Saturday, June 16, 2012

Avengers: Comics and Fandom

I finally got out to see The Avengers movie, courtesy of a wonderful babysitter. I really enjoyed it, and I'm especially glad I got to see it on the big screen. I had fun, and it was everything I expected from a huge Joss Whedon superhero movie. What I'm about to note isn't a criticism, it's an observation, and it's VERY SPOILER-Y, so DON'T READ IT if you don't want the movie spoiled.

I want to talk about the character of Agent Coulson. In the movies that led up to the Avengers mega-movie, he'd become something of a favorite for me and many other fans. He appeared to be an every-man who knew a bit more than everyone else about what was going on. He was cool in a very MIB kind of way.

In the Avengers, he's established even more strongly as a fan-identification character. Pepper Potts knows his first name (Phil) and relationship status (strained, with a cellist in Portland). All the superhero characters respect him. And it turns out that he's a stone-cold Captain American fanboy, with a set of vintage trading cards, who goes all squee-ing on Cap during a plane flight.

So, having established Coulson as an avatar of fandom, Whedon kills him off halfway through the movie. Here's what happens: Coulson has a BFG aimed at Loki during Loki's escape, but starts to monologue. Loki stabs him. Coulson still gets to shoot the BFG, and hangs on long enough to have one last conversation with Nick Fury. Coulson tells Fury that the whole Avengers thing was never going to work, since they needed something... (to believe in, we're meant to fill in).

So, Fury uses Coulson's death as the thing that gets the Avengers to cohere as a team. Coulson (the fans) are the motivating force, the thing that they (the superheroes) want to do proud. I read this as Whedon pointing out the fact that superheroes and superhero comics are, fundamentally, by and for the fans.

But there's one extra bit--and Whedon hits it twice to (I think) make sure the point gets across. Fury tells Cap and Iron Man (the two egos most likely to clash) that Coulson died believing in them, in the concept of the Avengers. That's obviously a lie, since Coulson explicitly says that "it was never going to work." Fury also throws out Coulson's trading cards, now soaked in blood. Later, Agent Hill points out that the trading cards were in Coulson's locker, not in his pocket, and wouldn't have been blood soaked. Fury admits that he added a bit of dramatic flourish to motivate the team.

OK, so having set up this representative of fandom, Whedon kills him and uses him to motivate the superheroes. And Fury misrepresents him to motivate the superheroes even more. To me, this read like a very clear statement: We (the superhero comics industry) are doing this all for you (fandom), and we are also totally manipulating you to get the audience (and dollars) that we want. All this in a movie by fans, for fans, filled with fan service. That's not a surprise, and all art wants to work the most money possible out of its audience. I'd just never seen a piece of pop culture make the statement as explicitly as I saw here, and frankly I rather appreciated it.

So none of this detracted from my enjoyment of the movie, but it was a moment where my critic brain leapt up and said I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE! I'm surprised that more reviews haven't commented on the Agent Coulson character and how he evolved through the films--I assume that it is generally too spoiler-y to talk about so soon. Although maybe I'm reading too much into it? What do you think?


HodagWriter said...

I suppose... you could look at it that way. Or, Fury knows he has all the technology necessary to bring Coulson back to life as a Superhero, so Coulson's not really dead per se, he's just going to be different; if Coulson represents fans, thusly fans are being brought into the story as superhero(s), which is what being a fan is all about.

Karen Burnham said...

Is that in one of the comics (Ithought that Coulson was new for the movies, not imported from the comics universe), or is that the plan for Avengers 2...?

Either way, the heroes (Cap, Stark, Thor, etc.) think of him as a mortal who has permanently died, so he's still being used and manipulated in his role as an everyman fan.

Patrick H said...

It's been pointed out that we never saw 'a body'. Coulson was taken away. The audience (& heroes) saw 'the spot where he died (after)'. So it's possible (especially given that this is a comic book movie and in comic books, 'death' is rarely permanent (just ask Gwen Stacey)) that Coulson was taken to an infirmary, revived, and placed on life support of some sort, further deepening Fury's manipulation of the heroes (and ultimately, the fans).