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Phil Coulson's Entire Backstory Explained

The character of Phil Coulson, as portrayed by Clark Gregg, is a rarity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: He is an important character who debuted in the films instead of the comics. In the first phase of the MCU, he is a key figure in assembling the team, especially Iron Man and Thor. He's an unabashed Captain America fanboy. Hawkeye and Black Widow are his trusted colleagues. His enthusiasm and personal sacrifice ultimately inspire the team to regroup and overcome Loki

Death is merely an inconvenience in superhero comics and movies, so it is only mildly surprising to see Coulson recovered and tapped to lead a new team of agents in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show gives him an opportunity to display his full range as a character: He's a father figure to Daisy "Skye" Johnson, a peer and potential love interest for Melinda May, and a sworn enemy of double-agent Grant Ward. He's a leader who has to make tough choices and ultimately makes a deal that saves the world but dooms himself. Phil Coulson is warm, witty, and unassuming, but also tough as nails. Today, we explore his story, from the Captain America trading cards to his unexpected resurrection.

The early years

Phillip J. Coulson was born in 1964 in Wisconsin. The son of Robert and Julie Coulson, he was an only child who loved Captain America and tinkering with cars. He and his dad worked on a red Corvette growing up that he nicknamed Lola and kept his whole life. Already intrigued by the legendary agency, Coulson was recruited out of school by S.H.I.E.L.D. and trained by Nick Fury and John Garrett.    

His first mission happens alongside Melinda May, with whom he develops a strong working relationship. That mission has no exit strategy, so May has to wait for Coulson to fish her out of the water. He trusts her enough to let her drive Lola — once, anyway. 

After about a decade as a field agent, Coulson accompanies Fury to investigate a mysterious woman who crash-lands into a Blockbuster Video in 1995. This is, of course, Carol Danvers, and Fury drives off after her with who he thinks is Coulson. Nope! It's a Skrull, but Coulson saves Fury later when he trusts his instincts and misdirects the squad hunting him down. Fury never forgets this moment of loyalty.

Coulson has many more missions with May. An assignment in Russia where they are tasked with retrieving an object classified as the "0-8-4" goes badly wrong, and Coulson and May barely escape with their lives. A mission in Bahrain tracking a "gifted" individual goes horribly awry as well, and May is forced to kill a girl. She quits fieldwork.


Assembling the Avengers

Quiet, clever Coulson acts as Fury's proxy when heroes emerge in 2008. Coulson volunteers to rescue Tony Stark when he's kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan, but Fury shoots down that idea, as he doesn't want S.H.I.E.L.D. operating on foreign soil. Coulson visits Stark Industries to ask Obadiah Stane if Stark is the kind of guy who would give up defense secrets, but Stane says no.

It takes Fury and Coulson a while to figure out if Stark, who surprisingly decides to stop selling weapons, is in league with terrorists. When they see him save a fighter pilot, they realize that it's Stane who is corrupt. Coulson and a squad try to arrest Stane, but Stane is ultimately defeated by Iron Man. Coulson tells Stark that he needs training in order to be a more effective hero and works on a cover story to protect his secret identity. Stark, being an impulsive contrarian, instead decides to reveal his identity to the world.

Fury and Coulson go back and forth on Stark's suitability for the Avengers Initiative. Stark isn't interested at first, and Fury is turned off by Stark's volatility. Coulson spends time as Stark's babysitter before handing the job over to Black Widow.

Coulson and a team then find a magical hammer in the desert and eventually meet Thor, who tries to retrieve it. Coulson helps him fight the Destroyer and makes a friend in the thunder god.    

The death Of Phil Coulson

After helping Black Widow destroy a missile sent by lackeys of the Ten Rings terrorist organization to destabilize Asia, Fury tells Coulson that they've discovered the body of Steve Rogers — and he's alive! Before Coulson can act on that, he's sent to Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S., the alternative energy facility that houses the mysterious Tesseract. This is an enigmatic object entrusted to Fury that will later be revealed to be one of the Infinity Stones.

