Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Marvel, where I go through the Marvel movies (or TV series, in this case) over the next few months.
So as I’m sure most of you are aware, the TV show Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D was pretty much responsible for bring Phil Coulson back to life. He was that popular amongst fans that he was brought right back into the foray. But why is this character so inexplicably popular? And what does that say about the audience in general? Well lets find out.
Before we start, we need to work out what exactly made Phil Coulson a good character. To wit, he’s only appeared in four movies and two short films. He has an almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Iron Man (to the point that I forget he was in it), a somewhat bigger but ultimately unimportant role in Iron Man 2 and a crucial role in Thor (to which the only point for him to be there was to go ‘S.H.I.E.L.D is involved’). It’s odd watching the movies back because he was in so little of them. He was a background character, a character that became a neat little shorthand for the concept of S.H.I.E.L.D in general. But then came The Avengers, and that’s where everything changed.
I do have to point out a clever piece of storytelling employed by Wheaton. Since Coulson already had a connection with Tony Stark and Thor (since he’d at least met them), one of the few scenes he has in this movie is interacting with Steve Rogers. And of course his very brief scenes touching base with the other Avengers. In hindsight it was sort of obvious that he was destined to die. He’s the perfectly sacrificial lamb: He raises up the stakes without having to worry about killing anyone important. He’s just a background character that got along well with the film’s leads, but that’s about it. He has just enough of an existence to make his death emotionally impacting, but not enough of an existence to overshadow the plot. It’s almost like they planned from the start to kill him off, knowing that he would be a great way of changing the game. Though if we’re honest it’s more likely Wheaton killed him off because it’s his speciality at this point (I still haven’t forgiven the man for Serenity). But that’s the narrative reason why the character had to die. Why was he brought back? What made him such an interesting character?
Well the most interesting thing about Phil Coulson, which the actor himself pointed out, is that he is very much the ‘Everyman’ of the Marvel Universe. He is the grounded, earthly element to the fantastical stories. He is the man that we can all relate to, the man who breezes through the madness around him without any fear. He isn’t a superhero, or even really a hero. He’s just a man doing his job while rolling his eyes at the difficulties presented to him. Phil Coulson is perhaps one of the greatest Straight Man’s in existence, since he perfectly offsets the comedy found within the Marvel Universe. He treats everything as serious and, in turn, we treat it as serious as well. So when he dies we suddenly realise just how bad the situation is. We don’t believe that Tony Stark could actually die, or Steve Rogers. But having Phil Coulson die, innocent Phil Coulson, the man just doing his job… That’s when we think he’s truly bitten it. So does his coming back cheapen the message in the film?
Well, yes and no. It’s made clear in the show that he actually did die, so the story remains the same. Likewise, they very heavily hint that Coulson’s final moments were fabricated to inspire the team. Coulson himself admits that his death must be the motivation the superheroes need to work together. Just because he happens to come back again in the TV series doesn’t cheapen the message, especially if they never have him interact with the Avengers ever again (though no doubt he will at some point in the future). So his death hasn’t been cheapened in the slightest. But how does he work within the show?
Now while Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D got off to a VERY rocky start, it eventually worked out what it was trying to do. A ragtag group of misfits coming together to do secret agent stuff. In some ways it’s an American version of Torchwood. But even at the early episodes the thing that really saved the show was Phil Coulson. The mystery with Skye wasn’t all that compelling, the other characters seemed only to fit into broad clichÃ©d stereotypes. Only Coulson seemed to have any character, anything that made him interesting. And as the series went on and they fleshed out the other characters better (especially when one turned out to be a traitor), Coulson still managed to stay very much the same. For you see, having Coulson being the hero of the story is fundamentally wrong. He isn’t a hero, he’s like your maths teacher. He isn’t cool in the slightest. But, somehow, this lack of coolness is what makes the character so cool. Because he’s such an unlikely hero the things he does make him seem more interesting in the long run. By giving the role of an action hero to a man who doesn’t seem like an action hero, they managed to give the character a show in which he shined the best. Coulson is a paradox of a character, but one that works regardless.
So there you have it. My look at Phil Coulson and why he’s so popular. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.