What if we got the Marvel Cinematic Universe roughly a decade earlier…?
Over twenty years ago this very week, you may be surprised to learn that a TV version of Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired on the Fox channel. This version starred TV icon David Hasselhoff as the deadly spy with the eye patch and leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. Unless you were one the lucky few (or unlucky depending on your point of view) to catch a viewing on May 26, 1998, this project has been all but forgotten. It was poorly received and never built the momentum to result in a full series order. As a result, the cinematic capital of Nick Fury wouldn’t be touched until the end credits of 2008’s Iron Man, announcing something called “the Avengers Initiative.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Marvel Comics famously has a series (as well as a Disney+ show in development) called “What If…?” where an omniscient being called “the Watcher” explores alternate realities. Realities where, if one thing had been changed or one event transpired differently, an entire reality is altered. It’s a great series if you’ve ever wondered, “what if Professor X became the Juggernaut instead of Cain Marko?” Or, “what if Frank Castle got the Venom symbiote instead of Eddie Brock?”
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Well, I am that Watcher today. I am Uatu (that’s the Watchers name) and the reality I’m exploring with you the reader is “what if Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with David Hasselhoff had been a hit?” I’m talking the last episode of M.A.S.H. numbers (106 million if you were wondering). I’m talking the viewership of the final Seinfeld episode (76 million) or Netflix’s Tiger King (they’ll never tell). I’m talking a gamma sized bomb that rocks the industry and can’t be ignored, forcing the Marvel Universe to launch decades before it’s ready.
Firstly, let’s surmise that Fox had no idea their little TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a hit. How could they? Superheroes are dead. Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, starring George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell, was widely panned the previous summer. A live adaptation of Image comics Spawn scared up little to no success. The superhero pool will be dried up for another two years until a film called X-Men revives the genre.
Nick Fury is made for measly 6 million dollars and the success of a 50 share rating throws executives. There’s a mad dash to get a follow-up project fast-tracked. Where will it go? The television Fall schedule is already filled. Television? Television is small potatoes. There’s no money in TV (This is 1998, after all). The summer box office of 1999 is where execs are looking to cash in. They dream of Star Wars-type waiting lines. Repeat viewings. Titanic money, literally and figuratively.
An emergency meeting is called the morning of Wednesday, May 27th, 1998. The top execs gather. Producers gather. The assistants to the producers gather. The interns get coffee, but after that, they gather too. Who do we hire? Who’s available? Who can we get? What the heck is this Nick Fury thing even about?
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It’s settled that Lauren Shuler Donner will be executive producer on the film. Her last two films Assassins‘ and Volcano have been minor hits and she can deliver a product on time. The possibility of her husband Richard Donner coming on board to direct is also talked about, but nothing’s for sure. So, Lauren Shuler Donner. Remember that name…
Let’s crash back to reality for a second. When casting a major motion picture in Hollywood, a studio mostly knows who they want. Of course, they’d all want Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt involved in their project. But there are always two factors; One, can we afford (insert your favorite A list star’s name here) and two, are they even interested?
Don’t believe me? Bob Zemeckis couldn’t have Michael J. Fox, so Eric Stoltz was originally cast as Marty Mcfly. Tom Selleck would have been Indiana Jones had he not been contractually obligated to the TV series Magnum P.I. Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, losing out on millions of dollars because he didn’t “get it”! I rest my case. It’s always “Who can we get and who’s available?”
So knowing all this, let’s set up production for this 1999 blockbuster. A film we’re calling The Avengers.
Nothing gets made in Hollywood without a script. Ok, let me rephrase that…Most things don’t get made in Hollywood without a script. Fortunate for the studio, Nick Fury was penned by a promising young writer named David S. Goyer (Dark City, Batman Begins). Most of the executives want Goyer to pen the next Nick Fury installment (or whatever this thing is), but a few scoff at the notion of a TV writer writing a Hollywood movie (again this is the ‘90s). The few naysayers however are outvoted, as he has already sold a script for a film in production for a different Marvel property called Blade.
Goyer is sent away to write the film with specific notes to lean “younger” for the characters as well as make a commercially viable property (we’re talking merchandising dollas). The studio moves on to finding a director to helm this adaptation towards the horizon.
Obviously, the studio would love Steven Spielberg or James Cameron to helm the picture, but it’s a Thursday morning and they’re still dreaming. Spielberg crushed the previous summer with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Cameron is king of the world because Titanic is STILL making money months after being released.
The higher-ups turn their attention elsewhere. Their second and third choices are the previously mentioned Richard Donner and Michael Bay. Donner is set to release Lethal Weapon 4 and Bay has a little disaster film ready to explode called Armageddon a few months away. Both are interested, but won’t commit to this unknown superhero property. A few executives mention a director Martin Campell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale), who just directed The Mark of Zorro. Someone brings up this visionary young director David Fincher, but he’s unavailable, currently in pre-production for film adaption of a book called Fight Club.
They ultimately take a meeting and go with a young director with a knack for story, James Mangold, who released a small film the previous year called Copland and is immediately available. While Copland didn’t set the box office on fire, it made four times its money back, garnered critical acclaim for Sylvester Stallone, and proved Mangold could handle a large ensemble cast.
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If you’re still with me on this trip, this is where liberties need to start being taken. In our universe, Marvel started with Iron Man, then moved on Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and so on. This gave each character a film or two of back story, so a film like 2012’s The Avengers didn’t have to waste time doing that.
Let’s just assume, we’re skipping the buffet and going straight for dessert, a la 2017’s Justice League, and no one has a problem with it. Let’s just assume Goyer came back with a script similar to Joss Whedon’s. And let’s also assume the studio had the film rights to all of the same characters. And let’s really assume someone like J. J. Abrams (who was only a writer at the time) didn’t find a way to get onto the 20th Century Fox lot and wrangle the keys to the castle to REALLY make things interesting.
We’re just getting started! Next week, we’ll begin diving into the casting for Avengers: 1999. Who do you think will make the call sheet? Let us know below!
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