Warning: spoilers for this weekend's The Avengers to follow. See the movie and then read this piece!
Oh Joss Whedon, you really know how to tug at a Marvel movie fan's heartstrings.
In a universe crowded with heroes whose powers range from super human strength to godly weaponry to high tech armor to a smashing inner monster, my favorite character from the Marvel Movie Universe is a suit. Agent Phil Coulson got lucky. He didn't come from the comics, instead a creation by the filmmakers of Iron Man to inject the broader Marvel ideology into that first film. At that time, no one knew if Marvel had a future, if the Avengers Initiative would ever come together in one epic team-up movie. But the hope was there, and it was embodied by Coulson.
When Iron Man became a success and a sequel was put into motion, Coulson's role in the world of the Marvel films became solidified. He was the S.H.I.E.L.D. representative that could pop in at any moment and remind audiences, "hey, we're building to something here!" Thanks to actor Clark Gregg, Coulson also happened a charming and hilarious foil to the larger-than-life heroes at the center of the movies. Whereas Tony Stark is a playboy millionaire, Thor the God of Thunder from the kingdom of Asgard, Agent Coulson is…a guy. Plain, simple and driven. I assume he's from New Jersey, just cause.
Coulson became even more alive and dimensional with his turn in The Avengers. With S.H.I.E.L.D. as a living, breathing entity instead of a set-up after-credits scene cameo, Coulson finally stepped into the action. More importantly, he was our audience proxy, standing shoulder to shoulder with a team of superheroes, even admitting to Captain America that he grew up collecting his trading cards. Coulson was a fan favorite before Avengers, but quick and sharp characterization in Avengers turned him into a fight, a team player, a true friend, and a fan, just like us.
So, of course, Joss Whedon went and killed him.
When Gregg's Coulson went toe-to-toe with Loki for a brief minute, I was cheering. Loudly. But within a few moments, I was frozen, jaw-dropped-on-floor struck with disbelief. Loki's staff, jammed up into Coulson's chest. How could they…? Why would…? Wha—? Who? They killed Phil Coulson!!
I admit these were the flaring emotions of a fan. But all the work to build up ol' Phil into a great member of The Avengers…it just didn't feel right. Sadly, it also made perfect sense. Whedon surfaces something in The Avengers that every other Marvel besides Captain America (which, coincidentally, Whedon had a hand in writing) really failed to deliver: emotional weight. Each character had something at stake — and it wasn't just the end of the world. It was personal. The scene when Coulson enters Tony Stark's penthouse is key. They're chums, palling around and talking about Phil's wife. Phil has a wife? Great — now he has something to lose. Whedon was calculated in bringing Coulson further into the fold. One of the big names could never bite the dust (they have franchises to continue, after all), so he had to develop one of the lesser characters in order to kill them. Agent Phil Coulson was the only choice.
Fanboy grievances aside, the death of Agent Coulson does have a greater impact on the universe: will it now be up to Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury to be the greater thread that ties the movies together? Or has the grouping of heroes in Avengers opened the floodgates for all of them to bleed over into one another's adventures? The possibilities are endless, but unless Coulson returns as a hologram [note: awesome], the Avengers won't be assembling again with a witty, middle-aged Fed by their side. Thankfully, Agent Coulson's run had such an impact, Marvel will keep him around in other mediums: he's already received his own comic book run and will appear on the new cartoon Ultimate Spider-Man. There's also a chance Coulson didn't die, thanks to a throw away line from Maria Hill indicating that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent "didn't have those [Captain America] cards in his jacket. They were in his locker." A faked death staged by Nick Fury to unite the Avengers? Only in comic books (and their movies).
Either way, Phil, we barely knew you. You went down fighting and with a top-notch zinger, no less. That's the work of a true hero. Agent Coulson, I salute you (and hope crazy logic can bring you back for another round).