Loki activates the Tesseract, makes Hawkeye his slave, and destroys the facility. Coulson barely escapes with his life. It's time to activate the Avengers.

Coulson calls the Black Widow up in the middle of a mission, but she's able to finish off her opponents and talk to him at the same time. Coulson sends her to talk to Bruce Banner, and she convinces him to join the cause. 

Coulson pulls in a reluctant Tony Stark. His ace-in-the-hole is Pepper Potts, with whom he became chummy earlier. Indeed, Stark is surprised to hear her refer to him as "Phil."

Having coolly dealt with thunder gods and billionaire geniuses, Coulson turns into a total fanboy around Captain America, asking him to sign his trading cards. 

Coulson warns Fury that the Avengers won't work unless properly motivated. Even when Thor shows up and Loki's plan is revealed, the team does nothing but bicker. After Loki escapes, Coulson threatens him with a high-tech gun, but Loki uses an illusion and kills him.

Tahiti is a magical place

As Coulson lays dying, he urges Fury to use his death to spur the Avengers into action. It works, and the team defeats Loki and the Chitauri in the Battle of New York. 

However, Fury isn't going to let one of his best agents die. Indeed, Coulson had been put in charge of Project T.A.H.I.T.I., which was exploring the use of the blood of a Kree soldier found by the government to promote rapid healing and even bring back the recently deceased. Designed for Avengers fallen in battle, Coulson shuts it down because of its extreme side effects.

When Coulson is killed, Fury has him taken to a facility called the Guest House, where he undergoes a number of surgeries and gets the Kree serum. His memory of it is erased — all he remembers is recovering in Tahiti, which he refers to as "a magical place." 

Coulson is given a new task by Fury and Maria Hill: Leading a specialized squad designed to intervene in areas where unusual objects or events have manifested. His first recruit is a solo operative named Grant Ward, who acts as the group's muscle and wetwork specialist. He also recruits his old friend Melinda May to drive their high-tech ship, nicknamed "the Bus." Tech wizard Leo Fitz and genius biologist Jemma Simmons make up the science wing of the team.     

All roads lead to HYDRA

The team's first mission is tracking down whoever is behind a cybernetic technology called Centipede, then empowering a man named Mike Peterson wreaking all manner of havoc. Along the way, the team picks up its next member: A young hacker named Skye, who is part of an anti-government network called Rising Tide. Coulson gains her trust and she becomes an important part of the team. Peterson is eventually transformed into a cybernetic killer called Deathlok, forced to do the bidding of the enemy.

After a series of adventures involving alien technology, miscellaneous Asgardians, a mysterious substance called Gravitonium, and continuing problems related to Centipede, an enemy is revealed. He calls himself the Clairvoyant, and he's always one step ahead of the team. When HYDRA is revealed to be growing inside of S.H.I.E.L.D., all hell breaks loose. Grant Ward is revealed to be a HYDRA agent, and the Clairvoyant is Coulson's old trainer, John Garrett. Centipede was a HYDRA operation the entire time.

Coulson flees with his team (with new recruit Antoine Triplett) and learns Fury is still alive. Fury urges Coulson to finish his mission and take care of Centipede once and for all. Using the same gun he tried to kill Loki with (thanks to Fury showing up in the nick of time), Coulson and his team defeat Garrett, with some help from Deathlok. Fury gives Coulson a cube he calls "a toolbox" and taps him as the next director of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Director of S.H.I.E.L.D

Coulson questions Fury's call about reviving him and Fury tells him that as far as he's concerned, Coulson is an Avenger. From there, Coulson's team gets back together, gets a new headquarters, and slowly adds more agents. That includes the mercenary Lance Hunter and Bobbi "Mockingbird" Morse. Coulson sends Morse and Simmons to infiltrate HYDRA. In the meantime, he has begun to draw alien symbols — the devastating side effect previous recipients of the Kree serum exhibited.

