The Day Phil Coulson Fell: Pitilessness on Maveth

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(Warning: This post contains spoilers from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season three.)

Frodo: . . . What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Dumbledore: Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

In any given semester I get to talk a lot about pity. At FSU I teach Religion and Twentieth Century Fantasy Literature. Starting with The Lord of the Rings and moving through Harry Potter, I ask my students to track what mercy does for the people extending and receiving it. In brief, it pays dividends. Think about Gollum. From Bilbo to Frodo and Sam to Faramir, Gollum is spared. In the end this mercy destroys the Ring. Faced with the reality of parting with it, Frodo falls. I argue Sam certainly wasn’t capable of tossing him into the fires of Mount Doom. Gollum had to be there. Similarly, fans can debate the extent to which Harry’s willingness to turn Peter Pettigrew over to the Dementors constitutes genuine mercy, but the fact that he did ultimately allows for their escape from Malfoy Manor.

Though Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe operate outside the fantasy genre, I see the same principle at work. From the moment Phil Coulson picks up Rising Tide hacktivist Skye (a.k.a. Daisy Johnson) in the pilot and brings her on as a consultant, all the groundwork is laid for her eventual promotion to full team member. Obviously Phil takes personal interest in his special unit, but Melinda May is right that something about Skye causes him to lose a sense of detachment.

For Phil, however, this isn’t a problem. He acknowledges her compassion may be an asset. He sees in her the qualities his mentor, Nick Fury, saw in him. To have the capacity for compassion in a profession where “trust no one” is inherited wisdom is rare. Even though Skye herself believes John Garrett is “evil”, Leo Fitz gives voice to one of the MCU’s central truths: “Well, I don’t believe that people are born evil. Something must have happened” (“Ragtag”). Through both word and action, Phil works to bring Skye around to seeing the world in this way. Even after Skye’s transformation, he remains her mentor. Daisy, the Inhuman, still looks up to Phil, the human. She rejects her mother’s relativistic morality. She sees something good and productive about Phil’s ethical standards.

This is what makes Phil’s failure on Maveth (the Hebrew word for “death”) so powerful. I recently gave a paper at a symposium arguing that the MCU is a theodicy (an attempt to work out the problem of evil). I argued that human action invariably causes destruction at the same time it is intended to increase global security. Think about Fury’s tampering with alien technology or Tony Stark’s creation of Ultron. Both led to the decimation of entire cities and the near destruction of the human race. Each step toward parity with Asgard has hurt a lot of innocent people. This, I concluded, was the central moral thread running throughout the MCU: that untimely death is evil. So evil in fact that Fury authorized the use of alien technology to bring Phil back.

So when we saw Phil act as the agent of untimely death on Maveth we knew terrible things must be coming. Motivated by revenge, Phil killing Grant Ward allowed the Inhuman “It” to come to our world. We know “It” killed an advanced civilization on Maveth. We saw the decaying influence it had on Will Daniels’ body. We’re seeing the corruption of Ward’s. Blinded by grief and rage, Phil set the stage for a war with death (evil) itself.

Had he just found it in himself to extend mercy to the unarmed Ward, “It” would likely have remained on Maveth. His inability to see Ward as an object of pity may well undo the MCU in a way Bilbo’s mercy saved Middle-earth. It has already changed him. As May noted in this week’s episode (“Bouncing Back”): “Some things you don’t get past. They scar you—change you permanently.” When he responds, “I don’t know what happened there” she consoles him, “I do. You joined the cavalry.” This is not necessarily a good thing.

(The above image is pulled from progmonot.com.)

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About wlivings

I'm a PhD student in Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at Florida State University. My primary work is in human rights and pop culture.
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