Marvel Cinematic Universe profile: A look at Hayley Atwell’s career

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Hayley Atwell attends The Build Series Presents Hayley Atwell Discussing The New Show "Conviction" at AOL HQ on September 30, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30: Hayley Atwell attends The Build Series Presents Hayley Atwell Discussing The New Show "Conviction" at AOL HQ on September 30, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images) /

Hayley Atwell plays Captain America’s romantic partner, Peggy Carter, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet the talented British actress ensures the SHIELD co-founder is so much more than just a superhero’s love interest.

Iron Man had his assistant Pepper Potts, Hulk paired with his scientist colleague Betty Ross, and Thor fell for astrophysicist Jane Foster. These women are all impressive and admirable companions to the superheroes in those movies and two of them came with the promise of one day becoming heroes in their own right. Yet, when we meet Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger, she is a more capable soldier than the film’s protagonist. Nevertheless, her vigor and valor does not prevent Peggy and Steve’s relationship from progressing into one of the great cinematic romances of the 21st century.

Hayley Atwell personifies a striking confidence and assertiveness as Peggy Carter. She is surrounded by boys that would rather woo her that fight alongside her, which discernibly motivates the heroine to work harder than anyone, except maybe Steve Rogers. Being that she meets Steve when he still has his delicate physique, the attraction is clearly aimed at his intrinsically virtuous and benevolent behavior. Atwell and Chris Evans play off of each other gratifyingly well, with their truncated relationship leaving a hole in audience’s hearts as their union sorrowfully ends in tragedy.

Steve and Peggy do reunite in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, however she is now an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s. In the final entry to that trilogy, Steve attends her funeral. However, Atwell left such an impression as Peggy Carter, that strong efforts have been made to recapture that spark that she lit in The First Avenger. It began with a Marvel One-Shot called Agent Carter that took place after Captain America went missing, which prompted development into her own television series of the same name.

Atwell’s show ran for two years, where she further showcased Peggy’s wit, grit, and perseverance. She was also brought back into the films in three different ways. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America had a vision of Peggy when the Scarlet Witch put a spell on him. She was then featured in an Ant-Man flashback scene that takes place about 50 years after The First Avenger, though at a time when she is still a high-up figure at SHIELD. Lastly, and most crucial in terms of the legacy of her character, Steve travels back in time to be with her in Avengers: Endgame, touchingly concluding their love story.

Hayley Atwell made a name for herself on the stage and small screen in the United Kingdom. In the mid-2000s, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company while also appearing in several BBC television series. Her first film release was in the starring role of How About You, where she proved that she can lead a cast that consists of acting royalty from across the pond, such as Vanessa Redgrave, Imelda Staunton, and Brenda Fricker.

2008 was Hayley Atwell’s breakout year in the states with three eye-catching performances, first in one of Woody Allen’s departures from comedy, the crime film Cassandra’s Dream. As Ewan McGregor’s dream girl, she plays an actress who literally spells out her function in the movie when describing her stage play within the film; she is there to create sexual tension. Her natural ability to attract the male gaze is pragmatically utilized to rush the protagonist into misguided decisions.

In Brideshead Revisited Hayley Atwell soaks up the role of Lady Julia Flyte as she takes the audiences’ breath away just as assuredly as she does to Matthew Goode’s aspiring artist, Charles Ryder. With her alluring glances framed by her shortened, straight, dark coiffure, her entrancing portrait recalls the screen performances of Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra or even Polly Walker in Enchanted April. Atwell then dresses up with Keira Knightley in the true-life costume drama The Duchess. Atwell’s Bess is the openly passionate counterpart to Duchess Georgiana as Bess is less concerned of her affair’s consequences, while her friend is more suppressed and hesitant to give in to desires.

Around the time that Atwell enters the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she also appears in lower profile fare like I Anna and The Sweeney. In John Ridley’s Jimi: All is by My Side, Hayley Atwell competes against another seductive British woman, Imogen Poots, for the affection of Andre Benjamin’s Jimi Hendrix. It is one of Atwell’s most instinctive performances, jumping from relaxed to spirited from scene to scene, she often detracts attention away from the main attraction.

Atwell moves from Marvel to Disney in the live-action version of Cinderella. In the prologue, she plays Ella’s mother with genuine cheerfulness that quickly flips to earnest sadness as she delivers her final words to her daughter, “have courage and be kind”, which become Ella’s tenet that she lives by through even the toughest of times. Atwell would later enjoy a larger presence in Disney’s Christopher Robin, again opposite Ewan McGregor.

Testament of Youth is released around the same time as Cinderella, where Atwell shuffles from only appearing in the beginning of the Disney film to the end of the adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir. Atwell guides Alicia Vikander’s Vera during her year as a wartime nurse. As impassioned as Vikander is in the World War I film, Atwell is contrastingly lively amongst all the death and despair in the little time she has onscreen.

Hayley Atwell’s Top 10 Movie Roles

1. Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited
2. Agent Carter in the MCU
3. Kathy Etchingham in Jimi: All is by My Side
4. Bess Foster in The Duchess
5. Angela Stark in Cassandra’s Dream
6. Ellie Harris in How About You
7. Hope Milroy in Testament of Youth
8. Evelyn Robin in Christopher Robin
9. Ella’s mother in Cinderella
10. Emmy in I Anna

Hayley Atwell will perhaps always be remembered as Agent Carter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She was one of the first to expand beyond the movies, along with Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson. Atwell also appeared in a few episodes of his long running series Agents of SHIELD. And she continues to extend Peggy’s reach as she recently voiced the character in Marvel’s What If…?, where she became the first Avenger instead of Steve Rogers.

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