The incoming Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series marks Marvel’s long-awaited return to the small screen, seven years since the cancellation of Blade: The Series. Surprisingly, the hotly anticipated series is not the first attempt to bring the escapades of the swashbuckling Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division to our televisions. Hidden away in the Marvel vaults, there exists a long-forgotten, ambitious, feature-length pilot featuring the all-powerful espionage and law-enforcement agency. A decade before Sam Jackson donned Nick Fury’s legendary eyepatch, Marvel had attempted to serve up a far more hands-on version of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s main man, starring none other than Mr Baywatch, David Hasselhoff.
Back in the halcyon days of the nineties, Marvel were eagerly searching for another live-action TV hit, licensing out characters for a string of TV pilots. Power Pack and Generation X had failed to capture the imagination of TV viewers, but in 1998, the comics behemoth decided to try again, hiring hot young scriptwriter David S. Goyer. With veteran TV director Rod Hardy (X-Files, Battlestar Galactica) at the helm, Marvel decreed that their next televisual adventure would feature one of their lesser known adventurers, a non-super powered, but still impeccably larger-than-life roughneck crusader that audiences could root for and who could transfer easily to live action without the need for an immense budget. Step forward, Col. Nick Fury, secret agent and superspy.
In Hardy’s pilot, the retired, grizzled hero returns to duty to take down agents of HYDRA, a terrorist organisation led by the dastardly offspring of his nemesis Baron von Strucker. When the euro-villains attempt to hold the island of Manhattan hostage with a deadly virus, the eye-patch wearin’, cigar-chompin’, stubbly old warhorse emerges as America’s last chance for survival, with the ‘Hoff admirably stepping up to the plate to kick ass and take names in a series of fun, lively and hopelessly ridiculous action set-pieces.
Hardy shows admirable ambition with what is evidently a meagre budget, taking us on a stylish globetrotting adventure, crafting his own believable established universe, packed with cool technology and vehicles, S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier included. Though the ropey effects are more Red Dwarf than Star Wars, Hardy’s pilot shows far greater vision than any other Marvel TV adaptation before it, featuring lasers, robotic eyes, helicopters and a whole load of leather pants. The director dared to dream, and though his show ultimately failed, there is much to admire in his noble attempts to bring the Marvel universe to life.
In a film that works a whole lot better when not taken remotely seriously, Hasselhoff nails Fury pretty well, oozing machismo, spitting one-liners with gusto, even if his advancing years do make some action scenes seem more than a little clunky. The Knightrider star, who has claimed that his version of the character is ‘the organic Nick Fury that was written and discussed with Stan Lee,’ plays the role deliberately tongue-in-cheek. His Fury growls and seethes, the sort of bad-tempered rascal who punches out his superiors and fixes elevator malfunctions with a bullet, when he’s not shamelessly flirting with anything with boobs.
Goyer’s script is cheesy as stilton, packing in every spy cliché imaginable. Fury was always Marvel’s James Bond character and here we get everything from femme fatales to poisoned lipstick to absurd gadgets, including robotic body doubles. Goyer doesn’t quite go the full Austin Powers, but it’s not far off. However, the scribe who would go on to pen Batman Begins, doesn’t forget to arm Fury with some memorable, entertaining zingers. When quizzed ‘Is it true what women say about you?’, the colonel quips, ‘That depends if you listen to my ex-wives or my mother!’ Right before he socks a henchman in the kisser, the cantankerous daredevil remarks, ‘How’s HYDRA’s dental plan?’ It’s that sort of film –a comic book brought to life, unashamedly silly and boisterous, made in an age before Hollywood decided that comic heroes needed to be dark and serious to succeed.
This perhaps explains why the show faltered –Joel Schumacher’s highly camp, ridiculously overwrought Batman and Robin had been released the previous year, testing audiences’ patience for hammy, ostentatious costumed mayhem, suggesting some things just work better on the comic book page than on the screen. Though not quite the neon, rubber-nippled nightmare of Schumacher’s film, Nick Fury is still high pantomime, with Sandra Hess as hissing, gyrating, highly- sexualised Nazi villainess Viper proving the main culprit. Turning in an overblown, but hugely enjoyable performance as the dodgily-accented assassin who practically orgasms whenever she murders someone, Hess’ turn, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman dialled up to eleven, perhaps exemplifies everything that nineties audiences had grown tired of in their superhero films.
However, Nick Fury truly isn’t as bad as any sane person would expect a made-for-TV superhero movie starring the ‘Hoff to be. The action-packed, globetrotting plot moves along at a heady pace and is rarely boring. We meet a compelling cast of supporting players, like Tracy Waterhouse’s endearing psychic agent Kate (‘Know what I’m thinkin’ now, darlin’?’ ‘ I don’t need ESP for that, Mr Fury!’) and Lisa Rinna’s wonderfully named Contessa Valentina de Allegro Fontaine, Fury’s partner in crime, the Rachel to his Ross. The cast all appear to be having enormous fun with the cheesy dialogue, silly gadgets and colourful locations, and although everything looks slightly cheap and nasty, the movie does what a good pilot should do, laying solid foundations and backstory.
Sadly, audiences were turned off by Nick Fury, leaving us to wonder where the series could have gone. With such scope for extraordinary adventures and with a colourful cast of characters, a cheesy A-Team style show could have worked, but audiences evidently wanted more from their spandex-clad crime-fighters. Goyer’s decidedly darker Blade would finally give Marvel the live action hit they craved, opening the door for Bryan Singer’s X-Men and the fruitful period of adaptations that followed, including Joss Whedon’s all-conquering Avengers Assemble. The news of Whedon’s upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. series is heartening, as though Hasselhoff’s exploits in the eyepatch may have proven too hokey for many, they certainly whet the appetite for more whimsical espionage and senses-shattering adventure to come.