Agent Phil Coulson's return to the cinematic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain Marvel is a triumphant one. How could it not be? Something about Clark Gregg's Coulson has always resonated with audiences — arguably a result of a quiet, deadpan sense of humor and a willingness to put often-egotistical heroes in their place. MCU fans' connection to him is what makes his death in 2012's The Avengers such a WTF Moment.
**This story contains very mild spoilers for Captain Marvel.**
This WTF Moment isn't gruesome or disgusting. Instead, that "what the hell did I just watch?" shock comes from seeing an established good guy die for the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was a new feeling. This is an ongoing story about heroes and good guys winning, right? The good guys aren't supposed to die. It's a death that wracked the newly flourishing MCU fandom, launched a television series, and predicted the future of one of the MCU's most notoriously beloved characters.
Yes, audiences had seen Yinsen sacrifice himself to save Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008) and Dr. Erskine die by Hydra's hand in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), but Coulson was the first recurring character to lose his life. Between babysitting Tony in Iron Man 2 (2010), dealing with Thor's temper tantrum in Thor (2011), and watching a Capsicled Steve Rogers as he slept, Coulson was, arguably, more connected to the Avengers team than Nick Fury. He book-ended Phase One: It was Coulson who introduced Pepper Potts (and, therefore, wider audiences) to S.H.I.E.L.D. in Iron Man and Coulson who made the call to bring Natasha Romanoff in for The Avengers.
In a way, Coulson was the embodiment the MCU's Phase One, so it was appropriate that he not make it out. That didn't make it hurt any less when Loki killed him.
The fandom outcry over Coulson's death was so sharp, in fact, that Disney greenlit a television series crafted entirely around the idea that (surprise!) Coulson didn't actually die — well, he did, and then technology saved his life and left him traumatized, but that's another discussion — and he's now working with a rotating team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and misfits. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been Coulson's home ever since his badass bow from the more cinematic section of the MCU; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was renewed for a seventh season, supposedly its last, in November 2018.
Coulson is very much thriving outside the big screen, but there's an important footnote: The mainstream cinematic heroes who were spurred on to teamwork and victory by Coulson's death still don't seem to know that Coulson is very much alive seven years after his "death." That's messed up.
It's especially messed up because Coulson always had a sort of innate understanding into how these heroes and their villains worked. Maybe it's because he was around, tangentially, to witness the Avengers' namesake, Carol 'Avenger' Danvers, save the Earth. Maybe it's because he loved The First Avenger, Captain America, so much. Maybe it's because his outward cool always allowed him to see past other people's defenses. Maybe he was just talking s*** when he predicted Loki's entire MCU future with a single line, but that's still what he did.
After Loki has stabbed Coulson in the back and dropped his brother out of the Hellicarrier, he's distracted by Coulson, who's still hanging on to life. Bleeding out on the floor and still plotting to shoot the God of Mischief, Coulson tells Loki he's going to lose and the two quip back and forth for a moment before he explains where Loki's disadvantage is: "You lack conviction."
Ain't that something? As much as Loki liked to scoff at "sentiment," he really did always lack the conviction to see anything truly horrible to the end. The worst thing he ever did in the MCU — invade New York and try to conquer the Earth on Thanos' behalf — was, many fans have argued, a result of his being driven half-mad by the Mind Stone. Just take a look at his appearance and general behavior at the beginning of The Avengers as proof; he looks sick, he's cagey and reactionary. And from the time we see him again in Thor: The Dark World through his death in Avengers: Infinity War, he's settled — he's more human than he's ever been.
Coulson knew, whether he was messing with him to buy time or not, that Loki would never succeed. In more ways than one. It's the same kind of surety in what's right that made Coulson a moral compass from his first canonical MCU appearance in the '90s-based Captain Marvel. Though younger and termed the "new guy" by Fury, he shows far more conviction and trust in what's right than his fellow agents. It's what made his "death" such a tragedy.