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'Agent Carter' review: All hail Hayley Atwell!

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Agent Carter
Eric McCandless/ABC

Back in 2011, before Marvel conquered the world, Hayley Atwell conquered Captain America. As tough-minded espionage agent Peggy Carter, Atwell grade-inflated a good movie into a great one, shading Cap‘s gung-ho jingoism with wry humor and old-school romanticism.

The actress has had a couple showcases since then; she was heartbreaking as a grieving wife in Black Mirror‘s most quietly freaky episode. But now comes her big spinoff moment—and in ABC’s new throwback thriller Agent Carter, Atwell is a delight. See: Atwell, undercover as a sultry platinum blonde! See: Atwell, hurling tart one-liners at an office full of misogynist postwar bros! See: Atwell, weaponizing a stapler!

The show has a dynamite supporting cast, including Chad Michael Murray as a doucheboat office rival who’s like Pete Campbell with better hair, and Dollhouse‘s Enver Gjokaj as a nice-guy love interest who will probably turn out to be a Hydra assassin because you can never trust anyone who was on DollhouseBoardwalk Empire fans will thrill to the presence of Shea Whigham, doing a crusty-gruff G-rated variation on Eli Thompson. Nikita fans will be happy to see Lyndsy Fonseca, then frustrated when the show doesn’t immediately give her much to play with.

Agent Carter has a fun kid-noir aesthetic—visually, it’s a lot wilder than the vanilla-gray Agents of SHIELD. But the show isn’t as retro-stylish as it thinks it is, and the decision to kick off the premiere hour with a clip from First Avenger doesn’t do Agent Carter any favors. That movie benefited from director Joe Johnston’s zest for Rocketeer-era adventure cinema; by comparison, the first hour of Agent Carter feels like an above-average episode of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which is maybe half a compliment.

Also problematic: The first hour suffers from a few Marvel Inc. tropes. Somebody named Stark invented something dangerous; everyone wants an All-Important Glowing Thing; there’s an implicit promise that nothing will be solved for weeks/years to come. I’ve written before about the concept of The Machinery—the invisible hand which guides megafranchises and forces individual projects to awkwardly wedge in continuity references and fan-service hyperlinks. Some people love The Machinery; those people love Agents of SHIELD. By comparison, Agent Carter feels pleasantly segmented off from the greater Marvel Machinery—but the premiere features a few too many scenes of Peggy staring dreamily into space, thinking about Captain America, dreaming of a sweeps-week guest appearance by Chris Evans.

Conversely: Hayley Atwell! And it’s worth pointing out that Carter is aiming for something between His Girl FridayDick Tracy, and Alias: A tough tonal mixture on a weekly broadcast budget, but also an ambition worth pursuing. Atwell’s already firing on all cylinders, and I’m hopeful that tonight’s second hour gives us some more clarity about what to expect from the series. The limited-series debut season is slated to run for a total of eight episodes. So I’ll be watching for the next couple months, hoping Agent Carter lives up to Agent Carter.