Now I could be criticized for including these two in my analysis of Avengers characters because at first glance it seems that neither Fury nor Coulson have distinct character arcs in this story. That’s not entirely true. Rather, these two erstwhile leaders of SHIELD share a conflict and a goal but it’s not one that works out like they expect.
You see, Fury and Coulson both fail in what they set out to do and that, in turn, cuts their character arc much shorter than we’re used to seeing. With that said, let’s just dig into it shall we?
Fury and Coulson’s Background
These characters share a single purpose, namely to create a superteam under the aegis of SHIELD. Coulson is the first of these two that we see, showing up pretty much as soon as Tony Stark stepped out of the shadows in his first shiny red Iron Man suit. Fury took a little longer to show up, poking his head in after the credits of Iron Man, and he was also more skeptical of Stark’s suitability for membership on the Avengers. Up until this point we haven’t really paid these two a whole lot of attention but after four movies we do know a few things.
Coulson is very enthusiastic at the idea of the Avengers and tries his best to reach out to potential members and interest them in the team, Fury is cautious and does his best to control risks that will undercut his agenda. There is a slight tension between the two in that Coulson hopes to see heroes doing their thing in a coordinated fashion that will protect and inspire others while Fury wants to be the head of his team and ensure that it is used in the best possible fashion. The balance between the two viewpoints is probably the fact that Coulson views Fury as a hero in and of his own right.
Both Phil and Nick embody character vs. the world. Unlike Captain Rogers, their conflict doesn’t arise from changes in the world around them but from fundamental differences between the way Coulson and Fury think the way the world should progress and the way the world itself wants to be.
Basically, Fury and Coulson want the Avengers to be heroes. They want them to set an example for other people and be on the front line of what’s about to unfold. The world at large, on the other hand, sees all these exceptional people and the threats inbound and just wants them to go away as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. The world would prefer to just press a button or drop a bomb and have this sticky situation sorted out when, in truth, sticky situations are rarely sorted out that easily and will require brave men and women risking life and limb in very direct and personal ways to get things done.
In short, the world Fury and Coulson live in is exactly like ours.
Each of these two characters is going to face down the problem in their own way, if The Avengers is a war movie then Fury is the general who will command the troops and deal with government while Coulson is the trusted captain who will actually lead them into battle. One handles the strategic level, the other the tactical. Naturally, this leads to the basic conflict at work bearing out in different ways.
Fury is concerned with world leaders, the World Security Council, the people who’s backing he will need to make his idea work, he has to fight against the ideas permeating his world. Coulson, on the other hand, is going to face narcissism, a lack of self esteem, feelings of impotence and distraction by personal matters as he tries to keep the Avengers on task. His struggle is against the feelings permeating his world.
We Meet Fury and Coulson
“This doesn’t have to get any messier.” – Colonel Nick Fury, to Loki
This pair of erstwhile leaders are introduced pretty much at the same time, at the very beginning of the film as Fury comes to check on the Tesseract at a secure SHIELD facility at the back end of nowhere. This setting serves to quickly establish both characters as high ranking members of a government organization and that Fury outranks Coulson and establishes some other basic dynamics like introducing Agent Barton. Then, just to keep us on our toes, the movie drops Loki into the mix and lets us see what happens.
Fury vs. Loki
“Yeah, you say ‘peace’, I kind of think you mean the other thing.” – Colonel Nick Fury, still talking to Loki
Fury’s confrontation with Loki is our first demonstration of Loki’s power and it’s very impressive. He wipes out dozens of trained SHIELD agents and subverts two very valuable people, providing the impetus for Fury to go ahead and try the Avengers Initiative even though it had theoretically already been scrapped.
This confrontation is short but meaningful. In addition to providing the driving force behind the entire story and reinforcing the idea that SHIELD alone will not be enough to stop Loki’s invasion it also highlights a stubbornness that will ultimately be Fury’s undoing in his efforts to unite the world against the threats it faces.
Gathering the Avengers – And Hiding them Away
“With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.” – Phil Coulson, to Captain America
Nothing evokes the attitudes of the SHIELD leadership more than their interactions with Steve Rogers, which is fitting because when the attention of SHIELD wavers it’s ultimately Captain America who will step into the gap and takes up the mantle of leadership. But that doesn’t happen in this film so I’m going to ignore it for the moment.
Let’s focus instead on what Fury and Coulson are telling Steve. If you look at the dialog they’re constantly talking about using SHIELD resources for the good of humanity. Fury tells about the potential the Tesseract has as a power source, showing a wide-reaching civic good that SHIELD wants to advance. Phil talks about how the Avengers can inspire and unite people in dangerous times. These are worthy goals, goals fitting for a group of people who want to call themselves heroes.
In contrast, the very first thing that Fury does with his group of individuals once they agree to work with him is gather them on a flying fortress and turn them invisible, far from the people the Avengers are intended to serve and protect. Now no problem is going to have a perfect solution but SHIELD’s actions and its claims don’t exactly add up. We’re never shown how much of these actions were Fury’s idea and how much they belong to the World Security Council but at the very least concealing the existence of a highly recognizable fugitive from the public isn’t the best way to find a person and Fury has to have known that.
Not working with the public to find Loki is an odd choice, but one that makes sense in the light of the Security Council’s statement that the Avengers are dangerous. The problem with assessing things in terms of security is that everything is dangerous. The Council is, to paraphrase Gandalf, beset by dangers for they themselves are dangerous. The problem is, they fail to recognize that and therefore regard anything dangerous as bad. Fury isn’t doing a good job wining them over to his side.
