When one thinks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the characters of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Agent (now Director) Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are the first to typically come to mind. And with good reason – these are the characters who have almost been around since day one and have the most appearances across the many movies, short films, and television shows that comprise the shared universe.
As it turns out, however, it’s another figure who’s casting an ever-bigger shadow on the MCU: Hayley Atwell’s Margaret “Peggy” Carter, who was originally introduced as a one-off love interest for Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger and who has since grown to have one of the largest presences in the ever-developing Marvel mythology. With the second season of her eponymous TV show premiering in less than two months, now is a good time to take stock of her Marvel career to date and see if we can’t suss out a little of her future.
Let’s dissect the 10 Things You Need to Know about Agent Carter.
Movie audiences might have first been exposed to Peggy Carter in the first Captain America film, but comic readers have had a far longer affair with her: she was first introduced in March 1966 in the comic Tales of Suspense #75, where she appeared for all of one panel. It wouldn’t be until two issues later, #77, when she would finally start to get a personality fleshed out (and receive a name!).
Both issues are set in the modern day, but feature flashbacks to World War II, when Cap fights alongside the French Resistance in an attempt to end the Nazi occupation of France. While there, he meets a teenaged Peggy Carter, who has travelled all the way to Europe to fight the Germans, despite her being the scion of a wealthy Virginian family. They quickly fall in love but are forced to break it off when their assignments take divergent paths.
In the original comics, Peggy has been caught by the Gestapo and is being held prisoner in Paris as WWII races toward its conclusion. When the Allies arrive to liberate the city at long last, a bomb goes off next to Peg, inflicting brain damage and, as a result, amnesia. She’s sent back to live with her parents in Virginia to recuperate – which she ultimately does, mourning the apparent death of Steve Rogers. By the time the early ‘70s come around, an older, present-day Carter meets up with and befriends Captain America before ultimately joining S.H.I.E.L.D., fighting alongside him on various assignments all across the world.
This was a great narrative setup for a while, but as the years continued to roll by and the characters continued to never age (a standard conceit for many comic titles), a fix needed to be introduced, as it was necessary to preserve both Cap’s WWII roots and a possible present-day love interest. Peggy’s S.H.I.E.L.D. adventures, therefore, were retconned to Sharon Carter, who originally started off life back in the ‘60s as Peggy’s younger sister. It was decided that Sharon would now be her niece, and that she would have grown up hearing all these wonderful tales of Cap’s many missions – the perfect explanation for her joining S.H.I.E.L.D. and becoming known as Agent 13.
In the MCU, Sharon Carter is portrayed by Emily VanCamp and has only appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 2014). Although it is unknown if the character is, indeed, related to Atwell’s Peggy Carter, it seems likely the story from the comics will continue to be followed.
What’s most interesting about Agent Carter’s backstory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not how it reflects the comics, but in how it diverges from it.
In creating Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel Studios decided to add an extra flourish: the Scientific Strategic Reserve, a top-secret American war agency devoted to creating a series of hi-tech weaponry – including the ultimate weapon, the super-soldier Captain America – in order to defeat the Nazis. Rather than having its version of Peggy work for the French Resistance, the MCU would have an older, better-experienced British officer directly overseeing Steve Rogers.
It’s a shrewd move, and more than for just having the character conform to modern gender expectations: the made-up-from-scratch organization is an obvious nod to a bit of real-world history in the form of the Office of Strategic Services, the first coordinated intelligence agency in the country’s history. It was formed during World War II for the express purpose of winning the war and, when it was over, so too was the OSS – though just two years later, President Harry Truman saw the need for a permanent, peacetime intelligence bureau, and the Central Intelligence Agency was born from the OSS’s ashes.
2015 belonged to Peggy Carter
Peggy Carter has now appeared in four of Marvel’s films, starting with the two Captain Americas and extending over to both of this summer’s entries, The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May) and Ant-Man (July), where she appeared as a hallucination and in a brief flashback as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s co-director, respectively. That means she’s only two credits away from tying with the MCU’s two biggest heavy-hitters, Iron Man and Cap himself.
That’s after she starred in her own television series, of course (which aired at the beginning of the year), which is a notable achievement in and of itself: Agent Carter is only the second TV show to be set in the MCU, and it’s the first to be based upon one specific character.
And if we expand the time period to just a little before, the picture gets even more impressive. Carter makes two quick cameos in Agents of SHIELD’s second season (which is currently airing), and even starred in a Marvel One-Shot (those are the short films that Marvel used to release as bonus features on the Blu-ray editions of its theatrical movies) before that, in September 2013. She’s only one of three characters to star in all three Marvel formats, with the other two being Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson and Maximiliano Hernandez’s Agent Jasper Sitwell.
Agent Carter (One-Shot)
Agent Carter, the short film, was actually one of the very first Marvel One-Shots to be conceived and written, though it was the fourth (of five) to come out.
It’s easy to see why this would be so. When the direct-to-video shorts were originally announced at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel explained that certain characters or concepts that had originally been introduced in the movies but weren’t afforded the luxury of being developed (thanks to that fickle mistress called running time) would be the target of the One-Shots – and what better unresolved character than the highly-skilled and beautifully-played Peggy Carter?
