Between the Prequel & the Sequel -TV Critique: Marvel’s Agent Carter

AgentCARTERTitle: Agent Carter
Series Creator(s): Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Network(s): ABC (USA)
Original Airing Dates: January 6-February 24 2015
Number of Episodes: 8


Synopsis:

In 1946, Peggy Carter must balance the routine office work she does for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R) while secretly assisting Howard Stark, who finds himself framed for supplying deadly weapons to the top bidder. Carter is assisted by Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, to find those responsible and dispose of the weapons.


Critique:

When you have a tightly focussed & structured narrative universe like the current Marvel cinematic one, it’s hard to fit in side stories that parallel & enhance larger narratives that play out within a different media space (i.e. movie to television).
HayleyAtwellAsAgentCarter
That was pretty much my issue with the MCU TV line’s 1st show, (Marvel’s) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. because it had to adhere to a timeline structured between several movies (mainly after The Avengers & then fitting in overlaps from both Thor: The Dark World & Captain America: The Winter Soldier). This meant that the narrative & scope was fairly stunted because it couldn’t create story conflicts with the larger (& more important) cinematic universe. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been hampered by what it could & couldn’t do & whilst it has been able of late to break out of the MCU constraints with it’s own storylines it’s still tied into the larger idea of the Inhumans & that new movie franchise (since Fox owns the rights to Marvel’s Mutants).

 Agent Carter is fortunate in that it does not have to adhere to a myopic narrative structure but it is still trapped within a much, much larger structure which limits what it can do.

The 1st limit is the big one: Captain America -both the 1st film & the character himself.

Even though the series is about Peggy Carter & her search for purpose & meaning in a world after WW2, everything is still set in her relation (& failed relationship) with him. This hampers both the overall story -because things have to be references to a world after Cap’s supposed death- & the character of Peggy herself, because she’s only really framed in terms of references to Cap. Even though he’s not a physical presence within the series, he basically affects all of Peggy’s motivations, as she does actions in regards to what Cap would do or think.

This is something that is constantly put to her by other characters, such as members of the S.S.R (which is an odd choice of name considering that the Cold War was rolling in) & her friends from the war, like Howard Stark & the Howling Commandos. Peggy isn’t really allowed to be her own woman, she’s always Captain America’s other half. This idea is quasi played with a meta-radio play within the series that has Peggy’s character dumbed down to a field nurse & Cap’s love interest always being rescued & always played juxtaposed against Peggy enacting her own agency (as in: kicking someone’s head in).

It’s not that she’s a bad or shallow character, she’s just reactonary.
peggy carter
She’s always reacting against what others think of her how how they treat her (such as her S.S.R. colleagues turning her into the office tea lady & disregarding her years of combat & field experience) or against expectations of the time (her role as a woman in Post-War USA) or even reacting to the hidden villains’ plans. She has agency within the narrative but she’s never really enacting. Her motivation is to prove herself to her male chauvinist colleagues & proof her worth as an agent but that’s still a reaction. Same with how she chooses to socially & personally isolate herself in the 1st few episodes of the series -this is a reaction against losing Cap & her general experiences during the war.

That is not to say that Peggy Carter is robbed of all development & action, it’s just framed poorly in terms of development. Always leaving her on the backfoot & behind. Done well, this can create great tension in the story but it’s not deftly done her, leaving some parts -such as the threat of the various villains- feeling rather flat. It speaks too much of how poor Hollywood is at depicting female characters who do not fit within comfortable moulds & stereotypes. Even when empowered that they still have to fit typical feminine rolls of love interest, daughter, sister, et cetera as well as fitting the physical form of societally accepted beauty (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer for some examples of the empowerment-disempowerment dynamic & the superstrong Barbie Doll).

Yet, despite this reactionary form of agency, this is actually a very well put together show.

This starts with strong performances of the central characters of Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, James D’arcy as Jarvis (Howard Stark’s long suffering butler) & Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark is what holds so much of it together becuase of the natural yet conflicted chemistry that they bring to their individual roles. I think because they are all British actors with a diverse range of past roles they seem to perform better than their American counterparts (who do come off as fairly 2 dimensional). Add to the mix the other great British actor Ralph Brown as the nuanced Dr Ivchenko, you have a great front line cast.

