The Heroic Philosophy of Phil Coulson

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage” – C. S. Lewis

In a earlier post I talked of Agent Coulson’s role as the heart and soul of ABC’s new Marvel show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  What began in 2008 in Iron Man (and many thought reached its zenith in The Avengers) now continues on the small screen (hopefully for the foreseeable future, thus spared the fate of other Whedon television projects the networks – FOX – deemed less shiny).  Therefore, as Coulson goes, so goes his philosophy of heroism.

Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Thor established Coulson as the everyday guy who happened to have a cool job, with each movie slowly reveling how involved in events he was and what sort of character he had (I.e. cleverly defending a helpless gas station clerk in the Marvel short Something Happened On the Way to Thor’s Hammer).  It is revealed in The Avengers that he is a hero fan-boy himself (of Steve Rogers) and actually believes in the validity of heroes (not just the Avengers Initiative).  His conversation with Steve Rogers abroad the S.H.I.E.L.D. Quin-Jet about Captain America being the man for the job, even as Rogers wonders if the Star and Stripes are old fashioned, because old-fashioned heroes might be what the world needs right now, builds on this belief.  Moreover Coulson’s dialogue with Loki on failure for want of conviction also underscores his belief in heroes, as conviction is oft a vital component of heroism (and in some cases villainy).  It is his belief in The Avengers – and understanding their need to overcome their unbelief in their potential as a team – that leads to his sacrifice.  That sacrifice has its intended effect and the team coalesces to fight the Battle of New York which involves a “sacrifice play” I’d like to think Phil Coulson inspired.

In the first ten minutes of the pilot episode a long suspicion is confirmed:  that Coulson’s death was a ruse intended to manipulate The Avengers into action and that Coulson was in on it.  While this might serve to dull some of what makes Coulson shiny – and probably does for some – I disagree.  As is often the case with projects involving Joss Whedon things are not always as they seem and clues are given indicating Phil doesn’t know the whole story (“and can never know” according to Deputy Director Maria Hill).  As stated in my previous post on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I think the “new and improved” Coulson is actually a Life Model Decoy, (and as Coulson comments in the context of his car “Lola”, people often confuse the terms “new” and “improved”; his own subconscious metaphysical commentary on his current state, perhaps?) but I digress.

Presently, Coulson still believes he’s himself and not something else so it’s back to being the guy who believes in doing good and “being the line between people and what they aren’t ready to hear” (i.e. alien races and superheroes exist).  It is this conviction that leads Coulson to demand that his team develop a  non-lethal way to take down Michael Peterson; not just because he wants to minimize casualties but also because he doesn’t want to see Peterson’s son lose his father (a great nod not only to the importance of a father in the lives of children, but also the difficult circumstances of being a single parent).  Further, Coulson is more than willing to go toe to toe – unarmed – with a delusioned and wounded individual who has been given great power via Extremis tech from Iron Man 3 but doesn’t understand the responsibility.  He shows Mike that he understands his fear of living in a brave new world of aliens and gods by explaining what being in close proximity to said gods cost him; he understood the “terrible privilege” he was given.  I actually think it is his sacrifice in The Avengers that bolsters his heroic philosophy and enables him to enter danger in a disarming manner because he’s living on borrowed time he intends to use well.  In the end it is this heroism and Coulson’s belief in the team he assembled that saves the day; no superpowers required.  Moreover, it isn’t some tragic past event that sets him on a heroic path but rather just who Phil Coulson is, underscoring Mike Peterson’s line that “it matters who you are” (the content of one’s character).

I’d take it a step further – theologically – and say it matters more so whose you are.  Just as Phil Coulson’s belief in Captain America inspired his involvement in S.H.I.E.L.D.  and his sacrifice for The Avengers so they could embrace their potential, shouldn’t one’s faith in Jesus inspire commensurate action?  It’s of little doubt – or should be – that Phil Coulson is not his own, that he belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D. (more now than even he realizes).  Moreover, Coulson doesn’t embark on this heroism alone, but with a hand-picked team; a chosen community that he has a key role in shaping.  The Apostle Paul makes the same ideas clear in Eph 2:8-10: you aren’t saved or rescued because of anything you did, but because of the actions of Another, therefore, embrace doing good; be a hero – be the answer to the prayers of another.  Similarly he hits the point in 1 Cor 6:19 – “you are not your own” – and the author of Hebrews raises a similar point about heroism and community in Hebrews 10:24.  Finally, Coulson understands what C.S. Lewis did in The Weight of Glory – “You’ve never talked to a mere mortal…” – when he informs a member of his team that “nobody is nobody, Agent Ward”, understanding that there is inherent value in everyone, even a fearful and hurting guy named Mike caught up in something much larger than he is.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the sort of heroism TV needs, a heroism that dads can watch with their kids week after week, a heroism that’s likely to be more family-friendly than Arrow (a show I enjoy immensely as a fan of DC Comics and The DC Animated Universe) or the forthcoming Gotham.  This sort of heroism is what our culture needs; everyday people doing good – because of whose they are and what has been done for them – and changing the world they live in as a result.

Whose agent are you?






Posted on by Aaron in Uncategorized

About Aaron

Author, Speaker, and Super Nerd. Aaron Welty speaks and writes regularly connecting the dots of life, faith, and science fiction. Originally from Michigan, he now lives and works in the Washington, D.C. Metro area.

One Response to The Heroic Philosophy of Phil Coulson

  1. Pingback: The Essence of Heroism - Aaron Welty | Aaron Welty

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