You read that right: in the 90s, David Hasselhoff was TV-movie Nick Fury.
Okay. Let’s clear something up about Nick Fury.
The character, as he appears in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is probably the only genuine example of a dumb meta-joke growing into a character in their own right. He’s not exactly the most richly-detailed character in the Avengers social-circle, gifted with maybe a bit more sense of depth than Hawkeye (power-set: Owns a bow. Backstory: Same.) but otherwise he’s sketched about as broadly as, say, The Red Skull (description: Nazi, skull face. Personality: Kinda schizophrenically-self-conscious about the face thing.) The MCU Fury is, top to bottom, Samuel L. Jackson as “Popular culture’s collective-perception of Samuel L. Jackson, if he had an eye-patch.” That’s it. Functionally, that’s the whole thing.
In any other circumstances it’d be lazy, predictable casting; especially given that Jackson played pretty much the same exact character in the weirdly (though justifiably) forgotten xXx movies movies. But here, it’s actually just another Marvel inside-reference running as programmed.
The MCU Fury is what he is because he’s a reference to The Ultimates, an overall pretty dreary comic from the overall pretty dreary “Ultimate Universe.” As the title might imply, “The Ultimates” are that world’s equivalent to The Avengers, who at the time (in the “normal” Marvel Universe) were still a genial club of superhero pals chilling in an old mansion in New York. The Ultimates, by contrast, are a bunch of grunting jerks and jerkettes who mostly can’t stand each other (unless they’re having sex with each other, and even then maybe not) assembled via government orders. One of its angles? Imagine what The Avengers would look like as a megabudget Hollywood blockbuster (this was before we found out the answer to that was “Like The Avengers, actually,” right down to casting certain characters in the mold of celebrities.
Thus does Ultimate Nick Fury looks like Samuel L. Jackson, and thus did one of only two good things about the Ultimate Universe get immortalized… oh, and it also helped that they used Jackson’s likeness without asking and settled what might’ve been an “issue” by agreeing that Jackson could have the part in any movies they made with him.
The original Nick Fury, though? He’s something else entirely.
Short version: In the early-60s, action comics set during WWII became a popular genre as writers and artists who’d served began to translate their experiences to the page. Marvel’s most popular book of the type was Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos (yes, the guys who served as Captain America’s personal squad in The First Avenger). The character was popular enough that, when Marvel was struck by the notion of doing a book aping the then-popular TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to make a present-day Nick Fury (kept artificially young-looking by “The Infinity Serum”) its main character: Col. Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
As ideas go, it’s a pretty damn good one: John Wayne reborn as James Bond with access to the cool sci-fi gadgetry of the Marvel Universe — a Russian Nesting Doll of what ten year-olds think constitutes machismo. And the series really took off when it became (however briefly) the playground of enigmatic super-artist Jim Steranko who… egh, look, just Google that name and spend a few hours being amazed that this person actually exists. Suffice it to say, this is where about 90% of the cool spy stuff in both The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is culled from.
Unfortunately, even with Steranko’s help Fury couldn’t really sustain his own book much past the 60s. But! S.H.I.E.L.D.’s usefulness as a linking-device to propel and direct event in the Marvel Universe made Fury ubiquitous in almost everyone else’s books — one of Marvel’s most-prominent characters all throughout the Cold War cloak n’ dagger days. And in the 90s… they decided to give him a try on TV.
Here’s the thing about the 1998 TV movie that was supposed to serve as pilot for Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.: It’s actually kind of… good.
NOT objectively, un-ironically good, mind you — but it’s decently fun and, unlike so many of the shows covered in this series it’s running toward its comic book origins, trying its level best to include as much of the arch characterizations, broad storytelling and outlandish goings-on from the S.H.I.E.L.D. of the comics as it can, albeit the EXTREME!!! 90s version (it’s all black leather, sneers and post-historic disaffection). Still, it’s kinetic, it loves to trot out insane plot-convenient gadgetry, aims to keep things moving and is mainly glimpsed through the eyes of camera that never met a dutched-composition they didn’t like and seldom cut to close-up when a rapid zoom or pull-in might be more fun.
