On "The Avengers" and the Joss Whedon Moment [Spoilers]

Note: this post contains major spoilers for the movie "The Avengers". If you have not seen the movie, do not read this post. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Turn away. Go see the movie. Seriously, even if you don't eventually want to read this post, see the movie anyway. Even if you haven't seen "Iron Man", "Iron Man 2", "Incredible Hulk", "Thor" or "Captain America", see the movie. It's that good. Then come back and read this post. If you HAVE seen the movie, then, by all means, read on.

This is your last warning. I'm fucking serious. I can't express enough how much I don't want to spoil this movie for you, but I also couldn't wait to post this. So don't blame me if you read it and then you're all like "Oh man, I can't believe you spoiled that for me."

Also, this has spoilers for the movie "Serenity" and the TV show "Angel". But those came out forever ago. The Alliance created Reavers. Wolfram & Hart sends L.A. to hell. Snape kills Dumbledore. Darth Vader is Luke's father. Deal with it.

Walking out of a midnight showing of "The Avengers" Friday morning, I overheard the following conversation.
Girl: "I hate Joss Whedon because he always kills my favorite characters."
Guy: "Well, he only killed one guy in this movie."
Girl: "Yeah, but it was my FAVORITE CHARACTER!"
The death in question is that of Agent Phil Coulson, a character first introduced in "Iron Man", who then reappeared in "Iron Man 2" and "Thor" and had his own short film on the "Captain America" Blu-ray. That short film tied directly into the post-credit scenes of "Incredible Hulk", making Coulson -- not Nick Fury -- the character that truly tied the "Avengers" universe together.

But why is Coulson's death so impactful? And, yes, it IS impactful; I've seen the movie three times already, and the audience reaction has been identical each time: gasp, horror, deadly silence. Well, it's a two-pronged approach. Part of it is the way the character was set up leading into "Avengers" and in the early parts of the movie. But it's also the way Whedon handled the death, and how he used his own history -- and specific callbacks to past projects -- to ramp up the emotional connection to the moment.

When he makes his very first appearance in "Iron Man", Agent Coulson seems destined to be forgettable. He's just some low-level government agent looking to debrief Tony Stark. He's a bit mysterious about his purpose, but had he not shown up again in the movie, the audience probably wouldn't have cared. However, he does show up again. In fact, he keeps showing up, repeatedly, at very key moments. Director Jon Favreau and the four-person writing team use that technique to give the audience the impression that he's more than meets the eye. Sure, he seems like he's just another suit doing a job that was assigned to him, but there's something just off-kilter enough that the audience finds itself asking, "what IS that guy's deal?"

In his final appearance in "Iron Man", we get the payoff to that question, with this exchange:
Pepper Potts: Agent Coulson, I just wanted to say thank you very much for all of your help.
Agent Coulson: That's what we do. You'll be hearing from us.
Pepper Potts: From the Strategic Homeland...
Agent Coulson: [interrupting] Just call us SHIELD.
Almost everything written about "The Avengers" points to Fury's post-credit scene in "Iron Man" as the introduction to this larger "Avengers" universe that would end up spanning six movies and counting, but that's not the case. It's Coulson who serves that role, and every true comic book fan I know geeked out when he said, "Just call us SHIELD." It helps how well he underplays his initial introduction when he says the full name of the agency. It happens so quickly and so outside the focus of the scene that only the sharpest viewers picked up on what Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division spelled out -- and I for damn sure wasn't one of them.

When we next see Coulson, it's in "Iron Man 2", and his arrival is a bit of a "squee" moment in what had, to that point, become something of a downer of a movie (note: I love "Iron Man 2", more so than most people, but with the focus on Stark's control issues, alienation of those around him and potential imminent demise, it gets pretty depressing in the second act).
"If you try to escape, or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch 'Supernanny' while you drool into the carpet."
It's that line when Coulson goes from being "just another SHIELD agent" to a character we connect with and actively root for. He's not JUST doing a job, he LIKES doing his job, and we like him more for it. And sure, Tony Stark is the Quipmaster General of the movie, but Coulson gives it right back to him every time. He knows when to be fun and knows when to be serious, and that continues right into "Thor" and, of course, "Avengers".

It's too easy to dismiss our love for Coulson by saying he's the character it's most easy for the audience to identify with. While that's true, that's not the only reason he became so iconic. It's more because he manages to fit into this world of larger than life characters without ever seeming like he feels diminished or giving off the impression that he aspires to be them. Coulson knows his role, and he's not only happy with it, he embraces it. Not everyone has to wear a suit of armor or wield an impenetrable shield or a God's hammer to be a hero.

So it's interesting that in his final moment, he betrays that. He steps up to become the hero that Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk -- for various reasons -- can't be. And that's where Joss Whedon comes in.

By this point in his career, Whedon has done key character deaths in just about every way imaginable. He's done the sudden out-of-nowhere death (Tara, Wash), the going-out-a-hero death (Doyle, Spike), the slow burn, tragic death (Fred), the near-afterthought, lost-in-the-moment death (Anya, Ballard) and… well, you get the point. Coulson's death encompasses a little bit of just about every major character death Whedon has ever done, but for me, three particular moments stood out.

First, the visual similarity between Coulson's death and the death of Wash in "Serenity" can't be ignored. They both get run through with a spear in a moment of utter shock. Wash's comes from in front, and Coulson's from behind, but the angle is just similar enough to bring back the sting for Whedon fans.

Of course, Coulson doesn't die right there. He gets his hero moment -- featuring one of the MANY great one-liners in "Avengers" -- and then Nick Fury comes along and finds him near death. The visual alignment of Fury and Coulson and the thematic alignment of the speech recalls Mal and Shepherd Book on Haven in "Serenity". Coulson isn't as forceful as Book, if only because that's not his style. But in his final moments, he takes the opportunity to set his team on the right path, just as Book did for Mal.

That leads into the scene where Fury tells the team, or what's left of it, not only of Coulson's death but of his life. That scene itself is reminiscent of Mal's speech to his team on Miranda in "Serenity", but it's what we learn later that calls back to a different Whedon property. During Fury's speech, he tosses Coulson's prized "Captain America" trading cards, now bloodied from his fatal encounter with Loki, onto the table in front of Cap and Iron Man. It's a heartbreaking moment, both for the audience and the characters, and one that turns out to be entirely manufactured. As it later turns out, the cards were actually in Coulson's locker when he died; Fury used the moment to up the ante. It's not at all unlike what Angel did following Fred's death, and subsequent transformation into Illyria, in Season 5 of "Angel." When his subterfuge -- manipulating the details of Illyria's arrival to make it look like Angel had sacrificed Fred -- is revealed, he explains his motivations to his team.
"I was aware of where the power was, but didn't know who. Then Fred died and I didn't want that to be another awful thing in an awful world so I decided to use it... to make her death matter. And it worked."
Fury is more succinct in his words to Maria Hill, but the sentiment is the same. Fury didn't want Coulson to be just another death, so he did something extra to make it matter. And it worked. Fury's play did exactly what it was supposed to do.

In the end, Agent Coulson mattered. Not just in death, but in life. He's a character we connected with, a character we grew to love, and even if Joss Whedon killed him off, like so many before him, his memory will live on. And who knows, maybe he'll show up again. Because in comics, the great characters never stay dead.