Like kids playing dress-up, the good actors in Marvel's Agent Carter primp and pose in 1940s fashions and make-up. Like kids pretending to be comic-book heroes, these performers punch villains, take seriously a few gobbledygook pseudo-scientific phrases such as "vita-radiation" and "molecular nitramene" — "the kinda technology that'd give the A-bomb a run for its money!" someone exclaims. In this latest Marvel Comics spinoff, everyone speaks in exclamations. If only what they were exclaiming upon was worth the excitement.
After the muffled thud that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has proven to be, the arrival of "an eight-part television event," the Agent Carter series, with Hayley Atwell reprising the title role from her movie appearances, is underwhelming. As with so many latter-day TV versions of superhero sagas, from Smallville to S.H.I.E.L.D., Carter teases us with glimpses of the heroes we really want to see (in this case, Chris Evans's Captain America) while leaving the actual superstuff back at the movie theater or in your local comics shop.
Agent Carter, created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also wrote two Captain America films, expects us to share the admiration Atwell's Peggy Carter receives when she strides into her job at a New York phone company attired in a blue dress, white blouse, and a red fedora so big it looks as though it could double as a flying saucer. "Love the hat!" a fellow phone employee sings out; I think a real 1940s New Yorker would have said, "Puttin' on airs, ain'tcha, honey?"
The not-subtle red-white-and-blue wardrobe signals Carter's true-American status, and we're immediately plunged into Carter's triple-life: Phone company employee, secret agent for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, and ally to Dominic Cooper's Howard Stark, who's been framed for selling weapons tech to wartime enemies.
This is the kind of show in which Cooper smears her mouth with a special red lipstick that puts an enemy to sleep when she kisses him, and there's a typewriter that gives a foe new orders that's going to remind Fringe fans of the Selectric 251 used to communicate with the parallel universe. Carter engages in some espionage in disguise — blond-wig; fancy dress with want-some-melon? décolletage — that stirred memories of Sydney Bristow in Alias. There's lots of fighting — Carter is adept at knocking out multiple bad guys without mussing her 'do — and she's aided in her escapades by Jarvis, the British butler on loan from Stark who's played by James D'Arcy as a snippy Brit who behaves like a henpecked version of P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster.
I won't give away plot details — but really, would it spoil anything if I told you some of them center around the word "Leviathan" and a Y-shaped scar on a couple of blokes' necks? Of course not. After two hours of Agent Carter this week, you're left with lots of mumbo-jumbo that doesn't add up to much more than an excuse for Peggy Carter to strain her nylons while jumping off moving cars.
Somehow I don't think comic-book fans all over America are going to wake up Wednesday morning to find that Carter's favorite expletive — "Crikey O'Reilly!" — has become a new national catchphrase.
Marvel's Agent Carter premieres Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. on ABC.