I think it’s great that Agent Coulson will be a major part of S.H.I.E.L.D. and isn’t actually dead despite all the evidence from The Avengers (spoiler! …double spoiler?), but something struck me while I was reading Joss Whedon’s rationale:
The idea of the Little Guy is something that I am very fierce about, and there has never been a better Little Guy than Clark Gregg. That intrigued me, this world around the superhero community. It’s the people whose shop windows get blown up when the Destroyer shows up.
My immediate, cynical response was that he might have thought of that before he killed the guy in the first place. And that’s actually a problem I have with almost everything Whedon’s done, because an important corollary to his penchant for killing off characters is that it’s almost always the little guys who take the fall.
I think this started bothering me when I saw Serenity, but I can trace the problem as far back as Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Supporting characters will suffer often ignominious deaths, either to demonstrate to the viewer how serious a situation is or to create emotional moments for the main characters. When a main character dies, they’re sure to be back by the next season, if not the end of the episode. Even when the cause of death is a random event that could have happened to anyone, the bullets always seem to know where the supporting cast is.
This obviously isn’t a problem unique to Joss Whedon: Having your main characters be either inexplicably invulnerable or constantly resurrected is one of the basic conventions of TV and film, for obvious reasons. But if there’s a way to square that with the kind of stories that Whedon is trying to tell, he hasn’t found it yet. And I’m not sure he’s trying.
Which is too bad, because figuring out a solution can lead to some really interesting stories. It’s why Robb Stark is such a great character in Game of Thrones (and woefully underutilized in the books), and Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica got a lot of mileage out of the idea that all the competent members of the government and military were dead by the end of the miniseries. (Although BSG had plenty of its own problems where the supporting cast was concerned.)
I think what could be really interesting about S.H.I.E.L.D. is that all of Whedon’s shows so far have had an obvious hero lead, whereas Agent Coulson has always been presented as more of a bureaucrat or handler. Marvel might well have given him the chance to produce something closer to his professed interests than Whedon’s own shows could be.