|Marvel Cinematic Universe character|
Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
|First appearance||Iron Man (2008)|
|Last appearance||Captain Marvel (2019)|
|Portrayed by||Clark Gregg|
|Full name||Phillip J. Coulson|
Phillip J. Coulson (//) was a fictional character portrayed by Clark Gregg in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A high-ranking member of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., he appeared in the films Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012), and Captain Marvel (2019). He also headlined the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–present), appeared in two Marvel One-Shots (2011), has been featured in various tie-in comics, and appeared in the digital series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot (2016). The character also appears in other media, including comics published by Marvel Comics.
Marvel Cinematic Universe
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Agent Coulson was introduced in the film Iron Man, in which he attempts to debrief Tony Stark on his captivity in Afghanistan. He is one of several agents who accompany Pepper Potts in an attempt to arrest Obadiah Stane once his criminal activities are revealed. In Iron Man 2, Coulson is assigned to supervise Stark for a time before being reassigned to investigate a crisis in New Mexico. In both that film's post-credits scene and Thor, Coulson's assignment is revealed to revolve around the discovery of Thor's hammer in the New Mexico desert. Coulson is able to form an alliance between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor. In The Avengers, Coulson is fatally wounded by Loki, which S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury uses to motivate the Avengers.
Captain Marvel, set in the 1990s, shows Coulson as a rookie agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who works closely with Fury.
Coulson appears throughout the MCU tie-in comics in supporting roles, acting in the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent capacity that he does in the films.
The Marvel One-Shot The Consultant taking place after The Incredible Hulk, sees Coulson and Jasper Sitwell preventing Emil Blonsky from being added to the Avengers roster. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer shows Coulson getting into a scuffle on his way from Stark's lab in Iron Man 2 to Thor's hammer in Thor.
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson is revealed to be the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in charge of Project T.A.H.I.T.I., which was meant to bring a potential dead Avenger back to life using a drug derived from an ancient Kree corpse. However, test patients developed psychosis and hypergraphia, so Coulson had the project shut down. Following Coulson's death, Fury resurrected him using T.A.H.I.T.I., despite the risks, and had Coulson's memories of the project replaced so that he could move on with a healthy life. Coulson puts together a team of agents, and they travel the world dealing with strange new cases. During this time, Hydra is revealed to have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to the latter's demise. Fury makes Coulson the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and tasks him with rebuilding the agency "the right way".
Coulson's involvement with alien materials leads to a faction of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents led by Robert Gonzalez who distrust secrets and the superhuman attempting to take over the fledgling organization, but Coulson convinces them to let him stay on as Director after helping save hundreds of civilians. Together, they defeat a faction of Inhumans, with Coulson losing a hand in the process.
Coulson later becomes romantically involved with Rosalind Price, the leader of an anti-Inhuman government taskforce called the Advanced Threat Containment Unit, until her death at the hands of Grant Ward, a Hydra agent who formerly worked with Coulson. He gets revenge by crushing Ward's chest with his prosthetic hand. Following the signing of the Sokovia Accords, S.H.I.E.L.D. is re-legitimized, with the still officially dead Coulson replaced as director by Jeffrey Mace. Coulson allows himself to briefly become a Ghost Rider to defeat the artificial intelligence Aida.
He and his teammates are later abducted and sent to the future to prevent the extinction of humanity. After their return, it is revealed that being Ghost Rider burned through the Kree DNA that healed Coulson's fatal injury, leaving him to die slowly. After the team's many failed attempts to save him, Coulson ultimately chooses to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. and live the remainder of his life in Tahiti with Melinda May with whom he developed a romantic relationship.
Coulson returns as an A.I. hologram in the sixth season, which Mack uses for emotional support running S.H.I.E.L.D., and also appears in several flashbacks. A new character called Sarge is also introduced, who bears a striking resemblance to Coulson, and also shares his DNA.
Concept and creation
—Gregg on the character's expansion in Thor
Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway for Iron Man, the first film in the MCU. Coulson was the first S.H.I.E.L.D. agent introduced in the MCU, and was portrayed by Clark Gregg, who was offered a three-picture deal. Gregg initially balked at this due to the character only being known as "Agent" and having few lines, but recognized Marvel's plan for an interconnected universe. Gregg went on to play the character in Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers.
Throughout the films, Coulson is generally depicted as a supporting character of the protagonists and used to represent S.H.I.E.L.D.'s presence, to the point that Gregg has described Coulson as "the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent". However, for the Marvel One-Shot short films The Consultant and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer, Coulson is given "a chance to stand in his own spotlight for once". This was a "natural" move for co-producer Brad Winderbaum, who wanted to "paint a picture of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulling the strings and being responsible for some of the events we've seen in the films. What better character to represent this idea than Agent Coulson, the first S.H.I.E.L.D. agent we were introduced to?"
