Friday, May 11, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Agent Coulson

Alright, it's been a week since The Avengers came out. Typically, I would follow the etiquette of twice that length before openly discussing major plot points, however:

A) I'm not waiting a week to discuss this minor epiphany I came to after creating that Raymond Carver-inspired title up top. And

B) In it's first week it's already the 37th highest-grossing film ever, making it the quickest to hit multiple dollar marks. So, frankly, if you were going to see Avengers, and it really meant that much to you to do so, you've most likely already seen it and like me you're about to go back for seconds.

Therefore, for the seventeen East Filipino natives who have yet to actually see the film due to illness, remote location, or a tardy significant other, but are otherwise still intent on doing so:


Now here we go.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Agent Coulson

Let us address the great tragedy of Phillip Coulson up-front: Joss Whedon did that thing he does to at least one fan-favorite supporting character in essentially everything he's ever done.

"I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I s

You saw the spoiler warning. He's dead. He died graphically, through the chest as usual, and he was interrupted by it in the middle of saying something cool.

Here's the part where I defend Joss by saying it was the right call for the story, that no other character was equal parts expendable, mortal, yet lovable. Then I argue as Joss so recently noted, that Coulson's death was part and parcel for his agreeing to direct, a set-in-stone plot device he was told had to happen along with big explosions and plenty of Robert Downey, or that even actor Clark Gregg agreed it was necessary.

Looks like I just did that, so moving on.

Why the hell did we care? Only Whedon fanboys or Whedon detractors (read: "disenfranchised fanboys") know the director's little hallmarks well enough to half-expect these maneuvers, so for the moment, let's ignore that minority argument of "it wasn't as surprising."

Somewhere along the line, we started caring about Coulson. Why?

He's a high-level flunky, but he's a flunky. A nothing. He's a slight man in a black suit who worls for the government. He's paid to be a generally nonthreatening liaison. He works for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. He knows some stuff he doesn't talk about, but that's about it. He doesn't get his hands dirty and he's not important enough that he doesn't have to schlep across the country to pick up a package. He's not a superhero.

"You guys seen the new Dark Knight Rises trailer?"
"Looks pretty sweet, right?"
Which is why we love him.

He's just some guy in a suit with a receding hairline. His suit isn't cybernetic, it's wool. He's not the "master assassin" or spy, that's what Natasha and Clint are for. He's Nick Fury's "good eye." He babysits the fresh supers until they're ready to be integrated with the rest of the class. He's very understanding, but stern. He can manipulate other normal people very easily, because he's gotten a glimpse of the larger scope of things. Still, there's not much he could really do about it. Dodge a heat blast, run from the exploding car. Lecture Stark about being self-obsessed, try not to miss "Supernanny." In a room full of normal people, he's pretty cool, but on a helecarier, he's still a dork.

Avengers does a terrific job of humanizing Coulson more than any other appearance. Fitting, as we should ideally learn and care about him more right before they take him from us (thank you very much, Alfred Hitchcock):

Pepper Potts reminds us that "Agent" Coulson's first name is Phil. And while Tony's been out saving the world, Phil was dating a cellist. Phil gushes to Steve Rogers, admitting a little too much that he is as big a fanboy as the rest of us. Even the other top S.H.I.E.L.D. agents think it's a little silly how proud he is of his complete set of Captain America trading cards. But those suckers are near-mint. Every huge nerd in the audience loved Coulson a little more when he heard the big NR. (Note: that was most of the midnight audiences, everyone in costume, and, yes, that was almost entirely a male population.)

Coulson was us, watching all these heroes grow into their own. He personally brought them all out. The only Avenger he didn't personally meet was Hulk–but wait! Phil sent Tony Stark to meet with General Ross at the end of Incredible Hulk, just so the General would refuse an asinine request S.H.I.E.L.D. was goaded into making to put the Abomination on the team instead of Hulk.

Coulson's kind of the man. Just a little bit. Sweet lines, cool job, just a little badass about it. I'd hang out with that guy. Hell, I want to see his trading cards. Coulson's the type of Cool Guy Secret Nerd every nerd wants to be, except he probably doesn't know the real elite spies kind of think he's a dork.

Doesn't matter, he's the highest suit they've got. He's a field agent. Intelligence. He's swank and has Level 7 clearance. If there's something you don't know, he knows and he has a list of everyone else who knows on the planet, and he's authorized to kill you for asking about it.

"Funny, she doesn't look Asgardian."

But after all that, he's just a guy who watched superhero reels growing up. He had his lunchbox and he collected his cards, grew up, got a job, and did it well until he went home. He wasn't irradiated or an extradimensional being, he didn't get into a horrifying accident or some terrible situation that scarred him emotionally at a young age,thus transforming him into a vicious killer. He's not even a remotely decent killer after training. The guy's probably pretty good in a bar fight if it ever came to that, but he doesn't seem the type to use his S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue Krav Maga lessons at a servesa joint.

Alrights, Coulson's a little Crouching Tiger.

Still, there's no way Coulson was going to keep up in a theater of metahuman war. Even Black Widow and Hawkeye were only narrowly useful, and there were two of the pinacles of human achievement in the art of short- and mid-range killing things. They're what nerds call "peak human condition," or "Batman." Like the caped crusader, these people are the best at erasing the best of the best from history, quietly and thanklessly. If you expect to beat them, you better hope to have superpowers.

Coulson does not. Coulson has a big gun and he doesn't really know what it does. (Okay, I'm sure he did and was just being cute.) That's why Coulson's death was tragic. There's a flying aircraft carrier full of metahumans, and one asshole with a grudge and a head start is running murderous circles around all of them. He's got Thor trapped in a cage for the Hulk, the Hulk smashing a plane outside, Iron Man in a turbine, and Captain America learning to be an electrician.

And Coulson steps up with a gun and a big mouth.

It was a suicide run. Even when he got off a shot it didn't do kill Loki. Coulson knew he was borked but he stood up to be the hero as best he knew how, because it was the right thing to do. And he was right. He was also right when he said the team wasn't going to work, that they needed a personal reason to fight in all this. His death, he knew, could be that element, so he was not sad. It was an honorable death and one that achieved something, making him a part of the team.

I do not mourn Obi-Wan Kenobi's death. Or Harry Potter's, or Aerith in Final Fantasy (but I don't think anybody really did). These things were necessary. (Mostly.)

I do not mourn Phillip Coulson, I honor his life and contributions to the world. And if I ever need to see him again, I'll look into my heart and see what greatness he ushered into the world.

Or I'll just pop over to The HUB and watch him on "Ultimate Spider-Man." Clark Gregg's gotta eat.

Then again, Nick did lie about quite a bit, and until Avengers 2 there's always the rumor that Hank Pym is going to build Ultron of of leftover Coulson bits. I wonder if Clark Gregg likes steak.

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