The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is populated by a wide variety of super-powered or otherworldly beings. Whether it's a super-soldier who was a war hero, a scientist who turns into an enormous, green rage monster, gods from Asgard, or a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist who designs those cool suits, there's no shortage of the fantastic in the world Marvel Studios has created. Case in point: next year their film roster will expand to include a gun-wielding raccoon and an alien tree.
However, if there's one character that has resonated with fans, it's Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson. The agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was introduced in Iron Man back in 2008 and became a recurring supporting character, making appearances in Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. Coulson's no-nonsense nature combined with deadpan humor quickly made him a fan favorite and as time went on, he became someone the audience could relate to. His geeking out over meeting Captain America was one of the funnier parts of The Avengers. Coulson was one of us. He was just a regular guy who loved superheroes; a perfect representation of the audience.
Perhaps that was the main reason why his "death" in The Avengers seemed to affect everyone watching the film. I'll never forget being shellshocked when I saw Loki stab our favorite agent through the chest towards the end of the movie's second act. It was a moment that came out of left field. With Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier all in the works by the time The Avengers hit theaters, I didn't expect anyone to bite the dust. It never crossed my mind that Marvel would sign off on that fate for a character who could easily keep popping up in future films. It was a gutsy decision and it paid off.
Coulson's demise was one of the main emotional moments of the film. We even got some character development out of Tony Stark with the "His name was Phil" one-liner to indicate that Stark did care about the guy regardless of their constant bantering through three films. While it was sad to see Coulson leave the MCU, I felt it was the right choice. Sometimes in film, sacrifices have to be made to improve the overall product.
When writing Return of the Jedi, Lawrence Kasdan felt that one of the main heroes had to die in order for the audience to have some sense of danger during the third act. Harrison Ford willfully volunteered to have Han Solo be killed off, but George Lucas - with his mind on toy sales - ruled against it and settled for the happier ending of Luke, Han, and Leia all surviving the Galactic Civl War. Would the movie have been better if someone died? Maybe. It would have at least made things a little more interesting.
Coulson dying may not have made me think that any of the main heroes were about to suffer the same fate, but it did plant the smallest of seeds of doubt in the back of my mind. A new solo Hulk film hasn't been announced, I thought during the final battle. Would Whedon kill the new Banner? What about Hawkeye or Black Widow? Despite my knowledge of Iron Man 3, I even got a little nervous when Iron Man threw the nuke into the wormhole.
My point is, that one little decision (to kill off Coulson) raised the stakes in what could have been a dull finale to Marvel's Phase I. The studio showed that they weren't afraid to start sending their characters to the morgue and I loved it. It was a bold move.
Until it wasn't.
Marvel, as you may have heard, is in the middle of developing a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV pilot for ABC with the hopes of launching a series that will connect with the films (good luck keeping track of everything). One of the stars of the show will be Agent Phil Coulson.
But wait. He's dead, right? How can he return if he's dead?
Well, according to Gregg himself, "some level of deception must have been perpetrated on the Avengers," meaning that Coulson didn't really die in The Avengers and Nick Fury lied about his death to give the heroes some extra motivation. In my opinion, this is a terrible move on the studio's part. It's not that I don't love Coulson (I do. What Marvel fan doesn't?). I just feel it emotionally cheapens The Avengers and eliminates the impact he left on that film. His death was the main reason the team put aside their differences and came together. They were told that Coulson died believing in the Avengers Initiative and they didn't want to let him down.
"I guess he never did get you to sign them," Fury said to Captain America before tossing a pile of blood-stained Captain America trading cards at Steve Rogers. That was a great moment. I felt something in that moment. It was great to see Stark, the narcissist, seem shaken by Coulson's death. I felt something in that moment. When Coulson - in his last breaths - told Fury that the Avengers Initiative would never work unless they had a push, it touched the geeky side of me. I felt something in that moment. When Iron Man said to Loki, "His name was Phil," I felt something in that moment, especially after Tony had said Coulson's first name was "Agent" earlier in the movie. It was as if the death of a minor supporting character had given the whole film a boost.
And now, I just feel cheated. I feel like the whole emotional crux of the film - the very reason the Avengers assembled - is eliminated. All of those great moments I listed in the above paragraph don't mean as much, if anything at all. It would be like if at the end of Batman Begins Thomas Wayne stops by to meet his son and tell him how proud he is. Something about that would feel wrong, right?
We may not have wanted to see Coulson be killed, but it was something that almost had to be done. As Marvel continues to build their universe, you need to create that sense of danger I talked about earlier. I'm not saying everyone needs to drop dead right away, but that small seed of doubt helps the audience become more invested in what's happening on the screen. Doing the unexpected isn't always a bad thing.
It remains to be seen how Coulson fits into Phase II. He didn't appear in Iron Man 3 (I guess he's not all the way back from death yet), but he will almost certainly play some role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and maybe Avengers 2. While I'm looking forward to seeing Gregg back on screen interacting with Earth's Mightiest, there will always be some part of me wishing that the bittersweet scene in The Avengers was true because of what it (originally) symbolized for Marvel Studios.
What do you think? Should Coulson return? Sound off in the comments section!