With only four episodes under its belt, “Marvel’s Agent Carter” continues to make waves in the superhero film swimming pool. As the first female-led live-action property of theÂ Marvel StudiosÂ era, “Carter” has drawn a lot of attention to the media giant’s portrayal of women on screen. In light of recent revelations in “The Blitzkrieg Button,” it looks as ifÂ “Agent Carter”Â might even go so far as to explore the roots of one of theÂ Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s most formidable female fighters.
In the previous installments of this series, I took an in-depth look at both Black Widow and Gamora and the ways their fighting styles reflect their characters. Below, we’ll look over the only female protagonist to headline her own series so far: Peggy Carter. As my analysis draws to a close, I wrap up the discussion with an overview of the implications for the MCU at large and what “Agent Carter,” in particular, says about the studio’s current direction.
Though a member of an intelligence agency, Agent Carter was trained as a soldier, and it shows. She fights face-forward, largely using her upper body and a few well-placed kicks. Despite her style being inherently more honest, it is no less brutal; in her first fight on her miniseries, she beats a man senseless with a stapler. Carter’s strength lies in her stubborn resolve to keep moving forward. Though she uses her surroundings when she can, like the aforementioned stapler, these are not the result of careful planning. Rather, Carter grabs for something to give her an edge, employing brute force to power her way through the fight.
She didn’t have very many opportunities to brawl in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” but the action she did see found her reacting with full emotional intensity — from the soldier who laughed at her in boot camp to her discovery of Cap kissing another woman. Further, this emotional intensity isn’t reserved to feelings of anger and jealousy; in her one-shot, for instance, she employs her training with an assured swagger. Her miniseries found her battling some ignorant goon with a solid sense of resolve, a little disgust and a lot of bullheadedness as the “Captain America” radio show played in the background. In the third episode, she beat up a body guard with a look of disappointment and a sigh of exasperation. Carter channels all of her emotions into her work, but not in a detrimental way — a rare find for a woman in the superhero genre.
Where Black Widow and Gamora favor a particular weapon or two, Carter often goes without or utilizes a pistol, with which she is a crack shot. She has gadgets but these generally link back to her intelligence gathering or are not intended for direct harm, like her flash bomb in the second episode or her knock-out lipstick. As such, Carter seems to prefer the good ol’ fashioned method of getting her hands dirty.
An entirely capable fighter, Carter doesn’t command fear and respect the way Black Widow and Gamora do, a fact which her miniseries has made abundantly clear. This is not, however, due to her being any less skilled; “Agent Carter” relies on the chauvinism of the ’40s to remind viewers that she is demeaned because she is a woman, not because of her competency. While this is certainly detrimental to her self-esteem — poignantly so in “Time and Tide” — she often tweaks this in her favor, playing the part of “stupid woman” in order to gain access to information and places she otherwise would not. Indeed, the ease with which she flips between these roles proves her to be more adept at her job than her male coworkers, one of whom appear to suspect a thing. This, in and of itself, makes her radically different from Black Widow and Gamora, both of whom have serious reputations as all-around dangerous foes. By contrast, Peggy’s mettle is measured by her navigation of a world that isn’t ready for her and, in a lot of ways, she becomes a stronger character for it, as she must overcome larger obstacles and sacrifice her achievements in exchange for her friends’ wellbeing.
So — What Does This All Mean?
All this isn’t to say, of course, that any one of these characters — Black Widow, Gamora and Peggy Carter — are better or worse than the others, or that this will remain the status quo. For instance, Black Widow has developed from her introduction as a cold, all-business persona in “Iron Man 2” to a layered character with a sense of humor, however dry, by “Cap 2.” Likewise, Gamora showed signs of lightening up as early on as the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Regardless, I’d be amiss to say that the trend wasn’t entirely troubling, particularly considering that these women turn up only in ensemble films. One character like this isn’t the problem, but when this character type becomes the only one utilized for women in a franchise that has a spotty record with female representation, it becomes an issue.
With “Agent Carter,” however, Marvel is signaling the start of something new. The show uses choreography usually reserved for the likes of Steve Rogers, Bucky or Sam Wilson — and minus any weaponized gadgetry, at that! Peggy is the James Bond of her miniseries, suave and confident, and sets out to rescue her bumbling sidekick and rich friend. She has a strong, charismatic presence that commands attention; she doesn’t need to stick to the shadows, and she doesn’t need a troubled past to drive her to do work on behalf of the good of mankind. However, she isn’t the polar opposite of her predecessors by any means. Aspects of Black Widow and Gamora bleed into her characterization, from her ability to chameleon into a new role to expressing her rage through fighting, but she stands apart from them in her bright, pulpy personality. Hayley Atwell’s performance leaves audiences with no doubt: she isn’t merely a part of something larger — Peggy Carter is the hero of her own damn story.
With the “Captain Marvel” film and “AKA Jessica Jones” on the horizon, “Agent Carter” would appear to mark a turning point in Marvel’s characterization of female heroes. Like the Carol Danvers of the comics, Carter is bold and unapologetic, and sets a strong precedent for the women in all of Marvel’s upcoming adaptations, a sign of the MCU’s newfound willingness to diversify its female heroes. If this is truly the direction the studio plans to pursue with its women, make mine Marvel, please.
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