It does help that Hayley Atwell is so gorgeous!

I need to build a bunk so I can be in it.
I need to build a bunk so I can be in it.

That’s not to sexualise or trivialise her in any way but she just has this dominant presence upon the screen where she just conquers all of your attention. She really inhabits the role, the struggle for acceptance & reacting against a society & occupation that just wants to keep her down. She also twists these expectations, knowing that everyone underestimates her she can do and get away with what others can’t. Her outer & inner strength shine through but she still needs support from friends.

This does lead into a character who was wasted & inconsistent: Jarvis.
carter & jarvis
James D’arcy plays him brilliantly but he’s so weak & wishy-washy in terms of his depiction despite having a strong & determined back ground. He exists almost solely as the Yank’s idea of the stiff upper lip Brit servant who has been a fixture of pop culture since the 1st World War. Jarvis is shown as having great fortitude & determination yet is so weak & easily yielding, lacking physical presence & abilities that Peggy has in abundance but this is in direct contradiction he was in the British army & has been trained to fight (according to his & Howard’s own words at least). That all given, D’arcy plays Jarvis with aplomb, giving him little gestures & habits that endear him to the audience -especially when he talks about his equally love suffering wife & their history together.

The other cast members are a bit of a mixed bag, with many of them not getting any development beyond stock misogynistic G-Men. There are some hints of things deeper, such as with Chief Dooley & how he views Peggy as someone who needs to be protected because of his estrangement but this is pretty much thrown out of the window in order to ramp up the tension & bring the S.S.R. together.

Yet the biggest thing that truly annoyed me about the series is how they didn’t connect it to the larger Golden Age period of Marvel Comics. There is a swathe of classic characters they could’ve referenced & used -such as the hero Angel. They could’ve connected a lot of the superpowered heroes back to the Captain America Supersoldier projects that spawned many other fictional heroes (which in turn can be used to explain superpowered individuals within the larger MCU).

That aside, Agent Carter, despite (or because of) it’s short run stood out amongst all the other superhero TV adaptions of the past few years. It has rich visuals, fairly good acting & a focussed core story (for the most part) without resorting to many choking tropes of TV series (ships in bottles http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LockedInARoom, et cetera).

Hopefully it will get a 2nd series that expands the past MCU a fair bit & introduce other classic characters. Plus more Hayley Atwell on screen is always a good thing.

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The Lolis of the Apocalypse – Anime Critique: Black Bullet

Before we begin with the critique, we’d just like to point out that this is our 69th post, so please insert childish Bevis & Butthead style laughter here.


 

Black_Bullet_Light_Novel_Cover_Volume_1Title: Black Bullet (Burakku Buretto)
Format: TV anime
Genre: sci-fi, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, action, harem
Series Creator: Shiden Kanzaki
Series Director: Masayuki Kojima
Studio: Kinema Citrus
Series length: 13 episodes
Original Airing dates: April 8, 2014 – July 1, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs

 

 


 

Synopsis:

“In the year 2021, mankind is decimated by the epidemic of Gastrea, a parasitic virus, and is forced to live within the Monolith walls, which are created from Varanium: a metal that is able to subdue Gastrea. Soon, children who were born with the Gastrea virus and obtained superhuman abilities as a result, are discovered and dubbed “Cursed Children”. Due to the Gastrea virus’ intervention, the Cursed Children could only be female. Civil Securities are formed to specialize fighting against Gastrea, operating with the pair of an Initiator, who are cursed children, and a Promoter, serving to lead the cursed children. Ten years after the epidemic, Rentaro Satomi, a high school student who is also a Promoter in Tendo- Civil Security Agency owned by his childhood friend Kisara Tendo-, along with his Initiator, Enju Aihara, conducts missions to prevent the destruction of the Tokyo Area and the world.”


