I have the bad feeling that this review might offend some Americans, because I’ll discuss some of the more negative aspects of American lifestyle. I have tried to explain as well as I could where I am coming from, but in my experience, it is always difficult to convey thoughts like this, especially when a language and cultural barrier is involved. Be aware that I would be just as critical about other countries and their propaganda if they were the topic, my own included. It is simply impossible to talk about Captain America without talking about America.
What I knew about Captain America before I watched the movies:
Mostly that he annoyed me. There were a couple of factors which played into it, and most of them have to do with the fact that I am German and Captain America was basically a propaganda tool during the second World War. I needed some time to sort out why I felt so negatively about him. It’s not the propaganda in itself, or that my own folk tends to be the target, there are a couple of propaganda pieces from back then I truly appreciate. But Captain America rubs me entirely the wrong way, with his overly patriotic appearance, and I believe that this is a cultural matter.
Due to their history Germans have developed a deeply seated mistrust towards unthinkingly patriotism. Basically it’s okay in the sports arena, but not as a way of life. Captain America with his blond, muscled appearance and unwavering readiness to fight for his country is way too much like Hitler’s ideal of the Germanic soldier, and the very idea that someone just puts a serum in a random dude to produce the perfect fighter is for me the stuff for nightmares, not for heroic stories. It also smacks very much of a “look how great we are” thinking, exactly the kind of attitude which rubs so many other countries the wrong way (not that Americans have a monopole on that).
What I think about the movies:
To my surprise, I really liked Captain America: The First Avenger. Partly because the movie was so incredible self-aware. It does comment on the difference between war propaganda and real war and manages to divorce Captain America from being a physical representation of the US to a certain degree by making him more a representation of the ideals the US was built on. Which is a small but very important difference. As cynical as I am about the supposed land of the free, I do appreciate the thought behind it, even if reality is far removed from the ideal.
I also appreciated that the movie avoided the usual “All Germans Are Nazis” trope, and did it with one single sentences, by letting Dr. Erskine point out that the first country which was invaded by the Nazi’s was their own. (Which is, historically speaking, correct. Most people seem to have forgotten nowadays that Hitler was not elected by a majority vote, but used loopholes and tactical force on his way to power). To clarify why this trope bothers me so much: If we don’t try to understand the mechanism behind what happened back then, and don’t acknowledge that it can happen again (and does currently happen on a smaller scale), but instead put it down to a fluke or some sort of deficit in the Germans, then we can’t learn anything from it. This movie basically said: The world is full of bullies and we have to recognize and stand up to them to make it a better place. It’s a little bit simplistic, but certainly a message I can get behind, and is less tainted by American superiority ideology than the original Captain America was.
Speaking of which, the movie also avoids the “America Wins The War” trope. While the multicultural troop which eventually fights with Captain America is a little bit silly (there were no mixed units during that time, the biggest diversity you would get was along the line of a windtalker or another kind of specialist), it does bring the point across that this fight was a joint effort (what is glossed over is the fact that America mostly offered weapons to their allies, not soldiers, because the US was way more interested in fighting Japan and getting revenge for Pearl Harbor than stopping the Nazis).
All in all, the movie does manage to avoid the usual missteps, and has some really thoughtful moment, especially during Dr. Erskine and Steve Roger talks. But that’s only the basics. What about the story itself? Well, I think the first part is outstanding, the second part is soso. See, I have kind of a problem with most superheroes, which boils down to the fact that a lot of them didn’t really come to their superpowers honestly. They either were born powerful, or are filthy rich so that they can create the tools they needed or they have some stupid accident. But this version of Steve Rogers is neither. He is born poor, he struggles to fulfil his dream, and actually earns the powers her gets through dedication, bravery and pain. And this initial struggle is my favourite part of the movie. A stroke of genius is in my eyes the idea that the serum can’t really turn someone in a hero, it can only enhance what is already there, meaning that this ill and scrawny kid always was an hero and the serum only gave him additional strength.
The second part of the movie goes a little bit through the motions. It’s like the writers had a checklist: Bucky has to die – Check – There has to be a final battle – Check – and then he ends up in ice – Check. It’s not bad by any means, but not particularly riveting either. But it is perhaps a good thing that they went through the awkward stage with the actual fight as fast as possible, considering all the historical trappings which come with it. All in all, Captain America: The first Avengers was surprisingly good. The Winter Soldier on the other hand, I consider outstanding, but that will be a topic I address when I talk about Black Widow.
