Like most female characters from the MCU, Peggy Carter is a pivotal yet undervalued player in the sprawling franchise. Introduced in the quickly forgotten Captain America: The First Avenger and played by the equally underrated Hayley Atwell, Peggy served as Steve Rogers’ love interest in the film, doing little more than supporting the title character as he journeyed from skinny boy with a heart of gold to hulking super soldier and Avenger. Yet something changed between movies; Peggy’s memory remained, a massive shadow looming over the Captain America trilogy and the constant reminder that Steve was very much out of place.
Over the years, Peggy returned for brief cameos in everything from the Captain America sequels to Ant-Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Her appearances were mere Easter eggs meant to tie the larger MCU with the first-ever Avenger, but they had a secondary and probably unintentional effect. Slowly but surely, Peggy became a staple of the MCU, a pillar whose influence extended beyond the Captain America corners and into the larger Avengers world. An impressive feat, considering Peggy didn’t even share scenes with any other Avenger that wasn’t Cap. Yet her place among the MCU’s key figures — the Tony Starks and Nick Furys of the world — was all but assured.
The strong female character
Whenever anyone wants to praise a fictional female creation, they probably use the term “strong female character.” It’s a suitably vague term to describe an equally vague figure who checks every box in a list of what female characters should be. She’s independent, capable, intelligent, and excels at her job. The strong female character doesn’t need a man, but she usually finds one. She takes names and kicks ass without so much as breaking a nail. Strong female characters are a good way to avoid responsibility for writing a three-dimensional female. So what if audiences don’t know anything about these women? They are excellent at what they do!
Initially, Peggy was just another a strong yet routine female character. The First Avenger introduced her as the army’s sole woman in power at the height of World War II. Everyone respects her because the movie says so. Audiences see Steve’s journey from insecure boy to confident man of action, but much of Peggy’s evolution happens before the plot begins. Indeed, the film focuses on how she can help Steve cement the legacy of Captain America; her wants and needs become secondary to his. True, it’s his movie, but Peggy had the potential to be so much more than a one-time love interest.
The MCU, with considerable help from the comics, noticed this potential too, and turned Peggy into one of the key figures in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s creation. Except, all of it happened off-camera. The franchise told its fans that Peggy was important, but again neglected to show it. She was near death when she next appeared, talking to Steve about old times in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Once again, Peggy was pivotal for Steve, the one person that reminded him of his own time and the person he used to be. One year later, she came back during the opening of Ant-Man to help establish Hank Pym’s MCU credentials and then during Cap dream sequence in Avengers: Age of Ultron, again acting as the embodiment of everything he lost.
By then, Peggy was one of the MCU’s secret weapons, a malleable character who could fit in WWII America as easily as she could in modern-day London. Still, there was more to see about her, more to know about her life, which fans knew was groundbreaking enough to warrant a movie of its own. The MCU was quickly expanding, with previously B-level characters like Ant-Man and the Guardian of the Galaxy headlining major motion pictures. Surely, the MCU could find time to give Peggy some degree of attention, could it not? It did, but not in the way people expected.
A short-lived classic
Agent Carter, a 15-minute short focusing on one of Peggy’s missions before the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D., opened the door for a television show focusing on the character. Marvel was still far away from its current shared television universe in those days, with only Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. holding any continuity with the MCU. Thus, Agent Carter was something of an experiment for Marvel, one that would test the viability of translating the MCU into the small screen.
The series put Carter front and center, showcasing the difficulties of juggling her career and personal life in post-WWII America’s sexist culture. Agent Carter had a unique angle, a rich period setting, and the potential to show some of the most crucial events in the MCU. Above all, it had a compelling character who spent far too long getting sidelined despite having one of the most intriguing stories in the Marvel universe.
