What ‘Agent Carter’ has that ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Doesn’t

…And why it matters:

agent-carter-hayley-atwell

by Andrew Bloom

While watching the first season of Agent Carter, I couldn’t help but wonder why I enjoyed it so much more than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., its much maligned and mildly resurgent Marvel television counterpart. Although the two shows have different teams behind them, they are, nevertheless, small screen cousins, with Peggy Carter making more than a few flashback cameos on AoS. The two series would seem to have too much shared DNA for anyone to have such different reactions to them. But in investigating this mystery, I kept coming back to one, overwhelming factor – Hayley Atwell.

Atwell soars as the protagonist of Agent Carter and commands nearly every scene she’s in. She portrays the titular character as a woman of quiet strength, with a steadiness in everything she does despite the tumult that surrounds her. But Atwell’s take on the character transcends the trope of the typical “action girl”, instead making Peggy a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Atwell acquits herself well when Peggy is exhibiting a steely resolve in a tense situation, and can just as convincingly show the character’s vulnerability and empathy in a private moment, with each emotional state feeling genuine and inhabited. She brings an undeniable presence to the character, and her rising tide lifts all boats in the series.

Perhaps that’s the all-important piece of the puzzle that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never seemed to be able to place – a compelling, versatile lead. Agent Carter certainly has other advantages—its narrower focus, the period setting, a closer connection to the films—but Atwell is the lynchpin that holds it all together. To the point, the material Atwell works with is good, but not great. Much of the production design and score on Agent Carter are often hokey or heavy-handed. And most of the other performances on the show range from serviceable to enjoyable, but rarely wow. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.contends with all of these same problems, but lacks a ringer like Atwell to help the show rise above them.

What’s funny about this sentiment is that, to be honest, I barely remembered Peggy Carter from the character’s appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger. The enjoyableness of Agent Carter prompted me to watch that film again, and while Atwell still makes an impression opposite Chris Evans’s Captain America on the silver screen, Peggy Carter is best realized on a smaller one, where Atwell is given enough time and space to develop her character and display a fuller range of her talents. When given that opportunity, she anchors the show and becomes an essential part of what makes it work….

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