 

Review:

This is the last series of the previous seasons Loli-fest that sexualised massively underaged girls that I shall be reviewing & am glad that the trends of anime in this new season have shifted from the hypersexualisation of little girls to the hypersexualisation of teenage girls as they struggle to become idols (shudders).

Yet despite the loli (& general) hypersexualisation, I actually enjoyed this series (for the most part).

Either expressing her affection or sexual desire, hard to tell in some anime
Either expressing her affection or sexual desire, hard to tell in some anime

The main reasons for my enjoyment of the series is the plot & the characters. Unlike other drag-rush series this past season, Black Bullet actually progresses & develops with each episode. Giving you enough info about the events before the start of the series to understand the narrative universe but not getting bogged down in useless exposition. Unfortunately there are some illogical in the character development, which I shall touch on later, but the fact you have 3 clear arcs within the 13 episode time frame means that the series, as a whole, needs to keep moving & developing.

Like so many dystopian post-apocalyptic/post-disaster narratives, the story is both about restoring the social order in the face of the threat of an “Outside Other” as well as restoring trust & connection between individuals (for more on this subject, check out my lecture here). Yet Black Bullet is actually more focussed on using the latter to deconstruct the former.

The central protagonists have all have issues with loss, trust & how the world of their present wishes to be. The narrative drive is how these characters seek to overcome not only how they feel about themselves & those in their lives but to tear down the world that wishes to ignore & destroy those who protect them; preferring instead the safe peace of ignorance rather than acknowledging that they owe their lives to an army of mutated little girls & their (sometimes abusive) human partners.

The look of loli lust

The three centre protagonists -Rentaro, Enju & Kisara- are all broken in some way by the on going war with the Gastrea mutations. Rentaro lost his family in the first attack on Tokyo & was then adopted into the Tendo family, where he lost his limbs protecting Kisara from a Gastrea attack. During that same attack, Kisara watched her parents die, which caused so much stress on her body she suffered catastrophic kidney failure (which is odd but, hey, it’s fiction, right?), leaving her unable to do prolonged physical activity despite her high level martial arts training. Whilst Enju was born as one of the Cursed Children & abandoned in the ruins of old Tokyo before being dragged in to serve as Rentaro’s partner, leaving her with huge trust issues as at the treatment of other Cursed Children (she can hide the red eyes that give the girls away) by the rest of society as well as the constant fear that she could die from her Gastrea infection before she grows up.

Her boobs are just out of shoot but you know they are the focus of the scene
Her boobs are just out of shoot but you know they are the focus of the scene

It is this constant, pressuring knowledge that drives Enju to act; especially in regards to proclaiming her constant love for Rentaro, claiming that she’ll be his bride -much to his annoyance. This can be read as a way for her to push away the fear of her own mortality, as well as possess a shred of hope that there will be someone who won’t abandon her. Similarly, Rentaro is crippled by the dread of losing anyone, which makes him hesitant in his actions but eventually allows him to reach out to the other Cursed Children, helping them normalise their lives for the chance to be integrated into regular society without having to bare the stigma of their births. Whilst Kisara is consumed by the need to discover the truth as to how her parents could’ve been killed by Gastrea in a protected zone balanced with the need not put her beloved Rentaro at too much risk or lose him to her rivals in love -such as Miori, who isn’t shy in showing her affection for Rentaro.

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Typical emotionally stunted shonen & affectionate loli in their natural environment

These personal drama are set against a larger socio-politic conflict that is common in post-apocalyptic reconstruction narratives. It’s mainly focussed on the issue of the public’s view of the Cursed Children, mainly mitigating the authority’s hatred & murder of them, as well as trying to reunify Japan from fractured city-states to a full nation once again. With many conspiracies & old hatreds lying hiding in the background.

As mentioned in the 2nd or so paragraph, there are 3 clear arcs to the series, each building upon the last (except for the 1st obviously, duh!). It is honestly refreshing for this past season to see a series so clearly sign posted for its intention for pushing the narrative forward & doing so without losing any character development or the external context, pressures & personal oaths/commitments.

