There’s a moment in Marvel’s The Avengers when Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is stabbed through the back by Loki. Thor looks on in horror behind a glass cage, completely crestfallen in his inability to stop his deranged brother from murdering the man. Coulson’s small body slumps to the floor and he lies there dying, but he still has enough energy to get out a small quip and blast Loki through a couple walls with an experimental weapon. Coulson is given a hero’s death in a film filled to the brim with bona fide superheroes. And he, as far as Thor would be concerned, will be sailing to Valhalla, having died a warrior. In the wake of his death scene, the theater was quiet. No one spoke or laughed, or used the silence as an opportunity for a joke. It hit me that there was a certain reverence in the audience for the geeky agent. People were sad, but why? What is so endearing about the balding mortal civil servant in a movie filled with literal gods among men, super-geniuses, and super-soldiers?
The death of Couson isn’t only felt by the theater goers in the audience but the super heroes in the film as well. Agent Fury lays out Coulson’s blood-spotted Captain America trading cards on the table for the Avengers to see. The tragedy spurs the super-powered team to take action, and with their new sense of togetherness, the Avengers save New York. In fact, the entire dramatic weight of the movie’s third act rests on how much you care about Agent Phil Coulson. Joss Whedon banks a large part of his film’s believability on the death of his middle-aged everyman, and his gamble pays off incredibly. So the question is, why do we care so much about Agent Coulson? Why did Disney feel inclined to retcon the most profitable superhero movie ever created to bring him back to our television sets in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D? Why do fans of the Marvel films adore him so duly?
The answer is that he is one of us. Not only is he the the “normal one” (or as normal as a expertly trained secret agent can be) in a room full of superheroes, but is like us in idolizing the Avengers and reveling in his fandom for them — Coulson’s love for these superheroes is his life blood. So while we can laugh at Tony Stark’s snarky jokes, or contemplate Thor and Captain America’s uneasiness in 21st century America, we can never full empathize or identify with them. We can’t ever feel the full breadth of their super powers or super problems, but we can feel who Coulson is. Agent Coulson is us. Just as comic book fans wait in line to get their books signed by their favorite authors, he has his trading cards freshly shuffled, hoping the legendary Captain America gives him the time of day and signs his collection. He is our gateway into the Marvel universe and allows us to experience the cosmic happenings of this alternate world through human (not just human, buf fanboy human!) eyes and ears. Clark Gregg also brings an enthusiasm and energy to the role that makes the agent even more endearing.
Coulson played a vital role throughout the Avengers saga, and has become a fan favorite character as a result. Now with this new show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, he has been resurrected, and is getting a starring role in a story where he is the hero that saves the day. While Coulson’s adventures on the small screen might not be as grand as they were when he was hanging around the Avengers, they will undoubtedly be an exciting addition to the Marvel universe.