Marvel Comics has revealed that their resurrected Agent Coulson is secretly working for Mephisto, their version of the Devil. Death is something of a revolving door in comics, but often the experience of death appears to change secondary characters quite substantially. It's long been clear that Phil Coulson's death has moved him into a very dark and dangerous place.
Coulson was one of the most high-profile victims of the "Secret Empire" event, in which a twisted version of Captain America took over the United States in the name of Hydra. All of Earth's Mightiest Heroes were taken by surprise, but not Coulson; he immediately spotted when Cap was acting out of character, and even figured out the truth. Unfortunately, Steve Rogers realized he was close to being uncovered, and manipulated Deadpool into killing Coulson before he could tell Rogers' secrets to the Avengers. More recently, though, Jason Aaron's Avengers run has revealed that Coulson is back. He's now leader of a dangerous and brutal superhero team he calls the Squadron Supreme of America, a group he's setting up to rival the Avengers. And he seems a changed man, much more sinister, with his trust in superheroes replaced by disdain.
This week's Avengers #18 finally explains how Coulson came back from the dead - and just why he's been transformed so much. It's a side-story to the "War of Realms" event, focusing on the Squadron Supreme's battle against Malekith's forces in the early days of Malekith's invasion.
Where the Avengers concentrated their forces in New York, and were defeated with shocking speed, the Squadron Supreme first drove the Dark Elves and Frost Giants back at Washington, D.C., before going on the offensive across the country. The issue reveals the sheer extent to which Coulson is manipulating the Squadron Supreme, literally programming their emotions, and that he's established some sort of hypnotic control over the military leaders who are supposed to be commanding him. Throughout, there are also scenes in which Coulson is dining with a mysterious figure he calls "sir" - and it's finally shown to be Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil.
This confirms that Mephisto is the one who has resurrected Phil Coulson, but he's only done so after he broke Coulson's spirit and turned him into his pawn. It means that Mephisto is the one who's really in charge of a powerful team of superheroes, as well as - through Coulson - a chunk of the United States military. Looking across the rest of the Marvel Comics range, Mephisto is clearly working on something; he's also a pronounced background presence in the pages of The Champions, where he's particularly enjoying manipulating Miles Morales and Amadeus Cho. It looks as though Mephisto is taking advantage of the chaos of recent years to launch a plan of his own - and right now, the Avengers have no idea he's even a threat.
Oddly enough, Coulson is returning from the dead as a villain both in the comics and on TV. Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson was left dying at the end of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5, and resolved to spent his last few days on the beach at Tahiti with Agent May. Gregg is returning in season 6 as a sort of "not-Phil-Coulson" role, which he describes as "this other very mysterious person… And the mystery of who that person is and why he looks like that, is something that they’ve done groundbreaking, wild stuff with that I’m really lucky to play." It's always amusing to see a well-timed synergy between the comics and the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Avengers #18 is on sale now from Marvel Comics.