Since The Avengers hit theaters last summer, fans of Marvel's extraordinarily popular superhero films have united under the wishful slogan "Coulson Lives" — and against all odds, it sounds like they'll be getting their wish. A recent press release confirmed reports that Clark Gregg's beloved character Agent Coulson, who was memorably killed off in The Avengers, will somehow be resurrected to serve as the central protagonist in ABC's upcoming spin-off TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In a recent interview at WonderCon, Gregg shed a little more light on Coulson's impending return:
"They kept adding Agent Coulson to everything including The Avengers and then gave him this magnificent, almost Shakespearean death scene, and I found out on that day how much I loved this guy and had come to identify with him partly because of the way fans responded to him, and also because he had such a great niche in those movies. […] After people see [Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.], they'll have some clue as to why I'm still there, still breathing. But I don't think they'll know everything." [Collider]
By reviving Coulson, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is falling back on a time-tested comic book trope: The near-constant resurrection of "dead" popular characters through lazy narrative tricks like complicated retcons (retroactive continuity), DC Comics' Lazarus pit, or Superboy punching the universe so hard that he changes the fabric of reality. Comic books have their own circle of life: Superheroes are "killed," which ensures media attention and higher sales, and quietly resurrected weeks, months, or years down the road when the writers decide they miss having the iconic character in their toolkit. Both creators and fans of the medium have learned to accept the falseness of comic book "death" as a matter of course; when Robin died in a recent issue of Batman Incorporated, writer Grant Morrison responded to questions about whether the Boy Wonder would stay dead by teasing "you can never say never in a comic book" — and that was before the issue had even been published.
With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel is setting an alarming precedent for its expansive cinematic universe: Like in comic books, characters can now be killed off and revived at the whims of writers, which renders meaningless the serious and dramatic consequence of death in the series. Coulson's death wasn't even some minor scene in The Avengers; it was the turning point of the entire film. "This was never going to work if they didn't have something to..." said Coulson shortly before his death, and he was right; the Avengers did need something to avenge, and cheating that point feels like a betrayal of the story that The Avengers told so well.
That said, there are, admittedly, a few semi-plausible ways that Coulson could be revived without breaking continuity. The Avengers revealed that Nick Fury had planted some bloody collectible superhero cards on Coulson's body in order to manipulate the superheroes into avenging his death, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that Fury and Agent Coulson cooked up a plan to fake Coulson's death for similar effect. A far more irritating possibility would be that the Coulson that "died" was a Life Model Decoy — an amazingly lifelike, S.H.I.E.L.D.-designed robot created to take the place of VIPs, which Tony Stark jokingly referenced earlier in the film. I'm confident that Joss Whedon and his team are far more capable than I am of coming up with a good explanation for Coulson's resurrection. But I'm less concerned with how the show will revive Agent Coulson than I am with the fact that they're reviving Agent Coulson in the first place.
Marvel's decision is all the stranger in light of next month's Iron Man 3, which seems, smartly, to be treating the earth-shattering events of The Avengers with the weight they deserve. Based on Iron Man 3's trailers, Tony Stark is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder due to what transpired in The Avengers — as one would, after almost dying while saving New York City from an onslaught of alien attackers. Marvel has done a remarkable job creating a consistent, coherent world for its superheroes to save. But if the company plans to keep this sprawling franchise rolling indefinitely, it needs to embrace a consistent world, with consistent characters and consequences. Up until the news about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the death of Agent Coulson was the strongest evidence of Marvel's willingness to embrace those consequences as the story dictated. As a fan, I'll be happy to spend more time with Agent Coulson — but as a critic, I wonder what Marvel is losing in the trade.