Hayley Atwell deserved better. Her role as Peggy Carter in the MCU has seen her pulled from pillar to post, first as a supporting act in The First Avenger, then as a lead in a standalone series seemingly scrubbed from canon. Finally, Peg was merely a button on Steve Rogers’ story in Avengers: Endgame. It’s long been time for her to properly take the reins – and What If…? has suddenly provided the perfect platform.
The role of Captain Carter can give her – and the MCU – a rare second chance thanks to the infinite possibilities opened up by the multiverse.
What If…?’s premiere introduced the character in an alternate universe adventure that sees Peggy Carter take the Super Soldier Serum instead of Steve Rogers. It’s a story beat that has given Atwell a chance to showcase more of her considerable acting abilities that are far beyond the regressive realms of love interest.
In an episode dotted with tired or erratic performances – with Sebastian Stan and Dominic Cooper being among the guilty parties – Atwell’s presence was commanding. It speaks to her talents that, within the space of 30 minutes, many (myself included) would be quite happy to follow Captain Carter’s story as far as it will go from hereon in.
As What If…? shows, she’s also a far more multi-faceted hero than the ones we’re perhaps used to. Captain Carter is burdened by sexual politics, a lost love, and is a woman perpetually out of time. That sort of complexity demands to be explored – but should come with a stark warning.
What If…?’s first episode ends with Carter whisked away to the present day, to meet a Nick Fury eager to talk about assembling. But let that be where the similarities to Steve Rogers’ journey end. Let her write her own story. She is Captain Carter, not Captain America. To reduce her to a simple ‘what if’ would be doing a disservice to the boundless potential held by the character.
After all, this could be just the beginning for Captain Carter. She’s already confirmed to appear in multiple seasons of What If…? and, if nothing else, the show has bolstered Peggy by immediately giving her a long-term future.
Plus, Captain Carter may be the one to lead the Guardians of the Multiverse – in essence, a team pulled together from What If…’s adventures from across the universes. The MCU has yet to have a woman leading an Avengers-style group, and Captain Carter is best suited to smashing that glass ceiling. Better still, she can be placed front and centre as a no-nonsense icon at a time when the MCU has never been more convoluted.
Case in point: try explaining the multiverse to a person who isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel fanatic. Go on, try. It won’t be easy. For a more casual audience, Captain Carter can be a neat shorthand for things to come. While Loki introduced several flavors of the God of Mischief with its Variants, Captain Carter is a more obvious ‘way in’ for people to understand the multiverse – a throughline that’s set to dominate the next few years in the MCU. Atwell’s hero, plainly put, should be the multiverse’s poster child. She’s familiar to the audience both as a character and a concept, but the formula deviates just enough for it to feel fresh. From there, the launching pad to a wealth of stories involving Captain Carter feels like the obvious move.
Yet, that’s not her only function. Her presence also offers up a chance to rectify past missteps. The multiversal hero is emblematic of a more progressive attempt on Marvel Studios’ part to put female-led stories at the forefront of the MCU. Captain Marvel and Black Widow were fine starts, and Captain Carter could join a batch of upcoming projects that includes Ms. Marvel, Echo, and The Marvels at its core.
The people behind Marvel’s brave new world also recognize Carter’s importance. What If…?’s head writer AC Bradley tells GamesRadar+ of the premiere’s underlying importance: "What that episode gave me was the ability to show a woman who was completely capable and was always going to be a superhero."
For Bradley, Peggy’s decision to stay in the room as Doctor Erskine tests on Steve Rogers – an act of agency on her part – is far more integral to the character than merely being a palette swap for Captain America.
"The idea that that changes the world in the MCU, but also that's what changes the world around us – that's a powerful statement for a woman in the 1940s,” Bradley explains. “And it's an even more powerful statement for a woman to say in 2021. Because women having a voice is what's going to change the world for, I believe, the better."
The show must go on
That voice can also amplify one muted long ago. The shadow of the TV show Agent Carter still remains a sore sticking point for many. Marvel Studios, seemingly, no longer puts any stock in any shows that were produced away from its main orbit, such as Daredevil or Agents of SHIELD. Outside of Jarvis actor James D’Arcy’s cameo in Endgame, there has been nary a peep about Carter’s time in the SSR across two seasons.
Captain Carter can help amend that. A transition from What If…? to live-action movie (or, dare we ask, a standalone series) could evoke the spirit of Agent Carter so badly missing from the original character’s now-convoluted canonical history. If Marvel won’t pay lip service to the past, it can at least give Hayley Atwell a shot on a bigger stage in the future.
Captain Carter already works on so many levels: as a spy, an icon, a war hero, a woman swimming against the tide, an eraser for past mistakes, and as a leader. That elasticity – emboldened by the multiverse – means Captain Carter is a Swiss army knife of a hero that could prove impossible to blunt. Whether it’s as a Guardian of the Multiverse or in a live-action reprisal elsewhere, Captain Carter deserves to wield the shield for years to come in the MCU.
What If...? is streaming weekly every Wednesday on Disney Plus. For more from the MCU's future, check out our guide to Marvel Phase 4.