Agent Carter and the Trouble with Starks

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

This week, on Marvel’s Agent Carter, Howard Stark came back to town.

That’s not the only thing that happened in “The Blitzkrieg Button.” Agent Sousa continued to to put clues together, Peggy’s mysterious neighbor Dottie revealed her preternatural fighting skills, and a magical typewriter started sending messages to SSR headquarters. All of the plot stuff that should be developing at the halfway point of an eight hour miniseries seems to be on target.

But none of this could compete with the return of guest star Dominic Cooper as Stark. Partly, there’s some unfair pressure on the rest of the storylines, which get shoved aside so that all Cooper’s stuff can fit into a few episodes. Beyond that, it’s hard to invest as much in Peggy’s work colleagues, balanced against the presence of Howard, who was introduced along with Agent Carter herself in Captain America: The First Avenger.

Hoard Stark in "Captain America: the First Avenger"

Well, all right. It’s hard for me to invest. You see, billionaire playboys are my weakness. Or, some of them. Genius inventor billionaire playboys who wield privilege and charm like superpowers and never take anything seriously, except when they really, really do. I like Tony Stark types, in other words, and Cooper’s Howard Stark might be the best Tony Stark of them all.

Howard Stark is a character who has loomed in the back of the Marvel Comics Universe for a while, appearing in flashback as Tony’s harsh, withholding father, a man who died without Tony ever seeing another side of him. When John Slattery appeared as an old-film stock version of the character in Iron Man 2, the movieverse seemed to be following this familiar characterization.

Then Cooper was cast in The First Avenger, and the Howard who showed up there was,shown as someone very different. The young version of Tony’s father, we discovered, was not only an old friend of Captain America – one of the inventors of the process that made Steve Rogers a super soldier – but a proto-version of Tony himself. In a way he’s mostly a plot device, to provide gadgets and money and private planes so Steve and Peggy could go on their missions.

And in a lot of ways, that’s how the Stark character type works best: he can add a seasoning of banter and cynicism to the proceedings when needed, but he’s mostly an excuse for the heroes to have unlimited money and technology. I love some Tony Stark-centric Iron Man stories – like the first film, or David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s Armor Wars, or that time he passed out in a flophouse in the Bowery and Steve Rogers showed up to yell at him, then ended up carrying him out of a burning building look it up it happened. But just as often, Tony stands just out of frame, providing snark and resources to the real protagonist – in the Amazing Spider-Man run when Peter first joined the New Avengers, or in Matt Fraction and Barry Kitson’s short-lived and brilliant post-Civil War series The Order.

The First Avenger‘s Howard Stark was essentially the latter version of Tony, transported to the 1940s. In the first episode of Agent Carter, he was still trying to pull this off – and Peggy, understandably but perhaps too easily – went along with him. There were questions she might have asked; if all these inventions were too dangerous to exist, why build them and put them in your basement? Then in a later episode, we learn that Howard earned Jarvis’s loyalty by helping save his beloved Anna from the Nazis. The audience, like Peggy, might have to respect this guy, but it’s hard to figure out what to make of him.

At the start of “The Blitzkrieg Button,” Howard appears as the same endlessly resourceful, sometimes broadly comical character that we’ve already met. He has houses everywhere, of course, and when he can’t get into one of his own, he sneaks into Peggy’s no-men-allowed boarding house via dumbwaiter. Once there, he stops making out with her neighbors long enough to order her to bring him lunch (the same thing the SSR guys are always criticized for doing!) and sends her on a mission to recover a dangerous device. Peggy doesn’t seem surprised to discover when the MacGuffin isn’t what Howard claims it is, but she is surprised by what it turns out to be: a vial of super soldier Steve Rogers’ blood.

Peggy Carter holding a silver ball

This revelation stops the farcical proceedings cold. First, Peggy punches Howard in the face – and, unlike the movie punch I complained about in my first review, this feels in character and earned. The scene that ensues between Howard and Peggy is multi-layered, with great work from Cooper and Atwell. I may need to watch it like eleven more times. It starts with Howard saying, “I know how much Steve meant to you because I know how much he means to me,” and continues with a revelation that Howard grew up poor (and possibly Jewish?) on the Lower East Side. This is the first time Howard gets any background or characterization that actually distinguishes him from his son; a Tony Stark who grew up without money is not the same character, and the debonair man-of-the-world role he’s performing takes on a different significance.

Howard does a lot of things in this scene. He might be confessing that getting ahead has made him a bad, morally compromised person. He definitely pleads with Peggy for solidarity, because she’s a woman and she understands, even though it’s not at all clear what the solidarity is supposed to be based on. He invoke his love for Steve, points to his own role in creating the supersoldier formula, finally suggests that he only wants to use the blood to save lives. Peggy calls him a snake and accuses him of being in it just for the money. This probably isn’t fair, but it probably isn’t what she means, either. It’s just the easiest accusation to make.

They part on bad terms. Peggy keeps the MacGuffin.

At the end, even Jarvis isn’t happy with Howard.

Where do they go from here?

Howard Stark & Jarvis at a shoeshine stand

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