The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been amongst the most-watched entertainment properties in the world since its first theatrical release (Iron Man) in 2008. Since then, the MCU has expanded past the world of cinema and into the world of television. For some, MCU’s television projects might seem an after thought to a very exciting filmic world. But, for me, Agent Carter isn’t just a tangential spin-off of the MCU’s cinematic projects, nor a filler program while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is on midseason hiatus. Rather, it is the most important development in the MCU thus far. Here’s why…
1) Comic book adaptations belong on TV.
As much as I love the MCU’s filmic contributions, the possibilities its television properties represent are much more exciting to me. After all, it is the serialized potential of having movies and characters that interact across installments that makes this narrative venture so exciting — and this is what television does best. (Just like being awesome is what Peggy Carter does best…)
Long-form, serialized storytelling was part of the comic book universe long before it took hold on TV. Television has always existed in episodic installments, but it is only relatively recently in its history that truly embraced the potential to become highly serialized. With the introduction of VCRs, DVDs, and — most recently — platforms like On Demand, Hulu, Netflix, etc., show creators are no longer as concerned with the confused viewer. If television viewers haven’t been watching, they have the opportunity to catch up on previous installments of a serialized drama. Or else suffer the consequences….
Long before TV figured out how to make serialized storytelling marketable, comic books were doing it; the serialized narrative is infused into the comic book’s very nature. Fans can follow along with a character and their various quests from issue to issue, if necessary buying any previous installments they might have missed. The characters of the Marvel universe were created within this model, which is why it seems so natural for them to be translated first within a serialized cinematic world and, now, within the world of television.
But the former has its limitations. Sure, the cinematic world has a bigger budget, wider distribution, and a larger-than-life depiction on The Big Screen. However, it takes much, much longer to create these cinematic stories and get them onto the screen. Since Iron Man’s release in 2008, nine other MCU films have been released. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has aired 32 episodes since its September 2014 initial airdate, and Agent Carter is set to air eight episodes in a matter of two months. Granted, quantity does not equal quality (as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s early episodes demonstrate), but neither does it equal the opposite — and, at least in the world of television, quantity offers so much potential for a comic book universe.
2. The Women are in Charge
It’s appalling that Agent Carter will be the first MCU property with a woman in the lead role. Arguably, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. beat Agent Carter to this honor, but the former is an ensemble cast with its cinematic spin-off character, Agent Coulson, firmly in the “man” category. Either way, arguing this point is like arguing a winner of The Bechdel Test — if it’s questionable whether a project has cleared this ridiculously low bar, then it can do better.
Which is exactly what the MCU seems to be doing with Agent Carter. Not only does the TV series boast a lady — the marvelous Hayley Atwell as the kickass, clever, and strong Peggy Carter — in the lead role, but has two women — Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas — serving as its showrunners. Bring on the women in charge!
3. Television Allows for Better Character Development
One of the reasons I am particularly excited about the first women-led MCU property happening on television over film is TV’s talent for character-driven storytelling.
I’m not saying that film can’t craft a good characterization, but television has the time to develop a character in a way that film can’t. Because of this, I like all of my favorite characters to be given the television treatment — especially when it comes to female characters who are so often flattened and caricatured for the cause of making a central male figure look heroic, desirable, etc. The Captain America film did a great job of not doing this with Peggy, but that doesn’t mean her role as Steve’s love interest wasn’t a defining part of Peggy’s character in the film.
In both the Agent Carter cinematic short and, presumably, TV series, Peggy has the freedom to exist outside that narrow love interest structure. She is no longer primarily a woman to be earned or won over, but a protagonist whose goals and motivations are nuanced and infinite. We get to see the fictional world primarily through her eyes — how it changes her and, perhaps more importantly, how she changes it.
4. It’s a Period Drama
Agent Carter isn’t just expanding the MCU in terms of gender and medium; it’s expanding the MCU in terms of setting. Since Captain America was turned into a popsicle at the end of his first film (too soon?), the MCU has stayed largely within the confines of present-day America (with the notable exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). Agent Carter’s setting in mid-20th century America will hopefully allow the story to make social commentary and insights into our present social circumstances (you know, that thing that stories do) in different ways than its companions projects. A majority of MCU properties continue to be set in present-day America, and I’d love to see more stories set in other times and places. Perhaps the exploration of Agent Carter’s world will encourage the MCU to take more storytelling chances specifically in regards to the periods and places in which its upcoming projects are set.
5. It could encourage more MCU Television Projects like it.
The MCU already has five more television projects on its docket, but only one of them — A.K.A. Jessica Jones (starring Krysten Ritter, for which I am very excited) — has a women in the lead role. Unlike ABC’s Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the shows will be available streaming on Netflix, which opens up a broader set of storytelling possibilities in its own way. Here’s to hoping that the potential success of Agent Carter will inspire the MCU not only to create more projects that given women a leading role — both in front of and behind the camera — but that operate and overlap outside the comparatively slow-moving world of the cinema. DC Comics has already made some successful strides in this arena with the success of The CW’s Arrow and The Flash, which had their first crossover to a rise in the ratings earlier this television season. Presumably, Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have some interesting crossover clues, but there’s only so much you can do with narratives set half a century apart. I’d love to see the MCU embrace its television crossover potential not only for the sake of the comic book adaptation world, but for the sake of television itself. As a medium, it has fulfilled little of its potential for overarching narratives across series. I think the MCU could change that, and I think Agent Carter’s success could be the first step on that awesome medium-bending journey.
Are you as excited about Agent Carter as I am — both as a fun, smart, female-led story and for what it means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Let me know in the comments below.