Agent Coulson Lives: Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Shows Us The Art Of The Retcon

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD made its debut Tuesday night, and it was everything fans could have hoped for. It featured action, drama, and comedy plus handsome heroes, hot heroines, guns, and explosions; basically, a little bit of something for everyone.

The key ingredient, however, was a character fans have grown to love over the last five years of Marvel products on the big screen: Agent Phil Coulson. Played by actor Clark Gregg, Coulson was first seen in the first Iron Man movie. He’s a character that’s funny. A character that can kick ass. A character that… died.

How can this be? It’s a technique called “retroactive continuity” or “retcon,” something loved and hated by fans of all forms of entertainment. While comic book writers may not have done it first, they certainly do it best, rewriting history to bring characters back to life or otherwise altering the canon of a title for whatever reason suits their current needs.

In Coulson’s case on Agents of SHIELD, he was run through with Loki’s glow stick of destiny in The Avengers, right? Well, from the man himself — played by actor Clark Gregg — in Tuesday night’s premiere, he only stopped breathing for 40 seconds. Agent Maria Hill—a guest-starring Cobie Smoulders—is quick to remind him that it was really only 8 seconds, and that the duration grows larger every time he tells the story of his short death.

You get shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini, you can tell it your way,” Coulson retorts.

After his brief time with the white light, Coulson rested up in Tahiti before returning to active duty with S.H.I.E.L.D. Or, at least, that’s what he thinks.

Realistically, retconning Coulson’s death was the only way to make Agents of SHIELD work, giving fans a familiar anchor point while they learn about the rest of the characters. And it almost just feels right; as comics and other geek culture slowly infiltrate the mainstream, why not do it with one of the medium’s time-honored traditions?

Linked to the art of the retcon, and frequent explanation for its use, is what comic fans call “the Bucky Clause,” a reference to Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s dearly departed sidekick. The Bucky Clause says, quite simply, that “no one in comics stays dead besides Uncle Ben, Jason Todd, and Bucky,” referencing also Peter Parker/Spiderman’s infamous father figure and Batman’s one-time sidekick, the Robin that was murdered by the Joker. Mind you, The Bucky Clause has already been broken for Jason Todd and Bucky himself, who was resurrected for the “Winter Soldier” storyline in Captain America comics, the basis for the next Captain America film, Capatin America: The Winter Soldier.

The Bucky Clause as applied to Agent Phil Coulson has an interesting twist: it may have been retconned long before Tuesday night’s Agents of SHIELD premiere. Take a look at the DVD edits for the U.K. version of The Avengers, called Marvel’s Avengers Assemble across the pond. As Brendon Connelly is kind enough to point out on Bleeding Cool, Coulson was clearly run through by Loki’s spear in the theatrical release and the U.S. release of the disc. However, the U.K. version just shows him being stabbed from behind, without the tip of the glow stick of destiny protruding from his chest. Was this an early attempt to soften the death of Agent Coulson and make it easier for him to rise from the grave or was it simply the DVD editors toning down the violence of the scene? Keep in mind, this took place in September, 2012, before Agents of SHIELD was ever announced. Hmm…

Interested in more retcons? Check out Comic Bulletin’s Top 10 Retcons list. Or check out your local comic book shop and chat up the owner. You’ll be glad you did.