Before Capes Were Cool #8: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1998)

There have been two solo movies about the Incredible Hulk made in the post-X-Men landscape: 2003’s Hulk and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Reactions to both were mixed, and neither set the box office on fire.1 But people still talk about Ang Lee’s Hulk in a way they don’t talk about the Edward Norton-starring Incredible Hulk. Hulk has a small following, particularly among the set that finds the Marvel Cinematic Universe a bit cookie-cutter. Even if you hated it, Hulk sticks with you as ambitious, weird, challenging. Terrible? Well, yeah, I think so. Yet, while The Incredible Hulk is probably a better movie, there isn’t much to say about it. It’s precisely what you would expect a movie version of the Hulk to be without much flair or surprise. I’ve seen each movie only one time, but nearly 15 years later, I still remember elements of Hulk vividly,2 whereas The Incredible Hulk doesn’t really stick in the craw.

All of which is to say this is going to be a short one, dudes. The 1998 Fox made-for-TV movie Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD is a more competently executed movie than last week’s failed CBS pilot for Justice League of America…but there’s very little going on to talk about.

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A SHIELD series is a logical comic book property to adapt to TV—I mean, there’s one on now, right? Secret agents fighting bad guys. Nobody has to wear a mask or a colorful costume. Nobody has to say “Green Lantern” and act like they mean it. Joe Average could watch this movie and never know it was based on a comic book. Today, viewers of Agents of SHIELD complain that the show doesn’t interact enough with its superhero universe, but back in 1998, a lack of superhero baggage was considered an asset.

Yet, this movie doesn’t totally discard its comic book roots. They show the Helicarrier, credit for that. They have the ESPer division of agents who perform psychic interrogations on prisoners. They build a Life Model Decoy of Fury that is integral to the plot. It’s in this way that the movie distinguishes itself from being Generic TV Spy Movie with Marvel Character Names. But take away those surface-level trappings, and nothing interesting happens.

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Classic Earth-616 white-guy Fury is, perhaps, a difficult character to make a protagonist, even in comics. He has a functional role as the top cop of the Marvel Universe, and his cigar-chompin’ gruffness makes him a colorful guest star, but he lacks the more complicated dimensions and relatability of Marvel’s more popular leads. Likewise, in this movie, he comes off as a fairly undefined character. He’s grumpy. He’s suspicious of technology and rookies and the stuffed shirts who won’t let him smoke on the Helicarrier. He’s a classic conservative hero: an ultra-competent man of action who gets things done while his soft superiors wring their hands because he doesn’t follow the rules. It’s an archetype we’ve all seen before because there’s an audience for it, and a charismatic actor like a Clint Eastwood or a Mel Gibson can make this type of character compelling, even if you would find such a character3 troubling in real life.

David Hasselhoff is just not up for it. I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s clever or hilarious or a hot take to dunk on the Baywatch dude; these are just the facts. Hasselhoff’s Fury isn’t roguishly charming; he doesn’t seem to be hiding a heart of gold or some secret pain that’s caused him to erect barriers to keep the world at bay. There is, in short, nothing to endear us to him. He’s just kind of a grouchy asshole, always turned up to 11. The movie opens with him in retirement, living in the wilderness until SHIELD needs to call him back for one last mission involving the frozen remains of his archnemesis, Baron Strucker. And so the movie is all just him, the old vet, called back into active duty and growling about how everything’s different and bad now. It gets real old, real fast.

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Anyway, Nick Fury saves the day and stops Strucker’s kids (and Arnim Zola!) from unleashing the doomsday virus harvested from their dad’s remains on the world. It all just happens and it’s okay. You’ve probably seen sexy TV spy action handled worse. It’s not a trainwreck the way Justice League of America is, and yet…you could watch JLoA with some drinks and some buddies and have a good time yelling at the screen. Nick Fury might have you giggling at Hasslehoff’s overheated tough-guy shtick, but you’ll be checking your phone before long.


POSTSCRIPT: It bears noting that this movie was written by David S. Goyer, who, in the 1990s, wrote Crow: City of Angels and the Blade movies and the actual JSA comic at DC, all of which afforded him a certain amount of cred going into the post-X-Men era as “the Hollywood guy who understands this comic book stuff.” He went on to have his credit on Batman Begins and the Dark Knight films, and in the wake of Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan’s departure, DC’s film division looked to him as an architect of their own cinematic universe. And I really think, if you watch Nick Fury, you’ll see the guy who wrote Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: he knows all the lore and gets the characters’ names right, but he makes his characters cold and hard and cynical because—and perhaps this is an unfair characterization, but some rather unpleasant interviews do nothing to shake this impression—it feels like Goyer wants to play with the toys while trying to prove that he’s a grownup.

NEXT: After a rash of oddballs and stinkers and disappointments, I promised you we’d look at something actually good again. So, be back next week for 1966’s Batman: The Movie to restore your faith in this whole “live-action superhero” thing.