WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Avengers #18 by Jason Aaron, Ed McGuinness, Mark Morales, Justin Ponsor and VC's Cory Petit, on sale now.
One of the very first casualties of Marvel Comics' 2017 event, Secret Empire, was the murder of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson -- a death that was as real and final as you're likely to find in a superhero story. What made his death all the more heartbreaking is it came at the hands of someone he considered an ally: Deadpool.
The Merc with a Mouth looked up to Captain America and strived to do anything to win his favor, even if it meant committing murder. Of course, while Deadpool believed he was following the orders of Steve Rogers, the man was really an evil version of the Sentinel of Liberty, dubbed HydraCap by readers.
Though she was also killed in the event, Marvel didn't waste any time bringing Black Widow back to life after Secret Empire, but Coulson remained off the grid until his surprising return in the oversized Avengers #10 (aka, Issue #700). But instead of the familiar Agent Coulson that fans had come to love, the revived Coulson has a much darker demeanor. No longer an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson is now working for General Thunderbolt Ross to recruit a new team of superheroes to replace the Avengers as America's premier defenders, the Squadron Supreme of America.
So Coulson is alive once more, and now holds a serious grudge against superheroes (can you blame him?), but who made his return possible? Avengers #18 finally provides an answer to that mystery, while also raising all-new questions.
The Devil Is In The Details
The Marvel Universe is currently occupied with the Asgardian-fueled crossover event War of the Realms, including Earth's Mightiest Heroes. While the Avengers do their best to keep the peace in New York City, Frost Giants have invaded Washington, D.C. This is just the opening Coulson has been waiting for to unleash the Squadron Supreme of America, and he does just that. Hyperion, Power Princess, Nighthawk, Doctor Spectrum and The Blur make quick work of the Frost Giants, sending them fleeing to Canada.
Since Canada rests outside the boundaries of the United States, the Squadron sees no need to give pursuit, leaving the States' neighbors to the north to fend for themselves. With the day won, Coulson relaxes and celebrates with a candlelight dinner with someone he only refers to as "sir." Of course, fans of ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are used to Coulson calling his superiors "sir," but there is something different about the person he's talking to here.
If the use of the color red and a different style of font wasn't enough of a clue, we also see their outstretched arm has red skin. The last page finally gives the reveal away, as we see Coulson raising a glass to the villain who brought him back from the dead: The devil of the Marvel Universe, Mephisto.
Mephisto takes full credit for Coulson having his life back again, and may have even played a part in helping him assemble the Squadron Supreme of America. Avengers #18 features Coulson training and brainwashing the Justice League analogs, and we have to wonder how he would be able to influence such powerful characters if not for some otherworldly assistance. Perhaps Coulson was granted special abilities along with a new lease on life.
Avengers isn't the only Marvel series to see Mephisto play a significant role in the last few months. While we're used to seeing the villain play puppetmaster to the likes of Ghost Rider, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man, he recently gave a "One More Day" moment to another web-slinger, Miles Morales, in Champions, just a year or so after taking over Las Vegas in the "Damnation" crossover.
Did Mephisto seek out Coulson to make him an offer he couldn't refuse in the Afterlife, or did Coulson come up with the idea of dealing with the devil? And what is Mephisto getting out of reviving Coulson, aside from putting an obstacle in front of the Avengers? Is it all tied to Johnny Blaze's new role as the ruler of Hell and an eventual showdown with his replacement, Robbie Reyes?
No matter what happens, Mephisto now has a loyal servant -- and possibly a brainwashed superteam -- to do his bidding.