These words stood out to me in last week's "Agent Carter" season (series?) finale. They came after Peggy Carter had foiled city-wide destruction while talking one of her most trusted colleagues off the ledge. Plot aside, her declaration could apply to Peggy Carter the franchise, as well as to Peggy Carter the character in a serialized television show.
As a concept, Peggy Carter is white-hot with potential. She transcended her initial love interest status in "Captain America" franchise to become one among many heroes united in fighting Ultron in the next Avengers movie. And though an older Peggy is shown suffering from dementia in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," her past adventures are still an open book. In fact, they've earned her not just a one-shot and a solo television showcase, but also a recent comic miniseries.
Certainly, a large reason for this plethora of Peggy Carter-centric stories is Hayley Atwell, an actress I've loved since her turn on the Starz's adaptation of "Pillars of the Earth." Atwell combines steely resolve with charm and a depth of feeling that transcends the pulpy setting of her stories. Not only does she excel at punching evildoers, she has chemistry with every actor she's set against, from Chris Evans as Cap to James D'Arcy as Jarvis, the Stark butler determined to help her in a season-long quest to clear his employer's name and prove her worth to a government agency that finds little use for women in the workplace.
Though "Agent Carter" has caught some necessary flack for its lack of diverse casting and intersectionality, I still believe another factor in the show's success is its feminist focus, provided by showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas. In setting their story in post-World War II America, as women are being pushed out of the workforce, they have created a unique conflict for the Marvel Universe. How can a woman serve her country when her contributions are given little value and no voice? Peggy Carter must battle sexism at the office, even as she uncovers sinister doings in the past of playboy inventor Howard Stark. Often, she must use her invisibility to make moves against the shadowy Leviathan organization -- much to her well-spoken chagrin. Her drive to prove herself marks her as a potentially bland strong female character (look how often she uses brawn instead of brain in this gif set!), but her self-determination is specifically female. For an example, look no further than the penultimate episode of this season, entitled "Snafu." Suspected of treason for her undercover operations, Peggy's male colleagues attempt to twist her actions into a convenient story of love gone wrong; she forcefully counters that every decision she made was meant to clear a friend's name, and that she succeeded in hiding her activities for such an extended period of time because her co-workers thoughtlessly lay their own narratives over her -- the stray kitten, the potential girlfriend, the daft whore. Carter forcefully condemns her colleagues' actions, and gives voice to the showrunners' proudly female-centered message about the perception issues women face every day. It was bracing to hear such words spoken on a comic book show, and such focus again highlights how Peggy Carter can carry a surprising amount of weight for a side character from the 1940's.
Crackerjack performance and feminist slant noted, Peggy Carter's popularity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is also intrinsically linked to the character's flexibility. She is more a composite than the comics' Peggy (for a tutorial on her history, check out this video from The Mary Sue), and that allows her to outstrip fan expectations. Atwell's Carter is not beholden to years of set stories, all of which would revolve around the man of her dreams, Captain America. She can have her own adventures because Marvel Studios isn't obsessed with bringing her frozen on-the-page action to the big screen. In fact, they're shoehorning her into movie continuity because Peggy is so enjoyable and because she can go anywhere and do anything from the 1940s to the end of her life. She has an unwritten past, and that's something superhero comics could use more of these days. At a time when Marvel Comics is touting the end of its increasingly convoluted continuity, and DC is working overtime to shove beloved lost characters into the newer iteration of its multiverse, Peggy stands out because I have no idea where she's headed. Unlike "Gotham" and the recently announced "Krypton," her journey depends not on the fulfillment of a hero's arrival. She commits acts of heroism in her own present, and punches up in weight class each time she's showcased.
Whatever the future of "Agent Carter," her affirmation of self-worth in this finale was satisfying to watch, as was her ability to stop a world-ending plot using her words rather than her fists. The show allowed her to move past the loss of Captain America (to whom Peggy always telling referred to as "Steve"), and led her to a new life outside the government agency that burned her. There's much to follow up on here, and unlike most cinematic comic book characters, Peggy Carter proves there's little use in being a slave to continuity.