Clark Gregg at the “Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” panel at Comic-Con. Photo: Jordan
SAN DIEGO – In a convention as dominated by strapping action stars and caped
crusaders as Comic-Con International, a slightly-square guy who dons a business
suit instead of spandex shouldn’t be getting standing ovations. And yet Clark
Gregg, who plays Agent Phil Coulson in last year’s Marvel blockbuster film The
Avengers and the upcoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series, took the
stage to some of loudest applause heard at San Diego Comic-Con this weekend.
“I’m a long-time Marvel fan, so every time I just can’t believe this is
happening to me,” Gregg said during Friday’s panel for the upcoming ABC show. He
paused to gain his composure after the furor from the massive crowd, and then
continued, “There’s only one thing I really want to say, which is–”
“You’re my favorite Avenger!” shouted a fan, interrupting the panel to much
“You’re my favorite person at the con!” he answered back. “Except Joss.”
Joss Whedon, the writer/director of The Avengers, helped transform Agent Coulson
from the slightly neurotic field operative of Iron Man and Thor into the
superhero-card-collecting heart and soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But
while Whedon’s everyman–or everyfan–take on the character may have opened the
door for adulation, it was Gregg’s portrayal that made him truly resonate. After
all, Gregg is slightly square and he does love superheroes. He’s the kind of guy
that gets excited about online campaigns to bring his character back from the
dead. He is, ostensibly, One of Us.
“To have Coulson get added to these other movies, given more and more meaty,
amazing stuff to do and then–most movingly to me–to have it connect with the
fans in a way where they … waged a campaign on Coulson’s behalf [after his
death] is really moving to me,” Gregg said after the S.H.I.E.L.D. panel at
Comic-Con. “Because he’s them. He’s an avatar for the fans, and a human in the
world of super-humans.”
He’s also something of an analog to Gregg himself. For years the actor has been
the best supporting cast member on everything fromThe West Wing to The New
Adventures of Old Christine. Now Coulson—the great Marvel Universe supporting
character that never got enough screen time—is getting all the screen time.
And nobody’s more surprised about it than Gregg. Back when director Jon Favreau,
Gregg’s then-neighbor, began to cast the first Iron Man film, he reached out to
see if the actor wanted to come on board.
“I knew [he] was putting together an amazing cast for Iron Man and that was
one of my favorite comics, and I got a call: ‘It’s a little tiny part, do you
want to be in it?’” Gregg said. “And I was like, ‘Yes! It’s probably going to
get cut out, but yeah!’”
Of course, it didn’t get cut, and thanks to the shared cinematic universe that
links the Marvel films, it lead to a recurring role as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative
in subsequent Iron Man flicks, Thor and, ultimately The Avengers.
action figure and his own TV show and a supporting role on that shitty new
“It’s a chain-letter that I’m always happiest to read because then I get to act
it,” said Gregg. Despite his humble bit part origin story, Coulson kept coming
back in every successive Marvel blockbuster–at least, until he died in The
Avengers at the hands of the supervillain Loki.
Then even Gregg thought he was done for good. But after The Avengers earned more
than $200 million in its opening weekend–and more than $600 million in the U.S.
alone–Marvel decided to expand its universe to the small screen at ABC, and
Gregg’s name came up again. Both Whedon and Jeph Loeb, Marvel’s head of
television, agreed that the superhuman-focused espionage agency of
S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a great setting for a television show. The next words out
of Loeb’s mouth?
There was only one problem: Coulson had just been declared dead by no less than
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the biggest movie of 2012. Still, death has
always been a bit more flexible in the world of superheroes, where heroes like
Captain America and Thor have been laid to rest (and resurrected) more than once
over the years in the comic books. And so Gregg’s character borrowed a page
from perhaps the most superheroic trope of all, and managed to find his way back
from the dead.
In the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which airs in September but
screened early at Comic-Con, the explanation for his resurrection remain
unclear; Coulson offers one explanation of how he survived, but later in the
episode Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) ominously insists that “he can never
know” the truth.
However he managed to do it, Agent Coulson is back, and Gregg is getting
standing ovations at Comic-Con simply for showing up. He still seems taken
aback; before Iron Man hit theaters, after all, he was still just another guy in
the massive crowds at Comic-Con, freely roaming the floor in search of his
favorite Jim Starlin comics.
“Then the next time I came here–people were dressed up like me, you know?” Gregg
said. In the aftermath of his big screen death, some of them even dressed up as
gruesome zombie versions of Agent Coulson, something Gregg says he’s not sorry
he missed when he skipped the convention last year. “That would’ve been too
upsetting for me,” he joked.
Still, there was a little bit of prescience in those costumes. While he may not
be shambling through the Marvel Universe, Agent Coulson has indeed risen from
the dead, a boon typically bestowed on iconic heroes–and perhaps the biggest
sign that he’s well on his way to becoming one.