Alas, Agent Carter couldn’t connect with mainstream audiences. At a time when MCU fans were relishing the ambition of the franchise’s interconnectivity, the series was a nostalgia trip that didn’t advance the overall story in any significant way. The two seasons didn’t even show Carter’s creation of S.H.I.E.L.D., arguably the series’ biggest selling point. One of the MCU’s greatest strengths is its ability to present a single story throughout numerous chapters. It’s the main reason fans see every Marvel movie in theaters; the fear of missing out is too intense. Focusing 100% on its central character might seem like the way to go for most shows, but those series don’t take place within the MCU’s confinements. Neglecting the larger world was ultimately Agent Carter‘s demise.
A new beginning
Following Agent Carter‘s cancellation, Peggy went into obscurity. She died during the events of Captain America: Civil War, putting a rather anticlimactic ending to this pioneer’s life. Three years later, Peggy returned to finally give Steve his long-awaited dance. Avengers: Endgame reunites the star-crossed lovers in one final twist that remains divisive among the fans. Seeing Cap with Peggy was more a triumph for him than her because she again existed only to serve Steve’s interests. After all, it was his dream to dance with her; fans had seen her move on during the events of Agent Carter, and even the movies showed her getting married and starting a family. Yet here she was with Steve and living the life she apparently always wanted, despite the many events that suggested otherwise.
Avengers: Endgame put a neat bow on Peggy’s storyline, and fans expected her journey had finally come to a close. So, when Marvel announced its animated series, What If…?, many fans raised their eyebrows in disbelief. Peggy Carter would return to the MCU, this time in animation and as a superhero. Captain Carter was crucial to What If…?‘s promotional campaign, arguably acting as the show’s most prominent “hook.” Expectations for the show were big, especially after the massive success of WandaVision and Loki, and the show didn’t disappoint.
Reviews for What If…? were positive, with critics and fans appreciating this new angle to explore the different corners of the MCU. Captain Carter’s episode received significant praise for Atwell’s performance and Peggy’s new characterization, and while many found the plot too similar to The First Avenger, almost everyone agreed that it was a delight to finally see Peggy in the spotlight. It’s a shame that Marvel had to turn her into a superhero to give her any attention, especially when Peggy was one of the MCU’s most significant and interesting nonpowered individuals. Still, the character finally got the focus she had always deserved.
Captain Carter introduced another major female hero to the MCU, one without Wanda’s instability, Black Widow’s questionable morals, or Captain Marvel’s attitude problems. Captain Carter is a born leader, forged in the hardships of war and sent through the multiverse thanks to the Tesseract’s antics. Like Captain America before her, Captain Carter is the ultimate soldier: Incorruptible, unflinching, uncompromising, and moral to a fault. And yet, she isn’t a Captain America rip-off. Peggy is less stoic, more determined, and used to the constant battle that comes with being a hero. At last, fans got to see a new side of Peggy, one that had always been there, but only recently got a chance to shine.
What the future holds
The upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will introduce the live-action version of Captain Carter, and not a moment too soon. Seeing the character in animation was a treat, but witnessing her in all her glory on the big screen will be the redemption her fans needed. The already announced season 2 of What If…? suggests Captain Carter isn’t going anywhere, and the positive reception could signify a rebirth for the character. With everyone getting Disney+ spin-ffs, a Captain Carter-centric one could be on the horizon. And with the multiverse playing an increasingly prominent role in the MCU, who’s to say Captain Carter can’t show up in Captain America 4?
It’s been a long and winding road for Peggy Carter, but she has proven her importance to the overall MCU more than once, in more ways than one. She might still be a strong female character, at least on paper, but the character developments for Wanda Maximoff and Natasha Romanoff proved that Marvel is no longer neglecting its female figures. The possibilities are endless for Peggy. She’s been multiple things — love interest, human, superhero, common denominator — often at once, making her unique among Marvel’s catalog of mostly static characters.
The MCU has an incredible asset in Peggy, and has always known it, but has chosen to ignore her for whatever reason. Not anymore. There couldn’t be a better time for Peggy Carter to rise from obscurity and into the spotlight she always deserved.