This is my entry in the 2019 Reel Infatuation Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Minor spoilers for Captain America follow…
Let’s just get this out of the way. It’s the last thing I want to do to rehash The Avengers because my most appreciative remark about Endgame was the fact that it brought closure.
But this is an entirely different matter. I want to acknowledge my affections for Peggy Carter. While my interest in the series has admittedly waxed and waned over the course of almost a decade, my fondness for Peggy has never faltered.
It began with The First Avenger because that was her coming-out party — the first chance she was brought before a cinematic audience in a meaningful way — and Hayley Atwell killed the portrayal. By the end of it, I was sold on one of the central stories of Marvel because it rang with a real shard of truth: wartime lovers separated.
Yes, the extenuating circumstances were plucked out of a future-inspired sci-fi comic book but this was hardly material. The separation of Peggy and Cap was what mattered most.
As the years continued onward and the Marvel machine grew larger and more unwieldy, the one Marvel tie-in show I was actually excited about was Agent Carter. In fact, I followed its syndicated progress quite dutifully because I was devoted to learning more about Peggy. I was intrigued by her world and how she would play a part in it.
At the time, the only comfort I could think of was humming the consoling wartime refrains of Dame Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” Because even with the companionship of Jarvis, Howard Stark, and her fellow police officers, there was this ongoing sense that someone was missing in her life. Still, she pushes dutifully on with her work.
Later in The Winter Soldier when we saw Peggy Carter on her deathbed it took the wind out of my sails. This was not what I wanted. It felt unnatural and strange but the emotions were still there; they did not waver for an instant.
Thanks to time, I finally forgot about her funeral until word of Endgame circulated again and my unrealized romance still hung suspended in limbo. There was lingering hope of some form of supernatural closure outside of the confines of the story already told.
But none of this touches directly on why I was smitten with her character. For that, we must go back to Captain America The First Avenger in 2011. First, let’s consider the world…
Peggy Carter and Classic Hollywood
I’ve realized since having a bit of a classic movie renaissance in my own life over the last 6 years or so, it’s been the stars of the 1940s who became some of my personal favorites.
I’m talking about the likes of Teresa Wright, Ann Sheridan, Deanna Durbin, Eleanor Parker, Ella Raines, and even Rosalind Russell. They dressed up films of the 1940s with a certain girls-next-door-appeal, working girl pluckiness, and the traditional conventions of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
In the case of Russell, especially in her iconic portrayal as a newswoman in His Girl Friday, she all but proved she could be one of the boys and beat them all to the scoop.
I know Hayley Atwell is a contemporary British-American actress but for me, she is closely tied to the nostalgia of the past decades in part to her lengthy characterization as Peggy. Because Peggy feels like a product of the 1940s, of the mores driving people at that time, but she’s also quietly countercultural.
Did anyone else think of Heddy Lamar’s joint patent on frequency hopping during the height of World War II? Her work got all but dismissed but history has stood by her, proving how integral her work was for future technological advancement. For these types of reasons, Agent Carter has obvious shades of reality while quietly subverting the common narrative.
The Many Facets of Her Character
There is a certain amount of 1940s propriety about her. She has manners but she does not acquiesce when other’s try to discriminate against her. There’s nothing flashy about her yet she gets the job done with efficiency and grit when it’s called for. She’s not a squeamish individual.
Fittingly, I read in an interview that Hayley Atwell took Ginger Rogers’ words to heart, doing everything her colleagues do except in heels. One can even imagine — in spite of her obvious opulence onscreen — Peggy might have taken Ginger as a bit of a role model in real life. In a purportedly “man’s world” she was able to excel to the highest degree.
But she is resilient and grounded standing up for what is fundamentally right. This goes for her relationships outside of mere military protocol. Because while Steve Rogers, in his original form, is a bit of a pipsqueak by the world’s standards, again, she sees the inherent worth in him — the tenacity and heart, not unlike her own.
In fact, Peggy is anchored by a heart. There is hardly a superficial bone in her body and it makes her all the more appealing. She has the capacity to carry herself with class without ever truly feeling arrogant or dismissive — at least in the way the world might. She disregards the pickup lines and mere masculine shows of machismo for more subtle qualities.
When others bully Steve and knock him down, she’s there to encourage him to continue the fight with warmth and kindness. These were the seeds of affection for me. Someone who is capable to see the interior goodness in someone else going beyond physical appearance is worth having in your life.
She even has the gumption to call Steve out when he gets shallow or feels sorry for himself. It’s tough love but it’s love that nevertheless sticks by his side with a deep-seated loyalty. It goes beyond superficial attraction.
Certainly, there’s an underlining discreetness and reserve to her demeanor, which is one sense old-fashioned but in still another sense feels deeply appealing. Case and point is their final interaction while he is facing mortality and she has him on the radio (a la Stairway to Heaven).
We know he’s hurtling toward his death. She knows it too but doesn’t want to admit it outright. They talk about a date to an upcoming dance they’ve been planning together. Obviously, it’s the subtext of a screenwriter writing a scene playing out but it also speaks to the culture of the characters. Keeping the stiff upper lip, keeping calm and carrying on, and all that. You more often than not keep your emotions in check to be strong for your significant other.
It’s simultaneously one of the most heart-wrenching scenes precisely because of this understatement with the vulnerability still coming through. I wouldn’t always say it’s the best way in life to keep emotions couched in this manner but it certainly rings with core truth. Because this is what people did and what people still do now. The key is knowing their love speaks out in different ways.
It’s Been a Long Long Time
Putting the absurd plotline aside, the core romance and relationship of Captain America: The First Avenger sold me because it brought us back to a bygone time and place. Yes, I am a sucker for this kind of nostalgic setup but still, somehow it resonated with me on a deeper level than I can remember from similar period pieces. The chemistry was there.
Flashforward to the improbable reunion at the closing of Endgame and my heart was a flutter. Finally satisfied and satiated. All was right with the world. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Kitty Kallen’s knowing “It’s Been A Long Long Time” was ringing out on the Victrola. Most important of all, Cap and dear Peggy were brought together again. If this wasn’t my highlight from the movie I’m not sure what was.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder and reunions have rarely felt so sweet. As we say in this generation: All the feels. In that generation, a record and an embrace were enough. It was a long time coming (over 70 years) but Peggy Carter got the happy resolution she deserved. I can finally say Peggy and Cap really did meet again one sunny day and it was good.