How To Become a Marvel Hero Without Being Furious About It

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or simply, the MCU) got its start in 2008 with the release of the movie “Iron Man.” Since then, there have been 33 total films, a bunch of TV shows, a handful of digital shorts (“Item 47” is pretty fun if you have Disney+), and general pop culture ubiquity. All of those stories connect in a mostly cohesive way, with actors reprising roles across movies and shows. Robert Downey, Jr., for example, portrayed Iron Man in ten films, including some post-credit scenes. Chris Evans appears as Captain America (or as Loki pretending to be Captain America) in ten movies as well, if I counted right. Even characters with smaller roles tend to reappear here and there.

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays Nick Fury, the head of an organization called SHIELD and some of its successor organizations. As of this writing, he (or, spoiler alert, someone pretending to be him) has appeared in 12 of the movies and two TV series, and even signed a virtual collectible card for a Marvel-themed iPhone game.

And despite his character’s last name, it all happened because Jackson didn’t get mad. He made himself a fun deal.

Nick Fury is a longstanding character from Marvel Comics, making his debut in 1963 as a white guy, typically of Irish heritage. But in 2002, Marvel released a new comic book line — featuring an alternative universe — under the title “The Ultimates,” and writer Mark Millar wanted to go in another direction with Fury. He explained his thinking to Business Insider

I wanted an African-American Nick Fury to be director of SHIELD because the closest thing in the real world to this job title was held by Colin Powell at the time. I also thought Nick Fury sounded like one of those great, 1970s Blaxploitation names and so the whole thing coalesced for me into a very specific character, an update of the cool American super-spy Jim Steranko had done in the 70s and based on the Rat Pack, which seemed very nineteen sixties and due for some kind of upgrade.

Millar and the artist Bryan Hitch decided to use Samuel L. Jackson as the model for the new Nick Fury — per Millar’s interview with Business Insider, they believed that Jackson was “famously the coolest man alive” at the time (and they’ll get no argument here). They didn’t hide their belief that their Nick Fury had obvious parallels to the real Samuel L. Jackson, either; if anything, the opposite was true. In an issue of The Ultimates from 2004, another character — Hank Pym — bugs Fury, asking him who would portray him in a hypothetical movie about his life, and Fury, as seen below (larger version here), immediately says “Why, Mister Samuel L. Jackson, of course. It’s not even open to debate.”

The only problem in Millar and Hitch’s plan? They never asked Samuel L. Jackson for permission to use his likeness. As Jackson told the Los Angeles Times, he was a longtime fan of Nick Fury since the character’s original debut in the 1960s, and at one point, picked up an issue of the first issue of The Ultimates — and saw himself:

“It was kind of weird,” Jackson said. “I just happened to be in a comic store, and I picked up the comic because I saw my face. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure I remember giving somebody permission to use my image.’”

Jackson hadn’t given his permission, but he wasn’t angry. He called his agent to see what was going on, and as SlashFilm later reported, Marvel used the faux pas as an opportunity to pitch Jackson into joining a potential Marvel movie universe. Said Jackson, “The next thing I knew, I was having a meeting with [MCU lead] Kevin [Feige] and they were talking to me about a nine-picture deal. I was trying to figure out how long I’d have to stay alive to make nine movies!”

The rest is movie history. Not accounting for inflation, four MCU movies are among the top ten of the highest-grossing films of all time, and Jackson’s Nick Fury is the only character to appear in all four.

Bonus fact: Patrick Stewart, the actor best known for portraying Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, is also part of the Marvel universe (but only kind of/sort of part of the MCU), appearing in six X-Men movies. If you’re familiar with the comic books, he’s an obvious fit for the role — he, coincidentally, looks a lot like Professor Charles Xavier from the comics. And that’s what ended up getting him the role, or, perhaps more accurately, convincing him to take on the role. Before appearing in the X-Men movies, Stewart had barely heard of the comic and had no idea that fans were clamoring for him to portray Professor X on screen. But as he told Rolling Stone, it didn’t take much for him to see the connection: “The very first thing I ever heard about X-Men, the first time I ever heard that title used, was one afternoon when I’d been doing some ADR for [Superman director] Richard Donner, on a movie of his that I had been in. I got a note to call in at Lauren Shuler Donner’s office – that’s his wife, the producer. I walked in the door, Lauren picked something up from her desk and held it up. And I looked at it, and I said, ‘What am I doing on the front of a comic book?’ And she said, ‘Exactly.’”

From the Archives: When a Court Ruled Whether the X-Men Are Human: The X-Men are mutants. But they’re also people. But more importantly, they’re fictional. Why do real-life courts care? Taxes.