For most fans, Samuel L. Jackson portrays the definitive version of S.H.I.E.L.D. super-spy Nick Fury. His performance is so widely accepted that the main continuity of Marvel Comics changed in order to make Jackson’s iteration of Nick Fury the official depiction of the character. But, before that transition took place, the original version of the character made one appearance on the small screen in a television movie that could have changed the entire course of Marvel history.
Back in 1998, Fox Television commissioned Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a 90-minute telefilm that would attempt to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s cigar-chomping character to life. Unlike the ridiculously heightened Generation X, this film was an attempt to do the original comic book stories justice. That’s one of the reasons Fox hired David Goyer as the screenwriter. As an avowed comic book fan, Goyer was determined to balance the campier aspects of the story with a fan’s knowledge and appreciation of the universe he was playing in. His devotion would pay off shortly after Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. when Goyer went on to script the movie that started the entire superheroes-in-film craze, Blade.
The other big move for the film came with the casting of Fury himself. Hot off the heels of the surprise cultural phenomenon Baywatch, former Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff signed on to play the lead character. Hasselhoff’s performance was allegedly beloved by Stan Lee, who told the actor that he was “the ultimate Nick Fury.” Hasselhoff played the character with tongue-in-cheek gruffness and two-fisted tough guy bravado.
It was apparent that Fox thought highly of the project. The reported budget for the film was somewhere around $6 million, one of the highest for any television movie in the network’s history. There were also plans drawn up for five additional telefilms that could have possibly led to an ongoing series, including appearances from other notable Marvel characters like Black Widow. Fox felt that Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. had the serious potential to usher in a new wave of superhero media.
Then the film aired. As far as the actual made-for-TV movie is concerned, it’s not bad… but it’s not extraordinary either. There’s an obvious desire to do something that honors Nick Fury’s original incarnation, as the world around him is populated by familiar figures such as the villainous organization HYDRA. But the movie is a little sluggish and just doesn’t have the budget to go as big as it would like. Hasselhoff is easily the highlight of the show, chewing scenery as much as he chews cigars. He plays the role like he’s Snake Plissken’s crotchety grandpa and it’s a true delight. The movie is worth it just to see Hasselhoff playing a very antiquated version of a superhero character.
Unfortunately, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. just didn’t capture the television audience when it premiered. It placed fourth in the ratings below reruns of JAG, a showing of James Cameron’s Titanic, and two sitcom reruns. Any attempts at prolonging the series died the night it was unleashed into the world. Even though the telefilm failed, Marvel was so impressed with Goyer’s work on the screenplay that they wanted to bring him back to work on a feature film version of the character. However, Goyer had to decline since he had just been offered another comic book film, Batman Begins.
Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stands as the last of the Marvel b-movies before Blade and X-Men changed the course of superhero cinema for all time. It’s somewhat disheartening that Marvel has done its best to keep Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a hard-to-find item. The film was released on DVD 10 years after its premiere and only as a Best Buy exclusive. Though the film is no hidden gem, it’s more than worth a watch. It’s a wonderful curiosity as the movie that very nearly could have kicked off the Marvel universe that we know today.