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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I have no idea what I just watched – Anime Review: Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku no Zvezda

Sekai-Seifuku-Bouryaku-no-ZvezdaTitle: Sekai Seifuku ~Bouryaku no Zvezda~ (World Conquest: Zvezda Plot)
Format: TV anime
Genre: sci-fi, comedy, parody, ecchi, superhero
Series Director: Tensai Okamura
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: January 11, 2014 – March 29, 2014
Reviewed format: HDTV download with various fansubs

 

 

 

 


Synopsis:

World Conquest Zvezda Plot (lit. Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku no Zvezda) stars a little girl named Kate Hoshimiya (also known as Lady Venera), who is at the helm of an organization called Zvezda, which has the purpose of World Conquest. One day Austa Jimon, a middle school boy who ran away from home due to family issues, ends up meeting Kate on the street, and subsequently getting roped into joining Zvezda with them. However, in order to conquer the world, they must defeat an organization called White Light, which is contracted out by the Japanese Government to defeat Zvezda and put an end to their plots of World Conquest once and for all.”


Review:

I honestly don’t know how to describe Sekai Seifuku ~Bouryaku no Zvezda~ let alone review it.

It’s pretty weird but not fully out there like Level E or FLCL but still odd.

Part of the oddness is being thrown right into the plot of Asuta pretty much being kidnapped (though he did run away from home first) but the strange loli, Hoshimiya Kate, in order to fulfil her dreams of world conquest. Asuta is then thrust into strange situation after strange situation, all while trying to resist falling too much in with the Zvezda leaders & while still trying to protect his boring life at school.

One reason why the series is confusing is because while it has it’s own internal logic, which it adheres too very strongly which, as mentioned in my Buddy Complex review, allows for the Suspension of Disbelief but the actually plot itself seems to be missing vast chunks of backstory, so you are missing out important details for many of the characters.

This isn’t of itself a vast problem because it allows you to fill in many of the gaps yourself with the scant info that the show provides in random flashbacks & asides but it does drag a lot of the pacing down as well as leaves some of the jokes to go begging (though that can also be the cross-cultural translation issues as well). Another issue is the inconsistent tone, shifting from absurd comedy to action & trying to make some serious social issues as well (such as stopping public smoking). Plus a lot of the actual plot is left until the last few episodes, revealing part of the true adversaries (though not the real evil behind them) & kind of rushing things to reach the conclusion.

Factor also in my usual issue with hypersexualisation & Fan Service (especially of the extreme young looking Kate) & there is more than enough issues to warrant my disdain.
hoshimiya_kate_01
That being said: I actually enjoyed this series (whenever I got a sub that didn’t make my video player crash).

When it plays to the strengths of it’s absurdity & parody, it can truly hit the mark. Especially making you support & follow the supposed bad guys (Zvezda) despite them never actually doing anything bad -apart from Yasu, who is a perpetual loser looking to make himself appear important. The so-called heroes, White Light, are excellent parodies of Tokusatsu style heroes in terms of their costume but their goals are far from noble (though they aren’t out & out villains).

The other great strength is the characters.

Asuta is your typical everyman protagonist, dragged into situations beyond his understanding but always does his best in the end. He also has the knack of surviving the most unlike of situations, either from dumb luck or skilfully running away. & is eternally bullied by Kate, who may or may not be attracted to him.

Kate is odd, because at first she appears to be your typical over-sexualised loli  (NSFW link) but actually has a great will to see things through & the ability to see deep into the human heart. This actually comes from her being an immortal being who stopped aging the moment she swore that she would conquer the world, a reveal -while interesting- comes a little too late. I was interested in seeing how she transitioned from her white appearance to the villain uniform that you see her in but that isn’t explored in the anime at all.

Her offsiders are equally weird & interesting
sekai-seifuku-bouryaku-no-zvezda-04
Goro, AKA General Pepel, is a sweets & confectionary addicted ex-Yakuza gang boss who renounced his criminal life in order to help Kate achieve her dream. There are a lot of hints at his past life, such as his wife Tsubaki, but it’s never properly exploded.

Itsuka, AKA Lady Playma, is the frontline leader of the Zvezda attack forces. Always seen wearing an eyepatch & carrying her sword. She also has a near sexual attraction to Kate, who is the only person she shows affection to. However it is revealed that if she loses her eyepatch, she resorts to her original personality of being a crybaby who sees Kate as a big sister (Onee-chan) figure. She is also Goro’s daughter but this isn’t revealed until the end.

Natasha, AKA Professor Um, is one of the weirdest members of Zvezda & the one with her backstory most exploded. A genius from a young age, her parents were afraid that she would never make any friends because she spent all of her time making robots. One day they took her from their home in Ukraine & into a series of caves that were the home of an ancient civilisation (hinted at being where Kate’s origins coem from), where they were apparently swallowed by some evil entity. She was eventually found by Roboko & Kate. Natasha has the most Fan Service costume -being black undies & a cape over a bare torso- but, oddly enough, the least Fan Service body -being childlike.

Leaving Roboko, because we’ve already talked about Yasu, who is a mysterious robot with bunny ears & glasses who wants to be & occasionally acts like a typical shy high school girl. She’s Zvezda’s main fighting strength & may have a crush on Asuta because he treats her like a normal person.

Much of the comedy comes from Asuta trying to get his school life & life with Zvevda completely separate -mainly because of his crush Renge, who unbeknownst to him (but well known to the audience) is actually his sworn enemy, White Robin of White Light.

Overall, despite the lack of explanation, this is a light & silly comedy with a good pace & excellent parodying of established genres -such as when they hark back to Goro’s Yakuza past, which is often told like an old gangster TV series. There are hints of a 2nd series coming with an Anti-Udo (the plant that grants Zvezda their powers) force in the US attacking them but am unsure if it will be made or just continue in manga form. If they do make, I’ll probably watch it.