In conversations about Captain Marvel we hear the word “first” a lot, in regards to both the film itself and its titular character: the first female Avenger, the first female superhero, the first movie that crushes the myth that people don’t want to see female-led projects. However, these phrases neglect the many women that came before her.
That said, Captain Marvel is the first movie in a while that managed to do something I find quite extraordinary: it got me back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Well, as an engaged audience member that is.
However, I want to talk a bit about a woman that paved the way for Captain Marvel as the first solo titular figure of a Disney Marvel movie.
I’d been exhausted by the MCU for a while, long before Avengers: Age of Ultron or Guardians of the Galaxy, but there was one character that kept me on the hook: Peggy Carter. She is the reason I held onto the MCU for so long, even past caring because rest assured, she’d probably get a cameo at some point. Her short scene in Ant-Man is the reason I went to see it in theatres.
In all fairness, Agent Carter’s – alleged – second season is also the reason I walked out.
As a white woman I try to recognize my privileges within the MCU. White women have been there since the first movie: they’re CEOs for Stark Industries, astrophysicists, PoSci interns who don’t know what’s going on, Asgardian warriors… and the founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Much later Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Captain Marvel finally introduced women of colour as fully fleshed out characters and center-figures.
I fell in love with Peggy Carter as soon as I saw her in Captain America: The First Avenger. She socked that sexist prick right in the face and just thinking about that scene right now makes me grin like an idiot. She soon became my inspiration to get me through the day: would Peggy Carter kick my ass for staying in bed? A man would look at me the wrong way and I’d channel my inner Peggy to deal with the situation. You get the idea.
The 2013 short film Agent Carter became my daily mantra as well. I’d watch it in the morning and remind myself that I, too, am worth more than “3 to 5 agents”.
When the TV show was announced I was over the moon. I could not stop talking about it. And my God, the first – and I stubbornly insist on it being the only – season delivered!
Peggy’s character was explored in a way that I didn’t dare to dream: she was thriving, surrounded by women in her personal life whilst tolerating the men in her professional life. The handful of dynamics we got to see were handled well; we learned a lot about her character outside of Steve: her motivations, and her values. At the time, this was revolutionary for the MCU.
However, the show still had some big flaws: most of all its lack of racial diversity – especially for 1940s Brooklyn, NYC – as well as the lack of exploration of the women in her private life.
We knew she lived in a women-only establishment, but aside from Angie Martinelli who soon became the most important person in Peggy’s life (at one point her position to Peggy is paralleled to Peggy’s position as support to Steve) and Dottie Underwood, a black widow and antagonist, we don’t learn a lot about the other women shown. In contrast, we practically knew the personnel files of the men introduced. In the third episode alone we learned more about a side-character than most women she lived with.
All of this promoted the hashtag #DiversifyAgentCarter that often accompanied #RenewAgentCarter. At the time we didn’t know whether there would be a second season or not.
I cannot stress the following enough: its aggressive heterosexism spoiled the second season and I believe that it’s the reason we erased Agent Carter from our collective memory. We’re just okay with the fact that the second season didn’t happen. We keep our peace of mind by accepting the first season as the only season. After all, it ended with Peggy and Angie moving in together.
Ah, yes, Peggy and Angie.
You see, in the first season the relationship between Peggy and Angie was consistently framed as romantic – in subtext at least. Whether it was the camera angles, the lighting, the background music – Someone to Watch Over Me by Frank Sinatra, just to mention one of the many – as well as the interpersonal dynamic. Angie fulfilled many tropes often reserved for the love interest – the romantic subtext was there. It wasn’t just some delusional wish fulfillment, either – the show itself confirmed that the subtext was there.
The second season begins with a recap of the first one; it was to follow Peggy’s romantic life, her moving on from Steve. The 20-second recap was meant to give us a hint of whom her love interest was going to be. In this case, the lucky guy was Daniel Sousa. It was well-established throughout the first season that he had feelings for her. It was also well-established that Peggy hadn’t reciprocated those feelings. A simple cut here, a little bit of a voice over there, and suddenly scenes that were about Angie and Peggy, and their relationship, are now about Peggy and Sousa. From the scene where Jarvis encouraged Peggy to accept support, to the second-to-last scene of the first season in which Peggy prioritized Angie over Daniel, they re-contextualized them all to be about Peggy and Sousa.
From then on, the second season tried hard to be feminist without showing Peggy interact with women at all.
Every time she interacted with a woman, naturally, an aggressive sense of heterosexuality had to be present as not to encourage the impression that Peggy could be anything other than heterosexual.
Essentially, season two was just Gay Panic at the sacrifice of Peggy’s character and her values.
LGBTQs walked away because we clearly weren’t meant to be part of this, women walked away because Peggy was suddenly defined by men, and everyone was exhausted by a show that promised feminism but ended up being rather sexist and in the process failed to solve the only two real criticisms for the show in the first place: more people of color, more female interactions.
