Is Agent Carter Marvel’s Real Leading Lady?


Marvel fans will know that the second season of Agent Carter, the Captain America spin-off television show, has begun filming with star Hayley Atwell, over the last week. After a hugely enjoyable debut season, I have high hopes that the sophomore run will prove to be just as good, if not better, now that the show has found its footing within the overall Marvel media universe – cinematic and television. But it would appear that, for all her work and class, Atwell’s Carter isn’t as… I don’t know, popular as Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, a character which has appeared in almost all of the MCU films following Iron Man 2 (at least it certainly feels that way) and has yet to have an arc which is solely her own. In this age of sexual equality, particularly in the male dominated Comic Book Movie genre, in a desperate search for strong female role models, has Peggy Carter’s postwar period antics supplanted the dynamic high-kicking femme fatale as Marvel’s most accessible female character?

That's better. A woman holding a big gun!
That’s better. A woman holding a big gun!

Critics of the comic book genre, both printed and cinematic, have long felt the medium’s male-centric, often misogynistic attitudes towards women (just look at Lara Croft, for Pete’s sake!), have left the female demographic unevenly portrayed, and with increasing pressure to rectify this, recent announcements by the studio involving the female-lead Captain Marvel, as well as DC’s own Wonder Woman, have begun to right the ship. Depictions of female superheroes within comics usually involve large breasts, revealing clothing and/or costumes, and a decidedly secondary role development beyond the male characters within a franchise. Nowadays, however, with the major studios having to cater to their increasingly younger female fans, most female superheroes are, on balance, depicted in a far less sexualized manner (although this isn’t always the case, with the original Avengers poster spoofed to display the male characters in Black Widow’s female pose, ass-out and all sexy and shit. Hunt it down, if you have Google.

Black Widow, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in the MCU films – to date, five of the twelve films produced – is a physical force to be reckoned with. She’s strong, athletic, deadly, and takes no crap from anyone. Marvel’s television dynamo, Agent Peggy Carter, debuted in the first Captain America film, cameoed in the sequel, and claimed a television series all her own in 2014; she’s also athletic, deadly, takes no crap (well, kinda) and is a strong role model for women inside the comic book medium.

While it’s easy to look at Black Widow – Natasha Romanoff – as a charmingly sexy piece of eye-candy, deeper reflections and subplots within the Marvel films have allowed a greater breadth to develop, particularly within the events of both The Winter Soldier and Age Of Ultron, both of which gave us a  bit more backstory on everyone’s favorite assassin. However, the problem I have with Romanoff’s character is that, as portrayed in almost all the films so far – with the exception of Iron Man 2 – her character seems to be dependent on her male co-stars to propel her narrative. In The Winter Soldier, for example, her relationship with Cap brings about hints at a wider out-of-frame story, and her relationship with Hawkeye in the first Avengers film was equilaterally dependent on him to move her arc along.

Almost at no point in our exploration of Romanoff in the cinematic universe do we see her in her own, unique arc, rather than as a sidebar or subplot to one of her male co-stars. Hell, they even had her hook up romantically with Bruce Banner in Age Of Ultron, a development that wouldn’t be a problem were it not seemingly out of left field.

Women always look better with an explosion behind them.
Women always look better with an explosion behind them.

And it quickly reduces the impact of the character if she’s fretting, however much, on one of her co-stars. Romanoff’s dreams about her past, her training, which are alluded to in Agent Carter’s first season, by the way, would allow her character to become more emotionally connective if we could understand her more; no fault of Johansson’s portrayal, because she’s kick-ass, but the aloof, stone-cold act is starting to wear thin.

Conversely, Peggy Carter managed to be everything Black Widow wanted to be, in her first full season of television. Although a supporting role in Captain America: The First Avenger, Carter’s rise to prominence came with her Marvel One-Shot appearance, Agent Carter, which served as a prelude to the television series of the same name in 2014. In this 40’s set show, Carter had to deal not only with end-of-the-world scenarios running through a link to her lost Captain, and the rise of Hydra, but also the rampant misogyny and sexism of her world’s view on women at the time – they should be seen and not heard. The expanded width the television show allowed was to build her into a well-rounded character that grew and developed as the series went on, a far cry from the relatively minor coverage given to her modern equivalent, Black Widow.

Because boobs sell, I guess. Power Girl flies into back problems.
Because boobs sell, I guess. Power Girl flies into back problems.

Now, both women are inherently strong, able-bodied women capable of dealing with their problems head-on, and by and large Carter’s travails didn’t have her “saved” by the strong silent guy cliche at any stage (or look like her costume would blow out if she bent the wrong way!); whereas Black Widow is more than competent at kicking all kinds of ass, Carter is nowhere near as skilled with combat and yet still manages to survive a firefight alongside the Howling Commando’s during a pivotal episode of the show. Although I think Agent Carter’s somewhat repetitive reliance on the men’s sexism within the show became tiresome, Atwell’s performance sold the comedy, engaged the action, and delivered a fun, exciting, complex character as best as television would allow.

In the next few years, we’re about to find our female quotient of heroes rise significantly, with both Wonder Woman (in the DCMU, with Batman V Superman coming next year, and a solo film not long after that), Marvel’s Captain Marvel (coming in her own solo film in 2018), and Netflix’s Jessica Jones all in the works. Wonder Woman will also appear in Zack Snyder’s planned Justice League duo of films, alongside the rest of the top-tier DC heroes like Batman and Superman, The Flash and others. Even in the male-led films and shows, the female roles are having a stronger presence, including Daredevil’s use of both Rosario Dawson (as no-nonsense nurse Claire Temple) and Deborah Ann Woll (as Matt Murdock’s business associate Karen Page), and Margo Robbie as iconic Batman franchise player, Harley Quinn, in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie.

However, as it stands right now, between Black Widow and Agent Carter, my eye is firmly fixed on the latter. Black Widow might have the sleek, sexy appeal of a Ferrari, but Agent Carter’s nuanced character interplay, delightful personification by Hayley Atwell (who is easily as stunning as Johansson, even if her period costuming doesn’t always allow us to see it), and beautifully layered emotional heft, make her the more interesting character of the pair. Yes, Widow has the cinematic thunder, but if you’re wanting a great female-led comic book hero to follow, I’m saying Agent Carter is one you can spend more time with.

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