Marketability Trumps Poignancy: The Phil Coulsen Story

I never watched Firefly when it was on the air.  I never watched it in reruns or on DVD.  In spite of this fact I did wind up seeing Serenity and found it both approachable for the unindoctrinated and  quite enjoyable.  One thing that struck me was the on screen demise of one of the series’ most popular characters.  A writer should always be willing to sacrifice a character here and there but how that loss is approached makes all the difference in the world.  The death of Wash was meaningful in the context of the film and, by all accounts, equally devastating to fans.  The death of the character served a purpose in the story while also shaking the fan base to its core.  Wash’s death meant something! 

This illustrates what happens when a breakaway character becomes the ideal sacrifice on the alter of story craft.  Audiences become absolutely livid!  Be it a striking figure seemingly meant to carry a narrative to its conclusion (think Ned Stark in Game of Thrones) or the affable Wash of Firefly,  one of the most compelling actions a writer can take is to allow a favorite character to be killed.  Done right such deaths are as moving as they are shocking.  And such was the case when Agent Coulsen cashed in his chips at the hands of the evil Asgardian trickster, Loki.  At least that is what we, and the would-be Avengers, were meant to think!

Phil Coulson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., quietly became part of the Marvel cinematic universe in 2008’s Iron Man and as the initial face of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Coulson’s strong supporting presence in Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor (2011) helped cement the character’s place in the hearts of Marvel movie fandom.  A pair of “Marvel One-Shot” short films which accompanied the Thor and Captain America home video releases, elevated Coulson’s popularity to cult status.  It is little wonder that his appearance in The Avengers was met  with glee equal to the shock and sadness at his apparent demise.  While wholly unexpected, Phil Coulson’s death in the line of duty presented one of the most compelling scenes in a comic book film.

"He's 'mostly dead'!"
In common with most fans of the Marvel franchises, I was taken aback and saddened by Phil Coulson’s death.  However, unlike so many it would seem, I was able to let him die a hero’s death and become something even more important to the greater cinematic Marvel universe.  There was a reason he died in action and that was illustrated profoundly in Nick Fury’s subterfuge.  Not above using any means necessary to get what he wants (see the short film The Consultant for a perfect illustration of this mentality), Fury had no qualms about retrieving Coulson’s prized Captain America trading card collection, smearing it with the agent’s death blood, and throwing it in the faces of his band of heroes.  While Fury’s action was less than noble, it was a necessary means to an end that martyred Coulson in the eyes of the Avengers, most especially Tony Stark.  The now active team was imbued with a drive that made their name quite literal as well as figurative.  When Phil Coulson died he gave purpose to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that led to the undoing of the grand schemes of Loki and Thanos.

"Tis but a scratch!"
But that sort of thing simply won’t do, will it?  Fan outcry was naturally strong for the beloved character.  How could they build up Phil Coulson, make us love him, then simply let him get impaled on Loki’s spear?  It was an outrage!  At least that was the case for many fans of the character.  Mind you, I am a huge fan myself, but I am also a huge proponent for letting go when the death of a character drives the story or makes sense.  I wrote a popular article on the subject for the United States of Geekdom some  years back that addressed fandom and letting dead characters remain dead if their deaths were meaningful (see Darth Maul Must Die, Boba Fett Must Live here) and find myself walking a similar path in regards to Agent Coulson.  It strikes me as fairly obvious that Marvel Films heard fandom’s lamentations and accordingly caved in on the apparent demise of the popular character, thusly undermining a vital scene The Avengers.

Cowing to the outcry, Marvel quickly made a maneuver designed to placate the fans.   An announcement was made that Coulson actor Clark Gregg would voice his character as both the self-same S.H.I.E.L.D. agent as well as the principle of Peter Parker’s high school in the animated series Ultimate Spider-Man.  This news struck me as the “ultimate conceit”, but that would not be enough.  Hot on the heels of the cartoon came the word that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was being developed for television by no less than The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon.  When I first heard about this I was no less excited than any Marvel movie fan, though I was hopeful that the production would be purpose built to take place before the events in the film that saw its star agent meet his demise.  But alas, Phil Coulson is just too important a character to allow to rest in peace!  In a move that is all too reminiscent to the retooling of the end of the G.I. Joe animated movie of 1987 that rescued the Joe’s leader, Duke, from the jaws of death with a simple tacked-on announcement that his death scene was not quite as mortal as it seemed (“Doc just called.  Duke’s gonna’ be okay!”), it has been made clear that the television series will in fact take place after Coulson’s apparent demise. 

Am I sad or angry about this?  Not necessarily.  More bemused.  It is painfully obvious to me that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stands a better chance of achieving an audience from the outset with the presence of an amazingly popular character like Agent Coulson.  Even if the first episodes or even full season proved a disaster (which it won’t), Coulson would bring in fans for at least a few episodes.  There are decided advantages to having the character headline the show, familiarity being foremost.  I recognize this and embrace it as a Nick Fury-esque means to an end.  What bothers me is that the necessity of bolstering the success of the television venture comes at the cost of something that was once meaningful.  No possibility suggested by fans that I have yet encountered (high tech medical capabilities on the Helicarrier, Coulson was really a Life Model Decoy, etc.) does anything to soften the sense that Phil Coulson’s death was meaningless in every conceivable way.

I will allow that Fury lied about the trading cards being on his top agent’s person when he was killed, however I cannot let that act stand as an excuse for Coulson’s miraculous recovery from a mystical weapon through the heart.  The principle reason for this is not just that it undermines the poignancy of the character’s death scene, but also the underpinnings of the future of the Avengers.  Even if it came to light that the trading cards were not actually in Coulson’s pocket when he was murdered, that he was decidedly not murdered after all would be an affront to every single member of the team who, in many ways, gave their all and more in Coulson’s name.  While no one need ever know of Fury’s dirty little card trick, it would be a lot harder to simply wave away the fact that a supposedly dead man is alive and well and “Oh, we forgot to tell you, Phil’s gonna’ be okay!”   There is no approach that can be made to Coulson’s survival that will ever work for me in the context of The Avengers.  Even with the conceit that in comics no one ever really stays dead for long, nothing presented tomorrow when  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres will ever be good enough to undo the damage done to the plot of the feature film.

"I got better."
That said, I am very much looking forward to this show which promises to at least do something I hoped it would - act as a launchpad for Marvel Comics characters for potential use in future movies.  Knowing that Joss Whedon is directly and intimately involved also adds tremendously to the shows personal appeal.  There is some hope that the "super-hero" tantalizingly previewed in the earliest commercials may in fact turn out to be Luke Cage pre-Power Man.  There is little doubt that the show will be nothing short of amazing and perhaps in time I will be less and less bothered by the fact that it took crowbarring life into a meaningfully dead character to make the whole thing happen.  Time will tell.

On a final note, Firefly/Serenity fans can at least hang hopes on the triumphant return to life of one Hoban “Wash” Washburne should that property ever be revived for the screen, big or small, since a precedent has been set!