Captain Marvel features several returning characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from the iconic Nick Fury to the somewhat-less-iconic villains like Korrath and Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy. Then there’s young Phil Coulson, the SHIELD agent played by Clark Gregg who showed up throughout the Phase One movies and found his arc abruptly ended when Loki killed him in The Avengers.
Except there’s much more to his life than that. Coulson cheated death in 2012, in what would soon become a common trend with his new lease on life, and only those who kept up with his spinoff series Agents of SHIELD truly understand precisely how much shit Phil’s gone through since that fateful day.
Before you see the early days of Agent Coulson, school yourself in the life and times of one of the MCU’s least likely heroes.
The second life of Philip Coulson
In the first season of SHIELD, whenever anyone asked Coulson about being killed by Loki, all he would say that his recovery involved “going to Tahiti” and “it’s a magical place!” Except that magical place wasn’t quite so real. Coulson was brought back thanks to a SHIELD project named T.A.H.I.T.I. originally meant to revive any dead Avenger, which he later shut down upon learning its subjects would lose their minds. But Fury considered his oldest friend Avenger-worthy and used the substance created during T.A.H.I.T.I.’s tenure to bring Coulson back, altering his memories so that he would believe he healed up at Tahiti (“it’s a magical place!” was his programmed response).
And the substance used to bring Coulson back? The bodily fluids of a decayed Kree corpse that SHIELD’s kept around since 1945. (We’ll see how that lines up with Captain Marvel’s mythology soon enough.)
Resurrection courtesy of a dead, decades-old alien only ended up being the tip of the iceberg. When Captain America: The Winter Soldier revealed that HYDRA had sleeper agents within SHIELD, Coulson and his team learned that longtime ally Grant Ward was one of the sleepers. Ward and his trainer/fellow HYDRA agent John Garrett were eventually defeated by Coulson’s team. (Well, Ward was — Coulson accidentally blew Garrett up with a giant weapon). Coulson then became personally promoted by Fury to Director with a new mission: rebuild SHIELD.
Naturally, rebuilding a spy agency from the ground up with only a handful of people you can really trust isn’t easy. In addition to fighting the fractured remains of HYDRA, Coulson spent the next few months reuniting remaining members and curbing a bizarre compulsion to write in alien symbols. Only after confiding in his team did he discover that the symbols were coordinates to an underground Kree city. And with that, Agents of SHIELD revealed the arrow it had been holding in its quiver for a season and a half: Skye (Chloe Bennet), Coulson’s hacker and surrogate daughter, was actually an Inhuman and more specifically, the comic book hero Daisy Johnson, aka Quake.
Coulson and the Inhumans
In SHIELD, we learn Inhumans were originally homosapiens experimented on by the Kree using this substance Terrigen. Hoping to gain an edge in their long war against the Skrulls, the genetic tinkering only drove various Inhuman societies into hiding, either on Earth or, in the case of the Royal Family from that Inhumans TV show no one watched, the moon.
The whole Inhumans storyline of SHIELD is long and weird, and the reveal of Daisy is a launching pad for the MCU that the films really haven’t paid off. How weird are we talking? For starters, the new Inhumans in the MCU came about thanks to a stockpile of Terrigen crystals mixing with the ocean wildlife and said fish being converted to fish oil pills. Really.
During these revelations, Coulson gets his hand chopped off, which is cool now, because he’s had, like, five new robot hands between seasons 2 and 4, including one that has an energy shield.
During the third season, Coulson and his team tried to protect new Inhumans that sprang out of HYDRA. Said efforts involved Coulson traveling to an alien planet called Maveth with Ward (played by Brett Dalton, who’s cheated death a lot on the show) and, eventually, straight up crushing the guy’s chest with his robot hand. Ward’s corpse was then hijacked by an Inhuman god parasite named Hive, but Coulson’s team stopped him and his plans to enslave Earth. If you ignore the part where Daisy went on the run and became a fugitive, and Coulson lost his job as Director, everything worked out fine at the end of that season.
Oh, and Ghost Rider showed up
Robbie Reyes, the Ghost Rider, popped up in Coulson’s life in season 4. Granted the power of the Spirit of Vengeance after a drive by left him near dead and his brother injured, Robbie went on a crime-fighting spree around Los Angeles and naturally drew the attention of SHIELD and Daisy. Coulson later had to enlist the help of them both to find an ancient evil book called the Darkhold that was snatched by Robbie’s uncle, Eli. To save Los Angeles and the world, Robbie sacrificed himself to stop his uncle.
