Sunday 18 March 2018

Couchsurfer... Get Carter

As Agent Carter comes to Fox TV UK, we take a look at the show's origins, and the trend for adult-aimed superhero reboots

Agent Carter: Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell reprising her role from the Captain America films) is an unstoppable secret agent.
Agent Carter: Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell reprising her role from the Captain America films) is an unstoppable secret agent.
Agent Carter

Emily Hourican

Time was, adults did not like superheroes. They put them away with other childish things when they left the bedrooms of their youth and moved into a grown-up world. But that was before a generation of kidults came of age - or rather didn't - and discovered that they still wanted to watch shows about guys who can fly, or shrink, or mutate; girls who command fire and water, or shift shape. That they still wanted a clear battle between good and evil, preferably with masks and cracking one-liners thrown in.

Poor kids. The new trend for sombre, stylish, complicated, often sexualised superhero outings, created to appeal to the kidults, shows no signs of stopping. We had an entire series of Batman films by Christopher Nolan so slow-moving, with so much back-story and so few costumed fantasy fight sequences, that kids everywhere were baffled, and bored. The X-Men films became so dark and carried so many messages about 'tolerance' and 'equality,' not to mention unpleasant torture scenes, that the kids were confused, and upset. James Mangold's Wolverine, an X-Men spin-off? Impossible to follow without a fairly sophisticated understanding of narrative devices. The Hulk, with Ed Norton? Well that was just a plod for everyone. However, sometimes the kids' loss is our gain, because when the made-for-grown-ups superhero stuff is good, it's very enjoyable.

This is the guiding spirit behind the new Marvel's Agent Carter series, on Fox TV. Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - in this case represented as a kind of Noir-ish 1940s New York - the series was inspired by Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but heavily influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark, LA Confidential, and the hard-boiled crime novels of James Ellroy.

The series is based around the character of Peggy Carter, who was originally created as the love interest of Captain America; born in England and trained up by the British Royal Military, she becomes an advisor to the US's Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), and capable of a particularly homely branch of far-sighted wisdom: "The world has changed, and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes, the best that we can do, is to start over."

Facing into the realities of post-war America, Carter discovers that heroes of the zero hours - the flamboyant, wisecracking daredevils who risked all - are no longer in keeping with the new world order. Instead, they are considered risky, unpredictable, unsound. And so she alone is prepared to believe that Howard Stark (father of Ironman Tony), accused of unleashing his deadliest weapons and putting them up for sale to anyone willing to pay for them, has been framed.

He asks her to track down those responsible and clear his name, something that could land her in prison as a traitor if she is caught. And so she must balance her office job for the SSR, where she works with Agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), Agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) and Chief Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham), along with her attempts to figure out how to be a working woman in a man's world. Plus how to survive the loss of Captain America, apparently killed in the final days of the war along with her mission to root out evil and stand tall for good.

The series wasn't a huge ratings success in America, where it aired in April, but many critics loved it for the focus on character rather than action and plot, and a second 10-part series is due next year. Yes, there are echoes here of LA Confidential and Tim Burton's Batman Returns, but also of Mad Men and Bladerunner; something stylish, thoughtful and just grown-up enough.

Marvel's Agent Carter starts tonight at 9pm on Fox TV UK

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