When Agent Carter did finally go before cameras – thanks to Hayley Atwell’s shooting schedule clearing up – it not only ended up being the longest of the short films (it clocks in at 15 minutes), it also was the most expensive, thanks to the huge number of sets and visual effects (well, “huge” as compared to its short-form siblings).
Agent Carter (TV show)
The Agent Carter One-Shot was initially screened at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, in July, before being packaged with both digital and Blu-ray releases of Iron Man 3 in September.
The success of the Agent Carter One-Shot was enough that Disney picked up a full television order for the concept; Disney CEO and Chairman Bob Iger saw the short and immediately requested a TV series, just as he had done the year previously with the Item 47 short, which resulted in Agents of SHIELD. Unlike SHIELD, however, Carter bypassed the pilot stage, being picked directly up for series – a rarity in television.
But this rabid success, ironically enough, has ended up being the death knell of the short film project: the idea of taking largely unused material and further fleshing it out is a perfect fit for television, and with eight series having now been announced (nine, if one counts the on-again/off-again Agents of SHIELD spinoff), all the resources going to the One-Shots have been diverted to Marvel TV.
Not to worry, though – recent comments from Marvel Studios have pointed to their possible return in the not-too-distant future.
The obsolescence of the Agent Carter One-Shot
Interestingly, despite the popularity of the progenitor short film, it looks like it’s being written out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a first.
The One-Shot is set one year after the original Captain America, in 1946, and deals with an Agent Carter who is stuck at a desk job thanks to good old-fashioned sexism. By the end of the 15 minutes, she’s managed to crack a case that none of her (male) colleagues can and gets the phone call from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to come found S.H.I.E.L.D. with him.
The first season of the TV series follows much the same template, though the writers and producers behind the show said that they didn’t want to see Peggy running off to Washington, DC so quickly – they want to stay in the realm of the SSR for as long as possible. For the first season, everyone involved tentatively held both productions simultaneously next to one another, with a wait-and-see attitude for the future.
Now, with the impending second season being set in 1947 and with Peggy still an SSR agent, the One-Shot is completely out the window. While it’s a shame to see such a great story go, the series promises many more good ones to come – a potentially fair trade.
Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper
A main draw behind the various Agent Carter productions is, of course, the casting of Hayley Atwell as the titular protagonist. Thanks to her performance, she makes what is essentially a non-superpowered superhero believable; audiences can’t help but fall in love with the character right alongside Steve Rogers.
But there was also a second inspired casting choice: Dominic Cooper as a young Howard Stark, Tony’s father. The character was already portrayed by John Slattery in Iron Man 2 (May 2010), showing him at least a full decade later than the WWII setting of the first Captain America – meaning Cooper had a challenge in integrating the performances of both Robert Downey, Jr. and Slattery, and still having the result be enjoyable enough in its own right. He succeeded so wildly, however, that it’s completely understandable that Howard continues to be drawn back into the Carter stories.
Perhaps the secret of the two’s chemistry stems from the fact that they’ve shared the screen twice before the 2013 One-Shot: first in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, of course, and also in 2008’s The Duchess. Directed by Saul Dibb and starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, the movie is based on a biography of the 18th-century Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire; Atwell and Cooper play the paramours of both Georgiana and her husband, William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire.
Agent Carter’s influences
The Agent Carter TV series obviously takes a lot of inspiration from both the Captain America movies and Agent Carter short film, and there’s also a great many Easter eggs or call-outs to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe (such as a reference to Iron Man 2’s villain and the revelation of the Black Widow program’s beginnings), but it turns out that the show actually takes quite a bit from other Marvel properties as it sees fit, as well.
The plot of the first season, for example, which revolved around Peggy tracking down a number of Howard Stark’s inventions that have been stolen, takes cues from “Armor Wars,” a seven-part storyline told in Iron Man between December 1987 and June 1988. In it, Tony realizes that his Iron Man designs have been stolen and sold on the black market, and he has to hunt them down before his enemies learn to effectively utilize them. (Just to complete the circle of MCU connections, characters seen in this legendary storyline include Justin Hammer [who was featured in Iron Man 2], Scott Lang [Ant-Man], and Stilt-Man [who may be appearing in Daredevil’s upcoming second season].)
Agent Carter’s future
It’s obviously too early to tell whether season 2 will be Agent Carter’s last, but the various individuals involved have already been vocal about what the future may entail.
Hayley Atwell herself has expressed her desire to explore the full gamut of Peg’s life; since we’ve seen her in the prime of her youth (Captain America: The First Avenger) and at the very end of her life (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the actress says that the sky is the limit, with future seasons possibly taking place in the 1950s, ‘60s, or ‘80s (which would, it so happens, place it right alongside Ant-Man’s flashback sequence). In this way, not only would audiences get the chance to see Peggy develop over an entire lifetime, they would also see how the SSR transforms into S.H.I.E.L.D. and explore the latter organization’s early life.
Unfortunately, this wide-ranging plan just isn’t meant to be. ABC, which airs both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, has voiced concern about running two TV series dealing with the same agency and has stated its wish to keep the latter firmly planted in the ‘40s. The fact that the second season is, indeed, set just one year after the first shows that viewers won’t get to see that wide-ranging narrative – for now, at least.
Have your own must-know facts about Agent Peggy Carter? Have your own theories about what future seasons of the television show will have in store – along with the comic book references that will accompany them? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.