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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Static Thoughts - Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD

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As I write this, it’s the eve of Agents of SHIELD’s 4th and possibly final season.  To celebrate, I’ve decided to look back on the first time SHIELD was ever adapted to the small screen; the 1998 made-for-TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, starring David Hasselhoff.  It’s easy to forget this now because of how much Marvel has transformed the cultural landscape but before 1999 virtually ALL of Marvel’s live action output was on TV.  This mainly came from a series of failed pilots in the ‘70s and the Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk show. 

However, after the success of 1989’s Batman and the 1990 Flash TV series Marvel made another go of it on TV, first forming a lucrative deal with Fox for animation (which is where the Spider-Man and X-Men show come from) and then pivoting into a pair of TV movie pilots.  This was the second, basically making it the last Marvel live action TV show before Agents of SHIELD, let’s dive in. 

So, let’s address the elephant in the room- Nick Fury is white in this movie.  If you only know Fury through the movies, this probably seems like a bit of a red flag, but it makes sense given the time.  See, the black version of Nick Fury comes from a rights deal Marvel made with Samuel L. Jackson. 

Back in 2000 Marvel launched a line of comics called the Ultimate Universe, meant to be a streamlined and more modern version of their universe.  As part of that imprint, Marvel cut a deal with Samuel L. Jackson that they could use his likeness for Ultimate Nick Fury so long as he got t play Nick Fury in any movies the character was featured in.   Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD was the last possible time a white guy could’ve ever played Nick Fury. 

Honestly though, the casting stuff is the most logical part of this whole enterprise, in so much as David Hasselhoff is probably the best conceivable Nick Fury you could go with.  The Hoff, as he likes to be called, is one of those hokey actors that just completely owns his quasi-ironic machismo and overt cartoonishness, so casting him as a literal cartoon character that was always meant to embody exaggerated masculinity is a perfect fit.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about Nick Fury because I get the impression most folks now don’t seem to know that much about him.  Currently speaking Nick Fury’s identity has been thoroughly colored by the success of the Marvel films, more or less over-writing who this guy is and what he’s about.  

The original Nick Fury was originally a World War 2 hero from 1963 when war comics came into vogue.  That comic, Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos, was popular but couldn’t keep going so Marvel elected to re-imagine Nick as the embodiment of the new idealized masculine fantasy of the 1960s- a super spy. 

This was right around the time James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were becoming massive hits and shaping the superhero genre along the way (remember, Adam West’s Batman was directly inspired by Man from U.N.C.L.E.)  

So Nick Fury and SHIELD became the hub of Marvel’s spy stuff, graduating it up to one of Marvel’s most popular comics of the time.  Even after the ‘60s dwindled and the spy craze died down SHIELD and Nick Fury were so full of cool ideas they stuck around, basically becoming the lynchpin connecting the various parts of the Marvel Universe. 

I’m not entirely sure why Fox elected to adapt Nick Fury to a full show, especially given his character is intrinsically tied to Cold War era fetishism ala James Bond.  Speaking of which, the best reason I could muster for Fox’s decision is that Golden Eye, Mission: Impossible, and Men In Black had all just come out and Fox was eager to chase that trend.  What’s more, Fury’s an easier character to adapt on the cheap than say Spider-Man or the X-Men: there’s no costume, no super powers, and the most expensive stuff is the gadgets and locations. 

Which brings us to the plot of the film proper, which is honestly so simplistic it could probably fit into the current Marvel universe.  It revolves around Hydra, the now famous Marvel super villain agency, here being led by Andrea Von Strucker.  Andrea’s the daughter of Baron Von Strucker, the briefly seen bad guy from the opening scene of Age of Ultron.  Andrea’s revived her father’s organization and is plotting to release a doomsday virus into Manhattan, so SHIELD brings in Nick Fury to shut her down, he may be a loose cannon, but he’s the best they got. 

It’s about as bare-bones an “action” plot as you can get, complete with action movie pre-requisites.  There's an old friend who gets killed to make it personal and a fresh young rookie who’s not that skilled but has heart.  Plus there's an old flame that's sent to get Fury back and of course the standard “I haven’t heard that name in a long time” scene that’s become a meme in its own right. 

Also yes, this movie was written by David Goyer

All that arch and stock story design ends up working to the film’s benefit as it’s for the best they don’t muddy the plot with complexity the writers couldn’t handle.  What’s more, the thin plot keeps the film brisk and breezy, so none of the weaker elements get a chance to set in or overstay their welcome.  

For instance, Hasselhoff’s Nick Fury is essentially a big rolled up ball of one-liners and clich├ęd dialogue delivered with shockingly stone-faced sincerity.  Now, if he were allowed to linger on that would become deeply tedious, but the way the film slides through most scenes always gives him something new to be sarcastically disaffected about. 

There are supporting character as well, including a handful that’ve shown up in the MCU by now such as Alexander Pierce and Arnim Zola, who you might remember from Winter Soldier.  Mostly the supporting cast is structured for the TV show that was meant to materialize out of the film like Kate Neville as a psychic agent.  Honestly, the whole film feels a lot more like a pilot than a movie and, taken on that merit; it’s actually a pretty solid TV pitch. 

Fury himself is a fun lead and Andrea von Strucker is a delightfully over the top antagonist, most of all the world of the pilot is deeply engaging.  They do their best to cram all kinds of gadgets and gimmicks into the set-up like face changing spray and robot doubles, and it’s all very charming. 

Honestly “charm” is pretty much the cornerstone of what makes the Nick Fury movie worth watching, which is relatively true of ALL Marvel’s live-action offerings before Spider-Man.  The budgetary limitations obviously keep the film from being as action heavy as it wants to be but the gusto with which it embraces the weird sci-fi elements and the complete lack of irony or self-consciousness over its own blatant machismo.  David Hasselhoff has built most of his career on this particular blend of goofy ideas and total sincerity making up for dodgy execution and he really shines in this particular adaptation. 

I’m not sure that I can totally recommend Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD but it’s certainly something to consider watching if you’re a more forgiving comic book fan.  I think that the film’s own level of cheesy self-acceptance has actually kept it from developing greater awareness now in the level of Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk or even Japanese Spider-Man.  It’s not quite weird enough to be appreciated for sheer bizarreness but it’s also too accepting of its own goofiness and failures to fit into the “so bad it’s good” zone of most of Marvel’s ‘70s offerings. 

What’s more, now that we’ve got superheroes on every street corner I feel like we’re a little spoiled in terms of expectation and scope.  Just speaking as someone who grew up at a time when movies like this were the best we could hope for I do find a serious nostalgic charm in just how much the show is able to achieve.  If you’re in the same boat or are just hungry for a superhero dish full up on ham and cheese this is one to check out.     

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