From the age of 12, I lived my life with a dark secret. Only the members of my immediate family knew about it. My closest high school friends were oblivious. I protected that secret like my life depended on it. In my mind, my life — or at least my social life — did depend on it. My classmates could never discover my truth.

I read comic books.

Weekly trips to the comic book store were undertaken with enormous excitement and the deep shame of a member of the raincoat brigade. I bought my comics, brought them home, read them, obsessed over them, and shared that fact with only one friend — who, importantly, was younger than me and went to a different high school. No one could know.

Let’s be clear: Even without anyone finding out about my comics-reading habit, I was still deeply uncool. It’s not like I was the captain of the high school football team hiding his one out-of-character hobby to protect his BMOC image. We’re talking about a kid who entered high school well under five feet tall. He spent his free time attending meetings of the Future Business Leaders of America and putting on plays with the Theater Society. This is the adolescent who looked at comics and thought “Nope. Too nerdy. Can’t be seen with one of those while I’m preparing for his state test on the rules of entrepreneurship!”

This must all sound absurd to anyone born a decade after me. The year someone born in 1990 turned 18, the two biggest movies were The Dark Knight, a bleak and brutal reimagining of Batman and the Joker that elevated their endless feud to the realm of grand allegory, and Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Comics weren’t just cool then; they were important. In contrast, the year I turned 18, the big Marvel TV movie was Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Long before the MCU, Marvel Comics was filled with different realities; What If? stories like “What If Wolverine Had Become a Vampire?” or “What If Cable Had Destroyed the X-Men?” Watching the Nick Fury TV movie today is like a journey into one of those alternate dimensions, to a place where Marvel is still one of the most disreputable brands in pop culture, the exclusive domain of social pariahs and castoffs from syndicated lifeguard shows.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nick Fury is played by Samuel L, Jackson. In 1998’s Nick Fury, the character is embodied by Knight Rider and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. There are comic-book precedents for both versions. The original Fury, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, evolved during the 1960s from a World War II “Howling Commando” into a super-spy in the mold of James Bond or the Man From U.N.C.L.E. In the early 2000s, Marvel rebooted many of its most famous concepts in an “Ultimate Universe” that was supposed to be more accessible to new readers by stripping away decades of established continuity. The Ultimate Nick Fury, created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Allred, was an African American spy; in the series The Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, he was redesigned to strongly resemble Sam Jackson.

Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. closely resembles the S.H.I.E.L.D. comics of the Lee and Kirby era — or at least it resembles them as closely as any Marvel film did prior to the year 2000. (A few years before Nick Fury, New World produced a movie version of The Punisher where the character never wore his trademark skull shirt; a couple years before that, George Lucas produced a Howard the Duck film where the title character looked a nightmare demon made flesh.) With his square jaw and eyepatch, Hasselhoff looked like the spitting image of Stan Lee’s Fury. He also speaks in the working-class one-liners that filled the pages of Stan Lee’s Strange Tales and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. The telefilm’s cast is filled out with supporting players from those early issues of S.H.I.E.L.D., including his loyal sidekick “Dum-Dum” Dugan (Garry Chalk) and fellow agent Gabe Jones (Ron Canada).

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But if Nick Fury does basically look like the old Nick Fury comics, it couldn’t be more different on a visual level than the modern Marvel movies. No expense is spared on MCU titles like Avengers: Endgame; these are literally the biggest movies that have ever been made. According to the always-correct Wikipedia, Fox produced Nick Fury on a $6 million budget. If that figure is accurate, they did not get their money’s worth. The special effects (and I use that phrase in the loosest sense of the term) look like unfinished video-game graphics. As the villainous Viper, Sandra Hess sports a German accent so preposterous she makes Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat sound like an authentic Kazakh. The plot calls for globetrotting adventures — with Fury and his allies racing to precent the release of a deadly new virus – but no matter where S.H.I.E.L.D. goes (Berlin, New York, etc.) they always seem to wind up in the same abandoned factory full of shadowy catwalks and backlit hallways. To call Nick Fury low-rent is to insult reasonably affordable housing.

In the 2020s, it’s surreal to see Marvel created a shoestring. In 1998, comics fans were used to less than a shoestring — like the ’90s Fantastic Four movie that was so cheaply and poorly produced it never got released. TV’s Nick Fury feels even more bizarre because of the parallels between it and the MCU’s version of the character. As in Marvel‘s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Hasselhoff’s Fury is fighting the forces of Hydra, including Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker (Campbell Lane), another Marvel Comics stalwart. Just this year, Marvel added longtime Nick Fury love interest Contessa Valentina "Val" Allegra de Fontaine to their cinematic universe, played by 11-time Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. In Nick Fury, Val is played by soap star and future Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Lisa Rinna. Ten years before Sam Jackson showed up in Tony Stark’s living room to tell him about the Avengers Initiative, Nick Fury concludes with its own patented Marvel cliffhanger; Viper escapes from S.H.I.E.L.D. and successfully revives the elder Strucker, who vows to get revenge against Fury next time...

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Except there was no next time. Hasselhoff’s Nick Fury was intended as a potential backdoor pilot to a weekly Nick Fury series, but the film performed poorly in the ratings, coming in fourth behind a rerun of JAG and an airing of half of James Cameron’s Titanic. After that, the movie faded into obscurity; it took another ten years before it emerged on DVD. By that point its writer, David Goyer, had become one of the biggest screenwriters in Hollywood after co-authoring The Dark Knight Trilogy with Christopher Nolan. What a difference a decade makes.

Today, that’s about all Nick Fury is good for; as a point of comparison between then and now. It exists as a strange artifact from a time not so long ago when Marvel was still considered such box-office poison that the best fans could hope for was a marginal TV movie of a B-level character. In some ways, it marks the end of that era. About three months after Nick Fury’s TV premiere, Blade debuted in theaters. With R-rated bloody violence, and a vampire-slaying Wesley Snipes in the lead, it became Marvel’s first theatrical hit. Over the next few years, Fox produced X-Men and Sony made Spider-Man. Both became blockbusters.

By that point, I wasn‘t just reading comics; I was working in a comic-book store. From the vantage point of the store’s cash register, I got to watch the way those movies reshaped people’s opinions in real time. People who had never set foot in our store would come directly from the theater, looking for X-Men and Spider-Man comics to try. If the comics themselves weren’t necessarily cooler, non-readers began to see their potential and power in ways they never had before.

Watching the Nick Fury movie for the very first time brought me back to the period before Marvel crossed over to that wider audience. The film’s pervasive aesthetic shortcomings — cheesy visuals, crummy acting — were in some ways the inevitable conclusion of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Comics were considered so inferior that they were treated like third-rate junk by Hollywood. That, in turn, resulted in third-rate junk movies. And the third-rate junk movies made it even more humiliating to be a comics fan, to the point where I would go to any length to avoid being seen with one. To watch Nick Fury is to get a little taste of why.

Marvel’s Complete Phase Four Movie Lineup

Here’s every movie Marvel currently has scheduled for release in Phase Four of their cinematic universe.
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