Marvel Noir: Agent Carter, the Automat, and Urban Wholeness

Peggy and Jarvis at the Automat, courtesy MCU wiki
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In the mid-twentieth century city of Marvel’s Agent Carter (ABC, 2015-2016), the Automat – with its Deco design, cool aqua booths, and bright windows of consumables – extends the real-life New York restaurants’ democratized public space to the daily life of SHIELD’s dedicated founder, Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell). Postwar America experienced a rapid shift toward the suburbs even as cities crystallized the ambitions and career trajectories of men and women drawn to the speed and stimuli of the modern metropolis. The ABC/Marvel series visually and narratively locates significant character interplay and action beats in the authentic vintage design of its fictitious New York City eatery, the L & L Automat, a site intrinsic both to the urban space surrounding it and to Agent Carter herself. Marvel is on one side of an ongoing pop culture debate in which its greater “authenticity” is contrasted with DC Comics, its moody rival.

Often, the contrast is characterized in terms of tone and atmosphere, as the brighter, lighter PG-13 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and Captain America) are juxtaposed with the grittier dystopian realms of DC (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad). Riven Buckley asserts that Marvel’s flexibility with tone and style, reflecting a decades-long history of serial comic adaptations, makes it more effective than DC’s unbending adherence to “gritty grimdark realism,” a style often at odds with its own characters. Sincerity works, in other words. It seems to me that sincerity is nostalgia made whole. Similarly, Edward Dimendberg attributes film noir’s enduring appeal to nostalgia for “older urban forms” because it keeps our experience of space and time in the city intact rather than fragmented. He notes that the “spatial infrastructure” that frames the film noir cycle occurs through centripetal and centrifugal space, “tendencies toward concentration and dispersal” in the post-1939 built environment. 1Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004): 7, 18 How does this experiential geography translate to Marvel’s depiction of the city in general (in contrast to DC’s) and, more particularly, to Agent Carter’s emphasis on the automat in its 1946 New York?

As visual spectacle, the contemporary superhero city is eminently destructible on a large scale, one that is digitally orchestrated for maximum visceral impact on the big screen. The indiscriminate destruction of DC’s Metropolis in Man of Steel has prompted criticisms in the form of projected economic costs in real-world terms ($700 billion) as well as estimated collateral damage to innocent civilians (379,000 dead or missing, 1 million injured) in Man of Steel’s alpha-male showdown between Zod and Superman. The fact that the destruction of New York in The Avengers  has been tallied at $160 billion doesn’t just indicate Marvel’s relatively constrained urban destruction – after all, Captain America instructs the Avengers to corral the battle into a 4-block radius – but also suggests that the big-screen CGI of the contemporary superhero format is deployed to visually and thematically disperse and fragment the city.

The CGI in Agent Carter, on the other hand, is used to render the city in its wholeness, painting upon the small screen an intact built environment (the 1940s city skyline from the Brooklyn docks, the fictional Roxxon headquarters inserted alongside Grand Central Terminal, and Roxxon’s industrial-era oil refinery) aligning with the urban nostalgia Dimendberg attaches to our fascination with noir. Even when the Roxxon refinery is digitally destroyed (“Now is Not the End,” 1.01), it is depicted as an implosion, leaving behind a concentrated mass of metal debris, not a dispersed maelstrom of CGI fragments. The 2009-2010 alternative Marvel comic series, Marvel Noir, re-imagines several of its superheroes with an equally significant difference, nixing superpowers and spandex for hardboiled pulp-period characters. It is not a great leap to situate Peggy Carter in this nostalgic world (albeit with somewhat less of the grittier grit we see in the Netflix noir heroes of Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones), and to witness it as a form of authenticity.

Agent Carter allegorizes the wholeness of its New York through the L & L Automat. Concentrated within the automat is everything that drew workers and dreamers to New York City after World War II (and has drawn people to cities since the Industrial Age): automation, speed, visual display, immediacy, and the active tactility of a human-machine interface. With its coin-operated windowed displays of culinary plenty (mac and cheese, baked beans, layered cake wedges, huckleberry pie), it is a “visual-material,” as well as spatial, articulation of urbanity.