At the 2012 New York Comic Con, Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige announced that Gregg would be starring as Coulson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., despite the character dying in The Avengers, with Whedon saying "He's headlining the S.H.I.E.L.D. show and always was." Gregg said of Whedon's explanation for Coulson's resurrection, "I found it so fascinating and so true to the world of the comics and mythology in general as I understand them that I was immediately in." Regarding the amount of creative input he has over the character in the series, Gregg said, "I have meetings with [the showrunners] once or twice a year and talk about what the big ideas are ... They're really responsive to the fact that I've been involved with this person four, five years longer than them, but ... I have no complaints with what they're doing."
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. costume designer Ann Foley described Coulson as a "company man", wearing suits in "the S.H.I.E.L.D. palette—grey, black and navy with a distinct but subtle pattern." Foley did note "subtle changes" in Coulson's costuming in the series from the films, such as streamlined suits and "more slick" ties, "now that [he] is back after being 'killed' by Loki". After Coulson's hand is cut off in the second-season finale, which was realized by having a mechanical axe cut through a "faux arm made of tripe wrapped around a chicken thigh", Gregg described it as "heavy ... one of those things where you’re having the practical difficulty your character does. People were handing me stuff, like files, and I couldn’t really open them without using my nose." This practicality issue continued with the prosthetic hand Coulson subsequently has to use, with Gregg saying "the reality informs the thing. It’s really hard to figure out how to use this prosthetic, and that’s what Phil Coulson’s going through ... I’m hoping it evolves at some point." Gregg also noted that in the third season Coulson would be wearing more casual clothes, partly because "he can’t even seem to tie a tie" with his new hand. The prosthetic hand evolves throughout the season, with a later iteration projecting an energy shield, inspired by a similar one used in the comics by Captain America. The energy shield was created by Cosa, one of the series' visual effects vendors.
There had been considerations for Coulson to return in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, but the character was not slated to appear in any more films. Whedon asserts, "As far as the fiction of the movies, Coulson is dead", elaborating that "generally I feel like the S.H.I.E.L.D. audience and The Avengers audiences are not actually the same group, necessarily," and so the films would have to explain Coulson's resurrection again for the film-only audience if he were to be reintroduced. Gregg reprises the role once again in Captain Marvel (2019), as the film is set in the 1990s. Gregg is digitally de-aged by 25 years, along with co-star Samuel L. Jackson, the first time Marvel has done this for an entire film.
Gregg has stated, "I think of Agent Coulson, after all these years, as a guy with a full life. I think every day he's somewhere doing something for S.H.I.E.L.D., and yet I don't always know what that is... There's always a different twist. In this one he gets to show more of his wisecracking wit, and in this one he's a little bit more of a badass." Despite Coulson being called "the most recognizable face in the Marvel Comics movie universe", he is depicted as an "everyman" in a universe full of superheroes—"the glue that binds" the characters together. Gregg explained his portrayal of the character as "just a guy grumbling about his job ... he's tasked with handling these kind of diva superheroes, you know? 'Oh, really, Asgard? Dude, just get in the car.'"
–Gregg, on how starring in the television series can affect Coulson differently to appearing in the films.
On whether the resurrected Coulson would be the same as before he died, Gregg said "I don’t know how you could not change going through what he went through. I think if he hadn’t gone through some kind of change, it wouldn’t be any good. That said, I don’t know if he understands how much he’s changed." Later exploring some of those changes, Gregg stated "In some ways, he kinda finds himself not nearly as cold or ruthless as he would like to be, or as he has been. And at the same time, putting together this team, he feels driven by motives inside of himself that he can't quite always make sense of and that feels very new to him."
After Coulson was promoted to Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gregg said "He kind of got his dream job that I don’t even think he would have ever dreamed he would be given ... he’s got a little bit more of an idealistic, big hearted side of him [than Nick Fury does], some of which is going to be extinguished by the hard decisions he has to make." Speaking about the evolving nature of Coulson's relationship with his team, Gregg said "There’s a way he can afford an intimacy with all of them when they’re part of a small, elite squad on the Bus. It’s different than what’s possible for him as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D." Discussing Coulson's character progression through three seasons in relation to him killing Ward on the alien planet, executive producer Jeffrey Bell said, "First season Coulson would have beat Ward up and then thrown him over his shoulder and brought him back to Earth and locked him away. Season two Coulson would have defeated him and left him there on the other planet to fend for himself," while season three Coulson paused while the portal to Earth was already closing to take the time to kill Ward.
For the fourth season, Coulson is demoted back to field agent status. Gregg said that the reasoning for this "makes sense given that S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming out of the shadows. There are people that will want their person in charge." He felt that Coulson would actually prefer this, saying, "I always felt like Coulson was happiest in the field. Neither I nor Coulson loved playing and listening while his agents went into dangerous situations. And there are more dramatic possibilities when you have a boss that you have to deal with."
