Samuel L. Jackson was doing Marvel Studios a favor when he cameoed as Nick Fury in Iron Man. His role in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe came about almost by accident — but 15 years in, it feels a lot more like divine providence.
Fury may not be the face of the MCU, but he’s certainly the franchise’s secret weapon. Years of pulling strings in the shadows and wrangling the most powerful beings in the universe have turned the character into a vital resource — but it’s Fury’s unpredictable role (and Jackson’s disarming performance) that made Fury an icon.
Jackson has been as instrumental to Fury’s importance as the writers and artists who first brought the character to life in Marvel Comics. For a while, though, MCU projects weren’t all that interested in Fury the man — only his role as an omniscient (and quietly hilarious) wild card. Throughout the early phases of the franchise, Fury felt less like a character than a tool to keep the story moving. It’s taken a few years — and, clearly, a lot of work on Jackson’s part — to see Fury reach his full potential. But if his meaty role in Marvel’s Secret Invasion is any indication, the wait was totally worth it.
Let’s be honest: Fury doesn’t start off as the most interesting character in the MCU. That’s largely due to his role as a foil to the eccentric heroes on his roster. Fury first appeared in Iron Man, and later reprised his role in its sequel a few years later. Most of his time was spent trying to keep Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in check — that, or setting the stage for The Avengers — which leaves Jackson with very little to do in the grand scheme.
As the MCU matured and Fury’s role in it grew, so did the opportunities to have more fun with the character. Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw Fury moving past his role as Tony’s handler and into something much more nuanced and active. It helps that this is the first time we really see Fury with a chink in his armor: Here, Fury feels like an actual person — one with a past, with regrets, and with conflicting responsibilities.
Fury’s monologue at the beginning of The Winter Soldier is a defining moment for his character. He speaks to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) about his grandfather, a man who operated an elevator for 40 years and was forced to survive in a rapidly changing world. “Granddad loved people,” Fury tells Steve, “but he didn’t trust them very much.” This anecdote, however brief, tells us almost everything we need to know about Fury’s upbringing. This is a man that doesn’t forget; a man with a heart for humanity, but very little faith in it.
This new Fury represents one of Marvel’s most authentic attempts to flesh out a character so clearly embedded in the Black American experience. It might be presumptive to give Jackson all the credit for this, but given the startling lack of Black filmmakers behind the scenes — not just on The Winter Soldier, but throughout MCU history — it’s clear he had a big influence on the character’s development. The actor was raised in the age of Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Black Power: it’s a huge part of who he is, and he’s never hidden it. The Winter Soldier showed just how willing he was to imbue his character with his own experiences, but it wasn’t until Secret Invasion, Marvel’s latest series, that he was truly able to do so.
Jackson’s influence is all over Secret Invasion. He serves as star and executive producer, and it’s clear now that the best parts of Fury’s characterization over the years were all due to his influence. In the series’ second episode, Fury gives Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) a glimpse into his childhood, when he would ride the train from Alabama to Detroit with a shoebox full of fried chicken. It feels like a direct parallel to his monologue in The Winter Soldier — and according to Secret Invasion director Ali Selim, it only came about because of Jackson’s connection to the character.
“It wasn’t on the page,” Selim said of Fury’s story. “It was [Jackson] telling us a story. He’s very connected to Nick Fury in a way that no writer ever could be.”
Fortunately, the Marvel braintrust is finally seeing what Jackson (and Nick Fury fans) have known all along. Fury’s great as the nebulous guy that keeps his many allies at a distance. It creates delicious tension, and Marvel stories need that tension. But he’s even better when he lets his guard down, and so is the MCU — if only because it allows the franchise to explore intersections of race and identity it’s previously ignored.