Monday, January 5, 2015

Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger isn’t discussed as often as the other Marvel films but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t get enough attention because it’s a really well made film. The script is incredibly solid. The casting is perfect - from Chris Evans right down to the background one liners. The decision to make it a period film was brilliant, the set design and costuming is fantastic and the score is everything a superhero movies score should be. So while the plot is your basic cookie cutter origin story, the execution makes Captain America: The First Avenger a super entertaining, infinitely re-watchable, movie. 

Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is just one of the reasons Captain America: The First Avenger worked but she is without a doubt one of the most important things this film added to the Marvel Cinematic universe. This film took a character that’s been retconned more than most, a woman that is characterised by her relationship with Steve Rogers. Peggy Carter was Captain America’s wartime girlfriend (and the Aunt of his future love interest - which is kind of creepy) and this film made her into someone interesting enough to warrant her own spin of series. A series that is separated from the current cannon by about 70 years so it’s not like it can rely on Avengers cameos.

Peggy Carter’s introduction is perfect - and not just because she knocks a misogynist dick on his ass, although that helps. It’s perfect because it tells the audience everything they need to know about her as a character. She’s the only woman in a male world and she’s in a position of power at that - you can tell by the dude she’s got trailing after her carrying the paperwork. Her outfit is clearly military, a uniform made for function rather than beauty but her hair and make up is immaculate. She’s practical, yet feminine. 

The moment she walks up to the recruits she’s waiting for an outburst like Hodge’s. Hayley Atwell gives these little sighs constantly to suggest that she’s stealing herself to deal with the inevitable misogyny. Hodge’s comments, also tell the audience what kind of world Peggy Carter lives in. This is clearly a patriarchal world. She calmly responds to Hodge’s outburst in a way that says, she’s done this many times before. If her own body language wasn’t enough, the way Colonel Philips reacts proves it. He smirks and automatically takes her side even though he’s the only person Agent Carter shows any reverence towards. 

The next time we see Agent Carter is when Steve is in the middle of his run and that’s the moment we see her really notice Steve. She gets such a thrill out of his victory and that says more than just romantic interest (although many fans think she definitely would have hit pre-serum Steve), it says that she’s been in Steve’s position. She’s been continually underestimated by every single one of the men that surround her and although she has to take it in her stride most of the time, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get a thrill anytime anyone takes them down a notch. 

“Faster, ladies! Come on! My GRANDMOTHER has more life in her, God rest her soul. MOVE IT!”

After the run, we get to final test Colonel Phillips uses to prove that Steve is not the right man for the super soldier program. Of course it all blows up in his face because Steve Rogers has what every hero needs, an unhealthy death wish. But many people miss that Steve is not the only one that moves towards the grenade. Steve’s the one that uses his tiny body as a bomb shield for everyone around them - Peggy also takes a heroic step forward as those macho men like Hodge all run and hide. I don’t know if that was in the script or a choice made by Hayley Atwell but whatever it was, thank you because in that moment Peggy Carter became a hero in her own right. 

The conversation between Steve and Peggy as they drive through Brooklyn is really a continuation of the bond they formed when Steve handed that flag to his supervising officer. They bond over the one thing they can both understand, when Peggy says: “I know a little of what that’s like, to have every door shut in your face.” This is one the first times we see Peggy lower her guard as well. Until this moment she has maintained a cool, calm, professional demeanour. She was constantly on the defensive - desperate to maintain an air of togetherness. But in that car with Steve she actually chooses to engage him in conversation. Even flirting a little - dancing is clearly 1940s for getting down and dirty. Then the moment they exist the car she’s back in Agent mode, shutting down Steve’s attempts to make conversation. 

