The History Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: TV, Movies, And Beyond

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that ABC has ordered a full season of “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, masterminded by Joss Whedon.  Last week, we recapped the comic book History of S.H.I.E.L.D. and today, we take a look at the agency’s appearances in other media.

By the late 1970s, Marvel Comics wasn’t just ruling the newsstands, but also making inroads into the bookstore market.  Fireside Books released Origins Of Marvel Comics in 1974, and when it proved to be a hit, it was followed by more volumes.  In 1977, Pocket Books found success with a series of full-color pocket-size comic reprints.  The natural next step was to launch a line of prose novels featuring Marvel characters, and in 1978, Pocket did exactly that.  These books were firmly set in the Marvel universe, so it was inevitable that S.H.I.E.L.D. would end up playing a role – and indeed, in the fourth book in the series, Nick Fury and company made their first appearance outside of a comic book.

“Captain America: Holocaust For Hire” was written by novelist and historian Ron Goulart (under the pseudonym Joseph Silva), and follows Captain America, Nick Fury, and dozens of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents as they battle to keep the Red Skull from destroying civilization and creating a new Nazi empire.  Fury plays almost as large a role in the story as Cap himself, and many of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s familiar motifs play important roles (the secret base behind a barber shop, the immense Helicarrier HQ, the bizarre technological gimmicks).  Nick Fury also played an important role in “And Call My Killer… MODOK,” an Iron Man novel released in 1979, wherein S.H.I.E.L.D. teamed up with the armored avenger to defeat MODOK and his corporate cronies A.I.M. (AKA Advanced Idea Mechanics).

And twenty-one years later, our favorite super-spies finally got their own top-billing in a literary adaptation.  “Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD: Empyre,” a novel by Will Murray, was published as part of Berkeley’s line of Marvel novels in 2000.  The plot revived the concept of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s psychic sensory division from the old Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comics, and featured Fury and his agents going head-to-head with a group of international hijacker/terrorists.  It’s a pretty entertaining thriller, but the planned follow-up was never released, and the line of Marvel novels was soon discontinued.

Marvel found more success licensing their properties for video games, and of course, it was only a matter of time before S.H.I.E.L.D. showed up.  Nick Fury co-starred in 1993’s wildly popular “Punisher” arcade game (as well as the home version for the Sega Genesis).  Various incarnations of the character also made appearances in the 2005 PS2 “Punisher” game, “Spider-Man: Web Of Shadows,” “Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions,” “X-Men Legends II,” and other titles.  And S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury played important roles in both “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” and “Ultimate Alliance 2.”

But for all this, S.H.I.E.L.D. would have their greatest impact in the medium of television, as they wove themselves into nearly every show that featured Marvel characters.

“Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends” began airing on NBC in 1981, and became a Saturday-morning staple for a generation of young superhero fans.  And in the third season, S.H.I.E.L.D. made its small screen debut in the episode “Mission: Save The Guardstar”.  In this story, agent Buzz Mason recruited Spider-Man and Firestar to battle a young mutant who attempted to use an orbiting satellite (the Guardstar of the title) to control the world.  Many of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s trademark props were in evidence: the blue jumpsuits with attached holster-harnesses, the flying sports cars, the Helicarrier headquarters.

S.H.I.E.L.D. then insinuated themselves into most of the Marvel cartoons that followed: Commander G.W. Bridge featured in “X-Men: The Animated Series”; Nick Fury and other operatives played important roles in “Iron Man” and “Spider-Man: The Animated Series”; and the agency made appearances in “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Men-Evolution,” “Iron Man: Armored Adventures,” “Spider-Man Unlimited,” “Wolverine And The X-Men,” and “The Super Hero Squad Show.”

So while S.H.I.E.L.D. has been a regular presence on tv screens, the agency’s sole headlining moment came on May 26, 1998, when David Hasselhoff took the lead role in the made-for-TV movie “Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

This was, remember, the era before Marvel had quite figured out how to adapt their characters to live action.  The first Blade movie wouldn’t hit theaters until later that year, and Marvel’s most recent film efforts had been the “Generation X” TV movie, the low-budget “Captain America” film, and Roger Corman’s “Fantastic Four” (which wasn’t even deemed worth of releasing).  So the bar was set pretty low.  And this Nick Fury adaptation, despite showing promise, was every bit as mediocre as its predecessors.

The short version of the plot: HYDRA has a chemical weapon, and wants to use it to wipe out most of the East Coast.  Nick Fury is in retirement, the feds show up to ask him back and save everyone, he (eventually) accepts.  HYDRA attacks.  Nick and his ex-girlfriend engage in seriously stilted entendre-slinging.  A scientist attempts to seduce Nick, but it’s a trap and she poisons him.  Nick then staggers around for the rest of the movie, trying to keep his wits about him as he’s fighting to survive, and saving the world.  Things go boom.  Lots of extras die, the good guys win, the bad guys escape, everyone lives happily ever after.

It’s a fine enough premise, but the execution falls horribly flat.  Fury comes off as a horrid misogynist, rather than the gruffly old-fashioned character of the comics.  The momentum gets interrupted by cliffhangers every ten minutes (to feed into commercial breaks).  The special effects aren’t terrible for a TV budget, but they’re nothing to write home about.  No cliche goes unturned, and no gadget is too ridiculous to provide a last-minute save.

On the other hand, the ambition is impressive.  Many of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s comic book concepts are transferred directly to the screen, and a number of established agents have major roles (including Gabe Jones, Dum Dum Dugan, Contessa Val De La Fontaine, Kate Neville, and Alexander Pierce).  There are some good ideas, but they’re lost in a mess of mediocre acting and contrived plot devices.

Surprisingly, this fiasco was written by David Goyer, who went on to write and/or produce a number of successful comic-based projects, including the “Blade” trilogy, the two Nicolas Cage “Ghost Rider” movies, Christopher Nolan’s trio of “Batman” films, and the upcoming “Man Of Steel.”

And though this production was chalked up as a failure, the concept of S.H.I.E.L.D. persevered. From the moment Marvel created their own studio and began controlling their own cinematic destiny, S.H.I.E.L.D. played an integral role.  When “Iron Man” hit the silver screen in 2008, S.H.I.E.L.D. was right there.  Clark Gregg played the newly-created part of Agent Phil Coulson, Samuel L. Jackson was cast in the role of Nick Fury (based on the depiction of the character in the parallel-universe Ultimate comic books), and S.H.I.E.L.D. has gone on to become, as in the comics, the connecting thread of the Marvel universe.

Read the rest of our History of S.H.I.E.L.D. here!