Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ Stomps on the Patriarchy

In Marvel’s first female-led TV show, which premiered Tuesday night on ABC, the damsel finally takes care of the bad guys—and battles 1940s-era sexism at the same time.

01.07.15 3:30 AM ET

In Agent Carter’s snazzy, sleek, 1940s-era New York City, there’s only one role for ladies with superhero friends: damsel in distress. Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the Strategic Scientific Reserve agent who helped turn Steve Rogers into Captain America, knows this well. Seemingly everywhere she goes, she hears people listening to a popular radio show inspired by her real-life relationship with Rogers. There’s a nurse on the show named Betty Carver who cleans up messes “while the men fight the war.” She says things like, “What a beautiful day to mend these pants…Oh no, Nazis, again! And they’ve got me all tied up. If only Captain America were here to save me!!!”

Betty Carver makes Peggy Carter want to vomit. Obviously. She’s a dumb stereotype, an artifact of antiquated gender roles, a product of the patriarchy, yada yada yada. But Carter can’t laugh at her radio doppelgänger the way we can. Everyone she interacts with, from her roommate to her co-workers to her prospective landlady, reminds her that Carver is society’s ideal woman. Ass-kicking, bad guy-killing Carter is just a future spinster.

Agent Carter’s first two episodes are devoted to bucking these expectations, proving again and again that Carter, despite her vagina, is actually more capable than the cocky, bumbling male agents around her. Can you believe it? Girls can do anything boys can! It’s not a particularly subversive message for Marvel’s first female-led TV show, but happily, Agent Carter has more to offer. It has mystery, a smooth ’40s aesthetic, lethal spy gadgets, and a host of Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-ins. Its biggest asset, of course, is the steely Atwell, who never asks you to feel sorry for Carter despite all the sexism around her. Her magical ability to shrink people just by staring at them is also put to great use here. Those eyes shoot daggers, guys.

The plot revolves around Carter’s attempts to track down whoever is stealing weapons of mass destruction from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) who, for god knows what reason, has a vault full of them somewhere—“I can’t help what I think of!” is his explanation. While he goes on the lam, he leaves behind his butler, the original Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), to serve as Carter’s sidekick. They bond quickly, in part because of that stiff upper lip thing they share; watching them mow down assassins and avert explosions is like Mission Impossible: Lady Mary and Carson Edition.

There’s a milk truck full of exploding orange orbs that have made their way into enemy hands. Carter beats the driver—who’s easily twice her size—to a pulp in an action scene synced perfectly with the radio show’s sound effects. When a guy in the studio punches a slab of meat, Carter’s fist connects with the driver’s face; when Studio Guy cracks open crab legs, Carter breaks her target’s bones. She tries to extract information from him about Leviathan (scary mute men keep warning that it “is coming”), but all she gets from him is a dirt drawing of a heart with a squiggle through it before he croaks.

Meanwhile, Carter’s fellow agents at SSR—who think Stark sold the weapons himself and know nothing about Carter’s mission to clear his name—discover a car’s rear bumper near a refinery, which was destroyed when Carter first found the milk truck. She and Jarvis barely escaped, but the bumper of their car and the car’s license plate were left behind. Now, alas, they’re in SSR hands, and Carter and Jarvis’s cover is in danger of being blown.

No, Agent Carter’s action scenes are not as high-budget as those in Marvel’s films, but who expected them to be? It’s a TV show, one that prides itself on other stuff: its feminist message, its alluring star, its cool espionage tactics, and its costuming. Carter is lavished with neat disguises: Here she’s a blond party girl, seducing a potential weapon buyer, then knocking him out with poison lipstick; there she’s a fast-talking American inspector, secretly searching for traces of vita radiation in a fleet of milk trucks. One of the show’s first scenes also makes a lasting impression (and a pointed comment about Carter’s place in society): She walks to work through New York streets as a loud pop of red and bright blue among a sea of dark men’s suits.

I could complain about how, two out of eight episodes in, Agent Carter is in no hurry to introduce its real villain. For all the ways she’s different from Nurse Betty Carver, Carter’s main job so far is also cleaning up messes—in her case, Stark’s. But I’m too grateful that her story is being told at all. Carter’s a trailblazer in the MCU; she paved the way for Black Widow and the other ladies of S.H.I.E.L.D. And since the last time a woman led a comic book adaptation was Elektra in 2005, I’d say Agent Carter is a leap in the right direction.