Marvel vs. 007: Why Coulson is more of a hero than Bond
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There's a sharply-dressed secret agent who's more heroic than Bond, James Bond. His name...is Phil.
[This article tries to avoid any major spoilers, and so provides more of a general overview. Most specific plot points are implied, so while the article is not guaranteed to be 100% spoiler-free, it covers things which are generally considered common knowledge, and so most of the main plot points should be left intact.]
In the UK, both Skyfall and The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble) are being shown on television tonight on different channels at overlapping times, so fans will only be able to watch one. (That would seem to provoke a reaction like, 'I'm not going to choose between my favourite actor to play James Bond and my favourite writer! That's insane troll logic!')
Bond and Marvel are two of the biggest franchises in the world at the moment, with each set to release their next instalment this year (Spectre and Avengers: Age of Ultron). This being the internet, the default response would be to pit the two against each other, as if one could only be a fan of one franchise, not both. The prepondance of alternative viewing options, like DVDs, TV repeats, etc. ultimately render such a discussion moot, in the colloquial sense of the word, meaning redundant. However, it's possible to engage in meaningful comparative character analysis, which would render weighing up the potential superiority of one franchise over another moot, in the technically accurate sense of the word, meaning debatable. (Not to be confused with Groot, the monosyllabic, repeatedly self-aware walking tree played by Vin Diesel in Guardians of the Galaxy.)
So, let's compare the protagonists of the Bond films and Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, being James Bond (played by various actors, and currently by Daniel Craig) and (Agent) Phil Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) respectively. They're both witty, sharp-suited, rarely flappable secret agents, who go around the world, foiling evil schemes and saving the world and stuff, with a stern boss and a super-genius (or two, if they're FitzSimmons) making ridiculously convenient gadgets for them in ridiculously short amounts of time.
However, while James Bond is arguably somewhat narcissistic, with his generally casual attitude to womanising and, well, killing bad guys (something that's deconstructed by the Daniel Craig-era Bond films), Phil Coulson cares deeply about others. Admittedly, Bond is capable of love, friendship, and loyalty, these are less common for him, and when the villains strike at what he cares about, his reaction tends to be less healthy, either striking back in vengeance, or shutting down his emotions almost completely. Coulson, by contrast, believes that "Nobody's nobody", and generally thrives on being around people he either respects and looks up to, or delegates to and (at least much of the time, though there are wrinkles) trusts implicitly.
Though James Bond sometimes relies on the likes of M, Q, and Felix Leiter, among others, he's largely independent. Coulson is much more of a team player. He works alongside superheroes (the Avengers), and later assembles his own team of highly skilled individuals in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, comprising, in the first season, pilot and resident ninja Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), specialist Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), super-awesome science geeks FitzSimmons (Iain DeCaestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), and computer genius Skye (Chloe Bennett). It's a Whedonesque found family, one of the key elements that makes executive producer Joss Whedon's work so appealling, though of course complications later arise, in order to create greater conflict, furthering the dramatic storytelling.
Coulson and May have history working together, and she has his back. Though there are hints of possible past romantic complications, for the most part they interact as individuals who deeply respect and care for each other as people. In a way, they call to mind Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his second-in-command Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) from Firefly. Such mature levels of interaction between men and women are rare in the James Bond universe, with a few notable exceptions such as Bond and the female M (Judi Dench), plus Bond and a few scattered examples of Bond girls.
Once, when Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon (who's acclaimed for his portrayal of strong female characters, nuanced characterisation, and complex character dynamics) was asked which British franchise he'd like to direct, he answered, "I'm not proud of wanting to make a James Bond movie..."
Whedon was onstage with Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, and Alexis Densiof (who's American) subtly tried to suggest himself for the lead role, saying, "Just wanted to say that, if an Englishman can play Superman, dot dot dot..." Joss Whedon then quipped, "A woman can play James Bond!", seemingly motioning to Amy Acker.
Of course, Whedon was joking, but if James Bond were ever to be recast as a woman (which should never happen), then it would need an actress as versatile as Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD). Or an actress as convincing at action as Gina Torres (Firefly), Ming-Na Wen (Marvel's Agents of SHIELD), or Adrianne Palicki (Marvel's Agents of SHIELD). Basically, someone from the Whedonverse. As with most roles.
Coulson has the wit and (usually, at least) the self-confidence to match James Bond. (Coulson also can go a bit angsty and a little bit crazy sometimes, in the Whedonverse, who doesn't?) However, Coulson tempers these with more human qualities such as geekiness (often functioning as a representation of the quintessential fanboy, especially around Avengers) and nobility.
In Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, Coulson treats people as individuals, not only within his team and the wider SHIELD organisation, but also those he encounters with dangerous artifacts or abilities, trying to negotiate with reason, diplomacy, and compassion, before resorting to force in order to protect others. He offers hope of redemption where he can, such as in the first episode, where he tells Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), "I've seen giants, up close, and that privilege cost me, nearly everything. But the good ones, the real deal? They're not heroes because of what they have that we don't, it's what they do with it. You're right, Mike, it matters who you are."
So, while James Bond may be a great character, Coulson (despite his flaws) is a man of great character. And that makes all the difference.
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