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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& So the Heart Doth Rise – anime critique: The Wind Rises by Miyazaki Hayao

Title: The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu)
Genre: historical, magical realism, romance
Director: Miyazaki Hayao
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Release: 2014 (Australia, 2013 in Japan)
Distro: Hopscotch & Madman

TWR MM
The 11th & possibly final film directed by the legendary auteur Miyazaki Hayao, The Wind Rises comes with the weight of a lot of expectation.

But does the film answer that expectation?

No, not for everyone.

If so, why would that be?

I personally feel that people approaching this film are expecting more of Miyazaki’s fantastic whimsical and magical stories, like My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away. Whereas the Wind Rises is a biography lashed with romance and dreamscapes. Many fans have felt as though this is, at least, a departure &, at worst, a betrayal of their love of & expectations from him. But if they approach the film as a beautiful melodrama with touches of the phantasmal, then they should find it most acceptable.

What the film is, is an indulgence.

It is an unrepentant ode to Miyazaki’s love of airplanes, with so much time spent on the tiniest detail of the machines. Truly, if Miyazaki could have made a film just about planes, without humans involved, he would have. What he did produce is a story about what happens to a man who sells his soul, so to speak, in order to follow his dream -believing that if he gives his clients what they want, they’ll let him eventually made what he wants. This is the fate of the fictionalised version of Horikoshi Jiro, the eventually creator of the A6M Zero fighter plane as he works to becoming an aeronautical engineer.

The film is also an ode to classic film making.

From the opening moments it reminded greatly of my favourite Kurosawa Akira‘s film, Dreams (1990). That is because the narrative blends the real world with dreams without telling you at any point which is which. Both worlds blend seamless and even overlap with the realities of others. As the young Jiro meets the famed Italian airplane designer Count Caproni in a place that Caproni calls his own dream, even though Jiro believes that he is the one who is dreaming. This theme of the transcendental nature of, & trespassing into, dreams is a major part of the film.

The rest of the film, unfortunately, has garnered an exceptional amount of criticism and fan debate -both in Japan & internationally.

The plot being centred on the creator of a vicious war machine, the Zero fighter, has stirred up much resentment in China & Korea with the Japanese government’s refusal to acknowledge their past war atrocities. Yet at the same time, many people in Japan are attacking Miyazaki for having his characters say that it was a mistake to have sided with Germany & entered the war.

Yet the film is not a true glorification or damnation of history, war and the darkest aspects of humanity.

It is a dream & shows what can happen to a life when one follows their dream too ardently.

Yet this film is entirely beautiful.

Truly, it is the single best piece of film animation ever produced.

This is where Miyazaki’s other indulgence, his love of cinema and animation, truly shines through.

There is so much detail lavished within each frame and cells of this film. From the quivering of the glass as a train leaves the station to the shimmers on the water & the wavering of each individual blade of grass.

Nothing is spared in order to bring out the details, the colours & the characters. The differences between dawn & dusk. Even the very flames of destruction.

The scene depicting the Great Kanto Earthquake (an actually event in 1923, where thousands of people died & Tokyo was almost completely destroyed) is magical in its devastation.

The sound of the movement, supposedly echoing the Great Catfish upon which the land of Japan lies as it trashed about to cause the quake, blends perfectly with the bubbling, rolling ground. The scene is brutal but not violent, tense but no sense of inherent danger. The fantastical way that Miyazaki and his animators show the Great Earthquake does not in any way strip away the devastation that it caused. It was from this earthquake that Japan’s drive to modernise, rushing it into modernity from a feudal society. Sparking much excitement & tension within the nation, especially as they attempted to compete technologically with the rest of the world.

The same could be said for the flight scenes and dream sequences. So full of life & energy as well as truly beautiful animation.

Sadly, that does not mean that the film, at over 2 hours, flies by (chortle at pun).

If you are expecting an adventure you will be disappointed.

The film follows Jiro at vital points of his life, never indicating when time has skipped forward (similar to how it does with the dream sequences) but it often does not want to engender the narrative with action & drama for the sake of it.

The late romantic angle, which is referring to many Japanese dramas about around the “love in the time of TB” cliché, does drag the film down in terms of pacing but not once did I think that the emotion between Jiro & Nahoko was disingenuine.

In fact, despite the fanciful & rushed nature of their love, I honestly felt the romance & affection between them.

THE WIND RISES. © 2013 Nibariki - GNDHDDTK
It is unfortunately that Nahoko is not a very strong female character, especially in regards to Miyazaki’s usual protagonists. This is partly because, after appearing in the Earthquake scene, she doesn’t appear until the final 3rd of the film. The reveal of her condition & confession to love also felt very clumsy -like an entire arc had been removed from the narrative.

This can be said for other side characters. Especially Jiro’s younger sister, Maya, who appears early in the film & then doesn’t feature until the 3rd act, having achieved her personal dreams but still chastising her brother for his lack of consideration. This is done out of love but she is an anchor meant to keep him from being dragged away by his dreams but she doesn’t appear within the film enough to complete that function or even develop in any great way.

Yet she & the other side characters are rendered well in a way. Both their physical depictions & the outline of their personalities.

An example is the strange foreign man (revealed to be a former Germany engineer who had seen Jiro at the Junkers factor many years before), whom you don’t know if he only speaks to Jiro in dreams. He has a strange walleyed appearance & speaks in broken Japanese, as a genuine foreigner of the time would. The man, later identified in a letter as Mr Castorp, tells Jiro his personal dislike for Hitler & German’s war ambitions, saying if Japan follows, it too will burn like Germany will. He then disappears like he was merely Jiro dreaming that the hotel guest was speaking to him but he then appears in later scenes as he attempts to help Jiro understand his feelings for Nahoko.

The action after that with the secret police is confusing & remained unsolved but it showed the human character of Jiro’s superiors at the aeroplane factory. They vow to protect him, as long as he can still provide them with what they need -a new fighter to win the navy contract.

If this was an 80’s American screwballs comedy, the dwarvish supervisor Kurokawa would’ve become the bullying antagonist seeking to destroy out heroes dreams. Instead he acts like a genuine supervisor would, chastising when wrong is down but supporting at other times. In fact, his insistence that Nahoko & Jiro have a proper wedding, despite the lack of family nearby, is one of the most touching moments in the film.

There are many touching moments within the film. The ending nearly had me in tears (I’ve only ever cried once in a film & that was when Optiums Prime died in the Transformers movie of 1986).

There are some nice subtle references to some of Miyazaki’s previous films -such as Porco Rosso’s pilots’ heaven- but not as many as I would have liked. But, on balance, if it was a reference fest being a final film, I think that would’ve really annoyed me.

In the end, The Wind Rises is an exceptionally good film. It just isn’t a good Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film.

It is overly long, exceptionally indulgent, confusing in terms of chronology, characters and location but, with all that being said, it still is an incredible film.

As I said early in the review, if you look at it along the lines of a classic melodrama from the likes of Kurosawa, not expecting the usual Ghibli fantasy, then you can view it as a truly beautiful film.

It is something that I will be returning for other works, both personal and academical, because it has exceptional merit for that.

It is a good film for one to end a career with but probably not the film that Miyazaki should’ve ended his with. Supposedly he wanted to do a follow up to Ponyo but I do feel that going with another original idea was a better path to follow.

Still I, like so many other Miyazaki fans, would still love to see a final final work from the great master. He may never direct again, but he is still working on manga & writing scripts. All that we can truly hope is that Studio Ghibli will carry on his fine legacy & continue producing top quality films with interesting, challenging themes & characters that we can instantly love.

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