The first automat in New York City (Times Square) was opened on July 2, 1912 by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart from a European design. An open seating area was framed by the mechanical geometry of windowed compartments (heated or cooled), coffee spouts shaped like dolphin heads, coin slots, and “chrome-plated knobs.” In a concentrated, democratic space (much like early nickelodeons), all social groups could and would gather – rich/poor, black/white, male/female – and purchase freshly prepared meals for a nickel or a quarter. It has been remarked that “the automat blew with the ‘winds of egalitarianism’” even as it reflected shifting social currents during its heyday of 1912 to 1950.

A postcard of the H&H Automat, courtesy Ephemeral New York

A postcard of the H&H Automat, courtesy Ephemeral New York

In Agent Carter, these currents are embedded in the narrative of a highly skilled wartime agent being reduced to secretarial duties by (most of) the men of SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve). Across multiple scenes set in the L & L Automat, Peggy’s conversations with both her friend, waitress and aspiring actress Angie Martinelli (Lyndsy Fonseca), and her ally, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), revolve around their shared experiences of career and city life. When a male customer demeans Angie’s work and takes liberties with an inappropriately-placed hand (1.01), Peggy reminds him, with a sharp fork to his brachial artery, that he is in a place of business, one with rules. This is emphasized in a later scene, when Angie and Peggy discuss a classified ad announcing apartments for “modern female professionals.” Marvel repeatedly contrasts the democratic Automat against the discriminatory spaces of the SSR, as a site most notably where working women meet and where their labor and consumption is independent and non-domestic.

In real-life Manhattan, Horn and Hardart cultivated their primary clientele: “the new class of salesgirls, secretaries and typists who needed places to eat lunch quickly and cheaply that were cleaner and more respectable than the lunch counters, greasy spoons and taverns where their male counterparts ate.” As Peggy moves through the series’ city locations, we see the “centripetal urban space” of film noir described by Dimendberg in twentieth-century locales like “the skyscraper, the jazz nightclub […], the diner, [and] the automobile.”2ibid, 25 But it is the Automat that functions as Marvel’s most flexible tonal space for staging a fantasy musical sequence (2.09), interpersonal dramatics, and a knock-down fight scene in which undercover SSR agents try and fail to physically apprehend Peggy (1.06). Its gleaming automated wall of mechanics mirrors Agent Carter’s daily life as well as the city itself, with perimeters eventually revealing the hidden centers within.

To enter the SSR, you must first navigate the architectural misdirection of the “New York Bell Co.” sign on the building’s façade, then you enter the most high-tech space in Peggy’s professional world, a massive blinking switchboard staffed by women who control its telecommunications network as well as physical access to the unseen SSR. Rose Roberts (Lesley Boone), the head operator, has a work station armed both with a covert elevator button and a hidden holstered pistol. The presence of the unseen, the reveal of walls behind walls, characterizes Peggy’s investigative work as she goes undercover behind a job that is already undercover in order to help Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) clear his name and recover his stolen inventions. Her unifying movement through Marvel’s noir environment renders intact the “invisible city”3ibid, 18 of sewer tunnels, docks, and other marginal spaces with the urban front comprised of office buildings, respectable boarding houses for professional women, and the automat. Marvel erects its L & L Automat behind the chrome and glass façade of Horn & Hardart, where the disenfranchised mingled with the city’s elites. This integration of clientele, like Peggy’s spatial practice connecting the centers and peripheries of the city, function toward democratic wholeness. The automat’s unique dining experience still evokes intense nostalgia for those who ate there as children in much the same way that the 1940s urban setting of Agent Carter stirs vintage noir appeal. With the intensity of sense memory, the visual rendering of wholeness, and our nostalgia for lost urban forms, Marvel presents Peggy’s Automat as an authentic site where the human-machine interface is coin-operated, not computer-generated.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004): 7, 18
2. ibid, 25
3. ibid, 18

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