SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Marvel Comics’ Secret Empire event and Deadpool #31, by by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli, Christain Dalla Vecchia, Ruth Redmond and VC’s Joe Sabino and on sale now.
While Secret Empire has been a controversial event for many reasons, the developments in this week’s Deadpool tie-in issue just might cause a certain character’s fanbase to revolt as The Merc With A Mouth has seemingly assassinated one of the most beloved new additions to the Marvel Universe in recent years.
The issue is a somber look at Deadpool’s loyalty to Steve Rogers (aka HydraCap) and the character in question was a seemingly necessary sacrifice to allow the Hydra plan to roll out unabated — but are they really dead?
What Went Down?
One of the cornerstones of Gerry Duggan’s work with Deadpool has been making the previously-fringe character an integral part of the larger Marvel Universe. One of the ways he has excelled in that is via Wade Wilson’s friendship and admiration of the original Captain America. This issue contrasts that admiration with that of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, quite possibly the biggest Captain America fan there is within the Marvel Universe — and one of the only people to have discovered the truth about Steve’s true loyalty to Hydra at the point in time when this issue takes place.
Coulson began to dig into the truth following events of a previous issue of Deadpool, which saw future versions of Captain America come back in time in an attempt to kill Steve Rogers and stop the events of Secret Empire from taking place. While the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent assistated Cap and Deadpool in dispatching them, something smelled fishy, which led to Coulson tugging on the thread which unravelled the entire Hydra conspiracy.
This week’s Deadpool is similarly set before the start of Secret Empire, and features Captain America manipulating Deadpool’s loyalty to him in order to get him to assassinate Phil Coulson, which is exactly what Wade does. He tracks Coulson down to an old S.H.I.E.L.D. safehouse, where he shoots him point blank in the heart. It’s an inglorious end for one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s most decorated agents, and a crushing moment for readers who are aware of how Wade is being played in order to advance the Hydra regime’s purposes.
He’s Not Really Dead… Right?
It’s an accepted trope that nobody ever really dies in comics, and surely Coulson is no exception. The most famous thing the character died was die in The Avengers feature film, and even that didn’t stick long before he was back and leading the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show. There are plenty of ways that Coulson can make it out of this alive, even if his beloved flying car Lola didn’t — it’s not like we haven’t seen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents use every trick in the book to cheat death in the past.
The most obvious way out of this would be with a Life Model Decoy, the favorite trick used by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and directors to dodge the grim reaper. Nick Fury used LMDs so much that you can never ever be sure you’re reading a story about the actual Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. at all, and Maria Hill learned the same trick to great effect back in Secret Invasion. Coulson did manage to make it to the S.H.I.E.L.D. safehouse, so perhaps he found had time to switch places quickly with a robot double, allowing it to take the bullet and giving him time to mount resistance to Captain America’ Hydra.
Then there’s the chance that there’s a larger plan at play here. Perhaps Deadpool has already been made aware of Captain America’s fascist allegiances and is working with Coulson to help fake the super-spy’s death. It would be incredibly vindicating to see that Deadpool isn’t the idiot puppet that HydraCap sees him as and if Coulson and Deadpool are working together they could turn the tide in the favor of the heroes with a surprise rally against Hydra when they’re least expecting it.
Of course, if Coulson is truly dead, Wade will never be able to forgive himself for being manipulated so easily.
Wait, So Coulson Might Actually Be Dead?
If Coulson is truly dead, it would be massive shame on one hand, but it would be effective storytelling on the other. So many times fans and critics complain that death in comics is way too telegraphed ahead of time or meaningless due to the constant resurrection cycle of superhero comics. Phil Coulson isn’t a superhero; he’s just an ordinary man in a superhero’s world, trying to live up to their idea. And ultimately, that was his downfall. Not every character has a happy ending, and Phil Coulson, at least originally, wasn’t supposed to have one either.
It would lead to major changes within the Deadpool title, too, as Duggan has given Wade a depth of humanity and personality unlike any other creator to work on the character before. Throughout two volumes dating back five years now, Deadpool has been working on becoming a better person and a better hero. The revelation that he murdered Coulson — who was trying to warn him about HydraCap — could make him relapse to his old ways in a manner that could be disastrous for himself and the people around him. Wade has managed to build somewhat of a life and a future for himself, but this revelation could upend all of that forever, and lead to the Deadpool 2099 future established in previous issues of this volume.
We can’t know yet whether Coulson is dead or not, and maybe someone can wish on the Cosmic Cube at the end of the story to bring him back along with Rick Jones and the population of Las Vegas, Nevada. Again, no-one ever really dies in comics, and like Jean Grey, Phil Coulson is kinda defined as a character by his own resurrection. However, as a single issue, Deadpool #31 is visceral, affecting and one of the best written issues in the Secret Empire crossover event to date. It examines the moral choices heroes are forced to make in a nuanced way that not many of the other tie-ins are achieving.