Coulson Lives! Or, MCU’s Status Quo Fakeouts


Comic books have always had an interesting dilemma. Their big name characters are too iconic (and therefore, too valuable) to be laid to rest, but their stories need to generate some degree of dramatic tension in order to keep readers’ interest. Hence the ever-popular Superhero Death. The Superhero Death is the card the publishers want you to think can only be played once, but of course we all know the truth. How many times have Superman and Batman and Wolverine and Spiderman “died”, only to be resurrected, either within the ongoing story thread itself or via a series reboot? Superhero Deaths are the card you can play any number of times, provided you allow enough time between deployments to counter the law of diminishing returns.

The film franchises that have burst forth from these comic origins, revenue juggernauts that they are, have the exact same problem. Audiences are wise to their act. We even know their game plan – to beat potential leaks to the punch, Marvel publicly revealed their entire slate of upcoming films, with release dates, through 2019. We know their characters are invulnerable to movie death, and while the main character’s potential demise is hardly the only carrot you can dangle to create suspense in a movie (truly, in nearly every mainstream movie we KNOW the good guys will prevail), the threat of staleness looms over every episodic piece of fiction that has no set endpoint. Paradoxically, people tend to crave the new as much as they crave the familiar. The changeover always happens when “familiar” morphs into “predictable”. 

I’ve been contemplating the ending of Iron Man 3, a film I found to be infuriatingly forgettable in spite of its generally positive reception. After nearly losing his love Pepper Potts, and having his own precious technology perverted and used against him (literally the plot of all three Iron Man movies, but I digress), Tony Stark begins the process of rebuilding his life, and his identity. He finally gets the necessary surgery to rid his body of all the shrapnel that necessitated the chest-mounted arc reactor that is the centerpiece of his Iron Man persona. Dramatically chucking the arc reactor into the Pacific ocean at the end of the film, his voiceover monologue appears to suggest Tony Stark is ready to NOT be Iron Man anymore.

Tony Stark

But we all know that’s not how it plays out. He’s already back in action in Age of Ultron, as well as a number of other soon to be released Marvel Cinematic Universe films. So what is the intended meaning of the “losing the arc reactor” scene? It could simply be that Tony Stark is ready to walk away from the idea of his own injury being the thing that defines him. Perhaps he is trying to prove that Iron Man is more than the technology that powers him, or something. Personally, I think the scene has more meaning for the Iron Man movies than it does for Iron Man the character. It’s as if Marvel is trying to show us that they are willing to shake up the status quo, to discard extremely essential elements of their characters. To NOT be predictable.

It would be admirable, if that’s what Marvel was actually doing. But it’s just a ruse. Tony Stark still flies in the Iron Man suit with a glowing circle in the chest. Nothing has really changed.

And these hollow promises of change are all over the place in the MCU films. The death of Agent Coulson in The Avengers, the very event that galvanizes the bickering superheroes into finally Assembling into an effective unit, was unceremoniously nullified when he returned with little explanation in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Same goes for Loki’s death in Thor: The Dark World, though that particular twist was undone by the time the film ended. The HYDRA infiltration and subsequent dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier was thought to be the most dramatic universe-altering event for the MCU yet seen in the films. Effectively reversed by the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Oh, and Nick Fury also faked his death – and returned – in Winter Soldier.

It’s the Superhero Death in movie form. Marvel’s having its cake and eating it too, to use the well-worn expression. It’s the illusion that big risks are being taken, when they’re playing it as safe as can be. Disney is not a company that gambles with its cash cows, and Marvel is currently their biggest one (we’ll see what Star Wars has to say about that soon).

Infinity War

We still have plenty of films to go before the culmination of “Phase 3”, and who knows what Marvel has planned beyond that. Captain America: Civil War and the two part Avengers: Infinity War (so many colons…) are hinting at Dramatic Shakeups, possibly including the death of Captain America himself. Thor is also rumored to die in 2017 with Thor: Ragnarok (calm down spoilerphobes, this prediction is entirely based on the title of the film).

Whichever of these rumors end of coming true (if any), I wouldn’t start building any memorial shrines just yet. The only deaths these characters will ever see will be when their box office numbers start dropping.

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