We think of popular superhero movies today as big budget, high production value events. This wasn’t always the case though. In the days before high quality computer special effects, superhero movies struggled to recreate the outlandish elements of their source material, resulting in things like 1990’s Captain America, 1991’s Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, Roger Corman’s fabled Fantastic 4 movie, and the infamous Howard the Duck. Aimed primarily at younger audiences and usually shot on a shoe-string budget, these movies relied on audiences not paying too close attention or demanding too much in the way of production values.
One of those films is Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., a 1998 made-for-TV movie starring David Hasselhoff (of Baywatch fame) as the titular head of Marvel’s superhero law enforcement division. Written by David Goyer (who would go on to define the superhero genre with his scripts for Blade, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and Man of Steel) and directed by Rod Hardy, the film features Nick Fury coming out of retirement to stop a highly convoluted Hydra plot to extort world leaders with a deadly virus.
The Original Cinematic Nick Fury
Fury had been forced into retirement in the first place by a culture of effete pencil-pushers at S.H.I.E.L.D. and is living in an abandoned mine shaft. Early on, we see Fury hacking away at the interior of the mine with a pick ax. Why is he doing this? It’s hard to say. Like many elements of the movie, this moment seems included mainly to build up a sort of texture: Nick Fury is a hard man, a rugged man, the kind of man who moves into an abandoned mine shaft and finds it too cushy.
It’s this arbitrary technique that lends to the movie’s unique strangeness. Details, plot points, even entire characters exist to communicate one idea or another, with little thought given to how much these ideas make sense, connect with one another, advance the plot, or even contribute to a comprehensible movie.
The Strength and Weaknesses of Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Take, for example, the character of Alexander Pierce, the high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official played by Robert Redford in the MCU. Here, in contrast to the comics, Pierce is played by Neil Roberts as a sort of British fop, primarily, it would seem, to reinforce Fury’s All-American tough guy persona in contrast. Likewise, Dum Dum Dugan, a member of the Howling Commandos instantly recognizable by his trademark bowler hat and curled red mustachio, becomes just another S.H.I.E.L.D. underling in a suit and tie, presumably to avoid making Fury’s overwhelming masculinity anything less than completely singular.
There’s something fascinating to this ‘no logic, just vibes’ approach, though it does make the movie borderline incomprehensible. Hydra’s sinister plot: to use a virus recovered from the dead body of their former leader Baron von Strucker to force the President to turn over $1 billion, has a lot of moving pieces, none of which are readily apparent on first watch.
The movie in turn makes up for this with reams of exposition and inexplicable contrivances. Take, for example, the character of Kate Neville. In another deviation from the comics, Neville is telepathic in this adaptation, seemingly solely so that information can be extracted from von Stucker’s terrorist children without too much inconvenience.
The Silver Age of Comic Book Movies?
All this might make Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. sound like a bad movie, and it undoubtedly is, but it’s not without its charms. Interestingly, these often go hand-in-hand with the movie’s, let’s call them, stranger decisions. Does the movie cross-cut between two simultaneous action sequences in a way that makes both entirely incomprehensible? It does. Is the shocking death of a main character almost immediately nullified by the reveal that they were, in fact, one of Marvel’s notorious Life Model Decoys? It is. Does Fury have a small explosive hidden in the cavity of his lost eye, just in case he needs to escape an industrial freezer at some point? Oh, you better believe it. Does one of the villains have an aerosol spray that somehow changes her face back and forth from a disguise? How could she not?
It all adds up to a sort of cinematic version of Marvel’s silver age comics. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s sloppy and silly, both intentionally and (more often) unintentionally. It’s a product of the genre’s awkward teenage years (Blade would be released just a few months later, marking a key turning point for the genre and a huge artistic leap for David Goyer).
At the time, producers sought to appeal more to adult audiences but couldn’t or wouldn’t invest the time, energy, or money to elevate the films above the slap-dash toy commercials of early superhero media. The result is a B-movie of the kind we don’t see much these days, best watched with a handful of snarky friends and a reminder that the people who made the movie didn’t take it too seriously, and neither should we.