I happily admit that Peggy remains one of my favourite characters. Peggy from before season two. While part of me knows her story in the MCU is over, I can’t help but long to see her again. To know more about the beginnings of S.H.I.E.L.D., her place there, how she balanced her career and her life while working with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Has she met Fury? What’s their relationship? What would she think of Carol? Of Valkyrie? Of the Wasp? Of Natasha? Of Maria Hill, Rambeau?
3 to 5 agents required
Ironically, the show foretold its own downfall. In one of the most iconic call-out moments in TV history, the interrogation scene of S01E07 Snafu saw Peggy confront her colleagues’ sexism:
“You think you know me, but I’ve never been more than what each of you has created.
To you [Agent Dooley], I’m the stray kitten, left on your doorstep to be protected.
[about Agent Thompson] The secretary turned damsel in distress.
[about Agent Sousa] The girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore.
You’re behaving like children.
What’s worse is that this is just shoddy police work.
You were inches away from the woman that you want when you loaded me into your car.”
Sigh. I miss her.
The second season neglected all the lessons it tried to teach us in the first. The show’s priority simply lay somewhere else than to empower the people watching.
One of the last lines of the first season, and certainly the most remembered one, is Peggy’s “I know my value.”
It’s empowering, comforting and cathartic. Peggy is “above” her male colleagues. However, it’s another line that for me, now, foretold the show’s downfalls. As beautiful as I think it is for Peggy to find a moment of clearance and peace, the situation and context is rather f*cked.
Her colleagues did just discredit her, did accept the praise for her work and essentially, she’s in the same place professionally as she was at the beginning of the series. The short film ends with her being offered to work at S.H.I.E.L.D.
When Captain Marvel was announced, one of my biggest fears was that it would fail with the things that turned me away from the MCU in the first place. Peggy’s backstory is established to be all about men. It was her brother who raised her to be a strong woman, it was her fiancé who encouraged her strength… men, men, men!
I truly believe men can raise women. However, movies and shows never deny that. It’s so tiresome and exhausting that we never see women who encourage girls or raise “strong women”. We don’t see many mothers that raise them, female mentors that inspire them, friends that encourage and support them.
I was fully prepared for Carol to not interact with women at all. Sadly, I expected for her to be the only woman that spoke at all. I expected her interactions with Maria to parallel Natasha and Maria [Hill]’s interactions from The Avengers.
Then I saw the movie.
And I watched it again, and again, because I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed.
At this point, it doesn’t fall into any of the tropes that turned so many people away from engaging with female-led projects such as Agent Carter nor the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Carol’s entire backstory is about women. It’s Maria Rambeau, it’s Monica, it’s Dr. Wendy Lawson, and mostly it’s about the relationships she has with them. Maria and Carol, Carol and Monica, Carol and Monica and Maria, Dr. Lawson and Carol, Dr. Lawson and Carol and Maria, all of it.
You’ll notice that I haven’t yet emphasized the subtext of Carol and Maria. Part of me is still trying to reconcile with what Agent Carter has done: deliberately create queer subtext (like Captain Marvel has, too) just to completely backtrack and weaponize it (Dottie remained queer-coded in the second season) as soon as fans became too vocal about it.
I hope Carol’s “I have nothing to prove to you” isn’t an empty promise.
Regardless of all the spoilers and negativity, I still highly encourage everyone to see at least the first season of Agent Carter (the second season isn’t canon if you’ve not seen it, take it from me!). It explores the nuances of sexism relevant to Peggy Carter as well as introducing a very interesting antagonist and other characters – you’ll know exactly why Peggy was such a strong presence in the MCU for so long.
I think it’s important to criticize shows for their failings, especially if they remain socially relevant or are still commonly used tropes in female-led projects. And while I fully emphasize with people who turned away from Peggy or got tired of her, I can’t help but be upset that there aren’t more people giving Peggy any credit or acknowledging her position within the MCU.
We need to focus not only on the first solo movie, but appreciate, talk and highlight the women that pathed the way for Captain Marvel to be the first solo movie.
We need to appreciate Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – not only for Coulson, but for introducing the first female superhero with powers: Daisy/Quake. We need to talk about the Wasp being the first female superhero to be featured in the title of a movie, even if we haven’t seen her origin story. And we need to appreciate Agent Carter as the first woman within the MCU to lead a solo-titled project.
I hope Marvel will have Carol interact with these amazing women in Avengers: Endgame or other movies. I hope there’s a place for Peggy Carter in the second Captain Marvel movie as well.
It would be a nice, full circle, you know? Not only as a proper closure to Peggy’s story but that, too. And with the time Carol’s story takes place, it would fit perfectly: Peggy is the co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. after all, and as far as we know she still worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the 1990s. It would be wonderful to see Carol and Peggy interact to reflect on where we started, and where we are now.
After all, Agent Carter walked so Captain Marvel could fly.