A Replacement Goldfish: the Problem of Sharon Carter

I loved Civil War. It’s in my top tier of MCU movies, right up there with Winter Soldier and Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. I have seen it twice now, in the two weeks it’s been out, and I enjoyed the crap out of it. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of Sharon Carter.

Because she is a problem. A big one.

In the deluge of promotional material before the movie was released, there was a featurette about the Women of Marvel. And Emily VanCamp (who plays Sharon) says “Sharon Carter is a little sassier in this one. She gets to do a little bit of fighting. It’s awesome.” Several friends sent me the link to the video and I watched it with a sense of rising hope. Maybe the MCU was going to really invest in its women? Finally?

No.

Sharon does a lot in the movie. In fact, she’s the primary mover of the plot. Cap is unsure about the Accords and she offers up a from-beyond-the-grave pep talk from Peggy, who is seemingly urging him to not sign. She slips Cap the lead on where Bucky is. She presses the button so that Cap can hear the interrogation and when the lights go out, she shouts the location of Bucky’s prison. She steals the famous shield and the bird costume and meets the renegade heroes to hand them over.

She really is one of the prime plot movers. Without her, nothing happens.

But she’s barely in the movie. Given all the plot mechanics she performs, she should be a main character. But she gets about the same amount of screen time (and much less narrative heft) than Scott Lang. She certainly doesn’t get a spot on the poster.

What’s more, and vitally, we have no idea why she does any of it.

Seriously. Why did Sharon risk her future, he career, and her freedom to aid and abet Captain America? We know why Hawkeye does it – there’s that line about “I owe a debt.” It wouldn’t have taken long to write in an explanation. One or two comments, that’s all. And there are lots of excellent reasons she might have done it. I can list five right off the top of my head:

  1. She agrees with Steve that the Sokovia Accords are a bad idea. She isn’t stating her ideological position outright because she thinks she can better serve his agenda by betraying her organization from within.
  2. She is in wuuuuv. Or lust. But her personal feelings for Steve are so overpowering, so strong, that they override her professional ethics and her personal ambition and her desire to stay the hell out of jail.
  3. She’s working on orders from the CIA, which actually thinks the Accords are a terrible idea and prefers the idea of an extralegal team of metahumans running around without the shackles of UN supervision. Her boss has directed her to provide all discreet comfort and assistance, without notifying the Secretary of State.
  4. She’s actually working for Zemo. This seems, after a few minutes of reflection, the most probable. I mean, Zemo’s ridiculously contrived Xanatos Gambit wouldn’t work without her constant help. (I loved the movie but I’ll admit that the plot was a little convoluted.)
  5. WWPD? She is helping him because that’s what she thinks Peggy would do.

And that fifth one – What Would Peggy Do? – is clearly the conclusion that the writers want us to draw. And that’s the problem with Sharon Carter. She is a second-rate replacement goldfish, filling in Peggy’s stylish shoes. (Shout out to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for the excellently evocative phrase.)

Sharon doesn’t get any real on-screen personality and her emotional connection to Steve is never even sketched in. What do we know about Sharon? She’s a slim, pretty blonde CIA/SHIELD agent who can kick and punch competently and who stood up to Hydra in Winter Soldier. And she’s Peggy’s niece. That’s literally all we know about her. The writers go out of their way to ensure that the audience will mentally slot in Peggy’s personality, her time spent building trust and rapport in The First Avenger, as well as her motivations.

For example, in Civil War, most of her screen time is spent on running errands for the plot, making things easier for Steve and his cohort. But the time that isn’t spent doing that is spent talking with Steve about Peggy Carter, specifically about how Peggy encouraged Sharon to enlist, bought her a thigh holster, and how Sharon didn’t want to force Peggy to keep secrets from Steve. They don’t spend any time building up the imagined chemistry between the two – the use Peggy Conversation instead.

The little bits of flirting that we have seen in Winter Soldier are as part of Sharon’s undercover job. A fact that she emphasizes in Civil War (“Before, when you were spying on me—“ “When I was doing my job?”). I’m almost certain that they don’t have any on-screen contact after he learns that she’s spying on him until that moment during the funeral.  In addition, as far as we know, he doesn’t even learn about her scene in the control room with Hydra. So the time they’ve actually spent together, what they’ve built a relationship on, is almost entirely a lie/undercover flirtation.

But the audience is simply expected to accept it when Steve kisses Sharon. He even says, “That was late.” Really? Why is it late? She was just some neighbor pretending to be a nurse who he awkwardly flirted with for a few weeks two movies ago. And then, an hour ago, he found out that she was his Long Lost Love’s niece.

When that moment is juxtaposed against everything else, especially Steve’s line to Bruce Banner in Ultron (”Look, as maybe the world’s leading authority on ‘waiting too long’, don’t.”), you can’t help but blame me for suddenly wondering if Steve’s become confused as to who he thinks he’s kissing – Sharon or her aunt?

And then, after they’ve kissed, Sharon disappears. We never see her again. We don’t know if she gets caught, and if not, how she avoids it. We don’t know if she just sacrificed her entire career and got fired? Or is she in prison? We know she’s not one of the rescued few from The Raft, but that’s all. Her efforts, her help, get a pleasant thanks and a brief, chaste kiss from Steve and then…. Nothing.

Sharon is wasted in this movie.

All of this packed much more emotional punch for me because Agent Carter got canceled between the first time I saw Civil War and the second. One of only two title female characters in the whole MCU, Peggy was the standard bearer the Women of Marvel and she’d just been eliminated, on TV and on the movie screen in the same week. Watching Peggy’s funeral made me wonder, uncomfortably, if this death of old age counted as ‘fridging? (This during a season when TV was killing off women in hordes.)

And which was worse: how the MCU treated Peggy or how it treated Sharon?

 

 

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