If there’s one thing that sets Joss Whedon apart as a showrunner, apart from his eminently quotable wit and his penchant for killing off beloved characters at the drop of a hat, it’s his capacity for showing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Buffy may have had the brawn and Willow the magic, but it was Xander who was at the Scoobies’ heart; his fundamental humanity brought the world back from the brink more than once.
Similarly, Agent Coulson (played by the always brilliant Clark Gregg) may spend his days trying to keep the lid on a bunch of squabbling superheroes. Nick Fury may be in charge of operations, but it’s Phil Coulson who seems to keep things afloat on a day-to-day basis. It was Coulson who gave us our first glimpse at the wider MCU all the way back in Iron Man and since then he’s appeared in three further films and played a crucial role in two One-Shots. Suffice to say, the guy gets around.
And, despite his apparent death during the events of The Avengers, it appears you can’t keep a good man down as Phil “His first name’s Agent” Coulson will be returning to star in ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tonight. Exactly how he survived impalement at the hands of Loki (or did he?) remains to be seen, but in a world where immortal demi-gods get sucker punched by giant green rage monsters, it’s comforting to know there’s a guy like Phil looking out for us.
10. “I’m Agent Phil Coulson” (Iron Man)
So, let’s start at the very beginning. The year was 2008. The world was still readying for the release of The Dark Knight following Heath Ledger’s oh-so tantalizing appearance in the trailers when Marvel Studios released their first live-action superhero movie, Iron Man. Introducing, as it did, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark to the cinematic firmament, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the unassuming middle-aged guy who pigeonholed Tony’s squeeze, Pepper Potts, at an expo to give her the mission statement of the “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division” (“That’s quite a mouthful.” “I know, we’re working on it.”). With both Tony and Pepper putting off the debrief for Tony’s return home from Afghanistan, Clark Gregg’s presence in the film is one of tired forbearance; he might not yet be in the walking-away-from-explosions, but he’s certainly in the turning-your-back-and-waiting-arms-crossed-for-something-to-blow-up business, and he might have stayed that way were it not for Tony’s inability to stick to official cover stories…
9. “I couldn’t help myself” (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
One thing about working in the civil service: there’s not much room for a sense of humor. Nick Fury may be the person to call in case of a global crisis, but it’s hard to imagine he’s particularly good fun at parties (sorry Samuel L. Jackson). On that note, it’s nice to see that Agent Phil still manages to have some fun at work. Case and point: this moment from the as-yet unaired S.H.I.E.L.D. in which Agent Coulson emerges from the shadows to refute the news of his death: “Welcome to Level 7”. It seems, at first, an on-the-nose cliché seen in a thousand other sources – the G-Men emerging from the darkness at the point of optimum coolness – but Coulson’s wry grin and sheepish apology really sell it.
8. Hammer Time (Iron Man 2)
Admittedly, this moment is less about Coulson himself and more about what he’s unveiling: after two Iron Man movies and more, less successful Hulks than we might like to remember, the end of Iron Man 2 pulled back the curtain on what would become The Avengers franchise – and Agent Phil Coulson was just the man to do the pulling. After tear-arsing across the desert in a hire car, Phil Coulson appears on a rocky mountainside, looking down at a huge, still-smoldering crater. Cue a removal of sunglasses, a mysterious phone call, and four little words that promised so much: “Sir, we found it.” Cut to the center of the crater, the camera drawing back to reveal Mjolnir, the preferred weapon of the MCU’s most famous Asgardian. Cut to black and the fans go wild. Coulson seems so cool and composed in this clip, you’d never guess he stopped off en route to foil an armed robbery (see number 2 on the next page of this list).