The 1st arc focuses on establishing character & narrative context, where a rogue Promoter, Hiruko Kagetane, & his psychotic Initiator daughter, Kohina, steal a device that can summon the highest class of Gastrea, which can ignore the barriers & destroy all of Tokyo with an army of Gastrea drones as well as its own power. This arc allows Enju & Rentaro to come to terms with their position as Civil Security Agents, their abilities as well as working more smoothly as a team. It also helps Rentaro come to terms with the lose of his limbs & their replacement with special cybernetic technology, putting him on an even front with Kagetane -who is entirely augmented with cybernetic & military technology. The Hiruko pair are a dark reflection of Enju & Rentaro, a what could have been if Rentaro let his anger & thirst for vengeance get the better of him. In the end, turns out the summoning device was actually a bunch of kids stuff, deepening the mystery of the Gastrea.

He needs to wear a mask because he so ugly even yo mama wouldn't touch him!
He needs to wear a mask because he so ugly even yo mama wouldn’t touch him!

The second arc focuses more on Rentaro’s moral & social development, as he is made head bodyguard/security chief to the nominal head of Tokyo Area, the pale & mysterious, Seitenshi (not real name). Who wishes for freedom for the Cursed Children but is kept in check politically by Kisara’s grandfather, Tendo Kikunojo, who is also Rentaro’s adoptive father, the one who turned him into a weapon. The reason for Seitenshi so suddenly promoting, other then his defeat of the Hiruko pair, is because she’s meeting a rival leader of the Japanese territories, Saitake Sogen, an ambitious man who wishes to rule all of the island nation with an iron fist but one who Rentaro is personally familiar with, due to having meet him when he [Rentaro] was still a child. Whilst there is a genuine fear of an assassination of Seitenshi, Rentaro has more issue dealing with the power politics within Seitenshi’s palace, as her regular bodyguards are murderously jealous of Rentaro being given a position of privilege so close to their beloved (read in a stalkerish fashion) leader. Enju & Rentaro also finds that they can no longer turn a blind eye to the injustices set upon the Cursed Children, especially when Saitake leaks information to Enju’s school that she’s a Cursed Child, causing her to be removed & for her then to run away. Even whilst dealing with all that, Rentaro encounters new Loli jailbait, Tina Sprout, rendered in an overly sexualised way with lulled eyes & exposed shoulders (because loose women in Japan always show their shoulders, never understood that cultural hang up). But whilst she appeals to be utterly docile & helpless -Rentaro had to help her a few times- she’s actually a living machine weapon like he is, sent to assassinate Seitenshi on behalf of Ayn Rand (no, not that one even though she is evil enough to be a supervillain). There ends up being a pretty cool series of battles between the two of them, especially after Tina fucks up Enju because they didn’t know she was weaponised & when Tina tries to kill Kisara without knowing that Rentaro works for her (because she now wuvs him, makes it hard for her to explain things when she finds out). It ends with a cool action scene & Rentaro sparing Tina’s life because she is the tool for another but he ended up fucking up Seitenshi’s head of security because he tries to shoot a wounded Tina. Rentaro grows them big nutz & blows the dude’s finger clean off before demanding a better position of power from Seitenshi, which she agrees to because she wants to bang him like a screen door.

 

Now for the lazy lustful loli look
Now for the lazy lustful loli look

The 3rd & final arc is the most traditional in terms of an action series plot but still pretty good. A giant Gastrea has corroded one of the Monoliths that keep the Gastrea away from the Tokyo Area & it’s only days before it collapses, meaning that all the mutations can destroy the city. So, we have a Ticking Clock scenario yet one that plays out well for the most part.

Rentaro has an X number of days to assemble a team in order to be part of the Civil Security fighting force. Which doesn’t make much sense in a way, because they never explain why they need group teams & not the usual partnerships in the fight. Rentaro & Tina (who is now partnered with Kisara) are rejected by almost everyone that they ask, which is again strange because Rentaro has a serious rep within the Civil Security community now, but means that he can approach those whom he trusts the most. Unfortunately this is few people, so he only managed to recruit one pair who are old friends of his & Kisara & Tina join, much to Rentaro’s objections over her poor health. They eventually find another member in the form of a former student of Kisara’s family martial arts school & senpai to Rentaro (but Rentaro addresses him as nii-san or elder brother).

