In the first episode of Marvel’s What If…?, we get to see Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter become Captain America. More Peggy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is always welcome, and Captain Carter is no less an action hero, or principled leader, than Steve Rogers, who comfortably slides into a supporting role.
The advent of Peggy getting more well-earned time in the limelight feels like a good opportunity to remind everyone that she stars in her very own Marvel TV series, Agent Carter. Running for two seasons, it’s a direct sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger about life post-Steve, where Peggy works an office job while trying to clear Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) name.
Sharing many themes and character beats, Agent Carter is very similar to ‘What If… Captain Carter Was the First Avenger?’ but longer and purely canonical. Peggy doesn’t have superpowers or anything in it, because she doesn’t need them. Resilience, ingenuity, and some plain old good instincts allow her to outwit her enemies, and cement herself as integral to the Avengers Initiative as a whole.
The first season begins in the wake of Steve’s apparent demise at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. World War II is over, and everyone involved in the war effort must now go back to regular life. Though she’s technically a war hero, Peggy’s reduced to administrative duties at the Strategic Scientific Reserve in New York City. When her old pal Howard Stark is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, she starts investigating, without trying to alert her co-workers.
As Howard’s only friend in a conspiracy to have him arrested, and a woman in a predominantly male profession, Peggy faces challenges at every turn. When she isn’t following a lead with Jarvis (James D’Arcy) by sneaking in somewhere, she’s trying to cover her footsteps, so her colleagues don’t realise she’s interfering, or worse, doing their jobs better than they are. It’s a tight-rope act and one finely balanced by showrunners Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Chris Dingess.
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The tension of Peggy going undercover is countered by the awkward drama of her using SSR resources, and Atwell’s ability to go from espionage expert to pretend secretary is one of the best performances in the MCU. There’s more than a hint of Christopher Reeve’s Superman in the way she changes her energy and body language on a whim to suit the situation and environment.
If that’s not intriguing enough, we get some proto-Iron Man technology in Stark Industries armoured vests that become stuck on the wearer and explode. Shea Wigham’s Roger Dooley finds this out the hard way in a dramatic sacrifice that ends in a midtown bombing, proving that Stark tech always has a tendency to blow up in other people’s faces.
The second season is less pertinent to the MCU, introducing Whitney ‘Madame Masque’ Frost as we move coasts, from New York to Los Angeles. Peggy’s sent over to look into the body of Jane Scott, who, it’s discovered, was having an affair with politician Calvin Chadwick. Whitney and Peggy’s lives are contrasted in the ensuing drama, where it’s shown that women being overlooked and villainised is a pervasive reflex within American culture.
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Captain Carter undergoes a similar arc, undervalued by the men in charge until it becomes clear she’s the best and brightest in any given room. No less satisfying, there’s a sense that it’s a redux of Agent Carter as a way of undermining Peggy’s live-action exploits because they’re a product of a pre-streaming service era, when Disney’s franchises weren’t ubiquitous to one platform.
Agent Carter was produced for ABC, like Agents of SHIELD, when the promise was that TV and movies would openly communicate and intermingle. That didn’t quite happen, and explicit connections fell by the wayside. Agents of SHIELD got seven seasons, but Agent Carter was cancelled after two.
If watching What If…? has made you desire more Peggy in your life, you can find both seasons of Agent Carter on Disney Plus. Just like any other situation, Peggy’s already well-prepared.