Agent Carter (and five of TVs coolest secret agents)
In the last few years, with the Marvel Universe expanding at a rate almost equal to that of the real universe, the comic book giants have been keen to make steps to redress the balance of what has always been a very male-dominated landscape. Sure, there have been female characters in Marvel stories plenty of times before, and they aren't all relegated to the role of 'love interest #1' in the vein of Spider-Man's Mary Jane Watson; X-Men's Jean Gray and Fantastic Four's Susan Storm are a couple that spring immediately to mind, although there is perhaps an unfortunate irony in the latter's traditional nom de plume, The Invisible Woman.
In some ways the above is understandable, perhaps even inevitable; the comic books from which these characters originated were almost exclusively marketed to a young, male audience and in the 'golden age' of comics which ran from the 1930s to the 1950s, equality for women wasn't exactly what is is today.
These days however the Marvel Universe attracts almost as many female fans and it is to Marvel's credit that they are attempting to keep pace with the changing times. The slate of upcoming movies from their studios includes not only a rebooted Wonder Woman – perhaps the only genuine female lead from the comics of old – but also a string of female-led films and TV shows such as Black Panther, The Wasp and even Captain Marvel, who has undergone a gender switch and is currently the subject of a multitude of casting rumours over which lucky actress will get to don the famous red and yellow suit.
The most recent of these – and one of the most successful to date – is Marvel's Agent Carter, whose well-received, eight-episode first series arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday (November 30th). Fans of the rebooted Captain America franchise will recognise Hayley Atwell in the role of the show's main protagonist, Margaret 'Peggy' Carter. Set in 1946 just after the end of the WWII, the first season follows her attempts to clear the name of her employer Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who has been charged with treason.
If that name sounds familiar, that's because he is the father of Tony Stark, the man who will later inherit his fortune and use it to create and become Iron Man. You may also recognise the name Edwin Jarvis (played here by James D'Arcy), the name of Stark's butler who acts as an assistant to Carter and who will eventually provide the inspiration for Tony Stark's artificial intelligence sidekick.
Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – the same writing team behind the Captain America films – the show is smart, funny and incredibly self-aware, detailing Agent Carter's travails in a world where women are still seen as secretaries and wives, but even alongside a cast that also includes Chad Michael Murray and Shea Whigham, it's Atwell that's the star of the show here. Sharply dressed, well-mannered and more than a little useful in hand-to-hand combat, Carter is as cool as they come.
You can find a trailer for Season 1 below, beneath that we've picked five of the coolest secret agents ever to grace our TV screens as a tribute to Marvel's sharpest new leading lady...
John Steed (The Avengers)
Mention 'The Avengers' to anyone under the age of 25 and the chances are that they'll assume you're talking about the team of Marvel superheroes. To be fair, they have been around for a while too – they first appeared together in print in 1963 – but two years earlier the first episode the British espionage series of the same name aired on ITV. Running for eight years in its original form – then for another two as The New Avengers in the 1970s – its cast included, at various times, Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman and Joanna Lumley, but the one constant was the ice-cool John Steed, played throughout by Patrick Macnee. The bowler-hatted, umbrella-wielding secret agent even pre-dates the on-screen arrival of James Bond and looks every bit as cool now as he did in 1961.
Ilya Kuryakin (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)
Originally conceived as a sidekick to the American spy Napoleon Solo in the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin proved so popular with female fans that David McCallum's character was often referred to in the media as 'the Blonde Beatle'. Where Solo relied on charm and sophistication, Kuryakin was the quiet one with the brains; scientific, enigmatic and ruthlessly efficient. He's got a PhD in quantum mechanics, he's a chess master and a gymnast, plus he's well-versed in art and literature and plays the guitar, among other instruments. Could James Bond do that? No. If you think we're exaggerating about his popularity among fans by the way, check out the clip of him arriving at an airport in London below...
Nikita (La Femme Nikita / Nikita)
Making her first on-screen appearance in Luc Besson's classic 1990 film, Nikita has been the subject of not one but two TV series, the first starring Peta Wilson, with a more more recent incarnation played superbly by Maggie Q. Her origin story differs in each version – in the film she is a drug-addicted juvenile delinquent and a convicted murderer, whereas her televised counterpart is an innocent homeless girl who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time - but the Nikita of both film and screen is the archetypal femme fatale; cool, sexy and absolutely lethal.
John Drake (Danger Man / Secret Agent)
Patrick McGoohan will perhaps always be remembered most for his role in the cult TV show he co-created, The Prisoner, in which he starred as a former secret agent who suddenly resigns and wakes to find himself held captive on a bizarre island whose inhabitants refer to him only as 'Number Six'. Although he never confirmed the link between this and his previous starring role as John Drake in Danger Man (later renamed simply Secret Agent), many fans of The Prisoner have suggested it is supposed to be the same character. Whatever the truth, John Drake was not your typical spy; he disobeyed orders, saw women as a distraction and was such a badass he didn't even carry a gun most of the time, preferring instead to dispense with his enemies using his fists, which he did quite a lot.
Jack Bauer (24)
There really is only one man you can put at the end of a list like this, and that man is Jack Bauer. For nine seasons of 24, Bauer's single-minded determination to stop terrorism in its tracks saw him sacrifice loved ones, friends, even his freedom at the hands of the very country he was trying to protect... and then he carried on doing it anyway. The very definition of the lone wolf, if rules are made to be broken, Jack Bauer is the man who was made to break them, and nobody does threats quite like Jack...