Published on October 17th, 2012 | by PJ Montgomery3
Coulson Lives! He’s Not The Only One…
This week has brought us the excellent news that the upcoming SHIELD TV series, set in the Marvel cinematic universe and being produced by one Joss Whedon, will feature Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson in a lead role. This, despite the fact that Coulson was apparently killed by Loki in Avengers. There are any number of ways Coulson could return from the grave. Maybe he never actually died? Maybe the Coulson Loki stabbed was actually an LMD (Life Model Decoy, a synthetic copy of a person often used by Nick Fury in the comics)? Is Coulson actually dead, but is going to be brought back through some weird mystical or technological means? At the moment, we can only speculate, but it’s hardly the first time a character in fiction has been brought back from the dead. Characters in pop culture have a tendency to treat death as a temporary malady, like the flu, returning to life on an almost endless basis. Sometimes these resurrections are handled well, sometimes they’re just a mess. Should we be worried about Coulson’s return? Will it be mishandled?
History would suggest not. Whedon is no stranger to the resurrection gambit, having brought a number of characters back from the dead. Season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer saw Angel, Buffy’s sometimes-evil boyfriend, killed by the Slayer in order to save the world, only to be returned to life (well, undeath) early in season three. Angel was, depending on who you believe, either returned to Earth by the Powers That Be, who needed a champion to fight for the side of good, or by the side of evil, hoping he would turn again and help them bring about the Apocalypse. The actual details of Angel’s resurrection were left deliberately vague, and never really looked at in any great detail. And Angel wasn’t the only character in the Buffyverse to die and come back. Famously, the Slayer herself was killed at the climax of season five, only to be brought back to life via a powerful magic spell at the beginning of season six. In both cases, the resurrection itself happened because of magical or mystical elements, prevalent in a world of vampires, demons and witches. At first glance, this would seem to lack imagination. When you can just turn around and basically say “yeah, it was magic”, that would at first smack of lazy writing. However, Whedon is much cleverer than that. He realised that, in his universe, bringing his characters back from the dead could be explained away with relative simplicity, so he chose not to concentrate on how they came back. Rather, in Whedon’s case, what was important was the effect it had on Angel and Buffy. Angel spent a century languishing in Hell, and was returned not knowing why. When you have two centuries of untold evil to atone for, a spell in a Hell dimension might seem like your just reward, so the angst-ridden Angel spent a good long while trying to figure out his place in world and work out why he was back. This storyline gave Angel his primary motivation during season three of Buffy, and was key to the beginning of his own TV series. As for Buffy, she had spent the time since her death in Heaven, a place she was ripped from by her friends, and she spent the whole of the next year trying to come to terms with being back on Earth, a place which now looked like Hell to her. The ramifications of this set the tone for season six of Buffy, a season which has its detractors, but which could never be accused of not trying to torture the main characters.
Buffy and Angel aren’t the only characters Whedon has brought back to life. The Avengers director wrote an acclaimed run on Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men title, in which fan favourite character, Colossus, was returned from the dead. Colossus’s death in Uncanny X-Men was one of the more effective deaths to be seen in comics, with Peter Rasputin giving his own life to cure the Legacy Virus, a disease which was killing mutants and humans, and had claimed the life of his younger sister, Illyana. The issue featuring Peter’s death was done well, being a moving tribute to the character which was perfectly in keeping with his history. It also had lasting ramifications on the X-Men universe in general. It was one of those deaths you really hoped wouldn’t be reversed, because of how well it was done, so if anyone was going to attempt it, they would have to handle it very well indeed. Whedon had Colossus brought back to life by alien technology, with Ord of the Breakworld bringing Colossus back and using the Legacy Virus cure in his blood to create a cure for mutants, which would remove mutants powers from them. With Colossus, Whedon made sure his resurrection was key to the story (the mutant cure was a major factor in the first arc of his run, and was later used as part of the basis for the much maligned movie, X-Men: The Last Stand), but that wasn’t the end of it. Once again, Joss had a good look at the effects of Colossus’s resurrection on the characters, with Colossus himself wondering if he could just fit back into his previous life, and the ramifications it had on the other X-Men, in particular his ex-girlfriend, Kitty Pryde. Whedon would later have Cyclops killed and resurrected using the same method within the space of two issues.
So evidence would suggest we needn’t worry about Coulson. Whedon knows what he’s doing when it comes to bringing characters back from the dead. However, that’s not to say every resurrection is handled well, and I’m not just talking JR walking out of the shower in Dallas, revealing that an entire series of the show was all just a dream, creating continuity issues like you wouldn’t believe.
