Why Coulson Is Terrible In Agents Of SHIELD

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Look, I don’t mean to keep going on about this show.  But like Season 6 of Buffy, you can sense that this entire season could be salvageable with just a few tweaks, it’s so close to being good that in a way, it’s actually more fascinating to theorize about how to fix it than it is to have a workable show.
But today’s problem’s an easy shot: Why was Agent Coulson so beloved in the Marvel movies, and so tedious in Agents of SHIELD?
It’s who he’s surrounded with.
You know who’s a lot like Coulson?  Mal, from Firefly.  He’s a wry straight man in the middle of a cast of wild guys like Jayne and Wash and Inara and my God I’m falling in love all over again just writing their names.  But Mal is the straight man to the rest of the Firefly cast – he’s the guy with the morals that sets the ship, yes, but a lot of Mal’s best lines are from Mal reacting to someone else.  Mal is beloved because Nathan Fillion is always cocking an eyebrow at his crazy crew, as if to say, Really?  And yes, you love him for it.
Agent Coulson is just as wry, and yet the problem is he’s a straight man in a room full of straight men.
If we had a bizarre cast of characters, then Agent Coulson would be magnificent at the job – a grounding force to unite the on-the-edge hacker, the PTSD-torn veteran, the loopy scientists, and so forth.  He’d seem wise and noble because like Mal, someone has to hold this crew of malcontents together, and when he clashed with them it would be the same representation Mal served in Firefly: Mal/Coulson inevitably took the side of “the hard reality on the ground” and the crew inevitably takes the side of “our morals and ideals matter,” and in the end – shamed – the leader picks the right path between “what must be done” and “what makes us great.”
Except Coulson doesn’t have those choices.  We don’t care about his crew, who haven’t gotten a real spotlight to make us feel sympathy for them.  His choices are in service not of keeping an independent tradition alive, like Mal, but in hewing to a cold and callous bureaucracy.  And the people he’s fighting with aren’t people but mouthpieces.
I see what they’re trying to do here.  Agent Coulson was great when he could play off larger-than-life personas like Tony Stark, Thor, Captain America, being the dash of reality in their crazy antics.  And now he’s the dash of reality to a slurry of reality, a wry wink at a joke that wasn’t funny, and as such he’s rapidly losing appeal.


  1. NC Narrator
    Nov 15, 2013

    I liked the Coulson character in the movies. I’m kind of hating him in the show. He just doesn’t seem to translate well, and as a leader he sort of sucks. There’s a weird kind of goofy incompetence about him that was sort of adorkable in the movie (because the super heroes made sure it didn’t really matter), but which makes him unbelievable as the leader of this little rag-tag group.

  2. Johann
    Nov 15, 2013

    Coulson is having a lot of trouble translating to TV. Not only is coming up irrelevant in Agents of Shield but also in Ultimate Spiderman where his character has wacky counter characters he seems extra. The straight man in that show is easily taken by both Nick Fury and Iron Fist adding Coulson is really just a nod to the movies.

  3. Leah
    Nov 16, 2013

    Now that they’re doing an actual Luke Cage series on Netflix, this is less relevant, but this is precisely why I was hoping Cage would show up in SHIELD. He’s the perfect foil for a practical and affable Coulson. The bad boy with the mid level superpowers who uses his abilities to stay afloat, contrasted with Coulson as the seemingly ordinary guy who embodies the idea that SHIELD and the Avengers aren’t just about four star heroes and flashy tech; they’re about trying to pull together some vestige of stability and family in a world that doesn’t seem to care much about anyone who isn’t functionally immortal.
    I’m hoping Coulson crosse over with the Netflix series. He needs people who need something, and I think he’d play very well with Luke and Iessica.

  4. Marc
    Nov 16, 2013

    Just out of curiosity.
    What was so terrible about Season 6 of Buffy? I enjoyed it, it is the season which actually got me in the show (for the record, I’m a huge Spike fan)

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