I trusted Phil Coulson from the first moment he appeared onscreen, because he reminded me of someone I knew, a good man, who had a good heart. He was self-effacing and simple, with a sharp, dry wit, with basic beliefs in right and wrong and justice. The outfit even reminded me of something. In season 3 episode 10 of The West Wing, Clark Gregg appeared as Agent Michael Casper. It was his second appearance on the show (but I don’t count his first because he’s kind of a jerk in it), and he went on to have a total of eight appearances as Agent Casper. In many ways, this character is the precursor to Coulson. So perhaps the reason why I trusted Coulson from the start was because I already trusted him as Agent Casper.
When Agent Coulson first appears in Iron Man, we instinctively know this is our “normal” guy. He may appear surrounded by chaos and superhuman events, but you know he’s the calm in the storm — the man you can call in a pinch, as Pepper Potts does in the climax of the movie. His later appearances in Iron Man 2, Thor, and the Marvel One-Shots, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer” and “The Consultant,” showed us more about Agent Coulson, but really all these appearances did was confirm what we already knew and loved about him.
It isn’t until Marvel’s The Avengers that, as an audience, we realized his importance. He was not just our “everyman,” he was the heart of it all. Coulson represented every reason why the Avengers were important. He is the reason why the Avengers must fight and defend. His death at the hands of Loki was heartbreaking, and Nick Fury encapsulates Coulson’s beliefs and role when he talks to the Avengers after his death: “Phil Coulson died, still believing in that idea. In heroes. Well, it’s a good old-fashioned notion.” In many ways, Coulson foreshadows the role of Captain America in Winter Soldier, he represents the old-fashioned ideal that there’s a right and a wrong, and that people must be protected.
When Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced for the Fall 2013 schedule, I, like many others, wondered how the hell they were walking that plot point back. The majority of the 2013-2014 season was hit and miss. Coulson was still as engaging as ever, but the story was murky, the characters undeveloped, and the show read like a stunt to prop up Marvel’s other properties like Thor: The Dark World. All of that changed with the release of Captain America: Winter Soldier on April 4, 2014, which turned the world upside down. In Winter Soldier, we see Cap lose his faith in the system he placed all his faith in. (The movie can be viewed for its politics and as an indictment of the military industrial complex.) The film depicts Fury in hiding, believed to be dead, Cap and Black Widow on the run, and S.H.I.E.L.D. infested with HYDRA agents and collapsing, with a resolution that is optimistic, yet uncertain.
And this is where Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1 episode 17 (“Turn, Turn, Turn”) picks up, four days after the release of Winter Soldier. For the next six episodes, from this to the finale (“Beginning of the End”), we get the true story behind S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse, and it centers on Phil Coulson. Coulson is gutted by the revelation that the institution he has (literally) given his life for is a sham, operated by HYDRA agents since the beginning. He is lost, without direction, but seemingly not without faith. Whether it’s him yelling at his team that they need to keep fighting because it’s what they do, insisting that even though S.H.I.E.L.D. is destroyed, they’re still needed; or by taking the fight to Garrett and HYDRA with no support, Coulson refuses to give up his long-held beliefs. In The Avengers, Coulson is held up as the reason to fight. In the final episodes of season one of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, he shows why he is the reason to fight. Coulson believes that evil must be fought, that the good must be defended, that even if the odds are immeasurably stacked against you, giving up is not an option. In a post-Winter Soldier era, where everyone is suspect and there appears to be nothing to believe in, Coulson shows us that we can believe in him.
Even the bad guys recognize Coulson for who he is and what he stands for — when Flowers is speaking to Ward about what it was like to betray S.H.I.E.L.D. she says “I spent time with Coulson. He’s a good man.” Because Coulson is who he is: he represents hope, the hope that, despite betrayal, corruption, and loss, we can survive. Because of who he is, Fury chose him as the future, the hope of S.H.I.E.L.D., explaining why he saved Coulson’s life:
Fury: It was a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situation.
Coulson: Yes, but that emergency was supposed to be the fall of an Avenger.
Fury: Exactly. And I’m damn glad I did it, too.
Coulson is worth placing our faith in in large part because he does not ask for it. He is not a superhero. He holds no special powers. Yet, he is the heart of our beliefs. He represents the best of us, and more importantly, he shows us that no matter how bad things get, there is always a better way.
If the Marvel universe, like our own reality, has gotten darker with not knowing who to trust, the betrayal of our larger ideals, and a loss of belief, it is necessary to believe in something greater than ourselves. But sometimes, you need something more tangible to cling to, to place your faith in. I, for one, choose Coulson, because over these last six years “I’ve spent time with Coulson. He’s a good man.”