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Agent Phil Coulson will long be remembered as one of the most important lynchpins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the franchise was first starting up, he was utilized as the character bringing everything together and one could easily argue that the movies wouldn’t be the same without him. Which makes it all the more amazing that his initial part in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was much smaller than what we all saw in the finished cut of the film.
After about seven years away, Clark Gregg is now back on the big screen as Phil Coulson in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, and it was during the movie’s recent Los Angeles press day that I learned just how tiny the character’s role initially was in the first Iron Man. During our interview I steered the conversation towards a reflection on his start in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Gregg explained that Coulson in the script didn’t have anywhere near the impact on the movie that he ultimately does:
Agent Coulson was a small role, was two scenes, if anything. And they liked something about that repartee. They liked something about having the S.H.I.E.L.D. presence being there, and all of a sudden they added seven more scenes! Next thing I know Pepper Potts is going, 'Thank you, Agent Coulson.' And I was like, 'I've got a name now; this is cool.'
That’s right – apparently Clark Gregg’s character wasn’t even named Agent Coulson before an appreciation of the actor’s contribution on set led to an expanded part. And that expanded part, of course, led to future roles in Iron Man 2, Thor, The Avengers, and the still-running television series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. He has been at the center at some of the most crucial moments in the history of the franchise.
It’s also worth noting that the impact isn’t limited to the big and small screen. Phil Coulson made his debut in the pages of Marvel Comics in January 2012, palling around with Captain America, the Avengers, and even Deadpool. And none of that would have happened if the character’s part in Iron Man was as big as it was in the script.
Obviously it’s led to great things for Clark Gregg, but the actor also sees the whole situation very much reflecting why it is that Marvel Studios has been so incredibly successful in the last 11 years. As protective as they may want to be with the material, there is still a certain openness to new ideas that allows spontaneous greatness to be generated. Said Gregg,
But I've always thought to myself that there's a secret there, which is that even in those early days there was a trust of the filmmakers, a trust of what they were seeing. If something feels like it's working, they would go with that. There's a kind of flexibility that I think has as much to do with the longevity of this as anything else.
Captain Marvel, which is the 21st film from Marvel Studios, is further example of the company’s pop culture dominance, debuting this weekend with a $153 million three-day start. The blockbuster, which stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law and Annette Bening in addition to Clark Gregg, is now playing in theaters everywhere – and we’ll have plenty more content about the film coming your way in the next few days.