A rare female superhero on TV

Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) dons disguises and goes on secret missions in the spin-off TV series. -- PHOTO: FOX
Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) dons disguises and goes on secret missions in the spin-off TV series. -- PHOTO: FOX

Marvel's TV spin-off Agent Carter draws praise for its feminist leanings and its star

As the star of the new television series Agent Carter, Hayley Atwell gets to play a rare creature in comic-book adaptations: a female superhero.

She probably qualifies as an endangered species too, given the fate of the last female-anchored comic-to-screen spin-offs - Elektra (2005) and Catwoman (2004), both boxoffice flops, and the short-lived TV show Birds Of Prey (2002).

Nevertheless, Marvel's Agent Carter has been well received by critics since it debuted in the United States earlier this month, drawing praise for its feminist leanings, sparkling humour and stylish 1940s setting.

Its winsome star has been a big asset too. Atwell endeared herself to reporters at a recent Los Angeles press event, where she eschewed the usual tactic of actors in her position suddenly declaring what colossal comic-book fans they are.

The 32-year-old British-American actress confesses that she never aspired to be Wonder Woman or any other comic book hero when she was little. Instead, the ones she looked up to were the formidable women of Hollywood's golden age from the 1930s to 1960s.

"I hate to say this, but I wasn't a big comic-book girl growing up. I loved the Bette Davises and Katharine Hepburns and women who seemed to be very modern women but set in a different time, they seemed to be bigger than the screen itself and also had this incredible intelligence and wit and warmth," says Atwell, who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and appeared in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream (2007).

And it is just as well, because Peggy Carter has no superpowers to speak of and must rely on those very qualities to save the day.

The show, which airs in Singapore on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel mio TV Channel 330) on Wednesdays, sees Atwell expand on her supporting role in the blockbuster films Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).

The series continues its focus on her work in the Strategic Scientific Reserve - the covert agency that transformed Steve Rogers into the super-soldier known as Captain America - but begins in 1946, when Carter and other women who played a big role in the war find themselves suddenly marginalised.

So, in addition to fighting the bad guys and mourning the love of her life Rogers - who is presumed dead at this point - she must battle sexist attitudes from male colleagues as well as her landlady and female roommate, who think she should be looking for a husband rather than pursuing a career.

Atwell saw it as a chance to flesh out the character of Agent Carter, which the show's creators have dubbed "Alias in the 1940s". Just like Jennifer Garner's tough-as-nails spy in that 2001 to 2006 hit series, Carter goes on secret missions, juggles multiple identities and kicks some serious butt.

Getting to do most of her own stunts for fight scenes was part of the appeal for Atwell.

"You saw glimpses of her in the first Captain America film, but this was a great opportunity to develop her in many different ways - physically, emotionally, mentally," she says.

It was important to her that like Davis or Hepburn, who "weren't just the femme fatale or the ingenue or the jealous girlfriend", this character was not simply a pastiche of tropes.

Agent Carter will put on a blonde wig or a low-cut dress in order to obtain vital information, but that is not the only ace up her sleeve.

"She uses her sexuality when she needs to, but it's never just for the sake of it. She uses it for the greater good and she's not denying her femininity, which I think is a very powerful thing to do. It just happens to be one aspect of the many qualities she has that she uses to do her job."

Furthermore, the show's producers and writers reveal they tweaked the plot to make it more female-centric, adding the character of the butler Jarvis (James D'Arcy) to act as Agent Carter's confidant and, in a neat role reversal, her "Man Friday".

To introduce more female characters - of which there were few given Carter's male-dominated workplace - they had her move into a women's residential hotel and befriend a waitress named Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca).

The way that their friendship is depicted demonstrates the show's true feminist credentials, Atwell believes. "It's so refreshing to see two women on screen supporting each other and who genuinely are friends and they're not competing. I don't know much television that really shows that support between women."

The series has been launched, for now, as a limited TV event, introduced to fill the gap while Marvel's other TV spin-off, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., goes on hiatus in the US.

But Atwell is not hiding the fact that she, like Marvel's TV division, is hoping it does well enough to be picked up beyond its initial eight episodes.

She has also been touched by the fan response on Twitter, particularly from the parents of children whom she hopes can look up to Agent Carter as a role model.

"I've had feedback from parents of boys and girls saying it's just refreshing to see so many qualities in a heroine and she's saying you can use your wit and the many assets and facets to your character.

"The whole point is that she's well-rounded and capable in many ways."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Marvel's Agent Carter airs on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel mio TV Channel 330) on Wednesdays, 9pm.