Oh, and David Hasselhoff is Fury. So it’s got that going for it.
The premise is about as close as one can come to an accurate version of “S.H.I.E.L.D,-classic” without being able to draw from anywhere else in the Marvel canon: Andrea Von Strucker, daughter of cryogenically-frozen Nazi supervillain Baron Wolfgang, has reacquired her frozen Pop and along with him a biological weapon she plans to unleash on New York in a bid to revive the all-but defunct HYDRA organization. In desperation, S.H.I.E.L.D. calls troublemaking badass Nick Fury (here not, apparently, a near-immortal WWII-era hero) back to active duty (he was kicked out for being too badass, basically) to stop her.
That’s… about it, really — the plot is nakedly just a standard-issue action setup to allow for introductions to the characters, world and “cool stuff” that would be part of the hoped-for series. Fury fights the bad guys, romances a fellow agent, shows his sniveling “superiors” who wears the patch in the family and wins the day; though with The Von Struckers, HYDRA and even Arnim Zola set up to return, possibly in forms closer to their comics-counterparts.
But as a showpiece for cool stuff… there IS some pretty cool stuff in here. The budget keeps things either impressive and briefly-seen (the Helicarrier) or present and cheezy (everything else) in that instantly-identifiable 90s made-for-TV way where everything looks pretty good until it moves or has to be interacted-with in any way — though, admittedly, a lot of that is due to DVD and HD-resolution presenting television material from this era in a clarity it was never intended to be seen in. It’s all very offbeat and goofy in the way that Cold War-era espionage-fetishism was, rendered even more so by the glaze of 90’s faux-badassery poured over everything (imagine Austin Powers trying to be Snake Plissken). But beats like the moment where Fury interrupts the Agency brass chewing him out to gun down an interloper who turns out to be a HYDRA robot that subsequently projects a hologram-message from Andrea out of its mouth? Yup, that’s Steranko’s S.H.I.E.L.D. alright.
The only thing especially “wrong” with it, from a pure entertainment standpoint, is there’s sort of a dearth of actual action. There’s a lot of heroic posturing, bad guy ranting (Andrea flits around in a black bodice and flowing red cape), tech-showcasing a pounding music score… but there’s not really as much happening as you’d expect. This is where a TV budget hurts: You keep waiting for a big shootout or a major fight scene that only ever “sort of” take place.
What holds it all together, believe it or not, is The Hoff. Seriously.
Whatever else you may think of David Hasselhoff, few other actors have come to “own” the ironic-appreciation of their own celebrity as naturally as he did in the 90s. He always looked vaguely like a postmodern caricature of old-time masculinity of the type depicted in old Men’s Adventure pulp magazines, and while playing that archetype mostly-straight served him well enough in Baywatch, watching him go scenery-chewing ham full-force as Nick Fury is… kind of incredible: Perpetually-stubbled, cigar near-permanently clenched in his teeth, spitting out whatever dumb one-liner he’s handed like it’s the most cutting dig imaginable and always looking like he’d rather everything hurry the hell up so he can find the damn bathroom. I almost wish this had gone to series, just to see if he could’ve stayed in exactly this specific place the whole time.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Much like Generation X, this was another expensive pilot that didn’t generate the kind of interest that Fox was looking for to greenlight a series. After a few more re-airings, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. slipped into made-for-TV obscurity until being revived for DVD release to cash-in on the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And with that, the age of Marvel Comics as live-action TV properties came to a close for almost two decades. Not long after the ill-fated Hasselhoff venture aired, the Marvel-based action film Blade would become a surprise hit in theaters, lighting a fire under Fox to finally pull the trigger on X-Men and convincing Sony to throw real weight behind Spider-Man, both of which would become massive blockbuster hits that revived the superhero genre in movie theaters and turned Marvel into the new top name in the medium — with a war chest it would ultimately use to revolutionize the genre as a studio of its own.
In other words… we’re out of live-action Marvel shows to talk about. Sad. But, we’re still also a little over a month out from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s season premiere, so the flashbacks won’t be stopping just yet. In fact, next week we’ll be looking back even further than before, to the beginning of a TV medium where Marvel actually had a lot more real success: Animation.