One of the defining moments of The Avengers — the movie that revolutionized the film industry by proving that continuity-driven shared cinematic universes not only worked, but could provide a massive windfall of cash for any studio capable of cracking the formula to their construction — was the death of SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson. On some levels his popularity as a character, and the acute impact of his death, were incredibly surprising. There really hadn’t been a point of comparison for a minor supporting character in a large franchise gaining that large nor that passionate of a following. It really was an unprecedented moment in film.
On the other hand, after being able to examine all of the pieces that built up and into his death, it made perfect sense why Coulson’s presence was so important and why his death was so impactful. First off, Coulson was what tied all of these movies together. Going by his movie appearances, he was the most credited actor across all of Marvel’s Phase 1, appearing in four of those first six movies.
Coulson was our introduction to SHIELD back when it was known as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. He was the point of first contact most of these heroes had into the larger Marvel universe back when these were all isolated franchises that didn’t seem likely to meaningfully cross over. And, and this is perhaps most important, he was the audience surrogate character.
Although an often-bemoaned character type, the audience surrogate can and in many cases is paramount to the success of certain stories, particularly if those stories are as sprawling, complex and all-in-all weird as the MCU is. Coulson was the point with which we oriented ourselves in this dizzying universe of gods, monsters and men of tomorrow.
By just being Coulson — a pretty ordinary, if somewhat low-key nerdy, guy who would fanboy over meeting his favorite superhero and collected vintage trading cards — we had somebody to latch onto: somebody whose everyday charm helped us make sense of the increasingly bizarre comic book world around us. His reactions were, by and large, our reactions. His schoolgirl glee at meeting Captain America is how most of us probably would have reacted had we been in the same situation. He was their colleague, friends with their girlfriends and just a general work-a-day guy trying to get by in a world where an ancient Norse trickster god could brainwash you into helping his alien armies invade the earth for a glowing blue Rubik’s Cube.
Uniquely, and importantly, however, Coulson was not your typical audience surrogate. For one, those characters are usually used in place of the audience because they have no distinguishing personalities o their own. They’re blank slates upon which fans can project themselves, without having to go through the mental legwork of subtracting a bunch of backstory or personality quirks or other features that didn’t fit with our fantasy version of ourselves. They’re boring, but generally by necessity. After all, most of these guys aren’t supposed to be “Agent Phil Coulson,” they’re supposed to be us.
The second way in which Coulson diverged from most of these characters is that he was a bit player in the franchise that he found himself in. These guys are usually the heroes of the story, largely because the audience imprinting on him also want to be the heroes of the story, but that is inherently problematic for any number of reasons. The lead of a story needs to be more than the blank slate that these characters inevitably are turned into, otherwise they’re just boring to watch or read about. They can’t carry the action or have interesting relationships if they most just exist to be the paper doll that the kids at home copy and paste their face onto.
Coulson was a minor (but prevalent), audience surrogate character that was busting with personality and charm. That’s why when Loki stabbed him, people gasped. That’s why when Fury called the time of his death, people cried. That’s why when they brought him back as the ostensible lead on Agents of SHIELD, fans of that show cried out joy. Coulson’s a great character, and he’s golden in literally everything Marvel has seen fit to put him in over the more-than decade that Clark Gregg has been playing the part.
And now Coulson is back on the big screen where he belongs after six years in exile on Network TV. Now, I love Agents of SHIELD as much as the next guy (moreso, probably, if we’re being honest here). That series is a lot of fun and fun, likable Coulson is a big part of the reason for that. If we’re getting him back in theaters again, I, for one, am all for it.
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