What I think about Peggy Carter:
Well, first of all, she is certainly an upgrade from what this character used to be. Usually Peggy Carter is simply the love interest – or was reconned to be one? I think she started out as a really minor one-off character in the comics, and while there is a character which is Captain America’s lost love in some adaptations, said character tends to have different names. But Peggy Carter feels more interesting than her predecessors. While she really doesn’t get a lot to do in the movie aside from giving Captain America the means to go on his first mission and helping out on his last one, she has a “heroine of another story” vibe to her. She is involved with the Super-soldier program before Steve is chosen, she is at the front while Steve is still stuck with the USO, you just know that she would have some really interesting stories to tell if that were her movie and not Steve’s.
It’s the small touches which give the character some profile, like her also running towards the fake grenade, and demonstrating her competence as officer. She is also Steve’s best supporter. Not just emotionally, without her help he might have never made it far enough behind the enemy lines to rescue anyone. A recurring theme is the misogynistic attitude she has do deal with as woman serving at the army – and no, he being an officer is not unrealistic. Ironically the war had a very positive effect concerning the emancipation of women. Since the men were fighting a lot of jobs were done by them (at least until the war was over), and even the Nazis were not above sending woman to the front, though naturally not as commanding officers or even in a position which required holding a gun. The allies were a little bit more open to allowing competent woman to raise in the ranks.
The Agent Carter short builds on this theme. The patronizing attitude she has to deal with from her male colleagues in the office, the assumption that she got the position because she used to be the “girlfriend of Captain America” (when in fact she was already high up in ranks before she even meet him), and the way she is delegated to do the boring paper work for everyone else is quite galling to watch. Her triumphant leaving is a little bit over the top (honestly, why bothering to tell some flunky what her role will be if S.H.I.E.L.D is a secret organisation), but it is satisfying nevertheless. And now that Agent Carter aired, she would even be eligible for a regular “Honoring the Heroine” article, since she now stars in her own TV-Show. That is quite an achievement for a character who started as love-interest. Really, who would have thought that of all the Marvel heroines Peggy Carter would be the first one who would get a leading role in the MCU?
I can’t express enough how much enjoyed Agent Carter. Peggy might have even surpassed Black Widow now. I could gush for ages over the costumes, the characters, the music, and a lot of really well done scenes. I have decided to restrain myself, and to pick exactly one scene of every episode to discuss here (spoilers ahead).
Episode 1: Colleen’s death.
I think I have ranted once or twice in the past about the concept that every confident woman is in truth some vulnerable little flower, needing nothing more than a shoulder to lean on. But that doesn’t mean that I think that vulnerability is somehow forbidden for well-written characters. Quite the opposite, if it is done right, it is an important layer. This is done right. Peggy is already grieving at the start of the episode because she lost Steve Rogers. But it is the kind of grief which is already slightly dulled by time. When Colleen dies, though, it is not just a matter of grief but also of guilt. And when Peggy breaks down, it is done wonderfully understated. She just sits down on the bed beside her dead friend and cries. And for that I can even excuse that the writers felt the need to fridge yet another woman.
Episode 2: Peggy and Jarvis talk about the importance of helpful friends
There are two things which work particularly well during this conversation. On thing is Peggy admitting that she has taken Steve as her inspiration, that she tries to continue his mission (which is also subtly hinted during her first appearance in the show. It is no accident that her first workdress is blue, red and white). The other thing is Jarvis pointing out that Steve didn’t fight alone either. He had her to lean on. I am not sure if a “you can’t do this alone” talk would have worked. But a “nobody can do this alone, not even you” talk is exactly what the narrative needed at this point.
Episode 3: Peggy wants to call in the location of the weapons herself
It was really difficult to choose for this episode. The moment in which Peggy actually pretends to be incompetent is just heart-breaking. But I think this scene is slightly more powerful, because it shows how deeply it cut that she had to humiliate herself in front of her colleagues. And how desperate she truly is to finally gets the respect she deserves. There is this one scene in the first episode in Angie tells her that if you keep paying your dues, you will get your break-through at one point. The thing is, Peggy already did this. She has proven herself again and again during the war and as reward got stuck doing paperwork for guys who look down on her. In this scene she reveals for the first time how much it smarts that all her efforts will never be honoured, while her “failures” will always be used as an excuse to look down on her.
