Agent Carter: Dieselpunk Done Right
A primetime TV show has not created such excitement among fans of Dieselpunk for thirty-two years, ever since 1982’s Tales of The Golden Monkey, a one-season wonder that tried to capitalize on the previous year’s smash hit movie, Raiders of The Lost Ark. If the Agent Carter debut was a sporting event, then last week’s premiere was like a team trying to end the league’s longest championship drought. The Toronto Maple Leafs are still waiting to win hockey’s Stanley Cup after forty-seven years and believe it or not, I’m old enough to remember watching the Leafs win it in 1967! So for Dieselpunk fans, the success of Agent Carter, and the show’s ability to draw new fans to the genre, is being watched very, very closely. If the show fails, will Dieselpunk ever get another chance to gain traction on television?
The Diesel Powered Podcast, one of the web’s principal sources of critical dialogue on dieselpunk culture, has started a weekly Agent Carter Roundtable. Each week, the current episode of Agent Carter will get the ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ from guest critics the host Johnny Dellarocca calls the ‘diesel-powered Disciples of Cool’. I was honored to be invited as a panelist for the first Roundtable to review the two-hour double episode that launched the series on Jan 6. I’ll summarize the main points here. We had a very engaging discussion that took the torque wrench to every dieselpunk element we could find in the show. We had so much fun with it, you should really have a listen!
Click here to go to the Diesel Powered Podcast (love her red hat!):
Agent Carter (played by actress Hayley Atwell) was previously the sidekick/femme noir in the movie Captain America:The First Avenger. So can these new adventures of the Agent Carter character, set in a post-war 1946 New York City, step out of the large shadow of Captain America and make it on their own merit? That’s the big question. And based on early reviews of the first three episodes the answer is…. (drum roll)… a resounding YES! YES, it can and does, brilliantly!
So lets get the big question out of the way: Is Agent Carter Dieselpunk?
SPOILER ALERT: the following section contains plot points in the first two episodes.
Visually: the show displays a great noir feel, one I call the ‘Maltese Falcon in Technicolor’ meets ‘post-war Retrofuturism’. We have Art Deco buildings and offices; the camp diner with neon signs & chrome accented tables; plenty of gorgeous 1940s automobiles; and the fashion sense is spot-on in every detail right down to hair-dos, silk stockings and fedoras.
Culturally: big band music is playing in the background; the lingo is retro-good; and I love the cheesy Captain America radio play with its homemade sound effects! The lead character, Agent Peggy Carter starts off with a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ room-mate and through a dastardly act by the villains who kill her off, ends up with the diner’s waitress as her new BFF. This minor character’s demise was very symbolic: it showed the changing role of women in 1946 as the men in the services returned to ‘kill off’ the women who’d done so well in previously male dominated roles during the war and put them ‘back in their place’ serving coffee and donuts. In fact, this is the device the scriptwriters have used to position Agent Carter in her dual roles of agent-as-secretary and undercover action heroine.
Give ‘Agent Carter’ high marks for the attention to detail to recreate the 1940s feel & look. But what about the ‘punk’ in Dieselpunk? How well did they do on that score? Gotta give top marks again. We have very cool retro-spy, retro-SciFi gadgets galore! We have the weird science of vita rays and fluorescent orange nitromene bombs; and the laboratory of Roxxon Industries that is right out of a Saturday morning cinema serial of that period. My favorite gadget? A perfect-for-the-period big-keyed typewriter attached to vacuum tube technology that acts like a two-way Enigma machine, the ideal but clunky ‘smart-phone of 1946’ gizmo every retro-James Bond villain needs!
Yes, Virginia… Agent Carter is not just Dieselpunk, it’s Dieselpunk done really, really well! Good job, Marvel Studios!
Okay, now that we’ve answered the first big question, here’s the next biggee: Does ‘Agent Carter’ have a compelling story? One that will draw in new fans and prevent the show from becoming another ‘thirty-years-til-next time’ one-season wonder?
So the author in me took out a sharp scalpel and dissected ‘Agent Carter’ to examine the elements of story arc, plot, character development and dialogue. And I was very impressed! We have seriously capable actors in every role who are working with a clever script written with intelligent witty dialogue. We have a thriller plot with killer weapons mixed with old fashioned gumshoe detective mystery elements. We have well crafted action sequences that will keep the fight fans happy and ‘extra retro-special’ special effects (love that explosion/implosion idea).
All in all, I give ‘Agent Carter’ a 10/10 for being an outstanding ambassador for the Dieselpunk genre; for having a strong, feisty female lead character acted with class and sass by Hayley Atwell; and for providing a great plot with clever dialogue and just the right mix of action, drama and special effects.
As Goldilocks said as she put on her silk stockings, “Not too hot, not too cold, Agent Carter is Dieselpunk done just right!”