Tag Archives: heroes

Spy vs. spy: ‘Agent Carter’ and ‘The Americans’

Agent Carter bested her fellow, modern Agents of Shield during the limited run of her show.

Agent Carter bested her fellow, modern “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” during the limited run of her show.

CONGRATULATIONS, MARVEL MINDS. You took Peggy Carter, a secondary character from one of your tent-pole films and spun her story into a brief, interesting – if occasionally uneven – run, one that deserves at least one more season.

Bet the folks over at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are jealous. Because, you see, they are Heroes-ing the fuck out of Agent Colson and his crew. What started as a show with a solid core group of characters working together to defeat those foul soldiers of Hydra is now bloated with guest stars and unnecessary characters, spinning the people we truly care about all over the planet to face threats and fellow good guys who are part of muddled storylines that I’m not sure anyone can keep track of and – worse – stories that fans may not even be interested in anymore, except for the hardcore geeks seeking clues to how this whole multi-level Marvel thing will play out. “Save the cheerleader / save the world” should be on a huge banner hanging in the S.H.I.E.L.D. writers room to remind them of what they don’t want the show to become. Although it may be too late to dig out of that hole. I’m not sure even Commander Adama can save them now.

Agent Carter, however, was a breath of fresh air. The original Captain America film might be my favorite (outside of the two Avengers flicks) from the current Marvel run, in large part because the WWII-era setting of the proceedings and the stylistic choices of director Joe Johnston. Peggy Carter was a huge part of that world, the dame who was smarter and more gutsy than pretty much everyone around her and not afraid to let everyone know it, even if sometimes she did it so subtly the numbskulls that work with her missed the burn. The casting choices for Agent Carter were solid. Chad Michael Murray as her faux-hero, big swinging dick co-worker was dead-on. Murray plays a complete douche better than anyone in Hollywood (anyone remember him as Tristan on Gilmore Girls?), and his betrayal and willingness to accept credit for a job he didn’t do was both inevitable and well-played. Shea Whigam as Roger Dooley, Carter’s hard-nosed, old-school boss, had maybe the toughest role on the program and handled it with grace. James D’Arcy as Jarvis and Dominic Cooper returning in his role as Howard Stark helped keep it light and fun when it got dark.

So I’m advocating for a second season. I think the first was good, not great. I loved the glimpse into the 1940s, ladies-take-a-back-seat boys club of the working world. Hayley Atwell embodies our heroine Peggy, our female Colson, the one without powers, the one who just wants to be part of the battle because it’s a fight worth fighting. Yes, Agent Carter did slow down a bit in the middle episodes, but a lot of that had to do with the necessity of setting up Peggy’s world and giving us some insight into the characters surrounding her. Plus, the show worked better when Stark was in the picture, and considering the plot of Season 1 was all about him being a traitor on the run, he can now be worked in to the entirety of a Season 2. With all of the set-up of the series now out of the way, a second season should move more quickly and easily. It’s not like ABC’s hitting out of the park with anything except Modern Family and its surrounding sit-coms. Carter comes with a built-in audience, one that could be stimulated by a more free-flowing run the second time around.

Just your average, upwardly mobile Americans from the early 1980s who are really Russian deep cover operatives.

Just your average, upwardly mobile Americans from the early 1980s who are really Russian deep cover operatives.

WHY AREN’T YOU PEOPLE WATCHING THE AMERICANS? What is your problem? Well, not you, you obviously – as a reader of this blog – have great taste in all things. But the rest of you, you have no excuse. The 1980’s spy drama is second-to-none compared to any show I’m watching, and for me, it’s become must-see viewing, akin to my love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel at the height of their respective runs.

Here are the three things that I think The Americans have going for it:

* The Cold War. I was in grade school when The Americans takes place. I remember that fear of impending nuclear disaster, but I was unaware and too immature to understand most of the politics, diplomacy and gamesmanship that went on. As a half-assed political junkie, that sort of thing helps draw me into the story.

