"Phil? His first name's Agent."
I already wrote a 4,200+ word review of the film, but that was not nearly enough to cover everything I wanted to talk about, so I'm going to write a character-specific reaction about to delve deeper into the film.
Let me be clear about what's coming: SPOILERS. Lots and lots of SPOILERS. Read ahead only if you are cool with that. If you have not seen the movie and don't want things ruined, come on back when you do.
The rise of Clark Gregg's Agent Phil Coulson from being just a quiet guy in a business suit in Iron Man trying to get a meeting with Tony Stark to an integral part of the Avengers franchise has been a joy to watch. Coulson has served as the liaison between Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the superheroes that Fury has his eye on as part of the Avengers Initiative program, and his appearances in Avengers-related films have become something fans look forward to seeing.
After Iron Man, Agent Coulson went on to appear in two more pre-Avengers films: Iron Man 2 and Thor. Coulson proved so popular (and fans enjoy the post-credits sequence so much) that Marvel Studios produced two short one shots for Coulson: "The Consultant" (located on the Thor blu-ray) and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer" (on the Captain America disc).
Coulson works because of the juxtaposition of his middle management look with his nonchalant, all-business, in-control manner. The dude just comes off as totally unflappable, so while he looks like a company man he is actually a bad-ass. He feels like an Aaron Sorkin character dropped into the middle of this insane world; he does not talk as much as a Sorkin, but he speaks with the same rapid confidence.
At the same time, with the same words and the same actions, Agent Coulson feels like an intrinsic part of this world while retaining his status as an everyman outsider.
There are three big moments for Coulson in Avengers: his recruitment of Tony Stark, his adoration for Captain America, and his apparent death, that Fury uses to give the Avengers something to, well, avenge. Most striking about these three key moments in the film is that we see a different side of Coulson at each turn, and I give Whedon and Gregg credit for making each of these scenes something different that adds to my understanding and appreciation of the character.
Clark Gregg has a wonderful way of giving Coulson the ability to play off everyone with aplomb, and I think that comes from Coulson's confidence in himself. Of all the actors in the Avengers film, Gregg is the actor who can best verbally spar with Stark because of his unflappability.
"Hello, you've received the Life Model Decoy of Tony Stark. Please leave a message," Stark lies.
"It's urgent," Coulson replies over the phone, in no mood for Stark's games.
"Then leave it urgently."
At that moment, the elevator opens and Coulson exits. What follows is a very Sorkin-esque scene in which three separate conversations are going on at the same time: Coulson and Stark, Coulson and Pepper, and Pepper and Stark. Coulson is all business with Stark, and all personal with Pepper, while the Pepper/Stark conversation blends the personal with the business. I love how the three separate conversations play off one another. When Pepper greets Coulson by calling him, "Phil," Stark says, "Phil? His first name is Agent," and then will not let go that Pepper knows (and uses) Coulson's first name.
Thanks to Pepper's prodding, Coulson eventually gets Stark to agree to come in. It's a fantastic scene between the three of them, and it's just fun to watch and appreciate how Joss Whedon's dialogue works with three talented actors.
The second significant use of Coulson comes with his heretofore unrecognized hero worship of Captain America. For the first time, we see Coulson as something other than unflappable, as he can barely contain himself around Cap. "I watched you when you were sleeping," he says when they're in a SHIELD jet, and then realizes how creepy that sounds.
Cap is a little weirded out, feeling uncomfortable by the hero worship, and is confused by the idea that he had trading cards, let alone that Agent Coulson collected all of them and would like Cap's autograph. This unchecked adulation is unnerving but also cool, and it helps to reinforce just how long Cap has been gone and the effect his life and death had one some people.
Coulson's Cap crush is used to set up his third significant contribution to Avengers: his own death.
Coulson gives Loki a psychological takedown, telling him that he'll never win because he lacks conviction. It's a good bit, but Coulson was really addressing an image of Loki, and the actual Loki comes at Coulson from behind with his staff, stabbing him and dropping Coulson to the floor. The injury brings us back to the unflappable Coulson. "You're going to lose," he tells Loki. "It's in your nature."
Coulson is aware the effect of his death can have, as he starts to tell Fury that the Avengers needed something like this, so they have something to avenge. He dies on the floor and Fury lets everyone know it.
Coulson's death has the desired effect and the Avengers soon steal a jet and take off for the big final battle. When they leave, SHIELD Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) lets Fury know she's onto him. I love this move on Fury's part. It does unite the team.
Coulson's death hit the theater where I was pretty hard, and it's one of those deaths that I hate to see happen, but can't deny the power it has in the narrative.
It's telling how much we all seem to like Coulson in that fans were instantly speculating on how he could come back. Maybe he was a Skrull, some argued. Maybe he was an Life Model Decoy, others suggested. Since the Chitauri are a race of Skrulls (albeit of the non-shapeshifting variety) and Stark references the advanced state of LMDs during his initial talk with Coulson, both possibilities are already set up by the film.
I thought, too, that turning Coulson into the Vision would make sense, but after all this speculation, I'm afraid I missed the most obvious way to bring Coulson back.
He's not dead.
It's really quite daft on our parts to think he is because his death doesn't past the tried-and-true comic book sniff test: there's no body. Fury says the SHIELD docs pronounced him dead, but we don't see it. We see Coulson get stabbed, see him lose consciousness, but we don't see the dead body.
And most importantly, Fury manipulates Coulson's death. Both Coulson and Fury knew the team needed something to rally around, and death provided that, but Fury faked the trading card evidence, so who says he didn't fake Coulson's death, too? For all we know, Coulson is just lying in a coma in the Helicarrier medical wing.
Maybe he is dead, or maybe he'll show up in the post-credits scene in Iron Man 3 in his usual gray business suit and sunglasses, trying to get a meeting with Thanos somewhere out in the far recesses of space.
That would be so Coulson.
Whether Coulson is really dead or not, however, Clark Gregg's superb acting job has helped make Phil one of the best parts of the Avengers movies. I talked about his big three moments here, but there are a bunch of little moments, too, like when he's listening to Thor talk about the Bilchsteim, or when he calls Tasha during her interrogation. When Tasha gets on the phone, Coulson tells her in three little words, "Barton's been compromised," but Coulson modulates his voice just slight enough that you can hear his sympathy. It's some darn good acting by Gregg and we never saw his face once during this talk.
Agent Phil Coulson could have been a slightly interesting but ultimately forgettable minor cog in Iron Man, but someone somewhere on the production side recognized his potential and brought him back. Lots of people would like to buy Clark Gregg a drink, but let's not forget that unknown producer or writer that saw value in the actor and character and brought them back.
Agent Coulson: Avengers MVP.