So for about a season and a half now, I’ve been trying to figure out something very important—whatever happened to Phil Coulson?
Sure, some dude who’s director of SHIELD now is calling himself Phil Coulson. But that’s certainly not the Coulson we knew throughout Phase 1 of the MCU, or the first season (more or less) of Agents of SHIELD. That Coulson went from being a shady emissary of a superpowerful government organization with good intentions to a good, if slightly overzealously righteous man who always believed in second chances and spent his free time adopting orphans and nannying superheroes.
What the hell happened to make that Coulson the sort of man who would treat his most trusted lieutenants like glorified secretaries, keep secrets from his adopted daughter, generally act like a prick towards everyone else for stupid or unexplained reasons, and basically treat everyone with a mix of disdain, contempt, and mistrust?
It baffled me. And not because I was a Coulson hater—the exact opposite, in fact. Full disclaimer here: I love, love, loved—emphasis on past tense—Phil Coulson. My cat, whose real actual name is Phil Coulson, is literally sleeping on my bed while I write this. He’s adorable, but he’s also proving a point—I’ve never hated Coulson before Agents of SHIELD. I loved him so much. So what happened to make a devoted fan suddenly up and hate his guts?
Here’s the very simple reason: he’s not really Phil Coulson anymore. He’s the product of something so sneaky and racist I almost didn’t think Marvel was doing it on purpose at first, but it all makes sense.
He’s not Phil Coulson. He’s White Nick Fury.
Now, you exclaim—we have a Nick Fury in the MCU, don’t we? He’s Samuel L. Jackson, who is so cool and great he gets his full name every time you say it. But what’s happened to our Nick Fury as of late? He’s no longer Director of SHIELD, the SHIELD he ran being revealed as a twisted tangly mess of HYDRA operatives and conspiracies. And who did he give that title to?
Phil just being Director of SHIELD wasn’t enough to ping me as suspicious yet. I mean, he and Nick were hella gay close friends, and Nick did move heaven and earth to save his life—he must’ve thought Phil would do a good job.
Except, Melinda May. Maria Hill. Victoria Hand. All three of them were much more suited for the job of Director than Phil, because you don’t put your white mage/healer in charge of your party, do you? No. You keep them in the back where they are safe and able to heal things. Phil is the White Mage of the party here, and any of those three women would have made a great warrior to lead up the squad. But Nick gave the position to Phil.
Ever since getting that power, Phil has been, to put it politely, a huge dick. He’s treated the people in his care like garbage, servants, yes-men, or ticking time bombs who should be kept under lock and key. He’s been bitter, resentful, mistrustful, keeping secrets from the people he proclaimed to love on a near-constant basis.
Why? The GH-325 screwing with his brain isn’t reason enough. That’s too easy. And besides, the writers themselves don’t even try to use that as a justification—it’s like they plain forgot. So what’s the deal with Phil’s sudden Pod-Peopleing?
He’s not supposed to be Phil Coulson anymore. He’s supposed to be the white leader of SHIELD, 616 Nick Fury.
Surely that makes no sense—after all, Phil was a beloved fan-favorite who only came back because the fans so thoroughly demanded it en masse. Why would Marvel bring him back and then make him a hollow shell of himself to fulfill the role of another character that already exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Oh, simple. I don’t want to say Marvel was being super racist, but…yeah. Pretty much that.
Do you think they just brought Phil back out of the kindness of their hearts? Corporate doesn’t have hearts. And more to the point—do you think they cast Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury out of their desire for a more forward-thinking, progressive MCU? When it took us a decade of films to get a Black Panther movie?
Here’s the skinny for those MCU fans who don’t dabble in comics; way back when in Marvel Ultimates, (whose canon the MCU largely cribs from, much to my disdain), they revamped Nick Fury by making him a black man instead of a white grizzled old guy. That would’ve been great—except they used Samuel L. Jackson’s likeness without telling him, which technically counts as copyright violation.
Instead of suing them, Samuel L. Jackson struck a deal with Marvel; if Nick Fury was ever going to appear in any movies, he would be the man to play him. Marvel was basically hoisted by their own petard into being progressive…which isn’t really, you know, progress. They’re not cats; they can’t fall off a table and pretend they totally meant to do it the whole time.
So, that’s why we have a black Nick Fury in the MCU, and I personally think it’s all for the best. Or, was. Marvel didn’t seem to agree.
They didn’t kill Nick off, because that would (justly) incite riots. But he’s no longer Director of SHIELD. Instead, Phil Coulson is.
616/White Nick Fury is nothing like Phil Coulson; he’s sharp, he’s secretive, he’s harsh, he’s really not a great boss, and he’s a total asshole who disappears every so often mostly to make a point, and dumps all his problems off on Maria. But rather than just, you know, keeping their black Nick Fury and letting Phil Coulson be the character everyone loved and appreciated on his own merits, they pretty much just molded Coulson into their white Nick.
Why? I have no idea! The only reason you wouldn’t want Nick Fury to stay as he was and bend and break Phil Coulson, a rare example of an emotional, empathetic, and genuinely kind male character in comic book films, into a total jerkhole, is racism. It’s literally the only logical conclusion. If they didn’t want to pay Samuel L. Jackson’s wages for having him be in Agents of SHIELD, the logical thing to do would be to make Maria Hill or Melinda May Director. Cobie Smulders could guest star much more easily and frequently—and hell, if Melinda was Director, the dynamic of Phil and Melinda’s relationship would become so much more interesting.
So it was laziness, and it was racism. Not the overt, easily expressed kind; I thoroughly doubt anyone at Marvel sat down and said, “Wow, having Nick Fury be a black man is terrible, let’s replace him with a white man.”
But what they did do was ignore the much more viable, apparent Asian and female candidates for Director to give the power to a white man, who they stripped of any endearing qualities like forgiveness, tenderness, empathy, all to turn him into the white man they would have probably hired for Nick Fury had Samuel L. Jackson not caught them screwing up.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to be racist, perhaps, but it ended up ultimately serving that goal either way. And really, I don’t know why Marvel would be so desperate to have a white Nick Fury anyway—remember the last time that happened?
If you don’t, here’s your warning—staying diverse is always a good thing.
Because when the last white Nick Fury was cast, we got David Hasselhoff.