* No James Bond gadgets here. It’s old-school spying for the Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. That means planting recording devices, then return later to get the tape. That means intimate, personal contact is vital, as human assets can get closer to the action and secrets than the tech of the time will allow. That means when you’re trying to snatch up a double agent in the streets, the lookout has no cellphone to text or call the two agents ready to ambush; the lookout must bribe her way into a neighboring apartment and signal the target is nearing with the tugging of a drape. This lack of tech really helps increase the intensity of each mission, even the simpler ones.

* Love and marriage. Philip (Michael Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell, who should be carrying home Emmys for her work) were trained in the Soviet Union as agents to imitate Americans, and they were introduced and married just before their mission started. When we meet them, Philip is clearly very much in love with his wife and is every bit the doting suburban dad. He’s having doubts about his children’s future, mainly with the idea that they would be better off as Americans than they would be as citizens of the U.S.S.R. Elizabeth is still every bit a soldier for the Soviet Union, loyal to the motherland without a doubt. She has affection for Philip, but all her love is for another man. As the show evolves, Philip and Elizabeth get closer and they find a comfortable love that they work to nurture. But their feelings about their mission – Philip’s doubts about the horrible things he has to do and whether or not it truly helps their cause, Elizabeth’s near-blind obedience to any order issued to their Soviet bosses – are what add to the tension and cause rifts in the relationship. As their children get older and closer to the truth about their parents, this divide grows. I find that I can’t think of another show I’ve ever seen where a marriage has been more thruthfully protrayed on the small screen.

So the nine months or so until Season 4 starts can’t go fast enough for me. I’m ready for the Cold War to get back in full swing.

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Doers of dirty deeds

“A hero is a hero, but everybody loves a great villain.” – Ferb, Phineas & Ferb

I wrote previously about a conversation with a young film enthusiast and how it led to a discussion of heroes. We also talked about villains. “What makes a great villain?” At that point, we parted paths, so that just kind of hung out there, in the air and in the corner of my mind, nagging at me.

Heroes tend to be a bit easier because, no matter how messy they are, at the core they just want what’s right, what’s fair, what’s just. A villain is more of a balancing act: they have to be menacing to the point you think they might prevail (and in some cases, evil does prevail), but they also can’t turn into a gasbag who can’t cash the check his ass is writing. For example, Bond villains. They tend to lack any true menace, and I’ve always been pretty sure that – given a baseball bat and a couple of minutes to go to work with it – that I could have absolutely wrecked Goldfinger, Le Chiffre, Sir Hugo Drax, etc., weeks before their ludicrous plans every came to fruition.

One of my favorite examples of how this menace-follow through balancing act can work is a character from both literature and film: Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is a contract killer for pay, although destiny has selected him to be an agent of chaos, a coin flip determining who will live and who will die as the poor unknowing wander into his path.

What interests me is the difference in Chigurh’s impact when you compare Cormack McCarthy’s gritty novel to the faithful screen adaptation by the Coen brothers. In the novel, I feel like the impact comes from the reaction by Chirgurh’s victims, particularly the effect on Sheriff Bell. Make no mistake, Tommy Lee Jones does a terrific job in the movie, slowly weakening at the knees as he realizes the evil he is facing. That said, I’m more shaken by just how much Bell is shaken in McCarthy’s novel. The depth to which Chigurh’s killing spree shakes Bell’s faith and perception of the world as it is and was comes across clearer, harder in print.

In the movie, Chigurh is brought to life by Javier Bardem’s performance. Bardem’s Chigurh is magnetic. The viewer is sucked in by Chigurh’s dark-eyed intensity in all manners, his obedience to the randomness of fate. Whenever Chigurh is on screen, there is a pit in the viewer’s stomach, that queasy feeling that something is going to happen and it will not be good, it will not end well. The scene where Chigurh flips a coin for the life of a gas station attendant is chilling and sickening. When Carla Jean Moss (in a brief but awesome piece of acting by Kelly Macdonald) refuses to play Chigurh’s game near the end of the movie, the fear and anticipation mount further. Plus the effect Moss’s refusal to play Chigurh’s game really throws a curve to the killer. Well played, well written and well directed.

The same character, the same story, the same menace … but done in a slightly different way to slightly different effect. It’s a perfect mesh of long-form written fiction and the screen portrayal of the same story.

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