Ward is Coulson's prisoner, but he remains stone-silent. Later, he escapes, proving to be a stubborn thorn in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side.

Coulson tracks down others writing the strange, alien symbols, referred to as the "Words of Creation." When he learns that they are a blueprint of an ancient Kree city, he's freed of the urge to write down the symbols. It's a race with HYDRA to find the city, an operation that leads to the death of Triplett and Skye gaining vibrational powers.

With most of HYDRA's leadership dead or captured, Coulson is made aware of the threat of the Inhumans. In particular, he realizes that Skye is an Inhuman: She survives her ordeal because her part-Kree biology allows her to claim her genetic inheritance through the Terrigen crystals. When she finds out her parents are alive and one of them is an Inhuman, she seeks them out, only to realize that her mother is a killer.       


Inhuman problems

Coulson has to deal with the impending Inhuman threat as well as an internal mutiny, as many agents revolt against his leadership. This includes trusted operatives like Bobbi Morse, Lance Hunter, and Alphonso "Mack" McKenzie. Coulson eventually comes to terms with the leader of the revolt, Robert Gonzales, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is reunited under the leadership of both men.

Things come to a head with Skye's mother Jiyang, who, it turns out, is the leader of the Inhumans. She declares war on humanity, but Skye's father eventually kills her and the Inhumans are defeated. Skye now decides to go by her real name, Daisy Johnson. Coulson convinces her father to help them when Coulson tells him that he thinks of Daisy as a daughter.

When Simmons is warped across space to a planet called Maveth, Coulson and the team devise a rescue plan. They do this when they discover that HYDRA was founded as a society dedicated to bridging the Earth-Maveth divide in order to bring back their founder, an early Inhuman named Hive. S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra both use a gateway to travel to Maveth. Hive is able to return to Earth only because he can possess dead humans. When Coulson finally kills Grant Ward, Hive takes over Ward's body.

Hive's plan is to use a variation of the Terrigen Mist to transform all of humanity into Inhumans, making them subject to his total control. An Inhuman named Lincoln Campbell sacrifices himself to kill Hive in space.   

Who's afraid of the Darkhold?

After the costly victory over the Inhumans, Daisy leaves S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson steps down as Director. He's replaced by Jeffrey Mace, in part because his status as a hero who saved people in a bombing gives him exactly the kind of profile the government wants when they go public with S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson returns to fieldwork with Mack, in part to track down Daisy.

Investigating a series of supernatural murders connected to a powerful tome called the Darkhold, Coulson also has to deal with a group of fanatical terrorists called the Watchdogs, who are out to kill Inhumans. Along the way, he encounters the Ghost Rider, who's hunting down deadly spirits. His mortal shell is a young man named Robbie Reyes.

Coulson eventually learns that the man behind the murders is Eli Morrow, Robbie Reyes' beloved uncle. His plan is to build a device, using the Darkhold, to give him absolute mastery over reality at a molecular level. Coulson gets stuck between our dimension and Hell in a battle — he can see his crew, but they can't perceive him. 

He's freed when they allow a powerful Life Model Decoy named Aida to read the Darkhold. This allows her to pull Coulson back in one piece. Ghost Rider destroys Morrow, apparently sacrificing himself. Unbeknownst to them, Aida becomes sentient as a result of her exposure to the Darkhold — and murderous. 

Into the mainframe

Aida replaces May with a Life Model Decoy, loyal to Aida above all. The fake May's mission is to find the Darkhold and bring it back to Aida, so she can complete her dream of becoming a real woman. 

In the meantime, she captures Coulson, Mack, and Mace, and uploads them into the Framework. The Framework, like Aida, is a creation of demented but well-meaning scientist Holden Radcliffe. Aida falls in love with Fitz after her sentient awakening and puts him into the digital world of the Framework, over which she has a great deal of control.