In his review for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season, Evan Valentine at Collider named Clark Gregg as one of the high points of the series, noting that the actor was "one positive I consistently point out in each and every episode". Valentine stated that "What made us fall in love with the character from the first Iron Man to his death in The Avengers is still alive and kicking. Coulson was able to throw out quips like none other, while also turning on a dime, and expressing serious rage in moments ... Gregg raises the S.H.I.E.L.D. banner high". Reviewing the episode "The Writing on the Wall", which concluded the majority of Coulson's storyline in the series up to that point, Kevin Fitzpatrick of Screen Crush praised how Coulson had become "unglued" throughout the series, which had "pushed the newly-minted director into some dark places". Eric Goldman, reviewing for IGN, was also positive of the "unhinged version of Coulson", as well as the more serious leadership role the character took on for the second season, with Goldman finding Coulson's decision in "Making Friends and Influencing People" that Donnie Gill "either went with them or had to be taken out" to be especially notable.
- Coulson makes a by-name cameo appearance in the Iron Man: Armored Adventures episode "Extremis" as one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents encountering (and getting knocked down by) the just-mutated renegade agent Mallen.
- It was announced at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con International that Gregg would return to voice Phil Coulson in the cartoon series Ultimate Spider-Man, where he appears as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Peter Parker's school principal. He appears in season 1 and 2.
- He has a brief cameo in the anime Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers where he is shown in episode 1 of the series showing the S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities include a supervillain prison.
- Phil Coulson first appeared in the mainstream Marvel Universe in Christopher Yost, Matt Fraction and Cullen Bunn's Battle Scars #6 (April 2012), in which the character codenamed "Cheese" is revealed to be Coulson.  Coulson has gone on to appear in other comics set in the mainstream MU, including in the 2013 Secret Avengers series by Nick Spencer and Luke Ross, and in Thor: God of Thunder in 2014.
- In July 2014 at San Diego Comic-Con International, Marvel Comics announced an ongoing series titled S.H.I.E.L.D., to be set in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and written by Mark Waid, beginning December 2014. The series is led by Coulson, and sees the canonical introduction of characters that originated from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, to which Waid said, "This is our chance to introduce a lot of the other characters into the Marvel Universe, and give them the Marvel Universe spin." Waid described the series as "done-in-one. Coulson and his team have a mission, and if we need someone for a mission, everyone in the Marvel Universe is available as a potential Agent." In this series, Coulson is the Supreme Commander of Special Operations for S.H.I.E.L.D. under Director Maria Hill.
- He has appeared in Deadpool, assisting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Preston and paying Deadpool for his earlier services to S.H.I.E.L.D. During the "Secret Empire" event, Coulson learns that Steve Rogers was involved in attracting the Chitauri to invade Earth, and is subsequently shot from the sky and seemingly killed by Deadpool, who was under the order of Rogers.
- Phil Coulson later turned up alive where he meets with Thunderbolt Ross to talk about the Avengers going global. Coulson states to Ross that he has put together the Squadron Supreme of America to be the sanctioned superheroes of the United States. The Squadron Supreme of America are revealed to be simulacrums created by Mephisto and programmed by the Power Elite so that Phil Coulson can have them be a United States-sponsored superhero team. During the "War of the Realms" storyline, Phil Coulson summons the Squadron Supreme of America to fight the invading Frost Giants. After the Squadron Supreme of America caused the Frost Giants to retreat, Phil Coulson sends them to Ohio which has become a battleground.
- The comic book continuation of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes animated television series is told from the perspective of Coulson, despite not appearing as a character in the original show.
- In 2014, the Ultimate version of Phil Coulson debuted in the Ultimate FF series.
- In November 2015, a 17th-century version of Coulson appeared in the series 1602: Witch Hunter Angela.
- Phil Coulson appears as a playable character in Marvel Super Hero Squad Online, voiced by Tom Kenny.
- Phil Coulson appears as a non-player character in Marvel Heroes with Clark Gregg reprising his role.
- Phil Coulson appears as a non-player character in Marvel: Avengers Alliance, Alliance 2, and Alliance Tactics.
- Phil Coulson appears in Lego Marvel Super Heroes, with Clark Gregg reprising his role. His character becomes playable after the completion of a side mission involving him overseeing Doctor Octopus' community service of fixing the offices of the Daily Bugle. His attack is the "Destroyer Gun" he used against Loki in The Avengers. He is the most frequent voice on the radio, congratulating the player and makes references to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Phil Coulson is playable in Marvel: Future Fight.
- Phil Coulson appears in Lego Marvel's Avengers, voiced again by Clark Gregg. He gives congratulatory speeches to players over their comms when they complete missions, making references to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (wanting a fish tank and losing a hand) while doing so.
- Phil Coulson appears as a playable character in Marvel Avengers Academy, voiced by Billy Kametz.
- Phil Coulson is a playable character in the match-three mobile game Marvel Puzzle Quest. He was added to the game in February 2017.
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