Episode 4: Peggy punches Howard
I mentioned it before, but I am normally not a fan of this particular trope of woman somehow being allowed to be violent towards men. In this case, though, it works. Partly because the punch is not treated as something harmless of cute. It has an effect and it is visible that Howard got hurt by it. Partly because Peggy and Howard are not in a romantic relationship. And partly because of the level of betrayal. Howard lied to Peggy and tries every excuse in the book to throw her off his case, from pretending to be innocent to comparing his disadvantages to hers. Howard might have been born poor, but he was born poor as a white male in America. Peggy was born as a woman in England, in a society with way more rigid conceptions about class, and she didn’t became a compulsive liar on her way up the ladder. But the most galling part about his speech is when he claims after the punch that he lied to protect her. How often have I heard this in some Comic hero show? How the hell is keeping someone in the dark protection? If anything it takes away the decision from the person in question if he or she (usually she) is ready the risk of being closely associated with a hero, and ensures total unawares if an enemy does turn up. In this case, though, Peggy risked everything to recover something which is not dangerous but Howard simply didn’t want to loose to the government. That said something is Steve’s blood is just the icing on the cake.
Episode 5: Peggy pushes for being included in the mission
This episode was especially satisfying, because Peggy finally got a little bit of respect. But what really made it for me that Peggy stopped waiting for her “big break”. She created one. There was no order which put her on the mission, no sudden epiphany on Dooley’s part. Peggy knew she was the right one for the mission, and pushed for her inclusion. And it was not only awesome, it also made a good point. If you want something you have to fight for it, at the right moment with the right arguments.
Episode 6: Dottie kisses Peggy
No, I didn’t pick this one because of the undertones in it. I picked it, because Peggy falls victim to the very same mistake her co-workers made. They didn’t see Peggy, because Peggy is a woman. And Peggy didn’t see Dottie, because Dottie pretended expertly to be an awkward, traditional woman. What I like about the way the show portrays Peggy Carter is that while she is awesome, she is not perfect. She can overlook details, she can fall for deception just like anyone else does. And she can fall victim to her very own weapons. To me this is the mark of a well rounded protagonist.
Episode 7: Peggy reveals that she stole Steve’s blood
Episode seven is full of memorable moments. It is also full a flashy scenes, like Dottie scaling down the stairs. But somehow none of them hold a candle to the moment when Peggy reveals the blood. It is such an emotional scene, and perfectly acted. The moment when she says “I just wanted another chance to protect him.” makes my heart break every time I watch it. But it is also a key moment, because it puts the very core of Peggy into words. Through the whole series, Peggy is grieving. And usually when a female character grieves, it is portrayed as something crippling, something she has to overcome (with the help of a strong male shoulder). But in this show, Peggy’s grief is her inspiration, something which made her stronger and even more determined to hold up the ideals for which Steve died. Revealing her emotions doesn’t make her look weak, it reveals her greatest strength.
Episode 8: Thompson gets congratulated for his good work
The scene is perhaps a little bit on the nose, especially Peggy’s line about not needed the approval of anyone, but in the wake of Peggy finally being accepted by her co-workers, it is a really good reminder that this is only a first step. Peggy will have to deal with this world in which she will get overlooked – but then, getting overlooked is kind of her superpower.
More generally speaking they did a really good job to wrap up all the storylines.
My final verdict of the show:
Let’s be honest here: “Some agent is searching for a bunch of McGuffins before they destroy the world” is not the most riveting plot. But in a way the search for the weapons (which only lasted for three episodes either way, the rest is about clearing Howard’s name) is only a backdrop. The actual story the show tries to tell is one about a woman trying to find her place after the war is over. About her struggles to navigate a society which holds her to certain expectations. It’s not just the men who try to force Peggy Carter into a certain way of life. The women are often just as bad. It is a war Peggy can’t win, not alone and not during her lifetime, but she can stake a claim on her dreams if she picks her battles wisely, and paving the way for the women which come after her.
There is one thing I would like to address: I was naturally very interested how the audience would react to the first good female lead Superhero show since Wonder Woman. And there was one complain which really bothered me “Why aren’t there any PoC’s? And why does the show never address racism.” And don’t get me wrong, I get it. I get the need for representation. But…well, let’s imagine there are parents. Said parents have two children. One which constantly sits in front of the TV, and another one who is good in school and just won first place in an athletic competition. What would you do? Would you concentrate of trying to get the child in front of the TV to do better, or would you lay into the one who has good marks that he hasn’t straight A’s, and that competing in one sport isn’t enough, it has to be two at least, better three?
