I have been recapping episodes of Agent Carter so take this with the conflict of interest caveat if you’d like. But because of the recapping, I noticed something I heretofore hadn’t.
The Evolution of Howard Stark
One of the first things that is noticeable to me about Agent Carter, and by extension, the MCU, is the decision to go with both actors—John Slattery and Dominic Cooper—rather than throw in with one or the other and pretend like the unselected one never happened.
Sure, one could argue that this the result of an MCU that, at first, was a bit loose and disjointed, allowing Slattery to play a grave serious Stark, via film strip, in IRON MAN II, and shortly thereafter, being rendered by Cooper as a young, fun globetrotter with a wandering eye and unapologetic appetite for the finer things. And that’s probably, ultimately, the real reason.
However, by keeping both actors in play--Cooper on Agent Carter, Slattery in ANT-MAN—the MCU creates a definitive concept of an evolving Stark.
Before I explain who that Stark is, let me point to Agent Peggy Carter herself as reinforcing this point. While Stark is played by two actors, Carter is only portrayed by one at every stage of her life we’ve seen—in her 20s/30s in World War II (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) and immediately after (Agent Carter), in her late middle age (ANT-MAN), and as an elderly woman with dementia (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER). And again, while there is a probable real world explanation (they knew enough to get Atwell and just her to play the part), it also creates an in-world reality. The fact is Agent Carter is pretty much fully formed from the moment we meet her. She grows older with time, yes, but she remains largely that same person; same ideals, same goals, same personal integrity.
Stark, on the other hand, has a definitive evolutionary arc to his life. The Howard of WWII is not the Howard that raises Tony Stark. In this way, it makes a certain amount of sense that he would not look the same either. We recognize Carter in every era as herself because she is and has always been herself. Howard changes entirely over time because his whole attitude does as well.
The Howard we first know is more like Tony Stark. He is funny, does not take anything too seriously, designs thing for the sake of designing them, not paying much mind to what the consequence might be , and man does he have unquenchable appetites. Given that this is not the Howard that raises Tony, it is interesting to consider if, say, womanizing is something that can be carried in the genes.
Unlike Tony (pre injury and abduction) though, Howard’s main driving factor in his youth is not thrill-seeking, it’s ambition. Thus, Howard’s original sin is the not callousness of his son but rather his lack of truthfulness. Tony ignores the outside world and thus does not have to confront how his weapons dealing hurts others until its literally shoved in his face while Howard rationalizes his lies because he is just a poor kid making good and sometimes poor kids making good need to lie to get ahead.
Unlike Tony’s sin, which erupts loud and angry with consequences, we know Howard’s is a slow unraveling. As seen in Agent Carter, he encounters consequences for it—Peggy punches him in the face and freezes him out for weeks. But they are isolated instances, not screaming explosions. They wear him down, they don’t force the issue. Thus, unlike Tony, Howard does not survive his comeuppance with his devil may care attitude mostly still in place. He is chipped away, ground down. And, eventually, a Slattery Howard—stone-faced, quiet, solemn—emerges.
So, yes, the double actor thing was probably a matter of a cinematic universe still taking shape and not sure of itself. But by sticking with it, the MCU has created a sort of meta-narrative that lets us see visually and in performance how Howard Stark was changed by his experiences in World War II and the years that followed, how his unique view behind the curtain of an evolving world forced him to let go of his youth and the man he used to be.