As things were winding down, Coulson finally decided it was time to acknowledge the spark between him and May (Ming-Na Wen) ... just as we learned May had been replaced by a Life Model Decoy controlled by a sentient android named Aida. After reading the Darkhold to save Coulson and Robbie earlier in the season, Aida became fully aware and evil, leading to the creation of more LMDs. Aida made more LMDs of the Agents to make SHIELD look bad, which Coulson’s team plugged them into an alternate reality device called the Framework.
So Coulson sort of became HYDRA
Inside Framework, the core team were just a group of normal people (or in May’s case, even more of a stone cold badass), meaning Coulson spent awhile where he wasn’t an Agent, but an underpaid teacher informing the youths of the glory of HYDRA and outing anyone thought to be Inhuman. Not great.
But because Coulson already had his brain wiped in the real world, the simulation didn’t fully take, and he could tell that something was wrong with him, he just didn’t know what until Daisy found him and fully jogged his memory.
The other Agents eventually recovered their memories, but found the only way to get back was to ironically become Agents of SHIELD in the Framework and lead an uprising against HYDRA. Once they woke up, though, they discovered that Aida had made a human body for herself while they were plugged in. To make matters worse, it came stockpiled with Inhuman powers she downloaded while being Madame Hydra in the Framework. What could kill an android turned pissed off superhuman? A SHIELD agent turned Ghost Rider.
To defeat Aida, Robbie Reyes came zipping back out of Hell to imbue Coulson with the Spirit of Vengeance.
Our hero became Ghost Rider long enough to get the flaming skull-head treatment (fire chain included!) and kill the A.I.. And then the Spirit went back to Robbie so they could deliver the Darkhold back to Hell, the deal between Agent and Spirit complete. But there were terms.
Phil of the Future
The deal struck between Coulson and the Rider didn’t get revealed until midway through SHIELD’s fifth season, and it’s a doozy: Coulson and the Rider’s fusion meant the Rider would burn through the Kree blood that’s been keeping the agent going for years. Not helping the matters is that, for the first chunk of season 5, the team is in the future, where Coulson’s been infected by a substance called Odium. The man is dying for real this time.
While the Agent was willing to let nature run its course, his team was not. Unfortunately, as it turns out, curing Coulson is what brought about the apocalyptic future the team’s found itself in; a fight between Daisy and General Talbot, who becomes the supervillain Graviton, tears the planet in half. As a result of the Earth’s disarray, the Kree show up to restore order, but basically enslave what remains of humanity on a space station and trade off Inhumans across the galaxy. The future awaits Earth in every loop in which the agents try to save the world, and no one knows how to break it.
With the day of Earth’s literal split getting closer, and Coulson’s condition getting worse, the team manages to create a serum that will either stop Graviton or save Coulson, but not both. In a final fight with Graviton, Coulson manages to break the loop by giving Daisy the serum to boost her own power and blast Graviton into space. The world saved yet again, Coulson opts to take May and spend the last of his days in, where else: Tahiti.
Dead, but alive
Originally, Agents of SHIELD was meant to end at season five, with the episode appropriately titled “The End.” But the show was then renewed for two extra seasons just days before said finale aired. What would become of Coulson? Superheroes are notorious for being able to escape death — Coulson recently did in the comics — and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the show found a way to delay his passing yet again. But Marvel insists: he’s definitely dead.
The team will still be mourning as the season starts; May returns to work and SHIELD is now headed up by one of Coulson’s team, Alphonso Mackenzie. Clark Gregg isn’t out of a job, though, he’s just back in a capacity no one likely expected.
As anyone who watched the first trailer for the season saw, someone who looks a lot like Coulson is hanging around on Earth and will cross paths with the Agents. Gregg confirmed earlier in February that this man is a brand new character, the question now is just who. An LMD? A guy from an alternate timeline? A Skrull? (It could happen!)
That answer will have to wait for when Agents of SHIELD returns to ABC in May. It may seem like Captain Marvel doesn’t have anything left to tell us that the show already covered when it comes to Coulson, but having him around during an alien invasion in the ‘90s just shows that he truly was born for this line of work.
Justin is a Kansas City, Missouri, freelance writer and is on Twitter often, @GigawattConduit. He also is an avid lover of M&M McFlurries from McDonald’s, and accepts that he has an addiction to them.