Episode 3 of Marvel Studios’ What If…? featured the return of fan favorite Phil Coulson. He may have been a cartoon, but he was still the same Coulson that fans have come to adore. His password was on trend with his love for Steve Rogers, and his fondness for Thor was a highlight of the episode.
While most fans are most familiar with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in a live-action format, What If…? is not the first instance of Coulson in animated form. Clark Gregg, who portrays Coulson, has played numerous iterations of the character throughout his thirteen-plus years with Marvel.
Classic Phil Coulson
The agent makes his earliest chronological appearance in Captain Marvel, but Coulson debuted first in Iron Man. In it, he is the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tasked with assisting Tony Stark as he becomes Iron Man. From there, he makes follow-up appearances in Iron Man 2, keeping watch over Stark as he looked through his father’s old research, and in Thor, where he was called to handle Mjolnir’s landing in New Mexico.
Then came his appearance in The Avengers. The high-ranking agent helps bring the Avengers together in more ways than one. He visits Stark early in the film to deliver essential documents and research, and he’s on the quinjet that takes Steve Rogers to the helicarrier.
Coulson’s death then becomes the catalyst that brings the heroes together. They unite over the loss and stop Loki’s attempted takeover of the Earth.
Revived Phil Coulson
At first, Coulson thinks he was revived in an easy manner and has memories of recovering in Tahiti. But, in reality, he underwent a serious procedure where Kree blood was the key to his survival. While it saved his life, the blood eventually gives him a compulsion to inscribe alien writing on whatever surface he cane find, and he nearly goes mad in an attempt to figure out its meaning. The writing turns out to be a map to an underground Kree temple.
Coulson then stops with the inscriptions, and the Kree blood simply keeps him alive.
Semi-Robotic Phil Coulson
In the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 finale, Coulson’s left hand is chopped off to prevent his death by a Terrigen crystal. This leads to various prosthetics. At first, he uses a black prosthetic hand that provides just super strength. But after he leaves it on the planet Maveth, he gets upgraded prosthetics that look and feel life-like, so people won’t know it’s a prosthetic.
Coulson gets a high-tech robotic prosthetic hand with advanced functions beyond strength — such as a S.H.I.E.L.D. shield. But he also has a civilian hand without any special features.
LMD Phil Coulson
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4, most of the team is eventually replaced with life model decoys (LMDs). These androids look identical to their human counterparts and are used in an attempt to infiltrate and take down S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson is one agent who gets replaced, and his LMD version kills other agents in the attempted takedown of the agency.
Framework Phil Coulson
While LMD Coulson pretends to be the real Coulson, the actual agent is hooked up to the Framework, a virtual reality program where — in this instance — Hydra has won and is in charge. S.H.I.E.L.D. fell and no longer exists.
With no S.H.I.E.L.D., which has been made out to be a bad organization, Framework Coulson works as a history teacher, taking on the same profession his father did in reality. He, and the other agents who were replaced with LMDs, have been brainwashed and have no recollection of their reality. But Coulson still has his paranoia concerning the world and Hydra despite teaching a pro-Hydra curriculum.
One of the most iconic moments Framework Coulson has regards the supposed mind control soap that Hydra produces. It even prompts him to make his own soap.
Eventually, Coulson defies Hydra and the Framework, and he plays a key role in informing the public of Hydra’s evil ways.
Ghost Rider Phil Coulson
It wasn’t for long, but there was a time when Coulson took on the spirit of Ghost Rider.
Unfortunately for Coulson, becoming Ghost Rider came with a serious price. The Kree blood that had been keeping Coulson alive and well becomes ineffective and his body begins to deteriorate afterward. This leads to his eventual death at the end of season 5.
Chronicom LMD Phil Coulson
Not to be confused with LMD Coulson, the Chronicom LMD version of Coulson first appears in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 6 finale.
Agents Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons use both LMD technology and alien Chronicom hardware to create a new version of Coulson. This robot-esque Coulson is created because of the vast knowledge he possesses regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. The information proves to be valuable in season seven when the team goes on time-traveling adventures. The ultimate mission is to stop the Chronicoms from erasing S.H.I.E.L.D. from history, which would allow the alien race to take Earth for itself.
Using an old brain scan, Simmons provides this new version with all the information the legitimate Coulson had. Chronicom LMD Coulson turns out to be as much of a history and S.H.I.E.L.D. nerd, leader and paternal figure as the actual one was. He just isn’t human and possesses super strength.
‘Max Headroom’ Phil Coulson
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 7×07, “The Totally Excellent Adventures of Mack and The D,” Coulson exists as a hard drive hooked up to a television set à la Max Headroom. In the previous episode, Coulson’s Chronicom LMD body was blown up. But he remains “alive” via the hard drive that remained. That hard drive is later uploaded to a new Chronicom LMD Coulson body.
Principal Phil Coulson
Coulson’s first animated television appearance came in 2012 when Ultimate Spider-Man debuted on Disney XD.
Still one of the highest ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Coulson ends up going undercover at Midtown High School as its new principal. This allows him to keep an eye on and easily communicate with Peter Parker and other young heroes-in-training at S.H.I.E.L.D.