Resisting the Grid: A Centrifugal Dance in Marvel’s Relocated City

Agent Carter: Season Two poster courtesy ABC
[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.]

As we explore the Marvel city and its conflation with subjectivity, I am struck by Matt Yockey’s discussion of the “appropriations and deconstructions” that occur when superhero narratives diverge from conventional content and creation. James Gilmore locates specific Marvel bodies at the business end of these divergences (Luke Cage, Daredevil, Jessica Jones) whose street-level trajectories in urban space identify them as Michel de Certeau’s “tactical walkers.” De Certeau characterizes the act of walking in the city as “a process of appropriation of the topographical system.” These pathways can transgress the designated use envisioned by urban planning through their “unlimited diversity” and through their “style of tactile apprehension and kinesthetic appropriation.” 1De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 1984: 97,99. The diversity of bodies in urban space, which grounds our discussion, speaks to these spatial transgressions as a parallel (and a possible answer) to the specter of relocation that is raised when Laura Felschow points out that Marvel’s industrial and textual brand is New York City. What might resistance to the “rigid logic” of urban grids and to Marvel’s metropolitan brand look like?

It might look like the mechanical and architectural grid of the automat itself, with its windowed compartments  dispensing “fresh food barely touched by human hands,” thereby giving diners the impression of purity and hygienic order. The rational design of the apparatus employs a precise sequence of planned events: the customer is instructed (via directions imprinted onto the metal components) to push the button or turn the knob FIRST, then insert the coin, wait for the window to lever itself upward, then reach in to extract their food in the same direction every time. Its design for use aligns with de Certeau’s description of “apparatuses that produce a disciplinary space” (96). But resistance through appropriation and transgression is possible.

New York Public Library, Lunch Hour NYC Exhibit

In That Touch of Mink (Delbert Mann, 1962), Audrey Meadows and Doris Day defy the automat’s disciplinary architecture as each woman, on either side of the mechanized grid, simply ignores the pathways proscribed for them. Meadows passes six plates of food through a single window to Day (regardless of the precise food designation labeled on that part of the apparatus), no coins are inserted, buttons pushed, or knobs turned, and the human body is visible through the open grid in both directions. Meadows’s male boss levies an economic penalty on her for giving away free food, a punishment that fazes her not in the least. The resistance here is gendered, a synthesis of spatial and social practice, industrial automation, financial independence, and the depiction of a support network of working women in the city.

Through its street-level trajectories and interpersonal relationships—and through its Season Two move to Los Angeles—Agent Carter and Marvel hint at a centrifugal motion that resituates previously marginalized subjectivities as central to its superhero city, while offering what Edward Dimendberg calls the “tactical advantages of speed and superior knowledge of territory.” Dimendberg emphasizes the strong parallel between loss of city centers and loss of public space in urban communities, but also sees the “potentially greater agency of women in centrifugal space.”2Edward Dimendberg. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004): 178, 245. Enter Agent Carter.

As I mentioned in my first post, the last Season One scene in the L & L Automat is a physical battle. In this space, much like Luke Cage’s locus within the black metropolis described by Matt Yockey, Peggy is finally revealed to the institutional gaze of the SSR as her authentic self: not a secretary, but a warrior. Her refusal to be constrained by a phalanx of male agents—and the battle this instigates—violates the rational trajectories designed into the automat, much as we see in That Touch of Mink (albeit with a lot more punching). The L & L is then unmoored from its original New York setting in a Season Two dream sequence (“A Little Song and Dance,” 2.09) staged as a 1940s movie musical dance number. This generic referent ties the superhero city to an unmistakable Los Angeles. Agent Carter shoots on location at the Griffith Observatory, the Los Angeles River, Echo Park Lake, the Santa Anita racetrack, and the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.3The Season Two episode, “A View in the Dark” (2.02), was set at the Dunbar Hotel. The original Dunbar is now a retirement home so filming instead took place in the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. In doing so, Marvel evokes an authentic Tinsel Town product—heightened by nostalgia for classical-era Hollywood much as Season One did with the popular noir of classical hard-boiled detectives and 1940s shadowy style—while simultaneously opening up a “place of grace [that] allows multiple fantasies” informed by gender to characterize this relocated Agent Carter.

De Certeau’s notion of appropriation through diversity (of trajectories, of people) reveals how “the walker transforms each spatial signifier into something else” (98) and transformation, after all, is what superhero tales and the cities that cannot quite contain them are all about. The song lyrics in this musical sequence emphasize Peggy’s choices and desires as she dances with diverse male dance partners, one white and one black (while Louis B. Mayer spins in his grave), in a series where the showrunners are women (Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters), and the superhero body of Agent Carter re-writes Marvel’s urban space with dance shoes.4This episode, “A Little Song and Dance,” was directed by Jennifer Getzinger. The original song, “Whatcha Gonna Do (It’s Up To You),” was written by Christopher Lennertz and Tony winner and two-time Oscar nominee, David Zippel.

Notes   [ + ]

1. De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 1984: 97,99.
2. Edward Dimendberg. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004): 178, 245.
3. The Season Two episode, “A View in the Dark” (2.02), was set at the Dunbar Hotel. The original Dunbar is now a retirement home so filming instead took place in the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.
4. This episode, “A Little Song and Dance,” was directed by Jennifer Getzinger. The original song, “Whatcha Gonna Do (It’s Up To You),” was written by Christopher Lennertz and Tony winner and two-time Oscar nominee, David Zippel.

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