Sticking with Marvel comics, one of their most famous resurrections of all is also one of their clunkiest and most convoluted. In issue #263 of their own title, the Avengers found a mysterious energy cocoon at the bottom of New York’s East River. Over the course of the issue, their attempts to find out what lies within are unsuccessful, and the issue ends with them being called away to face another emergency, none the wiser as to its contents. Of course, this is comics, so while the Avengers may have left, the last page revealed that the cocoon contained a person: the X-Man, Jean Grey. Now, a brief recap, if such a subject can be considered brief. Jean had been part of an X-Men team who had travelled into space on one adventure, only to make a crash landing back to Earth aboard a space shuttle. While the rest of the X-Men were sequestered in a radiation proof capsule aboard the shuttle, Jean was sat in the cockpit piloting the shuttle down. Between the radiation and the crash itself, once the shuttle crashed in the East River, Jean was briefly thought to have died. Until what appeared to Jean burst from the river, announcing herself to be the Phoenix. It was thought that Jean had merged with the cosmic entity, and later on, when Phoenix lost control and became the Dark Phoenix, she wiped out an inhabited planet. This led to the Shi’Ar empire seeking to put Jean to death, bringing them into conflict with the X-Men. During a battle between the X-Men and the Shi’Ar Imperial Guard on the moon, Jean apparently took control of the Phoenix again, and sacrificed her own life to prevent the loss of any more life. The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of, if not the, greatest X-Men stories of all time, and Jean’s death at the climax has, for a long time, been held up as one of the best, if such a word applies, character deaths there has ever been. So there was much confusion when Jean showed up in a cocoon in the pages of The Avengers. It turned out, the Jean who sacrificed herself on the moon wasn’t Jean at all, and Phoenix hadn’t possessed Jean. Instead, the Phoenix had placed Jean inside a healing cocoon, and used her physical form, and her memories, as a template, effectively becoming Jean in the process, but not the real Jean. There have since been a number of retcons which have established that Jean was the Phoenix, and which have further complicated the history of the Phoenix and the resurrection of Jean Grey. While there have been many good stories told about both Jean and the Phoenix since her return (even if she’s dead again now), the actual resurrection just feels like a stretch, and a bit of a botch job.
Comics are renowned for killing off and resurrecting characters, whether it be Superman being beaten to death by Doomsday and brought back by Kryptonian technology, Batman dying, showing up at random with no explanation, then dying again but not actually dying, he was just sent back in time, the Human Torch being killed by an army in the Negative Zone, but not really, Captain America being shot by a sniper, but no, he was just in a weird time-travel coma, and on, and on. It’s so easy to mishandle a resurrection, that even the best writers have done it. But there’s one resurrection Marvel brought us in recent years that was so unexpected, and which was also handled brilliantly.
When Captain America was brought back in the pages of 1964′s Avengers issue #4, it was established that the same accident which had frozen him in time had also killed his sidekick, Bucky. For decades, an unwritten rule at Marvel was that Bucky was one of the only of characters who was actually dead, and would never, ever be resurrected. So when writer Ed Brubaker brought him back in 2005 in the pages of Captain America, it was a bit of a shock. But it was also done brilliantly. The explosion which had been thought to have killed him had severely wounded Bucky, causing him to lose his an arm and suffer brain damage. He was recovered by the Russians, who gave him a prosthetic limb and took advantage of his brain damage, brain washing him into becoming one of their premier assassins, the Winter Soldier. In between missions, the Winter Soldier was put into suspended animation, so that he would be useful to the Russians for years to come, and over the decades, he became something of a legend. Almost inevitably, the Winter Soldier eventually came into conflict with Captain America, who had only aged a few years thanks to his repeated rounds of suspension. Cap fought Bucky a few times, before he was finally able to use the Cosmic Cube to heal Bucky’s brain damage, undo his reprogramming, and return his real memories and personality to him. Soon after, when Cap was killed, Bucky took over the mantle of Captain America, until retiring to make way for Steve Rogers once more (although he had to fake his own death to do so), and returning to the roll of the Winter Soldier, thought this time as an agent working for Nick Fury. This storyline, written by Ed Brubaker, was so well handled and received that it looks to be forming the basis of the upcoming Captain America sequel, aptly titled The Winter Soldier, and despite the controversy you would expect surrounding Marvel’s brave decision to bring Bucky, a character who was practically defined by being dead, back to life, there was in reality almost none.
So, yes, Coulson is coming back. Should we worry about how it’s going to be done? Probably not. Marvel and Whedon know what they’re doing, and it means that a much-loved character is being given back to us. Even if the resurrection itself isn’t handled brilliantly, it still means we’ll get new stories with Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, and that is cause enough to celebrate. After all, pretty much any character whose return was poorly handled in the comics has since had some excellent stories told about them. I, for one, will be ver much looking forward to the new SHIELD TV series.