Peggy’s pretty amazing all throughout this film, but my favourite moment is without a doubt the way she walks down the hallway with Steve. She’s so proud and sure of herself, which is particularly noticeable next to Steve’s awkwardness. He’s out of his depth but she’s in her element. Her confidence leads into the way she acts protectively towards Steve throughout the procedure. First when she continues to stay in the room with him until she asked to leave, and then again when she hears him scream and she orders them to turn the magic ab-making machine off. Now that Peggy has bonded with Steve and she’s now aware of the vulnerable position he is in. Peggy helped train him, she is at least partially responsible for this experiment, which makes he responsible for Steve. 

Once the serum oven cooks up some muscles, Steve’s not really quite so vulnerable anymore but because physical power isn’t everything Peggy continues to look out for Steve for the majority of the film. Of course she also starts to look at him a little more after he gets hit with the hottie stick - the way she reacts to Steve’s new body might be my favourite thing about her. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that she could have fallen in love with pre-serum Steve, and I think she was definitely a little attracted to him after he pulled that pin out that pole but let’s face it she definitely likes the way he looks once he’s been Captain America-ified. 

There’s no time for any “dancing” because Peggy Carter is thrust into action. It’s the first time we see her actual combat skills and they’re should not be dismissed. Peggy is already up and outside the building before Steve has even worked out what’s going on. She shoots the driver of a car, in the head, while it’s moving. Girls got skills. Peggy Carter isn’t just a romantic interest, she’s a skilled and tested agent. She is calm in the face of extreme danger, like explosions or cars driving at her at top speed. She’s even pissed when Steve pushes her out of the way of said car, because she totally had him and you know what I believe her. (I’m also pretty sure Steve didn’t knock her on purpose, he just didn’t have control of his limbs yet - like a newborn deer, which works with my Steve Rogers is Bambi theory). 

“If it could work only once, he’d be proud it was you.” 

Peggy stays with Steve as he gets his test and she tries to reassure him because she cares about him but also because she still feels kind of responsible for his situation. And she pretty much knows that Colonel Phillips is going to bench him. But she doesn’t go out on a limb, she doesn’t fight for him. She has a job to do, and she’s not his babysitter. I don’t think that stops her from feeling bad though, as we see when she’s catches up with Steve in Italy. She’s the one that seeks Steve out, she’s the one that tells him he was meant for something more than being a lab rat or a dancing monkey. She’s the one that suggest there might be another option. Of course I don’t think she thought he was going to dive into enemy territory to rescue prisoners from a heavily guarded facility. 

She obviously doesn’t know Steve that well yet, but she does know him well enough to know that once he gets the idea in his head, nothing is going to stop him. The best she can do is help him, even if that she means she has to put up with Howard Stark. And what does she get for her troubles? Well Steve thinks she’s fonduing with him. Except in this case fondue is not a metaphor for getting dirty, it’s just bread and cheese. So it’s not the best way to leave things in their relationship before Steve jumps out a plane in the middle of a gun fight. Seriously that dude has the self preservation instincts of a sloth. 

Peggy: “You can’t give me orders.”
Steve: “To hell I can, I’m a Captain.” 

The reaming out she gets from Colonel Phillips gives her decision to help Steve added weight. He can’t touch Stark, and she knows it. So the only person that is going to get blamed for losing Captain America in the middle of a war zone is Peggy. She was essentially risking everything she had worked so hard for and that’s pretty powerful. Steve Rogers seems to inspire that kind of loyalty. And she stands by her decision, even when Colonel Phillips makes sexist assumptions suggesting she did it because she had a crush on Steve. She insists it wasn’t that, it was faith. And her faith was no misplaced because Steve arrives with Bucky and the rest of the POW’s he rescued. 

It might have been faith that caused her to help Steve, but it’s pretty clear when she sees him return that her feelings are not platonic. I’m pretty sure that’s the moment that Peggy Carter definitely decides she’s going to hit that - and she wants to make her intentions clear so she puts on her hottest red dress and suggests that she might like to dance with him some time. (Much to Bucky’s disgust - poor jealous Bucky). Then Steve gets caught kissing Natalie Dormer (who can blame him), which leaves to my third favourite Peggy moment. Passive aggressively shooting a gun. Some people might think she’s over reacting but they did just agree to “dance” the night before. That’s poor form Steve. Especially when he accuses her of fonduing with Stark again. 