Parallel to this, Rentaro has taken it upon himself to become a teacher for a group of Cursed Children who live in the ruins of old Tokyo but the Gastrea attack on the Monolith has brought public tensions to the boil. Many normal humans see the Cursed Children as the cause of the Gastrea virus rather than it’s victims. So there are more violence against the Cursed Children, represented by a blind beggar girl whose mother burnt out her eyes rather than look at the accursed red of them. This all comes to ahead when, before the big battle, someone bombs the school group that Rentaro teaches, killing all of the girls who had just come to trust him & have faith that they will have a future. Naturally, this causes huge grief for both Enju & Rentaro but steels their resolve to win the battle so that they can prove that the World is worth saving.

Another aside to this is Kisara’s investigation into how a Gastrea could corrupt the Monolith, which all leads back to the overarching meta-plot of her family’s schemes.

After the first big battle, Rentaro’s team disobeys orders in order to prevent a surprise Gastrea attack but are blamed for the deaths of other Security Officers -including the leader’s son, who turned chicken shit at the last minute. In order for everyone to save face for everyone, Rentaro has to go off on own to destroy a mysterious Gastrea that protects the huge monster that controls all of the other Gastrea in the area. After being attacked by wolf-like Gastrea, Rentaro is saved by Kagetane, who has returned from the dead, & his daughter Kohina, who still wants to fight Enju. Kagetane is still obsessed with getting Rentaro to see his point over view: that humanity is doomed & only enhanced superhumans like them & the Cursed Children will survive (ignoring the fact that the Cursed Children never survive into adulthood). Yet Rentaro is determined to stick to his Hero of Bitter Justice routine, so Hiruko father & daughter stick with the stubborn lad in his mission. Together they defeat what they have to defeat & return to find the Civil Security Agents slaughtered & their stupid selfish leader killed (yay!), which means Rentaro is in charge. He takes on the persona of a ruthless commander willing to cut anyone down who stands in his way but this is merely an affect in order to hold the broken survivors together. In the end they win the day but with very heavy losses, both numeral & personal, as well as being betrayed by political figures with petty grudges (namely Seitenshi’s bodyguards looking to see Rentaro killed no matter the overall cost).

The unexpected coda to the overarching plot is Kisara getting revenge on one of the people who caused the death of her parents as well as being responsible for the disaster with the Monolith’s collapse. This shows her damaged psyche & how far she is willing to go, chiding Rentaro for being unable to punish evil because he has Batman-like boundries.

This was a very good series, despite the lolis & hypersexualisation of the adult characters but it does deal with some very dark themes & images.

Mainly extreme violence being perpetrated against very young girls.

This is an exceptionally bloody series; with dismemberments & blood fountains being par for the course. The fact that it’s performed on young girls does make it more disturbing; more so when it’s also dealing with the idea of suicide rather than become corrupted by the viral evil that is within their bodies.

Like any good dystopian narrative, Black Bullet has a very bleak outlook but edged with hope that if one fights on things can be made better, no matter the sacrifices made. It also talks a lot about love & hope. The reason that the girls, mainly Enju & Tina, are so passionately devoted to Rentaro -declaring their intentions to marry him- isn’t about the sexualisation of children (even though that sickening does happen in the series) but is more about their hope for the future. In that they may become adults & find true love; with marriage being the greatest representation of love & the bond between two people.

Yeah, I won't make a gangbang joke here.
Yeah, I won’t make a gangbang joke here.

In the end, this is a heavy series with more than a few issues -both in terms of imagery & plot coherence- but it is something that I do recommend if you like dystopian sci-fi with over the top action & violence. It won’t be for everyone & there are plenty to make most uncomfortable it does stand high upon the mundanity that plagued the previous anime season.

Black_Bullet_Anime_Promotional_Poster