Guest Post by Theodore McCombs
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, like most comics words, is inherently pessimistic about the mind’s resilience. After all, it’s no fun if characters can’t be hypnotized, brain-washed, body-switched, or driven crazy if needs be. And the MCU has had plenty of fun with mind control devices, from Loki’s ever-useful Chitauri scepter, to HYDRA brainwashing, to Wanda Maximoff’s cherry Kool-Aid powder hexes—not to mention Zebediah Killgrave, soon to give us all nightmares on Jessica Jones.
Mind control makes for instant, high-returns drama — Cap vs. Bucky, Iron Man vs. Hulk, Agent May vs. fake-Agent May—but once you look at it closely or steadily enough, it says some disturbing things about the fragility of our heroes’ best qualities. This summer I re-read Brubaker’s Winter Soldier run, in which poor Nat and Bucky get reprogrammed so often, and so thoroughly, that love and loyalty, those things that are supposed to conquer all, are devalued currency. If all treachery takes is a tap on the chest with the right Infinity Stone, what is heroism really made of?
Brainwashing in the MCU groups into two rough categories: there’s the brute force attack, like the Mind Stone’s effects on Barton and Selvig, or HYDRA’s brainwashing of Bucky Barnes and Agent 33; and then there’s the subtler, defter manipulations a person’s longings and fears, like Wanda’s hexes in Ultron or Dr. Fennhoff’s hypnotism in Agent Carter. Just as Scarlet Witch plays on Tony Stark’s insecurities to bring out his self-destructive impulses, Dr. Fennhoff (Marvel’s Dr. Faustus) manipulates Howard Stark’s guilt and longing for redemption to maneuver him into a hideous crime.
I’m a big fan of this second type of mind control, where the dramatic action dovetails with character development. Being under Loki’s thrall doesn’t show us any more of who Hawkeye is, but Wanda’s whammy on Tony reveals so much of what’s under the mask: his trauma and vulnerability, his sense of having taken on more than he can handle, his need to build suits of armor around everything precious. Similarly, the fantasy Fennhoff creates for Howard lets us into the womanizer’s shame, quiet morality, and deep need for friends like Peggy and Steve. In order to get him to pilot a plane with a deadly payload over Manhattan, Fennhoff has Howard imagine he’s flying over the Arctic, about to find Captain America. It’s a gorgeous, emotionally loaded sequence—really, a near-perfect example of how a well-developed villain can help develop the heroes’ character arcs, too. (Ahem. Looking at you, Malekith.)
Ralph Brown’s performance as Fennhoff is loads of fun, and it’s easy just to be excited that Butters and Mazekas snagged a top-tier Captain America villain for the show. But Agent Carter is also an extremely well constructed show, and Dr. Fennhoff fits perfectly with the first season’s themes. Agent Carter is a show about sexism, as much as it’s about Peggy Carter herself, and sexism is, in a way, its own Dr. Faustus: it gets inside your head.
Like all forms of oppression, sexism is often internalized. The constant bombardment of sexist messages not only teaches men to treat women as inferior, but teaches women to regard themselves as inferior. If not actively resisted, those messages can brainwash a woman to limit herself, and other women, before any man tells her to. Look at Miriam Fry, the Griffith Hotel’s fearsome proprietor, an intelligent, well-resourced, “strong female character” who has devoted her resources to ensuring her tenants conform to patriarchal strictures. Internalized sexism is insidious, manipulating women into obeying an external agenda against their own interests. Sound like anyone we know?
Agent Carter does an excellent job of showing (in gory detail) how much sexist bullshit Peggy gets, every day: her colleagues relegate her to answering phones and fetching the lunch order, despite her superior talents at everything from brawling to cryptography, and trade lewd innuendos about her relationship with Steve Rogers. In a chilling, beautifully shot scene, Agent Thompson implies Peggy may well deserve better, but says no man will ever consider her an equal. And he has no interest in changing that, clearly. Peggy’s resilience to all this is heroic—superheroic, in a way. But for all of her confidence, the onslaught of sexist treatment makes Peggy manipulable too, as much as the Stark boys.
How does Howard get Peggy to play double-agent in the first place? “Come on Peg, I know they’re not using you right over there,” he says. “You want a mission that matters?” When it becomes clear he has manipulated her to steal Steve’s blood—a profound, personal betrayal—how does Mr. Jarvis attempt to win her back to the cause? “Is there anyone else alive,” he asks, “who holds you in such high esteem?”
Take another look again at that pivotal scene with Thompson, and Peggy’s reaction. Hayley Atwell gives Peggy a complex mix of fury, determination, and doubt. It’s clear his speech cuts her: she may not burst into tears, but she wonders if he’s correct, even if he isn’t right. Peggy internalizes the sexism directed at her not by believing that she’s less than a man, but in needing to prove that she isn’t to colleagues who don’t care.
It’s fitting, then, that Peggy’s Season 1 arc resolves with triumphant declaration that she knows her own value—the antidote to internalized sexism—and doesn’t need the approval of men like Thompson. It’s a thrilling, though mildly controversial moment: should she settle for being mistreated, shouldn’t she have claimed her due? What kind of message is that? But it’s the moment akin to coming out one of Faustus’s illusions: she’s no longer letting herself be manipulated by her own longing. She’s not going to tank her career to score a point off Thompson. It’s Peggy’s own version of how Agent Sousa defeats Fennhoff—by plugging his ears.
So does this hint at anything in store for us? We know Jessica Jones will feature Killgrave and his mind-control abilities, and the trailers suggest the show will draw on the comics’ disturbing association of his purple brand of thrall with sexual assault. That’s definitely consistent with Agent Carter’s interest in the gendered dynamics of heroines and villains, though not wonderfully, um, subtle. And we know we’re getting more Peggy, along with some version of Madame Masque, which has intriguing potential. But if there’s one influence I hope Agent Carter’s first season has on the MCU, it’s the show’s ambition to say something important about the world, and say it with heroes and villains.
Be sure to check out the first teaser for Agent Carter season two by heading over here!