Monday, October 21, 2013

The SHIELD That Could Have Been

I think I've done a fair-to-decent job of confirming my status as a Marvel fan. I've now written detailed reviews of five of their movies (Thor, Captain America, X-men: First Class, Avengers, and Iron Man 3), and I've plugged their Marvel Unlimited online comic service. In my haul of swag from my C2E2 2013 roundup, you saw that I'd bought a half dozen pieces of Marvel art and literature, and that's only a modest addition to my collection of Marvel stuff that I haven't mentioned on the blog before. I have at least a dozen Marvel t-shirts, and I'm proud to say I have Captain America plates, coasters, and even boxer briefs. And if anything ever were to drive me to exhibitionism, I'm pretty sure it'd be my love for those Captain America undies. Except when I'm changing at the gym and I forget I wore the Cap skivvies that day--then it can be awkward. But you get the idea.

I love the Marvel characters, the major arcs (even when I don't), and I love what they're doing with the cinematic universe. But sometimes loving someone means caring enough when to tell them when they suck. Marvel made the movies Daredevil, Wolverine Origins, and Ghost Rider; there's no escaping that. But that's nothing compared to that one time they tried to make a SHIELD television series.

Yes, that's right. Agents of SHIELD is not the first attempt to bring the Marvel espionage organization onto the small screen. In 1998, Fox aired a made-for-television movie starring the director of SHIELD when he was but a mere agent. It's clear that the film was meant as a television pilot, but thankfully the world dodged that bullet and nothing more came of it. It did get released on DVD a decade later, becoming instant bargain bin fodder for Marvel nerds with $5.28 burning a hole in their pocket, and thereby allowing me to inflict it upon you.

"Except when I'm changing at the gym and I forget I wore the Cap skivvies that day--then it can be awkward. But you get the idea."

Let me stress that this DVD that I own is a total cheap cash-in on the success of Iron Man. How bad of a cash-in? Well, it goes right down to the fundamentals of SHIELD--an acronym that remains constant despite representing five or more titles over the years. In the plot of Iron Man, they established the current full title for SHIELD: the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. This is the full name that is dropped on the back of the DVD case. But, being made in the late 90s, this explanation for SHIELD hadn't been used yet, and in the very movie they drop that it stands for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-enforcement Division (and that was actually outdated in the comics as of 1991, too). So the people blurbing the back of my DVD of this little gem didn't even bother to pay attention to the movie, and that's assuming they had the cajones to actually sit through it.

Now before you think about how intensely critical I can be, let me give you a rundown of the movie. First we have a terrible call-to-action scene, in which it seems two SHIELD mooks--one of them a traitor working for Hydra--are the only guards for a detention facility that houses the cryogenically frozen remains of Baron Strucker, a Macguffin-cicle whose DNA is the secret to a biological holocaust weapon called the Death's Head. When the shady mook shoots the legitimate SHIELD guard, Hydra waltzes into the base and shows how this is the easiest key-to-doomsday in the history of the genre. Five minutes into the film, with no protagonists introduced, the villains already have everything they need to accomplish their terrible goals. Fortunately for Nick Fury, the bad guys want to dick around and showcase staggering incompetence on both sides for 80 minutes, which leads us to our hero...

Pick-axing in a cave. No one else around, no visible machinery to process whatever he might find. No explanation other than the hand-waved assumption that Cold War badass spies must find manual mining a therapeutic retirement hobby. Plus, Nick Fury is played by David Hasselhoff, and it's a great opportunity to establish one of the primary themes of the show: Nick Fury sweats pretty much all the time. At least by setting Fury's golden years (hehehe, see what I did there?) in the Yukon, this movie departs from bad television form by at least having one scene filmed in the right country. Everything is clearly Toronto forests and studios, whether it's the European op or the eventual attack on New York--or generic American city with buildings up to three stories high and a really fuzzy New York skyline dropped in.