“You always wanted to be a soldier and now you are, just like all the rest.” 

Think of it this way. Colonel Phillips has already accused Peggy of thinking of her lady parts when it comes to Steve. She’s been in the military world for long enough to know that IF she dates Captain America, she will forever be known as Captain America’s girlfriend. Everything else she does will be undermined. But she still chose to make her intentions towards him clear in a very public setting because she obviously thought he was worth the trouble. Then the next thing she knows he’s making out with some other girl. I’d probably shoot him too if I was in her position. 

During the Howling Commando’s montage Captain America: The First Avenger takes the time to show Peggy doing her own thing and it is so important. This might be Steve’s movie, but it’s important for the audience to see that Peggy has a life outside of Steve, her world does not stop because she caught Captain America’s eye. This might not seem like a big deal, but look at your favourite male hero driven blockbusters. They don’t take the time to explore the love interests time away from the hero, unless it involves pining or getting kidnapped. Peggy doesn’t pine, she does get a little flushed when she sees that Steve has her picture but she’s more proud than embarrassed. So is Colonel Phillips, he totally ships Steve and Peggy. 

After Bucky falls, it’s Peggy that comforts Steve and I will forever be thankful that they did not use that moment as an excuse to push the romance between Steve and Peggy. It’s about Bucky. Peggy might be 100% into Steve, and Steve might reciprocate those feelings but this is a moment for friendship and solidarity not sex “dancing”. And it’s this moment that proves that Peggy really truly understands Steve, because she tells him exactly what he needs to hear. She also probably signs his death sentence because there was no way he wasn’t going to follow Bucky all the way to hell. 

“Did you believe in your friend? Did you respect him? Then stop blaming yourself. Allow Barnes the dignity of his choice, he damn well must have thought you were worth it.” 

In the final action sequence Agent Carter isn’t one to stand on the sidelines and not once does anyone suggest it. There’s no moment when the hero begs the girl to stay out of harms way so he doesn’t have to worry about keeping her safe. Peggy Carter is a grown woman, and a trainer fighter. She can make her own decisions and Steve knows she’s more than capable of handling herself. She’s on the front line, she even saves Steve’s life. She takes out a guy with two flame throwers while Steve cowers in the corner. 

In the last moment, Peggy grabs Steve and kisses him. It’s twee as all hell - the final kiss before the hero goes into battle but it works in this context. It doesn’t feel forced, it feels exactly like something Peggy would do because she’s not the kind of girl to let opportunity pass her by. She knows what she wants and she goes for it whether that means fighting her way into a male dominated profession or putting on a banging red dress to wow the boy of her dreams. There’s a part of Peggy that must know Steve’s not coming back and if this is her last chance to get her lips on Steve Rogers, she’s going to go for it. 

All that’s left is Peggy and Steve’s final radio conversation - clearly a homage to A Matter of Life And Death - it’s beautiful and silly and and heartbreaking and incredibly poignant. Everything a tragic goodbye should be. It’s also basically Peggy Carter’s tragic backstory. Not that she really needed any motivation to be a hero, but it’s a thing that heroes have to lose someone they love because of reasons. And in a hilariously ironic twist Captain America is literally fridged - sure he wakes up in the future for more adventures but for Agent Carter, losing Steve is the beginning of her story, which will be explored in Marvel’s Agent Carter. 

The last time we see Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger reminds the audience that while she might have been hot for Captain America’s body, it was Steve Rogers she fell in love with. It was Steve Rogers she lost. And it Steve Rogers loss that pushed her on the path towards Marvel’s Agent Carter. So thanks Captain America: The First Avenger, for giving us one of the best female characters ever and the first Marvel Cinematic Universe offering that features a female protagonist. That’s a pretty awesome legacy.