I don't get the Marvel Comics thing. Leaves me cold as ice. I left comic books behind at some point in my Irish youth. There weren't a lot of them available anyway. Spider-Man, maybe.
And then, just weeks ago, along comes Agent Carter (CTV, Tuesday, 9 p.m.). I'm smitten.
Shocked, too. The Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show came in 2013 and I cursed it. All high-tech flibbertigibbety storytelling and there's the matter of typing out the show's name, which you have to do by law, or Marvel will sue you. Or something. It's as complicated as the plotting.
But Peggy Carter and her adventures is a very different kettle of cod. Apparently, Peggy (Hayley Atwell, who is gloriously good) is a character in the Captain America franchise. She's a British secret agent with the "Strategic Scientific Reserve," and had a thing with Captain America back in the day.
The day – that's the thing that is lip-smacking delicious. Agent Carter is set in 1946 and is stunningly atmospheric; a surreal, heightened world of dames in seriously structured suits and dashing hats with netting or little feather adornments. The series (an episode airs tonight in Canada but the State of the Union address precludes new episodes on ABC) is achingly lovely to look at. And then there's Atwell, who would make a powerful statue, as a briskly confident spy who battles nefarious ruffians, and also, in her own bad-ass way, sexism.
Atwell and several co-stars, including James D'Arcy (his character is a sort of Jeeves-from-hell, a mysterious and deadly valet) came to talk to us critics. And in the odd way that these things work, she barely got a word out. There were five actors from Agent Carter and seven – count 'em, seven – Marvel producers, too.
After a lot of jawing by the producers about elaborate plot lines to possibly tie in Agent Carter with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Atwell got to speak. She was asked if she had been hurt doing any of the stunts on the show – she marauds through no-goodniks – because there had been reports that several stuntmen were injured on the show.
Atwell coolly replied, "No injuries. Haha. None. No, just the men get hurt."
This brought a brief silence as everybody stared at her. She is, apparently, immune to hurt and pain. Many men swallowed hard and sat still in the reverent silence.
Atwell was on course to become one of those distinguished English actors who does theatre work (she graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), and be featured in serious BBC dramas lauded for earnest accomplishments. Then, she was cast in the 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, although her role was small, and she appeared as Peggy again in the now Oscar-nominated Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Each time she made a strong impression and Marvel decided to make a series (there are only eight episodes to begin) about the formidable Peggy Carter.
Isn't it a strange career trajectory?
"Yes, of course," she said. "I had no idea. I was over the moon to get the part in Captain America: The First Avenger. And what excited me about being able to portray Peggy in this series is that we saw glimpses of what she could be in the first film, and this now is being explored. Yes, we know she's strong and capable and has a hard time with the guys, but what about her vulnerability? What about her humour? What about her wit? What about her different aspects of her intelligence? So, I just felt that there was so much more that we could explore. It has changed my life in many ways."
Asked about fitting into a very American pop culture phenomenon, she explained that she's not, actually, entirely British. Her father is an American, her parents separated when she was a child and she spent her summers in the U.S.
"Yeah, I think it helps, being half American, half English, so I have those influences. I spent my summers in Kansas City, Mo., which is very different than the kind of state school in London that I went to. I think that experience gave me a sense of how big the world was and how the different genres can all give you something. I grew up going to the theatre every week. That was my first love, and that's what introduced me to the world of acting. And I saw actors on stages as extraordinary human beings that were cultured and interesting and had gravitas and character. But then at the same time, I was a huge fan of things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, and things that were fun and tongue-in-cheek and cultish."
Okay then, she's as cool and eclectic in her taste as Peggy Carter is formidable. It's a done deal. If, like me, you are wary of the complicated absurdity of comic-book productions and superhero silliness, meet Agent Carter. You'll be smitten, too.