cast the show aside as a failure, or use it to tar the prospects of all future female-led comic adaptations. In fact, it might be a good idea to stop putting so much pressure on Peggy Carter to be a feminist trailblazer whose sole purpose is to break the superhero glass ceiling.
Admittedly, the marketing of Agent Carter has been a little tone-deaf; taglines like, ‘Sometimes the best man for the job… is a woman’, are downright corny. Despite paying homage to the real women who were erased or overlooked in war history, the show’s exploration of 1940s sexism misses the mark on occasion. It has already been a target of satire, poking fun at the suggestion that Peggy’s toughest fight is against misogyny. This gentle mockery is justified; sometimes the show’s Girl Power! message feels OTT. (At other times, it’s pitched just right. ‘There’s a difference between being an independent woman and a spinster,’ Peggy’s friend Colleen says, to which Peggy replies; “Is it the shoes?”).
For purposes of historical accuracy at the very least, it’s essential that Agent Carter explores issues of sexism – but the most interesting thing about Peggy should not be that she has to put up with a bunch of misogynistic dillweeds, and the suggestion that this is her greatest battle is entirely demeaning (she’s also helping to save the free world, FYI).
Equally frustrating is trumpeting Peggy as an archetypal Strong Female Protagonist, as H. Shaw-Williams writing for ScreenRant points out, ‘It’s a common problem that female characters – particularly in male-dominated genres – are obliged to be Strong Female Characters who carry a standard for their entire gender, while male characters get to just be characters.’
The future of female-led superhero franchises should not come down to whether or not Agent Carter succeeds commercially, or how successfully Peggy battles sexism in her workplace (leave that to Peggy Olson). But it seems that since Agent Carter premiered, Peggy is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. There was Mike Hale’s eye-rollingly inane New York Times review in which he suggests Hayley Atwell tone down her awesomeness. ‘One issue is Ms. Atwell, who looks great in the period costumes and hairstyles and doesn’t do anything wrong, but is a bit too much like Carter: ferociously capable and awfully tightly wound. That’s fine for a character, but the actress could stand to loosen up a little.’ Conversely, Melissa Leon writing for The Daily Beast celebrates how Peggy ‘Stomps on the Patriarchy’.
We can’t put the monumental task of bringing down the Hollywood superhero patriarchy on Agent Carter’s shoulders. Firstly, because she’ll have a lot of bloody work ahead of her – just consider a recent study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, which found that women occupy the same paltry percentage of leadership roles in that industry as they did 17 years ago in 1998.
And secondly: Agent Carter’s success or lack of shouldn’t determine the future of all female-led superhero films, because we deserve to see more female-led films of all kinds. I thoroughly enjoy Agent Carter, I think Hayley Atwell is a remarkable leading lady, and I want the show to do well. But even if it doesn’t, I still expect to see a Black Widow adaptation in the near future, and a Ms Marvel adaptation, and – I hope – a hell of a lot more female-led superhero movies. I’m one of the 46.67% of women who read comics, I regularly go to the cinemas, as do the many women who make up 50% of ticket sales, and – oh, yeah! – I’m also part of one half of the human race which deserves equal representation.
It’s far too soon to describe Agent Carter as a ‘failure’, and to wield this as evidence of the inadequacy of female superhero adaptations. I have faith in audiences finding their way to this smart and stylish series, with Atwell’s complicated Peggy Carter at the helm. It’s counterproductive to celebrate Agent Carter purely as a feminist breakthrough, when there’s a lot more to this series than Peggy’s whip smart ability to put misogynistic men in their place.