Warning, in case it wasn’t clear from the headline: the following discusses a particular plot point from The Avengers in detail and contains spoilers.
More than anything else in The Avengers, there’s one scene that keeps nagging at me. Problem is, I’m not entirely convinced I should find it nagging.
(For the third and final time: major spoilers ahead.)
I’m talking about Agent Coulson.
A recap: The villainous Loki is attempting to escape from our heroes’ base of operations; chaos ensues; Coulson shows up with a ginormous gun of some sort; Loki stabs Coulson; as he dies, Coulson gets off one good shot. It’s not enough to incapacitate Loki for good, but Coulson goes down swinging; that final act of bravado motivates our heroes to regroup and work as a team.
Thing is, I’m not quite convinced Coulson needed to die. My knee-jerk reaction is an obvious one to those familiar with director/co-writer Joss Whedon’s previous works: jeez, he only died because Whedon has gotten so used to killing off beloved characters for dramatic purposes that it’s become a crutch. At this point in Whedon’s career, it’s little more than a gimmick, a lazy man’s way of infusing some surprise into the proceedings. It’s tired and tiresome.
Whedon’s excuse always boils down to it’s the best way to remind viewers of the high stakes involved in the adventure, and… he’s right. My complaint falls apart at this level, because we do, in fact, need to be reminded of the stakes. We’re told the fate of the world is at risk, but when the film is packed with invincible heroes and an immortal villain (both of whom off countless nameless extras along the way), the entire adventure threatens to come across as consequence-free. What better reminder, then, than to have the baddie kill the one character with which the audience identifies the most?
And I call him identifiable without counting his obvious fanboy parallels (he swoons over Captain America and brags about his mint condition trading card collection). He’s the most (or, perhaps, only) human character in the movie, a Regular Joe who just happens to be a government agent working alongside Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The other characters are over the top, but he’s right there on the surface. He’s us, and we need to be reminded that while Iron Man will make it all the way to the sequel, us ordinary folks won’t be so lucky. His death is a wake up call to the audience, an in-your-face “here’s what we’re fighting for” that gives weight to the comic book fantasy.
(Plus, it follows a very simple rule: take a character everyone likes and let him be a badass. It’s a terrific crowd-pleasing moment that also lets him be, if only for a minute, the bravest and best hero in the film.)
So that explains why his character was killed off. But even then, is it necessary? Does the movie actually need Agent Coulson to die? Is his death a vital link in the story’s chain?
I’m tempted to say, well, no. While his death provides the catalyst for our heroes to dust off and keep fighting, it can be argued he’d be even more of a motivator had he lived. “Look,” Nick Fury could say to the Avengers, “Coulson doesn’t have any superpowers, he did what was right and gave it his all in fighting Loki, and he survived. But you guys with all your powers can’t get your act together?” That extra bit of shame would add an extra bit of character depth, and let’s face it, The Avengers is sorely lacking in that category. (Quippy bickering does not character depth make.)
You could argue that shame is a questionable motivator for a movie about superheroes – they should be fighting for the greater good; that’s what makes them heroes – but you could also argue that the whole “let’s have them almost break up, only to get back together for the final battle” is a hackneyed story structure anyway. If we’re going to be stuck with a pile of flimsy interpersonal conflict through the second act (and of course we are, because Marvel Comics was built on the premise that some superheroes might not get along, and why bother fleshing out the relationships beyond that one-note set-up?), the least we could have is a little more complexity in the characters.
So there’s my real problem: The Avengers works (as much as it does, anyway) with Coulson dying, but it would also work with him living. I have both every right to complain, and no right at all. It’s a cheap shot, but it helps the story, but maybe not as much as it seems.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, this is the Marvel Universe, and nobody ever stays dead in the Marvel Universe. Fingers crossed, he’ll be back as Dark Coulson in Iron Man 3.