Coulson’s problem is much more personal. Heroes come with a lot of baggage and the Avengers are no exception. Making things worse, baggage frequently multiplies when you cram a bunch of it into one place, witness the constant bickering between Steve and Tony. Coulson’s conflict plays out as he tries to smooth over everyone’s conflicting feelings and forge the Avengers into a single team that can work together like his own agents do. The problem is, the Avengers are not SHIELD agents by any stretch of the imagination and, while Coulson has the kind of personality and insight to put each of these heroes at ease individually, he is not the person to lead them collectively.
Coulson vs. Loki
“You lack conviction.” – Phil Coulson, to Loki
Coulson’s confrontation with Loki is also brief but even more effective than Fury’s. While Loki technically defeats Coulson the concept of a moral victory definitely applies here. At no point does Coulson’s resolve waver or his spirit flag. No, the reason Coulson can’t stop Loki is that he’s come alone. While Coulson’s goal was to help bring together and support the Avengers as a team he unfortunately didn’t actually consider himself a part of that team and because of this, at a critical moment when the presence of just one or two other members of the Avengers could have made a significant difference, Coulson doesn’t ask them for help.
Yes, some of them were busy with other things. Some of them were mind controlled. But honestly, Phil didn’t have to come alone, did he? Well, yes he did. You see, from a story standpoint, conviction was what the Avengers as a whole were lacking, just as much as Loki.
The Avengers lacked conviction in the cause Phil believed in, the idea that a simple, old fashioned crew could take a stand on something incredibly simple, like having the freedom to make your own decisions, and fight for it, inspiring other people to do the same. Banner and Romanoff think they’re monsters. Steve’s uncertain of his place in the world. Stark can’t see beyond his own narcissism. Barton’s perspective is so farsighted sometimes it leaves him alienated. Thor can’t parse his conflicting love for his brother and his adopted planet. And Nick Fury… well, he couldn’t do without a backup plan.
Only Phil Coulson had the unshakeable belief that the Avengers could become the heroes to inspire a generation. It was that conviction, in turn, that would inspire the Avengers themselves.
Things Fall Apart
“Director Fury, the Council has made a decision.” – The World Security Council
While Coulson wins the battle for the Avengers, the war for the world falls through. Coulson’s part of the struggle was to win the Avengers over to Fury’s vision to defend the world and bring them to place that goal above personal goals. While Phil succeeded Fury can’t get the Security Council to buy in. They remain skeptical of Fury’s goals – a unified force offering Earth long term security – and instead pursue their own goal of immediate safety regardless of the cost in the future.
It’s important to understand what a setback for Fury this is. Not only has he lost his best agent, by deciding to destroy the Chitauri invasion along with the island of Manhattan via nuclear warhead the World Security Council has completely rejected Fury’s single greatest hope for saving Earth. Yes, Fury ignores their orders and tries to stop the nuclear strike but the fact is that he wanted the Avengers to be a symbol of mankind united, a testament to the way noble ideas can unite people in spite of pettymindedness. While it’s hard to blame the Security Council for their decision – the entire world was at stake after all and that kind of responsibility has got to be heavy – without Council backing the Avengers can’t really represent humanity united. It’s hard to represent a united front when you’re a rogue element, after all.
Ultimately, at the end of The Avengers Fury is not in the greatest position. The Avengers have gone their separate ways, the World Security Council is on his back and he’s lost his best agent. Fury is on the ropes and will probably need to take drastic measures to reestablish his credibility. Something like allying with a questionable politician to build an armada and dispatch threats before they materialize. But again, not the scope of this analysis.
Fury and Coulson serve the larger story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to be certain, but they also have their own conflict to resolve and that conflict comes from the differences between their idea of the world and the world’s own ideas. The small part of the world that they need to join them directly, the six members of the Avengers other than Fury himself, does come over to their side but the world as a whole does not. Fury is vindicated when the Avengers win but the Security Council still will not back his decisions or trust that the Avengers will function for the good of the world, both questioning whether they will be on task when needed again and whether they are up to the task.
This outcome to Fury and Coulson’s story may seem depressing, and to be fair it is. But at the same time, it does two very important things. First, it adds verisimilitude. As I said before, the World Security Council has a very real, significant burden on their shoulders and it’s not crafting a strong, heroic society it’s making sure that there’s any society left at all. It’s natural for them to want failsafes and be very skeptical of making seven people Earth’s first line of defense against things like the Chitauri invasion.
Secondly, Fury’s leadership style is secretive, controlling and frankly a little Machiavellian. These tendencies make him a poor leader for the kind of group he wants to build. The Avengers don’t naturally trust him and follow his lead. Fury explains his goals several times but the Avengers, and Tony and Steve in particular, are skeptical because his actions don’t really match with his stated ends. The other Avengers defer to Coulson because their previous experiences with him have convinced them of his good intentions but Fury never lets the Avengers get that close. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Fury’s efforts fail.
So what kind of further character growth can we expect from Age of Ultron? Honestly, I can’t say. With three villains to focus on this time around – Ultron himself plus Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – plus all seven Avengers apparently returning in the second film I’m not sure how much character growth we can expect from them this time around. The individual films Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World made a wholehearted attempt to further the work done of Marvel’s The Avengers. They succeeded to some extent but what made The Avengers so great was it’s success in characterizing it’s cast without needing the background from the first phase of Marvel movies.
But we can still hope, since it is Joss Whedon at the helm. And there’s still a good chance of a great story and fun action.