Amidst all the spectacle and action of last summer’s The Avengers, the death of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson provided the film’s biggest gut punch. Played by actor Clark Gregg, the character of Coulson began as a movie-only invention of 2008’s Iron Man, mostly written as a way to introduce the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. into the MCU. But Agent Coulson proved incredibly popular with fans, returning in three other Marvel movies, starring in two of Marvel’s direct-to-DVD shorts, and being transplanted into the Marvel Comics universe and the TV show Ultimate Spider-Man. When Coulson gave his life defending the helicarrier in The Avengers, it was a hero’s death that confirmed why the agent had become one of the franchise’s best-loved characters.
Yet much to the joy of fans everywhere, for months we’ve known that Agent Coulson is not only still alive but is headlining ABC’s S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot. Details remain closely under wraps as to how exactly Phil lived through his encounter with Loki, but Marvel Studio’s President of Production Kevin Feige recently confirmed that his survival is still a surprise to the Avengers themselves, saying “Does Tony [Stark] know? No.”
Still, if bouncing back from death is common in comics, it remains to be seen how Marvel is going to explain Phil’s return to television audiences when S.H.I.E.L.D. hits the airwaves. Here are our predictions for the three likeliest scenarios:
3. Phil was saved by the paramedics.
By far the simplest option, Agent Coulson could simply have been healed by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s medical teams unbeknownst to the rest of the team. While Coulson is shown losing consciousness as the paramedics arrive, his death is announced by Nick Fury when both of them are off-screen. Fury already proved willing to manipulate the details of Coulson’s death in order to motivate the Avengers; faking the death entirely is a trick we wouldn’t put past him. There was already heavy speculation about this theory even before Coulson was announced to return, with eagle-eyed viewers noting that a slightly out-of-frame agent on the helicarrier at the end of The Avengers looked suspiciously similar to the “deceased” Coulson. Then again, it’s one thing for the scheming Nick Fury to trick the Avengers. If Phil was part of this deception all along, audiences can expect some heated tension between him and the team the next time they come face to face.