The Marvel TV universe expands with ‘Agent Carter’

Hayley Atwell gets her spy on as Agent Carter.

Three and a half stars

Marvel’s Agent Carter Tuesdays, 9 p.m. (premieres January 6 at 8 p.m.), ABC.

Marvel’s first TV-series extension of its cinematic universe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has been a bit of a disappointment, with a strong pilot followed by a mediocre first season full of generic action-adventure stories and flat characters. While the second season has been an improvement, with a clearer direction and a better incorporation of superhero elements, the show still can’t stand up to Marvel’s energetic, entertaining movies. Taking over for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. during its winter hiatus, Agent Carter still isn’t as enjoyable as Marvel’s recent movies, but the first two episodes are promising, with far more style and wit than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has shown in quite a while.

The title character is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a resourceful secret agent who was a major supporting character in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, and is a longtime Marvel Comics fixture. The show takes place soon after the events of The First Avenger, at the conclusion of World War II, when Peggy has joined the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), the precursor to the modern Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. agency. One of the best things about Agent Carter is that it returns to the stylish, retro world of the Marvel universe in the 1940s, which the movies left behind when they transported Captain America to the present day. The vintage fashions, music and set design look good even on a reduced TV budget, and the show plays with the time period cleverly. The second episode features a hokey Captain America radio drama woven through the main plot, and Peggy herself is subject to all the unfortunate period-accurate attitudes about working women.

Atwell is charming as the unflappable but lonely Peggy, who pines for the disappeared Captain America, and the supporting cast includes reliable players like Dollhouse’s Enver Gjokaj and Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham as Peggy’s fellow agents. Casual viewers may be a little overwhelmed by the show’s strong connections to Marvel’s movie and TV continuity—the first episode incorporates clips from The First Avenger, and the season’s main storyline is set into motion by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, reprising his role from The First Avenger), father of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. But Marvel fans will be delighted by the way the show fills in gaps and expands on the cinematic world, and setting the show in the past means that it has entire decades of history to explore on its own. With only eight episodes in the first season, Agent Carter should hopefully be able to avoid the wheel-spinning and filler storylines that have plagued Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and maybe even prove that Marvel TV shows can take their place alongside Marvel movies.

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