It's a hellish world, one where HYDRA beats S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fitz is a cold-blooded HYDRA scientist. Coulson is a teacher, having achieved his dream of living a normal life. Simmons and Daisy use a back door to get into the Framework and snap Coulson out of his programming. They eventually manage to escape the Framework and return to the real world, though Mace's death there kills him in the real world as well. 

Aida achieves her goal of having her own living body and a full range of emotions, and even helps Coulson rescue Mack and defeat his enemies. When Fitz rejects her love, however, she goes berserk. 

Coulson makes a deal with the Spirit of Vengeance that inhabits the Ghost Rider and becomes possessed by it, incinerating the otherwise-invincible Aida. The Spirit passes back to Robbie Reyes as the team wins.        

Backing into the future

Relaxing at a diner after their big battle, Coulson and his crew are sent about 80 years into the future. It's a future where something has destroyed most of the Earth, and what's left of humanity is kept alive by cruel Kree masters. 

The being who kidnaps them is a Chronicom anthropologist named Enoch. Having studied humanity for millennia, he knows there is an "extinction-level event" that may be linked to Daisy. She's referred to as the "Destroyer of Worlds," given her powers and proximity to the disaster site. 

Coulson's team has to determine why they're sent there, how to negotiate being in the future with no gear, and how to free humanity. They learn about the Chronicom when Enoch helps Fitz through the stasis process to reach them in the future. 

Together, they manage to defeat the Kree in a pitched battle and use a Monolith to get back to their own time. Daisy refuses to go initially, thinking she's the cause of Earth's doom, but Coulson knocks her out and brings her back. He wants her to run S.H.I.E.L.D. one day.

Upon returning to their proper time, Coulson serves as the officiant for the wedding of Fitz and Simmons.

A matter of gravity

An act of sabotage by General Hale, an old HYDRA operative, creates a rift into what Fitz calls the Fear Dimension. Bleeding into our reality, it starts making everyone's fears into real, solid constructs. In order to stop it, they gather up Gravitonium, the substance that helps power time travel. It powers a device that seals the rift but doesn't completely fix it.

Coulson volunteers to go and reveals a secret: The deal he made with the Spirit of Vengeance to kill Aida means that the Kree blood in his body is gone. As a result, he's slowly dying of his old wound.

The Gravitonium needed to seal the Fear Dimension is acquired, and Fitz forces Daisy to remove a device dampening her powers, despite her protests. It works, and the Fear Dimension is sealed off permanently.

The Gravitonium is stolen by Hale so she can create an ultimate HYDRA agent in her daughter. An agent kills said daughter before she can do any damage, and Hale, who had planned to use her daughter against a Kree invasion, gives the aliens Coulson's location.

Faced with no choice, Coulson's old military frenemy Glenn Talbot takes on the Gravitonium and crushes the Kree. Unfortunately, it also drives him insane.

Everyone realizes that he's the threat to Earth's survival. Given the choice of saving Coulson or saving humanity with the Centipede formula, Daisy saves the Earth.   

Life after death

After Daisy knocks Talbot into space, she returns to Coulson's side. It's too late to save him, so he and May fly off to Tahiti together for a little bit of happiness before he dies. He mentions taking up parasailing.

However, unbeknownst to him, a duplicate of him called Sarge is created when Coulson is sent through time and space while closing the rift to the Fear Dimension. It's a mix of his own memories and that of a Fear Dimension entity, and his mission is to kill a Fear-based creature named Izel from infecting any more worlds with her Shrike parasites. Sarge teams up with a reluctant and confused S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight Izel. Eventually, Sarge realizes his true nature and turns against his allies. Izel is killed using Sarge's extra-dimensional sword, and Mack kills Sarge to end the Shrike threat.

When the Chronicom Hunters come to conquer Earth, the team goes into the past with a Chronicom Life Model Decoy based on Coulson, programmed to know everything he had missed. There's no better companion, friend, and leader than Coulson, who helps the team outwit their alien foes.