In case you've never seen rural Canada before, this is what it looks like.
Also a good substitute for every television location ever...

Fury also gets to show off his remarkably-adroit-but-toothless combat skills. Angry at having his daily communion with the rock interrupted, good ol' Nick runs out into blinding daylight and proceeds to kick the keester of the poor prissy schmuck standing there: British agent Alexander Pierce. Nick kicks the guy in the low chest for an opener, lays a fist across the face of the dry-skinned buffoon, and then flips him hard onto the rock-strewn ground. Pierce gets up and has not a mark to show for it. And besides a slight pant that may be from getting the faintest drubbing of all time or may simple be British indignance, Pierce is able to then hold up a conversation perfectly fine.

Our titular hero wastes no time in establishing that this Fury is so badass he isn't afraid to sound stupid, provided he confines his language to a hard-G or soft-PG rating. "You're gonna have to tell SHIELD to shove one up their collective end-zones," in response to Pierce letting Fury know he's been reactivated. He uses the classy term "sexpionage" to introduce female lead Contessa Fontaine to the audience and establish that he is too masculine to think that using that sort of terminology might inhibit his chances to suck the beauty mark off her face by film's end. Later, to mock the over-accredited Pierce he chest-kicked as a d-bag howdy-doody, Fury cracks, "How's your needlepoint?" Or "When the Iron Curtain was sent to the cleaners I was suddenly out of style." And when he's in the scariest MRI machine envisioned by man:

So...much...chest hair.

And, best of all, when he's introduced to the team's completely useless psychic and she mentions that her powers are heightened by implants, he conspicuously checks out her mammalian bits so that she has to specify that her telepathy is heightened by neural implants. Oh well, if the setting has Jean Grey, Emma Frost, and Betsy Braddock, you could understand how he might think bra size might correlate to ESP potential.

Also let me take a moment to mock the realization of the helicarrier in this boondoggle. The SHIELD mobile headquarters looks like that of an helicarrier-via-erector-set, or more accurately like a model badly cobbled together from sets of two or more different scales. It's dumb, ugly, bulky, and gives no sense whatsoever of how big the helicarrier actually is since no useful details can really be discerned.

Anyways, back to the plot, as it stands. About forty minutes after the baddies waltzed in to secure their Death's Head freezer pop, they issue a demand for one billion dollars or they will unleash their super-virus on Manhattan. Now, I don't know how money transfers of this scale work--I never worked that high up in banking--but I do know that the national deficit of the US at the time was around five trillion dollars. So in my mind a one billion dollar demand is fairly easy when you're threatening to kill off about three percent of the nation's people in one blow (later they suddenly inflate the bad guys' scheme to imperil forty million people, so that's more like one-sixth of the US population at the time). Nobody talks about paying the amount anyways, and they immediately have their psychic Agent Obvious tell them that the crazy blonde daughter of Baron Strucker has no intention of accepting the ransom anyways. So they give a ransom demand only to immediately invalidate it as irrelevant to the plot in the same scene. Well, at least they padded the movie with another two minutes while giving the bad guys a chance to tip their hand to their enemies.

The good guys follow the recommendation of Nick Fury, their dunce-in-the-hole, and seek out Arnim Zola so the bad guys can boost him under their noses and then give the Hoffster a poisoned kiss. Hitting all the bases here. Nick gets a terminal diagnosis that conveniently has no cure but Madame Hydra's blood and on a deadline that neatly coincides with Hydra's doomsday plot anyways.

Hot on the heels of Nick's bad judgement getting him sally-straddled by a one hundred-ten-pound blonde with poison lipstick, the rest of the protagonists still decide to follow his plan and split into two teams for the finale of this movie. Contessa "Do-these-lips-make-my-face-look-small" Fontaine leading a bunch of redshirts in a search for a deadly virus-carrying refrigerated garbage truck, while Nick, Irrelevant Psychic, and Agent British go after the enemy command center. Contessa's team basically owns by fiat after she surprises a Hydra goon playing wall-ball instead of guarding by substituting his ball with the world's weakest hand grenade. Seriously, the grenade barely disintegrates itself and does like no damage to the goon, but he and several adjacent guards go down anyways.

