Now that #CoulsonLives, what's at stake for superheroes?


The recently-launched promotional campaign for Marvel's new television series, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, features a remarkably healthy-looking Agent Phil Coulson, especially considering the last time we saw him he was, well... dead.

Coulson, of course, exists in a world where heroes and villains frequently find the power to rejuvenate, exist in alternative realities and, erm, fly with aid of oversized DIY tools, so his resurrection perhaps isn't a huge surprise in and of itself.

It becomes more surprising though, when you consider that good old Phil's death was really the emotional apex of Marvel's The Avengers. As a character in that film kind of put it; the assembled mass of superhero brawn was never going to work if the team didn't have something to avenge. Now they apparently don't. Have they just instantly become useless and dysfunctional again?

Of course, there's no concrete data around exactly how Phil is up and walking again just yet, and Marvel's storytellers could well have weaved in something which means he's here, but not quite as we knew him (replication, anyone?), or just attempt to set the entire thing pre-Avengers, but the mere presence of Coulson's image shows just how reluctant superhero films are to up the stakes, sacrifice a loved one, experience even a tiny smidgen of loss.

Coulson, who had amassed a bit of a fanboy following, wasn't exactly the perfect character to get rid of as it stood anyway - he's not 'super', so yeah, he should have been easy to kill for a super-villain like Loki - but at least he still showed Marvel were willing to go into new emotional depths. Now he's back. What exactly are Marvel going to find for us to lose in forthcoming films and will it matter, knowing as we do now that a click of the fingers, a plotting excuse of some sort, can resurrect anyone and everyone?

In a world predicated on the fact that humans have become all powerful beings of near or actual invincibility, how long before someone realises that they need to become human again?

This of course ties nicely in to a point I've been making for a while, namely that Captain America is by far the most successful of Marvel's Phase One films. A large part of the reason for that? There's real loss in it, something at stake, something to care about.

The 'resurrection' of Bucky might imminently be about to change that fact but the exit of Peggy Carter from Cap's life, and he from her's, is real and really touching. Just look at Tommy Lee Jones' saggy face in the scene where Peggy says goodbye. You can tell there's a tear brewing even there. There was on my droopy face too.

Increasingly, as the heroes get more powerful and more numerous, the key question, as Jim Gordon put it, is one of escalation. There's no point in the villains graduating to automatic weapons if they don't then manage to use them to kill someone.

Coulson's revival, in whatever form of excuse is given, makes inter-dimensional terrorist Loki about as useful and as deadly as a kid with a super-soaker, and The Avengers emotional apex less tear-inducing than Tommy Lee Jones staring at a woman on a radio.

Loss is a part of fiction needed for us to relate, sympathise and connect. Except if you can fly. When apparently it no longer matters.


Update: The Playlist has a story on how they believe Coulson will be returned to us. And it's lame. Very lame.

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