Media critics who are especially concerned with representation tend to do the latter one. There are countless shows out there which are set in current time, and do neither in terms of proper representation aside from having one or two token minority characters somewhere in the cast, while the majority of stories are still about the white male leads. And there are shows (and movies) which are actually buckling the trend for real. But those get the most flak. It’s not that I mind pointing out flaws in a show. Nothing is perfect. But I think one should judge every show and every movie by the same standard. If you were a producer, would you be particularly interested in creating diversity, if you know that you’ll most likely get the reaction “this isn’t good enough”, while nobody would have cared at all about diversity if you had stuck to a white, mostly male cast with one or two token minorities? We have in Germany a saying, that someone who demands too much, wants the “eierlegende Wollmilchsau” (A woolmilkpig which lays eggs). And that’s the level of expectation of some people.
Granted, there are shows which make a big deal around how “diverse” they are, but if you look closer you realise that the so called diversity consists of throwing the audience a bone once in a while. And they deserved to be called out for it. But Agent Carter never claimed that the show would be about showing the struggle of minorities in the 1940s. It claimed that it would be a show portraying the struggle of a woman in the 1940s. And it delivered. It delivered on all fronts. We got a show which would easily pass every gender related test possible. Which gave a view on with what woman had to put up without the nice tinted lenses which tends to downplay of sexism in those era’s so much, that Agent Carter sometimes seems to be over-the-top by showing how bad it really was. And which in addition addressed war trauma, PTSD, physical disability, and whatever else it managed to fit in eight episodes. Is “But why doesn’t the show represent PoC’s/Jews/Gays/mental illness/other minorities, too?” really the right reaction to it?
I have never encountered a show which addresses sexism in the 1940s as directly as Agent Carter does (I am sure there has been at least one at one point, which I just don’t know, but there haven’t been enough to make this theme stale and overdone). And I have never encountered a show which spends so much time on showing easy camaraderie between a female and various male characters. Marvel set out do something about the gender inequality in the comic book media. They don’t deserve a gold star just for that, because that’s actually the least any comic book publisher should do. But they do deserve credit for doing it well, without getting scolded why their show about a female character struggling for acceptance is not a show about a PoC character struggling for acceptance too. I would understand this better if Marvel didn’t plan to do anything concerning their PoC characters. But with Luke Cage and Black Panther being part of the planned line-up, it obviously is a topic they intend to tackle.
What too many people fail to understand is that the Bechdel test and similar are not designed to judge the quality of a movie or a show (I don’t go to watch Shawshanks Redemption and then complain that the movie doesn’t pass the first stage of the Bechdel test), they exist in order to make a point about the level of gender representation in general. The question is not how many PoC’s are in Agent Carter. The question is why the white straight male lead is the default, instead of having characters which cover the spectrum, not in one singly show, but in the media as a whole. We don’t need TV shows which have an African American, an Asian, a Hispanic and at least one female character in the cast, so that they can call themselves “diverse”. That’s a first step at best. What we need are shows which have all kind of leads, and that without the producers feeling the need to “even out” the scale by adding a lot of white male characters.
Agent Carter had eight episodes, and I don’t think a throwaway line about racism would have done the subject justice. But who knows what the future of the show will be…my dream is that Agent Carter will get a couple of mini-series, which are all set in a different era of her life. If she lead S.H.I.E.L.D. in the late 1950s, there is no way that the civil rights movement was not something important. Or that McCarthyism never became an issue.
All in all Agent Carter is my favourite Comic Show on TV. For now. After all there are still a few to come.
Quote: “You think you know me. But, I’ve never been more than what each of you has created. To you, I’m a stray kitten left on your doorstep to be protected. The secretary turned damsel in distress. The girl on the pedestal transformed into some daft whore. You’re behaving like children, and what’s worse, what’s far worse is that this is just shoddy police work.”
If you like the MCU you shouldn’t miss out on this show. But even if you are not familiar with the Marvel movies, you can easily watch the show as a stand-alone piece. It ties in, but not in a way that knowing anything about the MCU is a requirement. And if you like period pieces set in the 1940s, female lead shows or simply mini-series, give it a shot.