Nick's team gets all the excitement. First, the two junior agents watch as the ailing Fury takes out multiple guards with his fists while they have (apparently) silenced weapons handy that they use later on. Then the trio get held up by laser sensors for about two seconds before Agent British busts out his Laser Repellant and they slip through to meet a lone goon waiting for Fury to ask, "How's Hydra's dental plan?" A few more unexciting exchanges later, the eponymous hero is confronted with the dreaded does-the-doomsday-password-end-in-six-or-nine puzzle. As the final twenty seconds on the countdown burn through precious moments of my life that I'll never get back, Irrelevant Psychic is no help and allows Fury to heroically waffle on the six-nine decision until the timer hits maximum drama. The villainness is then caught, Arnim Zola shoots himself with the most fiddly booby-trapped gun ever, and Fury gets to drop a "pop-cicle" joke before Madame Hydra escapes with her father in the world's slowest elevator.

Eat this, Adam West's Batman!!!

What's most amazing to me about Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD is how many recognizable names are in the credits of the movie. David S. Goyer wrote the script--about the same time he was doing the original Blade script and seven years before Batman Begins. Director Rod Hardy has captained episodes of The Mentalist, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, and JAG, so it's not like he hasn't met with televised success before or after this particular feature. And there are several forever-supporting actors that you're likely to recognize. Ron Canada, Tom McBeath, and Gary Chalk, for instance, all have significant television resumes that include Stargate SG-1, for whatever nerd-cred that presents in your opinion. And yet this movie blows so completely that no one thought to make it a DVD until ten years after the fact when it was certainly forgotten and could cleanly trade on the name established by the first Iron Man movie. Does the Hoff really drag a production down that much? Specifically, does chest hair and peculiar sweat scenes drag a production down that much?

I doubt it. As much as I want to pan Hasselhoff specifically, I can't. This movie/pilot was a conceptual failure from the start. SHIELD exists as the interconnecting web of global plots in the Marvel universe, and trying to make a story about SHIELD when there was no established greater Marvel universe to connect was inherently dumb. Like trying to interior decorate a house that's under construction, SHIELD has no place without a stable of superheroes hedging them in. With one very irrelevant exception, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD had no superpowers whatsoever, and made no references to any superhumans of either good or bad moral persuasion.

"Fortunately for Nick Fury, the bad guys want to dick around and showcase staggering incompetence on both sides for 80 minutes..."

But I'm thankful for Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, and I'm glad I own it. As a fan of the Fox-aborted television series Space: Above and Beyond, Firefly, and Drive, it's nice to see that at least one decision to pan a new television series was not only justified, but may have saved the free world. Consider: if this show had been allowed to continue instead of purged with fire, the mainstream Marvel movies that would be coming out in the next few years, X-Men and Spider-Man, would've had to cater to the show's creative decisions in some way. Those movies would have suffered for it, Marvel's comic-distribution wouldn't have gotten the boost it did from those movies' popularity, and they never would have been in a position to take a risk to the tune of $50 million on Iron Man or any of the other Avengers-related films. Robert Downey Jr. wouldn't have been thrown into the public light as an all around awesome human being and nerd despite his Hollywood chops. Samuel L. Jackson's highest profile nerdy role would remain Mace Windu. Hugh Jackman would still be kicking around the Australian stage. And Scarlett Johansson would be flitting around art movies getting paired up with creepy old men for romantic interests instead of becoming a genre-crossing meta-hottie.

My goodness, I am thankful for Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. And I'm thankful for David Hasselhoff--without him, somebody might've decided the show was worth picking up, and that would be an evil too dark and terrible to imagine.

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